Catholics are not the only ones with their krazies. This is a problem throughout the world of religions when individuals or groups lose the focus of religion and pervert it into something evil. Unfortunately it is all too common whether it is ISIS style Islam or Jews who, with the claims that God gave the land of Eretz Israel to them exclusively, want the Palestinians expelled from their ancestral lands or Hindus who burn churches and kill Christians. We are all familiar with the saga of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teen who, as an advocate for the education of girls in the Muslim world, was shot by the Taliban and who, after her recovery, continues to live under death threats from “religious” extremists. Less well publicized is the violence against Muslims in Myanmar (Burma) by the Buddhist monks known as the Mabatha and led by the demagogue monk Ashin Wirathu. Of course there are people in our country who advocate violence against people for their religious beliefs, and especially against Muslims. Many of these people make the claim that they are “Christians” but their message is not merely a distortion of the message of Jesus but a 180o perversion of it.
One Christian demagogue who spent his life preaching a gospel of hatred in the name of Jesus was the Reverend Ian Paisley, founder of the Free Presbyterian Church movement of Ulster and of North America. Paisley had been raised in religious bigotry—his father had been an independent Baptist preacher who had served in the Ulster Volunteers—a Protestant militia formed to protect the Protestant ascendency in the years immediately before World War I. Paisley himself began preaching at the age of sixteen and his message from the first was one of fundamentalism and religious bigotry.
The conflicts that tore Northern Ireland apart during the second half of the twentieth century were not essentially religious conflicts but rather a socio-economic struggle between the native Irish who were held in menial jobs and high unemployment by the Scots-Irish who were the descendants of Scottish settlers whom the British had transplanted to Ireland in the late seventeenth and in the eighteenth centuries. The native Irish tended to be Catholic; the Scots Irish were usually Presbyterian, though sometimes Anglican, Baptist, or Methodist. Due to the eighteenth-century British laws that prohibited Catholics from owning land, studying at the universities, entering the professions, or having sufficient capital to build or own industries, eighteenth-century Ireland had economically fragmented with the Protestant minority being the landowners and capitalists and the Irish majority being tenant farmers and menial workers. Nineteenth-century reforms and twentieth-century independence of the Irish Republic corrected this imbalance in southern Ireland, but in Ulster, the six-counties that remained under British occupation, the Scots-Irish Protestant population was the majority and was able to hold the Irish (and Catholic) sector of society in economic bondage. The problem was that despite the relative prosperity of Ulster, there were only so many jobs to go around and what employment there was was tied to the Orange Lodges—Masonic-style associations of Protestant Unionists. Unionists were those who were dedicated to maintaining Union with Great Britain in the “United Kingdom.” You got your job through your connections with the Lodges. As Catholics did not, and could not, belong to these associations it was much more difficult for them to find employment and when they did it was in the more menial work that the Protestant upper and middle class would not undertake. The result was high unemployment among the Irish (and Catholic) underclass and the resultant social evils that go with economic hopelessness. In 1964 Ulster Irish looked to the experience of the African American struggle for Civil Rights and began their own peaceful organization for civil rights. They wanted”
1. and end to job discrimination and a fair share of the employment; and in particular equal access to civil service jobs
2. public housing to be allocated on the basis of need and not of religious affiliation
3. reform of the police force where almost all police were drawn from the Protestant sector of society
4. an end to property requirements for voting so that all citizens could vote regardless of whether or not they owned property
5. guarantees of habeas corpus, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, all of which were frequently denied the Irish Catholic community
6. electoral reform to end the gerrymandering that gave the Unionists disproportionate representation in government.
Terrence O’Neill, the Unionist Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, showed an openness to the movement and the reforms they were seeking. Ian Paisley immediately organized a resistance to the civil rights movement, founding the Ulster Protestant Volunteers, a paramilitary group whose aim was to intimidate the civil rights movement out of existence. This in turn spawned the Ulster Volunteer Force, another Protestant association to prevent civil rights for the native Irish. The Ulster Protestant Volunteers and the Ulster Volunteer Force began organizing marches through native Irish neighborhoods to intimidate the populace from civil rights activities. At this point, the Irish Republican Army was still dormant and had not become active, but in June 1966 the Ulster Volunteer Force was responsible for the burning of several homes and businesses belonging to the native Irish and several Catholic schools. They also shot dead two Irish civilians on their way home from Mass. This is generally considered to be the beginnings of the period of terror known as “The Troubles” in which over 3500 would lose their lives and almost 50,000 would be injured. This also triggered the revival of the Irish Republican Army, an Irish and Catholic terrorist group whose goal was to protect the native Irish population from the Unionist violence and to respond in kind to the aggressive attacks of the various Unionists militias. In response to the escalation of violence which he had begun, Ian Paisley would later organize two more paramilitary groups, The Force and The Ulster Resistance.
Paisley’s political views and reliance on violence was rooted in his religious convictions that saw Catholicism as the religion of the anti-Christ. For Ian Paisley true religion was not simply Protestantism—he was as opposed to most Protestantism as he was Catholicism—but in a Biblical fundamentalism, a rigorous Calvinism with its doctrine of double predestination, and an appeal to the sixteenth-century reformers who had declared the pope to be the Anti-Christ and Catholicism to be a diabolic corruption of authentic Christianity. Paisley had left the Presbyterian Church in Ireland to form his own denomination, the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster. He was rigidly anti-ecumenical and one of the reasons he broke with mainline Presbyterianism was Presbyterian involvement in the World Council of Churches which he saw as compromising pure Protestant doctrine by its association with other denominations. (The Catholic Church does not belong to the World Council of Churches, though it does have “observer status” with it; several Orthodox Churches do belong however and they do certain things such as prayers to the Mother of God of which Paisley disapproved vehemently.)
It really was Ian Paisley who turned the conflict in Northern Ireland from a political and socio-economic conflict into a religious one by making it a Protestant cause.
How did Ian Paisley feel about the native Irish?: his rhetoric was worthy of a George Wallace or a Ross Barnett: "They breed like rabbits and multiply like vermin" he declared. "Catholic homes caught fire because they were loaded with petrol bombs; Catholic churches were attacked and burned because they were arsenals and priests handed out sub-machine guns to parishioners" he said. It wasn’t because they were Irish that he said these things—he himself claimed to be “Irish” though his ancestry was Scots. It was because they were Catholics. When the beloved Pope John XXIII died in 1963, Paisley declared from his pulpit: “This Romish man of sin is now in hell.”
In the New York Times obituary this morning it was reported that while his politics had softened in his final years, the legacy of hatred remains:
But his politics were predominantly a crusade against Irish Catholics. And when it was over, when he had softened the diatribes and accepted leadership in a power-sharing government, the legacies of fighting and religious hatreds remained. Housing was still overwhelmingly segregated, discrimination in jobs was still common, and 3-year-olds, researchers said, continued to display sectarian instincts.
Sixty years of preaching leaves a legacy of hatred. This man was the devil’s evangelist with his gospel of hatred. If Calvin were right and we are predestined from all eternity to heaven or to hell, there is no doubt where a man whose life produced such evil fruit would find himself. But, ironically, if the Gospel as proclaimed by the Catholic tradition is right, there is a hope of mercy for us all, even Ian Paisley.