“Does she expect everyone else to be bound by His law too?”

Given the Protestant reformation was an often bloody pre-requisite for the political, economic and technological gains for the Enlightenment, Iris Robinson seems an unlikely recruit to Benedict’s crusade to re-invigorate the spiritual well-spring of Western secular life. Or the Un-Enlightenment, as Pete prefers to call it. But that’s close to how Alex Kane describes the politics of a lawmaker who takes literal instruction from the book of Leviticus in his Newletter News Letter column on Monday.By Alex Kane

Iris Robinson is entitled to her opinion. As a Christian she has a duty to ensure that her belief is reflected in both her actions and her words. But she is also a very astute politician, who enjoys and actively seeks publicity and profile. No-one is forcing her to go on the Nolan Show or issue press statements. No-one, least of all the DUP’s press office, is insisting that she gives us the benefit of her view on homosexuality, or that “government is ordained by God and is bound to uphold His laws.” If she really does believe that, then perhaps her next manifesto should detail those laws and set out the series of Private Member’s Bills required to enact them.

The problem for Mrs Robinson is that she appears to want the best of both worlds. On the one hand she is telling us that the government has a responsibility to uphold God’s law morally (a law that is to be found in the Bible); and on the other she takes the line, “To say I have no right to express an opinion is a most bigoted view. How dare anyone say I cannot speak my mind just because my husband is First Minister–are they trying to drag us back to the dark ages when women were not allowed to express a view?”

Actually, Iris, your critics are just pointing you towards the Bible and, in particular to1 Timothy 2: 11-14, “But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.” Indeed, the Old and New Testaments are littered with instructions that women be viewed and treated as inferior to men. The argument that still rages within the Church of England and Roman Catholicism about the ordination and role of women stems from competing interpretations of those instructions. I seem to remember a dispute last Christmas when one Presbyterian Church didn’t want another Presbyterian minister in their pulpit, because the minister concerned happened to be a woman! And the arguments aired in the News Letter’s letters page at the time turned into a battle of interpretations.

Mrs. Robinson had a Platform piece in this newspaper on Saturday—The UK is what it is thanks to Christianity. She singles out William Wilberforce (a hero of mine, as it happens) for particular praise. He deserves the praise, because the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act is one of the most important pieces of legislation to have been passed. Ironically, some of his most bitter and vocal opponents used the Bible as the source and authority for their opposition. It was pointed out to him that there wasn’t one verse of the Bible which prohibited slavery—yet very many which set out the regulations for it. In the passages in Exodus setting out the Ten Commandments, the requirement to keep the Sabbath special applies to “you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave.”

It was a line of thought that was to re-emerge when President Lincoln set himself to the abolition of slavery in America. Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States, claimed; “Slavery was established by decree of Almighty God…it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelations.” A century after the Civil War, in the 1960s, many born-again Christians were deploying the Bible in their opposition to civil rights legislation, feminism and general liberalism. A recent poll indicated that a majority of those who supported the US invasion of Iraq regarded it as a “Godly mission” to defeat “the enemies of Christ.”

In the name of Christianity some of the world’s greatest writers, thinkers, artists, inventors and scientists have been persecuted, imprisoned or killed. In the name of Christianity people were tortured, hung, serially abused and deported for very minor crimes. Whole nations were ravaged in the quest to “conquer and save for Christianity.” Protestantism was embraced by Henry viii when he needed an exit strategy for a marital problem. The Christianity which Mrs. Robinson hails as the shaper of the United Kingdom is founded upon Protestantism—which is merely one variety of that Christianity. On most of the big issues of science and intellect the Church (be it Protestant or Catholic) has got it wrong. Worse than that, it deliberately suppressed evidence and vilified individuals, rather than have its own God-based authority challenged or undermined.

Regular readers will know that I am an atheist. I spent many years reading the Bible. Indeed, I keep a copy close to hand. My personal difficulty was that I couldn’t reconcile what seemed to me to be the contradictions contained within it. And nor could I reconcile the Creationist claims with evidence which was contained in “properly” scientific journals. I also had enormous difficulty when I tried to make up my mind in the ongoing debates between professing Christians who use different Biblical quotes to either support or oppose a position. So, in the end, I abandoned any pretence of a belief.

That said, I have no real axe to grind against those who can make sense of the contradictions; or who seem to get around the problem by joining a particular sect with a particular interpretation. I have also written that I have a certain degree of envy for those who do have “something higher” to cling to when life is difficult. Atheism is a very lonely place when you have lost a child through miscarriage or watched a close friend die after being knocked down by a drunk driver.

So, if Iris Robinson, a public figure with a very clear personal and political agenda, wants the institutions she is elected to, to be bound by and promoters of God’s law, then I would like her to tell us what those laws are and which ones she wants obeyed to the letter. It strikes me that she has adopted a very pick-and-mix approach to what is a fundamentally important matter: keen to tell the rest of us what is expected of us in the great scheme of things, yet prepared, herself, to choose which particular Biblical quotations and instructions apply to her.

If the Bible is, as she seems to believe, God’s law, does she consider herself to be bound, unquestioningly and unequivocally, by all of it? And, if she also believes that there is only one God (Protestant, I presume) does she expect everyone else to be bound by His law too? Her answers to those questions—and she, after all, kick-started this debate—would certainly throw a new light on her real views of both the Belfast and St. Andrews Agreements.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

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