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4 May 2015

Why we should all just give the Old Testament a rest

Stephen Nolan

Stephen Nolan and Jim Wells got into trouble last week on the religious front. During a debate on the decision of the new Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council to retain the traditional mayor's prayer and add the Lord's Prayer as well, Nolan was attacked by a Dungannon caller for having mentioned in an earlier broadcast discussion that he didn't believe in God.

He rightly apologised: BBC guidelines on impartiality prohibit presenters from expressing their personal views. As he said: "It was a mistake".

But he was then lectured by the caller, who said he took offence "at you chairing this debate when you are meant to be neutral and you openly said that you do not believe in God. That jeopardises every discussion you have around these issues."

No, it doesn't. While I absolutely agree with the caller that Christianity is mocked too much on the BBC (and, let me add, in a way that Islam is not), it is ludicrous to suggest that, because he admitted his opinion, Nolan (below) is suddenly incapable of being impartial.

I've been interviewed about contentious issues by innumerable broadcast journalists and Nolan is one of those whose opinions I find hardest to guess. As far as I can see, what he does in the interests of a lively debate is to help out whoever seems to be losing the argument and I've had occasion to curse him under my breath over it.

I am short, have green eyes and am an atheist. I can do nothing about any of those things, but, like Stephen Nolan, I spend my professional life trying to see the point of view of people who don't share my opinions. I wrote a sympathetic book about the loyal institutions, for heaven's sake.

And so much do I appreciate the contribution of some religions to Western civilisation that these days I call myself a Judeo-Christian atheist.

Which brings me to Jim Wells, with whose attitudes to homosexuality I profoundly disagree.

I rather like Jim. I have a penchant for politicians who say what they mean and I appreciate that this uncompromising unionist has always been prepared to take on hostile audiences in the Republic.

The last time I saw him, in 2013, we were both at a summer school in Carlingford discussing Irish history and he expressed himself with the utmost good humour and clarity. On the whole, he's a good ambassador for the DUP.

Which does not excuse him for being so oafish recently in various comments about homosexuality. He was a minister, he should have minded his manners and watched his language. His resignation was necessary.

But we should also acknowledge that he is under extraordinary stress, should be given as much benefit of the doubt as possible and he certainly doesn't deserve to be lectured on his opinions by politically correct apologists for terrorism like Martin McGuinness.

What is more, if Wells was as good and brave a health minister as is suggested, I hope he will be able to return to ministerial office if he can reassure us that he will be impartial in his dealings with those under his care. Northern Ireland is short of political competence.

Though I would vote Yes to gay marriage, I am sick of the persecution of those who have perfectly valid reasons for opposing it, of the hounding of decent people like those who run Ashers Bakery and of the cyber-bullying of critics by a nasty element in the LGBT movement.

I will even defend the right of Susan-Anne White, who is standing in West Tyrone, to express her ghastly opinions - even though her policies would have half the population in jail.

One question, though, which Stephen Nolan might well put to her sometime. She calls herself a devout Christian, yet seems to neglect the New Testament. I try and fail to imagine Jesus urging the caning of children and the imprisonment of adulterers.

Here is my thought for today for devoutly Christian political people. How about giving the Old Testament a rest, reading the words of Jesus Christ and treating people as he did, with compassion and forgiveness?

Whether they are straight, gay, transsexual, Jim Wells or Stephen Nolan.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards