By Father Sean McManus
President of the Irish National Caucus in Washington DC
First of all, full disclosure: I've always had a soft spot for Dr Paisley. This seems to surprise many people, although I know I am by no means the only Northern Ireland Catholic who feels this way about the good reverend.
Why would a Catholic priest like me - with a life-long commitment to ending English government oppression and unionist injustice in Northern Ireland (through non-violence) - have a certain regard for The Big Man?
After all, Dr Paisley is best known in America for his fundamentalist hatred for `Roman doctrine', and for regarding the Pope as the anti-Christ. Well, let me give some reasons, off the top of my head:
1. Dr Paisley has often attacked Tory governments and he doesn't like bishops. Such a person can't be all bad!
2. Paisley comes from a poor working-class background and was never identified with the landed-gentry or ruling-class Northern Ireland.
3. The fact that Dr Paisley has always shaken up the establishment both in England and Northern Ireland has -- let's admit it -- always given Catholics/Nat-ionalists a certain vicarious satisfaction.
4. I do not believe (nor do I think most Catholics do, either) that Dr Paisley is any more anti-Catholic than other unionist leaders.
That's the good news from this Fermanagh man. Now for the bad news.
I am under no illusion as to the unfortunate legacy of Dr Paisley, although I'm well aware there's always been a ` Paisley' in the history of English rule in Ireland.
I feel it's sad that Dr Paisley did not use his undoubted power and charisma to work for reconciliation and equality in Northern Ireland. He could have done so, and yet have championed the cause of his `own people'. Indeed - and here is the grandmother of all rubs - the only real way he could have championed his own people was by working for the justice of all the people.
That is the lesson of history and - presumably, more importantly for Dr Paisley - the lesson of The Holy Bible. As the distinguished American Protestant Scrip-ture scholar, Walter Brueggemann, says: ``In biblical faith, the doing of justice is the primary expectation of God.''
Readers will remember it was recently revealed that the late, infamous segregationist, Senator Strom Thurmond (Republican, South Carolina), had an African-American daughter. When asked if the senator had ever offered any explanation as to all his ugly racist comments, his daughter, now 75 years old, replied that she did not believe he was a racist at heart but that ``he was only trying to please his supporters''.
I cannot know what's in Dr Paisley's heart, but I do know that his words and actions have defined his image and how the American public sees him.
The first question people have about a religious leader is: How good is his spiritual discernment? - How good is he at reading the signs of the time and helping to build up the Kingdom of God?
Dr Paisley ``discerns'' Pope John Paul II to be the anti-Christ. Now given that American Protestants, especially conservative Protestants, love this Pope, what will they think of Dr Paisley's spiritual discernment?
And politically speaking, Americans, especially conservative Americans, like President Bush, love Prime Minister Tony Blair. Yet they will know Dr Paisley has opposed Mr Blair tooth and nail. What will these Americans think of Dr Paisley's political discernment?
Will such Americans want to publicly identify with Dr Paisley's views?
How many, for example, will be prepared to admit, as I do, that they have a certain regard for him? Remember the presidential campaign of George W Bush was almost derailed because of his visit to Bob Jones University, which gave Dr Paisley his doctorate.
Despite the certain regard I have for Dr Paisley - he is, after all, my Ulster brother, and, more importantly, my brother-in-Christ - I fear the unionists/Protestants of Northern Ireland have reason to be concerned now that Dr Paisley is seen to be their top political leader.
When David Trimble was seen to be the top political leader, American opinion was conflicted about his on again/off again performance.
There was ambivalence about Trimble - although he was out of Vanguard and a hard-line Orangeman, didn't he still claim to be for the peace-process? And didn't he co-win the Nobel Prize for Peace?
Maybe, just maybe, Americans reasoned, Trimble might accept the concept of equality with Catholics, as whites in the deep south were forced to accept - most of them, at least publicly, anyway - the concept of equality with African-Americans?
Can Americans have any ambivalence about Dr Paisley, `the Real Protestant Leader' - now joined by Jeffrey Donaldson, the Continuity Unionist Leader?
How will this play in America? And how, at the end of the day, will it serve my Protestant brothers and sisters in Northern Ireland?