Monday, January 14, 2008

The New Religious Suspects and God Politicians

By: Samuel Toe

When the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes offered 17th Century Europe a new political philosophy grounded on the possibility of achieving legitimate political power without invoking divine revelations, it appealed to many. This was Europe just emerging from the Wars of Religion, in which Christians, “idled by apocalyptic dreams hunted and killed Christians with a maniacal fury” which they once reserved for people of other faiths.

Few centuries later, John Locke consolidated Hobbes’ idea of the vital chasm between religion and politics, and advocated a complete disengagement of the two. The result, Hobbes argued, would be a society in which public laws would take precedence over canonical codes in the relations amongst citizens and institutions; and where religious diversity would be allowed to sprout free from state interference. The government, as the principle custodian of state sovereignty, would be obliged to protect individuals’ rights to their faiths.

This was the birth of liberal democratic order on which much of the West is today organized. Hence, political philosophy based on man replaced God at the center of public life. This was the “Great Separation,” and presumably, it was the cause which the “firebrand” Minister of Information, Dr. Lawrence Bropleh hoped to remind Liberians when he spoke recently at a Muslim ceremony in Monrovia.

In his speech, the Minister called on the Liberian government to dismantle and de-legislate all publicly commemorated Christian holidays, or legislate non-Christian ones as a means of finding a “more equitable religions arrangement.”

At first glimpse, the “firebrand” Minister’s statement holds much constitutional value. It speaks to the wisdom of keeping the poles of religion and politics apart, a blessing born out of enlighten Western philosophy.

While the Minister’s statement reiterated government’s unflinching adherence to the doctrine of the “Great Separation,” and sounded a clear caveat to those unsure of its zero tolerance of God politics, it also sadly shot a bullet in his wonderful effort, and undermined the sacred principle it hoped to champion.

Minister Bropleh’s statement was a public pronouncement of charges against his own government of religious in-equity. More then that, it was an appeal to religious sentiments of both Christians and Muslims, by urging on a religious sprint for public center-stage in which there can be no winner.

Amidst a cauldron of simmering religious disquiet in certain quarters of Liberia, it is impulsive to think that fiddling with matters of sacred religious rites and identity can pass without consequences. To date, the “firebrand” Minister is injured by the hail of condemnation his statement has provoked from all works of life, and he is now on a characteristic and desperate campaign of denial and apologies.
In a related situation, Liberia’s Religious Advisor Madam Esther Nyameh is reported to have threatened to boycott all official ceremonies where Islamic prayers are offered. For this she too has been intensely criticized by voices across society, amongst them the Minister of Information himself. No doubt, the Religious Advisor and many like her are now aware of the unequivocal message from these episodes: that religious zealotry and God politics will have no place in today’s public life.

The holiday context?
Today however, even in great Western societies, to whom we owe the doctrine of the “Great Separation,” political theologies have re-emerged from historic banishment. Somehow modern societies are still fiercely challenged by this powerful energy, affirming the French philosopher Jean Jacques-Rousseau’s assertion that man is a “theotropic creature,” innately aspiring to connect his earthly live with a higher being, and constantly discovering the “nexus of God, man and the world”. Even in the face of irresistible forces of democracy, modernity, and secularity, political theology still re-asserts itself. This situation is even more telling in vast swatches of the Muslim World – Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Mauritania, Libya, Sudan, and many others.

For example, in a nation like the United States, a democracy that prides itself in the ideals of freedom of religion and secularism, Americans and their political rhetorics are alive with religious fervor resulting from their strong Protestant tradition of the 17th centuries. A Republican candidate and former Baptist preacher in the ongoing 2008 presidential primaries in the state of Iowa has just emerged victorious partly owing to his passionate coaxing of this energy.

Could this perhaps explain the religious energy that gorged through the minds and veins of Liberia’s founding fathers as they authored its constitution, who themselves shared the American Protestant heritage? Can it explain why the founding fathers nationalized such Christian holidays as Fast and Prayer Day, Christmas, Thanksgiving Day, Easter, and even Sunday?

During Liberia’s 1985 constitutional referendum, genuine attempts by Dr. Sawyer and his constitutional committee to entirely rid our most sacred document of religious undertones and explicitly secularize it still yielded to the powerful religious tradition prevailing at the time; and today, many of these holidays have remained with us.

Whether Liberians accept it or not, this is a reflection of their country’s historic Christian tradition, or at least of its dominant social and political class. If U.S. State Department statistics is anything to go by, Christianity and strains of its indigenous mix still account for a sizable 40% of Liberia’s population. Without suggesting any preference for Christianity, as even Liberia’s traditional religions also constitute an equal 40%, the point can be made that this is an example of Liberia’s heritage.

So, why the fuss?
Post-Charles Taylor Liberia is gradually steaming up more and more to religious tolerance and freedom. Consistent with constitution, there is a genuine practice of religious freedom and inclusion, even more so then the regime of Samuel Doe, who whiles himself professing Christianity, conducted greater public cooperation with Islamic communities then any other non-Christian groups.

Many public ceremonies today open with both Christian and Muslim prayers. Since the Interim Government of Chairman Bryant, several excellent Muslims have enjoyed key governmental privileges as deputy and assistant ministers, commissioners, and members of boards of autonomous agencies. More then a dozen more have and still are members of the National Legislature.

Religious Christian education is thought in public schools but is not mandatory. Islam is freely thought in Islamic institutions. When taking oath of public office, Christians kiss the Bible while Muslims kiss the Koran. There are no religious prisoners in Liberia, and proselytizing is freely permitted provided it is free of coercion and divisiveness.

Although some members of Islamic communities have complained about having to close their shops and businesses on Sundays and major Christian holidays, the Supreme Court has ruled that this is legal and in no way violates the constitution. The Court decided not on religious grounds, but on grounds that market places and the city need to be cleaned on these days, or at least once a week. Sunday also is a day of rest in many countries around the world, even in places where Islam is the dominant faith. An example is the Republic of Senegal.

It is therefore pointless on the part of the “firebrand” Minister of Information to risk sparking tension on matters of religious freedom and holidays that the government is already actively committed to in practice. The presence or absence of these holidays has not denied an inch of the free practice of Islam or any other faith.

As the “firebrand” Minister of Information himself pointed out, “You can not legislate Christianity. It comes from the heart.” But why then advocate legislating non-Christian holidays? Don’t they too come from the heart? Observing “Christian holidays” is no proof of Christianity’s ownership of Liberia. It is merely a reflection of its historic Christian tradition.

The danger
The real danger in these kinds of statements by Minister Bropleh and Religious Advisor Nyameh lies not in fear of public condemnation, which both of them are already publicly injured by; but in the actual wedge that such inattentive statements smack between communities, and the divisions they provoke in public and national life.

God politics must not be allowed to take root. First, it provokes a religious sprint for dominance in public life. Lest we deceive ourselves, Liberia is not exclusive to Christianity and Islam. Forty percent of Liberians ascribe to traditional religions, and together with Islam, other faiths constitute some 20%. To demand legislation of holidays for all possible strains of religious persuasion is to convert our respectable national public space into a confused marketplace where there are stalls for Baha’is, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, atheists, and the assortment of known and unknown religions, in addition to the infinite fragments of scrambling Christian groups. This is unreasonable; and more so the reason why this energy must be restrained to the private lives of those interested in it.

Second, and even more dangerous, is the potential for conflict and violence in such religious marketplace. By a stroke of misfortune, this tension may translate into open hostilities, igniting Liberia’s version of the Wars of Religion, with its grievous consequences.

More vividly, it resembles moments in our recent history when grievances born out of religious discontent and persecution partly created the rallying call for the creation of such groups ULIMO, LURD, and others. Three days of street riots in Monrovia in October 2004 dubbed “Christian and Muslim War” is only a glimpse of the violent potentials of religions divisions, even though investigations later revealed it evolved from a petit dispute over property. Our society will resemble a disturbed beehive were religions fears and intolerance to be provoked and allowed to run amok.

The tendency of God politic is enduring, and we are often caught in its web. Even the most stable and peaceful societies with highly enlightened and decent believers, public life is vulnerable to political theologies and religious impulses. To address this vulnerability, we must be ever vigilant in identifying and promptly quelling its manifestations and threats, from whatever fanatical enclaves they emanate

While preserving our sacred entitlement to free expression of thoughts and beliefs, we must be wary of religious zealots and their “rhetorical fireworks,” especially those easily mistaking their public offices for the pulpit or the mosque.

Publisher’s Note: Samuel Toe is a friend of Lamii Kpagoi, publisher of He is presently studying in the United States of America. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those I personally hold.

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