Christianity and Secular Politics in Liberia

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By H. Varney Sherman
(Delivered on 08 October 2017 At Early Morning Mass and Full Noon Service At the St. Stephen Episcopal Church,10th Street, Sinkor, Monrovia, Liberia)

On Tuesday, 10 October, Liberians will go to the polls to elect a new President, Vice President and members of the House of Representatives for a six-year term. There are some Liberian Christians who have not participated in the campaigns for these political offices; there are some Liberian Christians who might not even go to vote; they have not expressed any preference for any candidate for these political offices. What is certain, however, is that for the six years following these elections, those elected will lead this country, manage the affairs of this country and obviously directly and indirectly affect the lives of all Liberians. So whether you abstain from the political process or from voting or not, people who will lead this country and manage its affairs, people who will directly or indirectly affect your life will be elected. Why not then be involved with the process and vote for a candidate of your choice?

Some Liberian Christians who don’t participate in the political process or vote for a candidate for elective office rely on various aspects of the Bible. For example, they rely on the teaching of Jesus that a Christian should give unto Caesar what is Caesar and unto the Lord what is the Lord. These Liberian Christians therefore believe in the literal interpretation that the Christian Church ought not to be involved in secular politics. These Liberian Christians who don’t participate in the political process or vote for a candidate for elective office also rely on the principle of “Separation of Church and State,” which is commonly used in the politics and theology of the United

States. These Liberian Christians even rely on Article I, Section 3rd of the 1847 Constitution, which provides that no person shall obstruct another person in his/her religious worship or in the free exercise of his/her own religion, and no sect of Christians shall have exclusive privileges or preference over any other sect, but all shall be alike tolerated. This provision of the 1847 Constitution also provides that no religious test whatever shall be required as a qualification for civil office or the exercise of any civil right.

These provisions of the 1847 Constitution are quoted almost verbatim in the 1986 Constitution, but there is an addendum, which provides that “Consistent with the principle of separation of religion and state, the Republic shall establish no state religion”. (reference: Article 14, 1986 Constitution).

I see nothing in these provisions of the 1847 Constitution or the 1986 Constitution, which justifies the belief of some Liberian Christians that they ought not to be involved in the political processes of Liberia or canvass or vote for a candidate for elective office.

What is the “principle of separation of religion and state”, which is enshrined in the 1986 Constitution?

As stated earlier, this principle or phrase is borrowed from the United States. The First Amendment of the US Constitution, adopted

in 1791, provides in part that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”.  Separation of Church and State was intended to preserve the religious freedom of the individual; it was never intended to prohibit or restrain the individual from involvement in state politics. It is Thomas Jefferson, who in 1802 in a letter addressed to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut first used the phrase “separation between church & state” but he used it in the context of the First Amendment, which had been adopted in 1791. And given the context of the early colonies of the United States, established or dominated by various denominations of Christianity, it is understandable that a federal constitution for the United States will provide for religious liberty.

According to Wikipedia, the colony of Maryland was basically Catholic; Florida was both Anglican and Catholic; the colony of Plymouth was founded by Pilgrims, English Dissenter or Separatists and Calvinists; The colonies of Massachusetts, New Haven and New Hampshire were founded by Puritans, Calvinists and Protestants; New Netherlands was founded by Dutch reformed Calvinists; the colonies of New York, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia were officially Church of England; the Province of Pennsylvania was founded by Quakers; West Jersey was also founded by Quakers; and the colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations were founded by religious dissenters.

So it is an erroneous assumption by some Liberian Christians that the phrase, “separation of church and state” is intended to prohibit or restrain a Christian from participating in the political processes of Liberia or from canvassing for or voting for a candidate for political office.

Look, you know and I know that religion has always been involved in politics. From Biblical times, some of the kings of the Israelites were also their religious leaders; religious leaders of Biblical times were also instructing and/or advising kings and principalities on the governance of society; and sometimes their advice (the Prophets) was directly from God himself. Specifically as to Christianity, history informs us about Emperor Constantine, who legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire and gave it prominence; Christians began to hold political positions and they actively participated at the highest levels in the governance of the Roman Empire. History also informs us that it was at the Battle of Milvian Bridge that Emperor Constantine looked to the sun and saw a cross of light above it and on the cross was the reading in Latin, but translated to English: “In this sign, you will conquer”. Emperor Constantine then ordered his troops to adorn their shields with Christian symbols and they won the battle. He issued the Edit of Milan which legalized Christianity for the Roman Empire and he became the patron of the Christian faith.

History further informs us about the influence of the Popes of the Middle Ages in the politics and governance of Europe. Specifically for the Anglican Church, history again informs us about the fight between Thomas Beckett, Archbishop of Canterbury and King Henry II of England, which ultimately culminated into the murder of the Archbishop by some of the King’s barons. Though largely ceremonious, the Queen of England continues to be the head of the Church of England, which follows the breakaway from the Catholic Church by King Henry VIII and the establishment of the Anglican Church (the Church of England).

For most colonies established in Africa, the Bible followed the flag; in the case of Liberia, the Bible and the flag came together as most of the pioneers/settlers were of the Christian faith. With regards to the Liberian Church, Liberia’s Declaration of Independence reads, among other things, as follows:

“Our churches for the worship of our Creator, everywhere to be seen, bear testimony of our piety and to our acknowledgement of His Providence”

Our Declaration of Independence also concludes with these words:

“THEREFORE in the name of humanity, and virtue and religion; in the name of the Great God, our common

 Creator and our common Judge, we appeal to the nations of Christendom, and earnestly and respectfully ask them, that they will regard us with the sympathy and friendly consideration, to which the peculiarities of our condition entitle us, and to extend to us that comity, which marks the friendly intercourse of civilized and independent communities”.

And of all places, where was our Declaration of Independence signed? At the Providence Baptist Church, not Government House. How can anyone then assume that the provisions of the 1847 Constitution adopted on the same date as the Declaration of Independence or the provisions of the 1986 Constitution were intended to prohibit or restrain Liberian Christians from involvement in the politics of Liberia and from canvassing or voting for a person for elective position in the Liberian Government?

I submit that it is only in recent years that some Liberian Christians have interpreted the “separation of state and church” clause of the Liberian Constitution to have that erroneous meaning. I may be mistaken but I think that it is only the older, mainline Liberian Churches, not the Pentecostal Churches who make this assumption. I say that because it was reported in several newspapers recently that more than 50 churches have endorsed the candidacy of one of the presidential aspirants; none of the older, mainline Churches was

among them. I am not sure whether St. Stephen will ever do that. But let me tell you something.

In years past, Liberian churches were involved in the politics of our country. The Christian Church was actively involved in settlement of the Ferdinand Po crisis that eventually led to the resignation of President Charles D.B. King and Vice President Allen Yancy. That saved Liberia, an independent country, from becoming a protectorate of the League of Nations. In the 1970s when President Tolbert tried to reduce the age of consent for rape from 16 years to 12 years, it was the Christian churches of Liberia which vehemently opposed his proposition and forced him to abandon it. Also in the 1970s the Liberian Christian churches vehemently opposed the introduction of gambling in Liberia and President Tolbert abandoned that proposition. The Christian churches of Liberia were also actively involved in Liberian politics in the 1980s; it is their protests against the execution of the 13 persons after the military coup d’etat and their protests against the continuous imprisonment of hundreds of political prisoners that forced the military government to stop the executions and eventually released all political prisoners. As recently as a few months ago, some pastors were involved with the mediation between the Legislature and the Supreme Court when the House of Representatives cited three of the Associate Justices to answer

 

charges for impeachment. Had it not been such mediation, a crisis might have precipitated shortly before the ensuing elections; and only God knows what effect such a crisis might have had on Liberia.

So, it is my considered opinion that Liberian Christians, as individuals, congregations and church organizations, ought to be involved in the politics of Liberia. If you would not canvass for a candidate for elective office, at least register to vote and vote at each election for which you are eligible. And at the minimum go and vote on October 10 if you did register to vote. The Church can be an agent for social change; and one of the ways to accomplish this is to be involved in the political processes of our country

I thank Father Williams for the opportunity to give you my views on this subject. I hope I have justified the confidence he reposed in me.

I thank each of you for patiently listening to me; I hope it was worth your while. I pray that God Almighty bless the Churches of Liberia and the Republic of Liberia. May He show his kindness on each of us and envelope us with His Grace. Amen.

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