Nearly 199 years ago, when white patrons of the American Colonization Society met and decided in Washington DC on December 20, 1816 to form a colony later named as Liberia as a bastion for the liberation of enslaved descendants of Africans from these American shores and Recaptives (pejoratively referred to as Congoes) from Africa, multiple interests prevailed. The justification of that initiative overwhelmingly captured the popular narrative of forming a Christian nation to liberate the so-called African heathens by the descendants of enslaved Africans known as Americo-Liberians, a label given by the patrons of the American Colonization Society (ACS).
However, as if by an act of intellectual maneuvering, Professor Simon Greenleaf, the Harvard Law professor and one of the founders of Harvard Law School, known within Christian thoughts for developing what is known as legal or juridical apologetics, didn't stray in his 1846-47 draft proposal, from the deistic and secular constitutional framework of the United States that the founding fathers of America envisioned —yet, he was aware of the Christian hegemony within North America and also in the Commonwealth of Liberia.
Based on their collective experience, the settlers inserted article 4, sections 12 and 13, which restricted the ownership of property and citizenship rights in Liberia to blacks—the so-called “Negro Clause” that became accepted to this date; and sections 10 and 11 regarding women’s rights. In his honor, at least an evangelical Christian law school is named at Trinity International University in California. Greenleaf, astute in history, was quite aware of the series of religious wars waged in Europe from ca. 1524 to 1648, following the onset of the Protestant Reformation in Western and Northern Europe. He knew about the religious prosecution (amongst various Christian sects/denominations) that so many suffered and escaped to the United States and Canada. He read John Locke’s treatise, on Life, Liberty, and Property (Happiness), an influential document that shaped Jefferson’s America and Greenleaf/Teague’s Liberia’s constitutions, and so on July 26, 1847, Liberia was declared a free, sovereign and independent state of the Republic of Liberia—not the Christian Republic of Liberia, in accordance with modern international law.
Governor Joseph Jenkins Roberts captured the principled foundation of Liberia’s independence based on “the embarrassment we labor under with respect to the encroachments of foreigners and the objections urged by Great Britain in regard to our sovereignty.” Yet, in spite of their solid Christian heritage, the framers and the patrons of Liberia’s constitutions knew the importance of the separation of church and state. That is why in the constitution of 1847, it states: Article 1: Sec. 3, (Declaration of Rights):
All men [and women] have a natural and inalienable right to worship God according to the dictates of their own consciences, without obstruction or molestation from others: all persons demeaning themselves peaceably, and not obstructing others in their religious worship, are entitled to the protection of law, in the free exercise of their own religion; and no sect of Christians shall have exclusive privileges or preference, over any other sect; but all shall be alike tolerated: and no religious test whatever shall be required as a qualification for civil office, or the exercise of any civil right.
Furthermore, in the 1986 Constitution similar intentionality is reemphasized by the Sawyer led committee in Chapter 3, Article 14 (Fundamental Rights), which reads:
All persons shall be entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment thereof except as may be required by law to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. All persons who, in the practice of their religion, conduct themselves peaceably, not obstructing others and conforming to the standards set out herein, shall be entitled to the protection of the law. No religious denomination or sect shall have any exclusive privilege or preference over any other, but all shall be treated alike; and no religious tests shall be required for any civil or military office or for the exercise of any civil right. Consistent with the principle of separation of religion and state, the Republic shall establish no state religion.
In June of 1846, Greenleaf's draft constitution was sent to the Liberian Commonwealth. Twelve delegates from the then three counties of Liberia, Montserrado County (Samuel Benedict, Hilary Teague, Elijah Johnson, John N. Lewis, Beverly R. Wilson and J.B. Gripon); Grand Bassa (John Day, Amos Herring, Anthony William Gardiner and Ephraim Titler); and Sinoe County (Jacob W. Prout and Richard E. Murray) of the Commonwealth were represented at the convention.
Teague was made chairman of the committee on the preamble and bill of rights and responsible to draft the Declaration of Independence. The convention altered some of Greenleaf's draft proposal –the transposed American based Constitution. Even though the declaration of independence was signed on July 26, 1847, Teague’s committee report on the preamble and bill of rights were ready and approved on July 28, 1847. No doubt, like the framers of the American constitutions, Hilary Teague’s religious heritage or influence on Liberia’s Constitution is visible. However, he rejected any law respecting an establishment of a national church (“religion”) or excessively involving the young republic itself in religion, particularly to the benefit of one religion over another.
Born in the state of Virginia in 1802, like Madison and Jefferson, Teague migrated to Liberia with his father, Collin Teague, a prominent black Baptist pastor, later becoming a member of the Senate of Liberia and Liberia’s first Secretary of State. Prior to his rise as a statesman, Teague became the owner and editor of the Liberian Herald in Monrovia, after John Brown Russwurm left to become governor of the Republic of Maryland, Liberia. It was at this post until 1849, that Teague championed the cause for Liberia’s independence, invoking Black Nationalism, religious heritage, and rhetoric so similar to the United States’ own Declaration. In Liberia’s Declaration of Independence, it states,
“Therefore, in the name of humanity, virtue, and religion, in the name of the great God, our common Creator, we appeal to the nations of Christendom, and earnestly and respectfully ask of them that they will regard us with the sympathy and friendly considerations to which the peculiarities of our condition entitles us, and to that comity which marks the friendly intercourse of civilized and independent communities.”
In these writings, we observe the intentions of the framers to be accepted by the international community—mainly Western Europe, largely divided by several Christian denominations—Germany (Lutheran), Holland (Dutch Reform/Calvinists), England (Anglicanism), and Spain, Italy, and Portugal(Roman Catholic). In essence, in the word of Dr. James Cone’s Black Theology and The Black Church, there was a syncretism –a reconciliation of their African identity with the teaching of the Western Christian culture based on a Caucasian Jesus Christ, were the motif for evangelizing or Christianizing the whole of Africa—a mission they quickly deferred for economic, political, and social rights in Africa in the here and now. To that effect, these framers, mainly pastors and evangelists stated that “No sect of Christian shall have exclusive privileges or preferences over other sects,”—in the economic, political, or social contracts they were forging on these African shores—never in search of forming a Christian nation based on any of the seven Christian principles—faith, hope, love, justice, prudence, courage, and fidelity,” which are not even unique to any religious traditions, but essential for the personal and collective upliftment of the individuals and community as a whole.
So, in the midst of becoming a failed state or fragile state, after a prolonged civil war, and a deadly Ebola crisis, one might think that Liberia would seriously think about ways of rethinking genuine nation-building, bringing a solid representation of all sectors of the Liberian population to help reshape its national agenda for rebuilding. Instead, so-called delegates at the Gbarnga Conference were focusing on issues that have no place in the current discourse for genuine nation building. Divisive of all, is the “Woiwor Christianization Petition” of 2013 that has won support amongst political leaders, a farce that relegates the urgent needs of Liberia—the issues of rampant corruption, reconciliation, reuniting the diaspora with the homeland in building a robust human resource, security, institution and infrastructural development, democracy vis-à-vis theocracy, and economic viability.
Clearly, Liberia since 1847 to present has remained a secular state in spite of the fact that the founding fathers were overwhelmingly Christian ministers and evangelists. The landmass they met was overwhelmingly the home of African Traditionalists (pejoratively called heathens/animists) and Muslim Marabouts and their large followers. Today, so many of us share these mixed heritages. In my opinion, it is beautiful melting pot! We must avoid every modicum of religious bigotry. No Western or Middle Eastern religious views (Christianity or Islam) must trump and trample the rights of others—especially our own traditional African cultural beliefs or the freedom to think and act within the confines of sound reasoning. A pastor who thinks his Christian faith is better than others and must be imposed is no different from the BOKO Haram and ISSIS. True religion brings blessings in the here and now—living water! It is about the darn golden rules—treating each other with respect and dignity. It's about ethics! Until then, we must never allow the bigots in their power greed to lead the masses astray.
Sadly, if the proponents of the Christian Nation agenda were asked to describe their vision of a Christian Nation or list the Christian principles they believe Liberia was founded by, not one could pass such test. Yet, they become irrational and arrogant in their responses. Their action in large part is driven by frivolities, lacking the will to advocate and uphold such basic principles in curbing corruption, reducing poverty, and improving health, education, security, prosperity, justice, equanimity, and basic human rights. We must resist this irrational belief system by the meeting of the minds and persuasively letting the vast majority to understand the danger of invoking such vitriolic political rhetoric in the national discourse. This view is well captured by my colleague Cyrus Tarpeh, who writes,
The belief the Liberia was founded on Christian principles (Christ-like principles) is a social construct that has no practical manifestation in the governing process of Liberia. If the founding fathers of Liberia were liberally committed to the Christ-like principles upon which they founded Liberia, why was Liberia inflicted with incurable contusions and still continues to suffer from such confusions as a result of corruption, egotism, and dishonesty visited upon her by succeeding administrations? …Liberia became the sanctuary of selfish, lying, and dishonest leaders and is still the arena of selfish, lying, and dishonest leaders whose insatiable desire for power and wealth has become the modus operandi in the governing of Liberia.
Sadly, the Gbarnga Fiasco seeks to turn back the clock of progression—being inattentive to global history especially of religious bigotry that destroyed Europe, leading to the formation of the United States upon which, such great thinkers like John Locke (the natural rights), Francis Scott keys, and others saw the need to find a balance approach in advocating for a secular state that respected the diversity of its people, irrespective of the large Christian population. In Liberia’s case, it is about working for the common good that brings life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness not just for a few, but for all Liberians This ought to be our Sitz im Leben to building a just society, respecting the diversity and beauty of our body politic.
Artemus W. Gaye, PhD, Loyola University of Chicago
Dr. Gaye is chairman, of The All Liberian Diaspora Conference that takes place in Washington DC on April 25-26, 2015 at the Churchill Hotel. Dr. Gaye has background, in Counseling, Religion, Journalism, Ethics, and Community Development. He can be reached at (773)6470721 or [email protected]