News The African Way

Should Religion Play A Role In National Politics? By Abdulsalam Ajetunmobi



Much has been written about the Office of the Directorate of Politics and Governance recently created by the Redeemed Christian Church of God, and the call for the creation of a similar political directorate by the Supreme Council for Shari’ah in Nigeria. The one question that is rarely asked is, what if our political life is populated by religious ideologues who may want to replace the Constitution with religious texts? The answer is that it will compromise good governance thereby resulting in political imbroglio. I’ll explain.

To start with, I see a religious paradox in the establishment of a political directorate by any religious grouping in the country. The core of religion is the private sphere, that is, what pertains to us as individuals or as members of a voluntary community of like-minded individuals (for instance, a church or mosque or shrine). By contrast, political life concerns the public sphere, that is, what pertains to us as members of a wider community (a village, city, state or nation) of individuals with diverse views on a wide range of issues of common interests.

So, it is a paradox when religious beliefs get embraced as a fact in political life instead of being recognised as a belief system for private life. In other words, when a belief system becomes fact in public administration —an administration that requires decisions based on facts and reason— then, those with that belief system will ignore reason, logic or rational thought when they conflict with their belief system.

Thus, the religious paradox creates a perspective in which reason and fact can only exist within the context of one’s beliefs and thus a rational dialogue becomes impossible. Take, for example, creationism (a belief) and evolution (a scientific fact) debate. Adherents of a literal interpretation of religious texts insist creationism and evolution are just different, equally valid ideas. Not at all. Whereas creationism is based on a belief without hard evidence to confirm it, evolution is, like gravity, an observable and testable phenomenon with hard data.

Furthermore, the hallmarks of politics are compromise, consensus, horse trading and high-handed tactics, and all these features do not bode well for the strong emotional bonds found in tightly knit religious communities. In addition, religion is inflexible and uncompromising because it relies on ancient texts (or corpora) and a closed canon (or tradition). It is also apposite to note that religious ideas are fixed and cannot change, even in the face of human logic and reason, as well as convincing evidence. Therefore, clerics, be they pastors or imams, who enter into the quagmire of politics are inviting religion to compromise, consensus, and the advance of reason, logic and rationality in the light of clashing opinions.

It is no wonder then that in the Western world today, religion and politics have remained uneasy bedfellows. We can see evidence of this from the current situation in the US and in the UK, regarding the inhibition of politics by religious groupings.

For example, section 501(c)(3) of the US Internal Revenue Code prohibits political campaign activity by a religious or charity organisation, defining this organisation as one “which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.” Similarly, under the UK Charities Act 2006, a religious or charity organisation cannot exist for a political purpose or carry out ‘political activity’, unless this activity is meant to facilitate or support the delivery of its charitable purposes. And, once a general election has been called, such organisations must not provide funds, or other resources, to a political candidate and must never indicate to its supporters which candidate to support in an election.

Moreover, the empirical evidence plainly points to the conclusion that religion does not foster good governance in the society. In this connection, if we examine the latest results of the Corruption Perceptions Index 2021very closely, we will see that this conclusion is justified.

The CPI uses a scale of one to 10, with 10 being highly clean and one being highly corrupt. And, according to the CPI 2021, the least corrupt countries are Denmark (8.8), Finland (8.8), New Zealand (8.8) — all in first position and followed by Norway (8.5), Singapore (8.5), and Sweden (8.5)—altogether in 4th position.

Yet Denmark (in 1st position) is highly secular. The weekly church attendance is 10%, and fewer than 20% of Danes consider themselves “very religious.” Similarly in Finland (1st position), the church-attending Finns are 9%, and almost 68% of Finnish citizens claim that they are “not a religious person.”

In the case of New Zealand (1st position), 16% of New Zealanders are churchgoers, 9% “active practisers,” and 55% religiously unaffiliated. Moreover, neither the current New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, nor her two predecessors, John Key and Helen Clark, knew whether God existed as they all claimed publicly that they were agnostic.

In Norway, only 14% of the Norwegian population (4th position) regularly attend church, 38% non-practising Christians, and up to 48% religiously unaffiliated. In Singapore (4th position), which is a secular state, religion is not accorded any effective role or position in the political administration of the state. And with regard to Sweden (4th position), a highly secular nation, church-attendance Swedes are 9%; 43% non-practising Christians; and 42% religiously unaffiliated.

By contrast, the top four most populated Muslim countries (Indonesia, Egypt, Pakistan, and Bangladesh) scored in the miserable range of 3.8 to 2.6 point, precisely in the 96th, 117th, 140th and 147th positions respectively. The only Muslim majority country that ranked in the top 30 was The United Arab Emirates (6.9 or 24th position) – with Qatar scoring 6.3 (or 31st position) and Saudi Arabia scoring 5.3 (or 52nd position)

In the case of the United States, the world’s most religious developed country,the country is ranked in a distant 27th position, compared to a less godlike Denmark (1st), Finland (1st), New Zealand (1st), Norway (4th), Singapore (4th) or Sweden (4th).

Similarly, Nigeria, a country where religion suffuses every aspect of life of the populace, scored 2.4, or a poorly 154th position—though less poorly than Haiti which scored 2.0 or in 164th position. I make a comparison with Haiti because, per capita, Haiti has more religious organisations than anyplace in the world, especially the western world; yet it has so few functioning institutions.

Viewing from the above, it is obvious that religion plays no significant role in fostering good governance; and hence, national politics should be shielded against religion, any religion. It is very important for leaders, whether Christian, Muslim or Traditionalist, not to be political. For religious beliefs, as noted earlier, are personal; and the personal and the political ought to be separated in public administration. Otherwise, anyinfusion of explicitly religious fervour into the nation’s polity will have some unfortunate consequences. There is sufficient food for reflection here, at least for those who can reflect.

Dr Ajetunmobi is a Senior Lecturer in Law/Deputy LLM Programme Leader, Hertfordshire Law School

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