Christians In Politics: The Challenge Of Transformative Public Engagement

Let me start by expressing my heartfelt gratitude to the board of directors, central working committee and members of the Apostles in the Marketplace (AIMP), for inviting me to share my thoughts with you on a topic that is central to the very objectives that informed the founding of your organization. Looking through the organizational structure of the AIMP, I was impressed to see a number of individuals, some of whom I have the privilege of knowing personally, whose weight in integrity, passion for service and patriotism has been a bulwark of inspiration to me through the trajectory of my life.
I am glad to contribute to this discourse which I have been intimated is part of a robust framework being developed by your organization, aimed at inspiring more Christians, particularly the youth, to consider active involvement in politics. All stakeholders, particularly those of us on the ‘inside’ have to work collaboratively to figure out how we can sell politics to young Christians in Nigeria as service and sacrifice – core Christian values; and to follow-up with concrete platforms for hand-holding – for those interested – through a terrain that has been avoided by our society’s finest for too long.
I am also happy to publicly declare, that as one with a strong Christian upbringing and whose faith in our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, has been the basis of my passion, courage and resilience in the course of my activism in and out of public office; that I have no other source of ‘power’. In these days that some go to great lengths, delving into the diabolical to get ‘supernatural’ help from insidious spiritual mediums; it is necessary to reassure my listeners, many of whom might be wondering how I survived the dark military era as an active participant in the pro-democracy struggle at the risk of my life. Some have asked the source of my strength as I faced treachery and injustice for the 3 ½ years that I was denied a mandate freely given to me by my people; ladies and gentlemen, I make bold to say that my faith is built on nothing but the grace and mercy of God.
The Paradox of Religion in Nigeria

Ours is a very religious society. This is a reality that we can all affirm anecdotally but which is absolutely empirically verifiable. Consider some facts and figures. There are more Anglicans in Nigeria than there are in England, the church’s mother country, or anywhere else in the world. The Anglican Church in Nigeria boasts some 18 million members and is the world’s largest Anglican congregation. The largest Roman Catholic seminary in the world is the Bigard Memorial in Enugu which has about one thousand students – five times the number enrolled in the largest U.S. Catholic seminary. No other seminary matches this prodigious intake. Vast cathedrals and mega-churches with tens of thousands of attendees and hundreds of thousands in membership dot our major urban centres. The Living Faith Church (also known as Winners’ Chapel) possesses the largest church auditorium in the world, the 50,400-seat Faith Tabernacle in Lagos. The Deeper Life Bible Church’s headquarters congregation in Lagos had 150,000 members as at 2004 and had planted more than 6,000 branches across Nigeria. In Nigeria alone, the Redeemed Christian Church of God claims 14,000 branches with 5 million members.
But these figures are just a prelude. Nigeria is at the centre of one of the most fascinating role reversals in history. She has become a missionary-exporting nation and now sends hundreds of pastors to the West, carrying with them a unique brand of spirituality. Some of these pastors lead the largest churches in Europe and Africa.
Christianity as we know it on our shores is no longer the bequest of foreign missionaries but has become a genuinely Nigerian brand of religion. Indeed, some scholars now argue that the epicenter of global Christianity is no longer in the West, but has moved to the southern hemisphere, and that Nigeria is its new hub. To back up this assertion, they cite the proliferation of churches and professing Christians at a time that western Christianity is in steep decline. Christianity has become one of Nigeria’s main cultural exports. Huge church conventions held at the end of every year draw pilgrims, academics, reporters and tourists from the world over who want to observe and participate in the festivals of spiritual recrudescence. At first glance, Nigeria is enjoying a glorious springtime of the Christian faith.
There are, however, other aspects of our social, economic and political realities that provide a sobering portrait against the backdrop of this spiritual boom. Even as we exult in our country’s potential emergence as global Christianity’s centre of gravity, we must also acknowledge other less salutary facts. We are beset by a host of plagues: hunger, chronic conflict, terrorism, disease, corruption and various portents of weak statehood. Official graft is particularly endemic. Conservative estimates indicate that between $4 billion and $8 billion is stolen from public coffers annually. 70 percent of our population lives in poverty.
The landscape of our country is pockmarked by institutional dysfunction and infrastructural dilapidation. All of us here bear the burdens of working and producing without basic infrastructure such as power supply or of securing our families given the weakness of the formal security apparatus. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, 32.5 million Nigerians are unemployed. The economy is growing but not fast enough to absorb the jobseekers emerging from our schools each year. The axiom that an “idle mind is the Devil’s workshop” goes back to the 14th century and it shows that societies have always recognized a link between unemployment and social chaos. In our case, that link is certainly obvious, considering the now chronic incidents of conflict, insecurity and terrorism.
However dreary the statistics are, we find the more worrisome omens in the intangible socio-psychological trends that cannot be readily measured. Almost every day, the news headlines scream with reports of some terrorist outrage or yet more news of fraud or theft in the government, deepening a rampant collective pessimism about our society’s prospects. There is a pervasive sense of uncertainty, anxiety and near-hopelessness about our common future. Most dangerously, a lot of people no longer see a clear, scrupulous path to a decent and fulfilling life. Many of our young people are entranced by the possibilities of upward mobility inherent in fraud and a variety of get-rich-quick schemes that reflect our societal bias for instant gratification. Others have been initiated into terrorism and political violence.
It is not just high-level graft that ails us. We must reckon with the various instances of low-level corruption that are everyday experiences. From the almost customary example of uniformed men soliciting bribes to other episodes ranging from genial requests for “help” or “assistance” to outright extortion that characterize our contacts with bureaucracy and with each other, oddly enough with people who are avowedly religious. These instances in which we are often compelled to negotiate compromises with our consciences are so frequent that it is no understatement to say that corruption is assuming cultural proportions in our society. Just from commuting on our roads, there is evidence that our society is contemptuous of rules and order, and that as a people we no longer have any regard for the norms of civility and mutual respect. All that matters seems to be the individual’s quest to get ahead at any cost.
All these suggest that the defining contradiction of Nigerian life at present is the coincidence of increasing religiosity and declining public morality. We are witnessing a universalization of religious syntax and symbolism across various domains of society, ranging from politics to the popular culture, at a time when our ethical capital is being depleted. Churches are proliferating in the midst of social and moral squalor. Nigerian Christians live in a bipolar reality. On one hand, as Nigerians we share in a common social experience marked by decadence, while on the other hand, we function as believers in the controlled environments provided in our churches. In effect, the values and virtues imparted by our faith are hermetically sealed off from social reality. Consequently, the society persists in its ethical freefall despite what appears to be an ongoing religious revival.

The Theology of Disengagement

What is responsible for this profound dissonance between our extravagant religiosity and our alarming deficit of public virtue? Regarding the phenomenon of high church growth and nose-diving public morality, we can agree with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who once warned, “We must not be tempted to confuse spiritual power and large numbers …An increase in quantity does not automatically bring an increase in quality. A larger membership does not necessarily represent a correspondingly increased commitment to Christ.”
To a large extent, the flagrant contradiction between our religious and social conduct is the result of the dominant strand of theology over the past three decades. Widespread pessimism about the prospects of the Nigerian project has found expression in a theology of non-engagement. It has roots in the wave of ‘Holiness’ churches that emerged during the mid-1970s. Preaching an austere spirituality that prioritized personal moral rectitude and spartan discipline as the hallmarks of righteousness, these churches depicted the world as a field of profanity. Entanglement in secular affairs posed the risk of subverting one’s salvation. The only legitimate sphere of social engagement was the fellowship within the church itself. The larger society was a lost cause. All efforts were to be directed at fulfilling the level of righteousness required to qualify for heaven.
This dichotomy between the sacred and the secular is essential to understanding the bipolar approach to business, politics and public life. Beginning from the early 1980s, the austere ‘Holiness’ movement was displaced by a more buoyant Christian movement that advertized God’s relationship with individuals in more material terms. According to this new theological narrative, God is committed to blessing the individual in the here and now and not just in the afterlife. This commitment is expressed in miracles, healing, financial advancement and the guaranteed general wellbeing of the Christian. This brand of spirituality became more salient from the mid-1980s following the end of the oil boom, the implementation of the Structural Adjustment Programme and the consequent near extinction of the middle class.
In a climate of recession and economic uncertainty, a theology that cast salvation as a route to divinely underwritten upward mobility resonated and it fuelled a proliferation of churches across the country. The increasing popular resort to faith was accentuated by the political instability and repression occasioned by a succession of military dictatorships right up till the late 1990s. The essential dichotomy of the secular and sacred remained. The new churches that emerged from this movement are largely not conceived as centres for projecting the gospel’s redemptive properties into their communities but rather as cities of refuge where beleaguered citizens flee from the depredations of a dysfunctional state.
The theology of this movement which is loosely described as the ‘Prosperity’ movement interprets salvation in overwhelmingly personal terms. It has little conception of society or the common good. Rather, the individual is spiritually primed to achieve material success in spite of the society. Indeed, the subtext of this theology is that events in the society are inconsequential to the fortunes of the individual believer. The individual in a very specific and personal sense is at the centre of God’s love, grace and redemptive plan. It is not surprising that what has emerged is a highly compartmentalized religiosity; one that perceives no moral obligation in the public space and in which the happiness of the individual is paramount. This is a broad brush description of the Christian scene in Nigeria. It does not apply to all churches but it is a fairly accurate portrait of the general complexion of Christianity in Nigeria.

Between God and Caesar

Historically, Nigerian Christians (like our contemporaries worldwide) have had to debate the extent of their social and political engagement in the context of the biblical admonition to render unto Caesar the things that belong to Caesar. The axiom comes from the incident in the New Testament when Jesus was asked whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. He replied by asking for a coin and questioning his interrogators as to whose image and inscription the coin bore. “Caesar’s,” they replied. Well, Jesus said, since the coin bore Caesar’s imprint then it was lawful for those who lived in Caesar’s domain to render back to him his rightful taxes and to render to God what belonged to God. Traditionalists construe this dictum as an injunction against Christian involvement in politics. Indeed, it has been seized upon by opponents of Christians’ active participation in public life, to argue that religion and politics do not mix. It has become the kernel of a theology of non-engagement.
On the other hand, advocates of Christian public engagement offer a richer and more nuanced understanding of this principle. Since Caesar himself was made in the image of God, it follows that his humanity, his empire and taxes, and therefore the politics of running the empire and administering the taxes, must be submitted to God who wields ultimate sovereignty over creation. This is supported by scripture that expressly declares that “… the Most High ruleth in the kingdom of men…” One of the ways the Almighty demonstrates His sovereignty in the affairs of men is through the activities of regenerated men and women in public life – men and women who fear God and submit to Him as vessels through which His will is done on earth as it is in heaven.
The conundrum for Christians who desire to engage constructively in the workings of their society and are yet wary of confusing the domains of Caesar and God can be summarized thus: are holiness and social responsibility mutually exclusive or complementary? Can we live out both ideals or does one have to nullify the other? Is it possible to be holy and be socially engaged? Is it possible to be deeply committed to the faith and to be an active citizen?
I believe that this synthesis of civic and spiritual tasks is not only possible but absolutely necessary. As John Wesley said, “There is no holiness but social holiness.” Every Christian has two responsibilities. The first is to put on the mind of Christ; the second is to carry that mind into the public square – into whatever is public, whether that means the media, the marketplace, the academia, the trade union or parliament.
My view on this issue has been forged over the course of a lifetime spanning my upbringing and my lifelong reflection on the place of values in shaping society. I was born into the Catholic Church in which the belief that the church must be an active agent of social justice and political transformation was rife. This belief found expression in the social activism of Catholics in various nations and in the liberation theology movement in Latin America. The defining principle of my moral upbringing is that emulating Jesus Christ is not just a spiritual endeavour but a revolutionary posture that expands the frontiers of justice in society. It is about serving a higher purpose in the public square and locating the right vocational channels through which to actualize one’s spiritual commitment. This understanding of the faith has guided me through my years at the frontlines of pro-democracy activism in exile and my service in public office.

Christian Political Engagement in Nigeria

It is significant that the Christian contribution to Nigeria was acknowledged on the very first day of our journey as an independent nation. In his Independence Day speech in 1960, Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa acknowledged that the history of Nigeria would be incomplete without the endeavours of missionaries and affirmed them as being among “those who made Nigeria.” This was by no means an overstatement. Many Nigerians even today are direct and indirect beneficiaries of the missionaries’ legacy. Through their schools, the first generation elites of this nation were raised. Through missionary education, many of our parents acquired the tools with which they embarked on their quest for upward mobility. As an alumnus of a mission school myself, I can certainly testify to the quality of the training we received that sharpened us both morally and intellectually. I suspect that many of us here would say the same.
Even so, the Christian contribution to Nigeria went beyond mission schools. The story of faith communities is entwined with the evolution of the nationalist struggle. According to the historian Emmanuel Ayandele, from the late 19th century onward, “the church became the cradle of Nigerian nationalism, the only forum of nationalist expression until the beginnings of the indigenous press after 1879, and the main focus of nationalist energies until after 1914.” The campaign to indigenize the Christian faith which pit Nigerian ministers against paternalistic and racist sentiments within the missionary establishment prefigured the nationalist quest for self-rule. The eventual formation of African churches run by indigenous pastors was part of a political awakening stirred by the natives’ discovery of the Bible’s notions of equality and justice. This tradition was carried on by great cultural nationalists such as the Reverends James Johnson, Mojola Agbebi, Josiah Ransome-Kuti and Bishop Ajayi Crowther.
The indigenous clerics saw their struggle to assume control of their own spiritual destinies as a prelude to the ultimate achievement of self-rule. Consequently, Christians were very involved in the first stirrings of nationalist activism. All the members of the Legislative Council from 1886 to 1914 were either ministers or ardent churchmen. The first Nigerian newspaper came off the same presses with the first vernacular Bible. It was a missionary-trained Christian, Dr. Russell Dikko, who conceived the cultural society that eventually became the Northern Peoples’ Congress. Bishop Ajayi Crowther’s grandson Herbert Macaulay was the leading nationalist figure of the 1920s in a burgeoning nationalist movement that included Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, daughter of Reverend Josiah Ransome-Kuti.
Influenced by the British Labour Party (which in turn bore the intellectual stamp of the Christian socialists), Obafemi Awolowo propounded a political ethic rooted in moral tradition, arguing that religion and politics were complementary and that “the most beneficial political system derives its strengths from the tenets and practices of great religions.” He saw a natural congruence between Christianity and socialism and appropriated the biblical phrase ‘Life More Abundant’ to encapsulate the ideals of his political party, the Action Group, and defined it as freedom from British rule, freedom from ignorance, freedom from disease and freedom from want. “In the process of bringing out the best that is in man, and of enabling him to live a healthy and happy life, the agencies of Politics and Religion must work in close and harmonious co-operation. The eradication of ignorance, disease and want is a matter of the utmost concern to Politics as well as to Religion.”
For Awolowo, the Golden Rule, empathy, loving our neighbour as ourselves, which summarize the Law and the Prophets and indeed, the great moral traditions, constitute the cornerstone of a sustainable society. Any system based on greed and naked self-interest is bound to generate social disequilibrium, progressively degenerating until it suffers extinction and yields place to a system which either approaches or approximates the ideal of love. In the public domain, this love takes the form of social justice – fairness and a commitment to equity. From the foregoing it is clear that Christians had an investment in the very foundations of our nation that was far more than tangential.
In subsequent years, Christians have become more visible in social activism and politics, whether as elected officials, or under the umbrella of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) which was established to present a common voice for the Christian community to national political leaders, or in pressure groups like the Save Nigeria Group. But there is much more that we can do in terms of articulating an intelligent social and political engagement agenda that is rooted in our values and vision, and calibrated to address the challenges facing a religiously diverse society.

The Christian Political Task Today

Many Christians still see politics as a dirty game and for this reason are disengaged from the political process. This view stems more from our nation’s political experiences rather than any actual scriptural principle. Nigerians see politicians as a venal, greedy, corrupt and parasitic league feeding on their frustrations and looting the country blind. However, once we accept that civil authority is an agency divinely instituted to promote justice and order, then politics, which is the operation of that agency, becomes necessary. Consequently, Christians are not exempted from politics. It is a noble vocation but it is tainted by the frailties of its practitioners.
This is not unique to politics. It is the same with every sector of society whether we are talking about business, education, journalism, entertainment, sports etc. As long as these domains are manned by human beings, their flaws, insincerities and insecurities will continue to characterize them. This is what it means to live in a fallen world. While Christians know that their faith requires high standards of rectitude, they are human and often capitulate to the same temptations as anyone else. Even so, the whole point of the Christian presence on the earth is redemptive, meaning that transformed people with a higher moral consciousness can transform any endeavour including politics.
There are a host of compelling reasons for Christians to participate in politics and governance. First, as citizens of the nation-state, we have the same civic duties as all citizens have including paying taxes, voting and supporting the candidates that we believe best qualify to hold public office. Secondly, the necessity of vigilant citizenship as a safeguard for our democracy also compels us to become activists either seeking office through the ballot or assisting those who do so in various areas of public service. The American statesman Daniel Webster once said, “Whatever makes men good Christians makes them good citizens.” Our discipleship ought to make us the very sort of citizens that our nation needs.
Thirdly, as citizens of the kingdom of God, we have a responsibility to bring transcendent standards of righteousness and justice to bear upon the institutions that shape our earthly lives. The biblical aphorism “Righteousness exalts a nation” simply means that a nation that does the right things will be exalted. In this context, righteousness refers to right policies, the proper ways and means of public administration, and the right standards of conduct. When we venture into the public square, we have a responsibility to establish accurate patterns of due process, accountability and public policy. Sound fiscal policy is righteousness. These enhance the quality of governance and transform socio-political institutions and structures. One example of how my Christian faith has influenced my governance pattern can be seen from how my administration structured our social security scheme. The bible admonishes variously that we should cater for the vulnerable in the society as the practice of true religion; in line with this, we have ensured that the aged, pregnant women and children have access to our free healthcare program. In addition, our social security scheme allows for a stipend of Five Thousand Naira to be given to every qualifying Ekiti person above the age of 65, every month. However, the pattern of social justice as seen in the bible, in the management and distribution of scarce resources, necessitates parameters that ensure funds set aside for providing social safety nets for the vulnerable, are not seen as largess by more fortunate members of society, but rather as a life-line for those who need it desperately. In 1 Timothy 5: 3-4, Saint Paul admonishes the young Timothy with practical administrative tips, “Give proper recognition to those widows who are really in need. But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion to practice by caring for their own family…”; accordingly, one of the key requirements to be a beneficiary of our social security programme is that you do not have any children in a position to cater for your needs. Such is the practicality of faith as applied in the management of the programme (despite our state’s resource challenge) which now has coverage of over 20,000 people and has been the subject of understudy by technical teams from other states in Nigeria for possible adoption. So many other examples abound. Invariably, from my experience as a leader, when you surround yourself not with opportunistic sycophants but with men and women who have the fear of God, and who understand the responsibility that comes with serving a purpose higher than yourself, the outcomes are usually programmes, policies and laws that are in the overall interest of the people. This is why “when the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice”.
Let me register some caveats. The role of Christians in politics is not to impose a Christian theocracy. Conversion by coercion is not the object of our political engagement. On the contrary, we are to defend universal human rights and civil liberties for two reasons. First, as creatures made in the image of God and endowed with the gift of free will, religious coercion goes against the grain of God’s intent for humanity. An environment in which we can maximize our capacity as free moral agents honours the divine design. A commitment to creating this environment means upholding the right to freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, freedom of worship and freedom of association. Secondly, for the gospel to prosper, we need to create a liberal climate open to different persuasions and enable authentic faith to flower in the contest of ideas. Theocratic societies are totalitarian places that severely inhibit human potential.
A Christian office-holder must not play God. His or her duty is to facilitate the role of government as a preserver of order and justice and not to use the machinery of state to pursue the goals of the church. The presence of Christians in public office should not be seen as the church being in power or as an opportunity for the church to flex political muscles. The Christian in public office is there for the good of all citizens regardless of their beliefs and the legitimacy of his leadership rests not on his selective advancement of the cause of his creed but on his ability to manage collective aspirations and resources for the betterment of all the citizenry. While we can certainly bring transcendent moral values into public debate, we also have a duty to communicate our convictions in non-threatening and non-sectarian language that is accessible to everyone in a pluralistic society. In the course of presenting our moral and political convictions, it is crucial that we aim to persuade rather than coerce.
The Christian concept of servant-leadership, for example, has much to offer us in terms of altering elite behaviour and official conduct. Adopting it would cause us to eschew the abrasive and offensive displays of power that have become the trademark of elites. It would certainly inject a measure of humility into our conduct. As the leadership philosopher Robert K. Greenleaf wrote, “The servant-leader is servant first…. Becoming a servant-leader begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first…. The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and the most difficult to administer, is this: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”
Servant leadership empowers and enables others to rise to their potential. By applying servant leadership principles, we can reclaim the idea of public service as a transformative pursuit of the greater good. Leaders driven by a desire to serve and a progressive vision emerging at various levels of governance can begin to turn the tide of decay and create conditions for more of our people to live a better life. These are the sort of changes I believe that Christians can bring to the public domain. I went into politics because I believe that committed social activism can provide people with the tools that will empower them and give them control over their own destinies. Public office is too serious to be left to charlatans, and when we as serious Christians committed to the ideals of social justice and the common good turn away from politics, we pave way for unprincipled opportunists to take power.
Our understanding of politics must not be restricted to the pursuit of votes in election season. Christian public engagement is about confronting the forces that limit our ability to enjoy a full and creative life. Once we step into the public domain to pursue the common good rather than individual ends, we are already in politics; whether we take to social entrepreneurship, philanthropy, non-profit work, political activism, advocacy, or legal aid, etcetera – any endeavour that takes us out of the comfort zones of our own needs into the terrain of collective concern makes us political actors. The calling will entail different pursuits for each of us.
For some, it involves toiling in the vineyard of civil society, enlightening the people, empowering the poor, organizing communities at the grassroots level so that they can have a say in running their own affairs. For others, it involves seeking gender justice and confronting economic inequality. Then, of course, there are those for whom the work requires the pursuit of public office by seeking the anointment of the electorate. The point is that while we have one goal – the realization of the good society – the quest for this goal expresses itself in a diversity of gifts and callings. Not all of us can or will be in elective office. Fortunately, not all of us have to. What matters is for each of us to find our place in the move to build our nation and to be faithful to the demands of that task.
Participating in the formal civic rituals such as paying taxes and voting are the basic demands of citizenship and are the first fruits of our political personhood in a democratic society. But going beyond this to engage in grander expressions of empathy and social engagement as opposed to apathy and indifference help to enrich civic life and nurture democracy. Insofar as a concern for our neighbour is central to our understanding of Christian compassion, it follows that active citizenship – which is simply an intense concern for the wellbeing of our fellow citizens – is the natural manifestation of the Christian presence in the public square.
Ultimately, the argument for Christian political engagement is perhaps best summed up in the famous words of Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing.” All that stands between Nigeria and terminal decadence is good men and women who, energized by their faith, are able and willing to venture into the public square and raise the standard of the common good and in so doing effect the renewal of our nation. This is a sacred responsibility that we cannot evade.
Thank you for listening; I wish you God’s speed in the pursuit of your organization’s objectives.
-Being the paper presented by His Excellency Dr. Kayode FAYEMI Governor, Ekiti State, Nigeria at the Annual Partners Dinner of the Apostles in the Marketplace (AIMP) Thursday February 21, 2013

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