Religion and Governance in Liberia
By: Dounard Bondo
And Jesus said; Render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God. That quote from the bible (Mark 12; 17) remains one of my favorite biblical references to separating state from religion. In Liberia, religion and state have always had a close but complex relationship, however, the consequences are bound if the lines between them are blurred.
Liberia’s history with religion is as old as the country itself, the earliest documents of its independence were signed in a church. Historically, Americo-Liberians (former American slaves who were settled in Liberia, by America), with the help of the United States were primarily responsible for the constitutional formation of Liberia (it should be noted that the Americo-Liberians met natives on the land, and these natives constituted up to 90 percent of the population of Liberia at that time).
The Americo- Liberians brought Christianity with them, and due to their role in Liberia’s constitutional formation, important documents, such as the constitution of 1847 highlighted references to Christianity. However, majority of the population who were natives, weren’t Christians, although the amended 1908 constitution however declared Liberia as a secular state. A similar case that reflexes this is the Liberian coat of arms that says; the love of liberty brought us here, when in actuality, only around 10 percent of Liberians were brought to Liberia via American ships.
Morality, Religion and Law influence each other within a state. Religion influences public morality, and morality influences law. However, distinction must be placed between them when necessary.
In a secular state, religion is deemed to be a private affair. However, it is not rare to see government services in Liberia being unavailable at working hours because the staff are “praying”. While every citizen is entitled to practice their religion within the barriers of the law, it’s only reasonable that they do it at their private time, and not during working hours. It should also be noted that, the taxpayers, with whose money they are being paid, are from diverse religious and secular backgrounds.
In Liberia, the influence of religion is so great, there is a national holiday, where school and government offices are closed for a day for prayer and fasting. In 2015, the Liberian senate debated amending the constitution to declare Liberia a Christian state. In early 2018, the Liberian council of churches and council of mosques were added to a board to investigate alleged financial crimes of missing money from the central bank vaults. The addition of religious bodies to a board to investigate alleged financial crimes was seen by some as a means to give the investigation more authenticity, while others saw the move as a merger of politics and religion. Likewise, more recently, the religious advisor to the president on state letterhead addressed the country’s religious leaders with focus on Christians, to hold a 3-days intercessory prayer session for the president and his travels, monetary pleas, etc. Also important to note is that the president, after his election to public office, opened his own church where he is pastor. While there is no issue in the private worship practices of the president, it does raise some questions as per the regulations in the church’s role in the nation’s political affairs and governance.
The merging of politics and religion is old and hasn’t particularly given the best results. It dates as far back as the crusades and Spanish inquisitions. In 2017, Pope Francis apologized for the role of the Catholic Church in the Rwandan genocide. In Liberia, there are fears of the politicization of religion, as there have been cases of churches endorsing candidates, or being used as propaganda machines. Knowing all of this, and knowing the implications of choosing one religion’s dominance over the others in a nation of diverse religious practices, the line needs to be drawn at some point to protect the state and its inhabitants.
In 2018, the Liberian government decided to launch the “16 days of activism” in a church. The 16 days of activism is a worldwide practice to bring awareness to women rights, and sexual and gender based violence (SGBV). However, launching it with a thanksgiving service in church raised some concerns. Firstly, the “16 days of activism” is a non-religious event, and its participants cross different religious orientations. Secondly, religious bodies aren’t seen as the beacon for equality of the sexes and ending SGBV. Bible passages such as (1 cor 14; 34) have been used as biblical reference against gender equality. Passages like verse 4; 34 in the Quran has been interpreted by some as justification of domestic violence in Islam.
While religious bodies have also made positive impact in the Liberian society, and their influence is immense, we should also remember to draw the lines and differentiate our religion from the state. Let’s give unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar.