Nothing speaks better of how cynical people have grown towards the church lately than the response that welcomed the Redeemed Christian Church of God’s decision to become more directly involved in the 2023 election campaign. RCCG’s internal service report – in which they said they would coordinate their members entering politics and mobilize support for them – that circulated online couldn’t have been more innocent. Yet he was met with a backlash by those who concluded the church wanted to use its vast network to rally support for one of their members, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, who could run for president. Guesswork alone is telling.
Ideally, a church’s political mobilization efforts should have been seen as a potential injection of religious moral virtues into our corrupt political system. That people are so critical, and that the RCCG makes its intent clear, should be enough for church leaders to reflect on how their association with politicians has tainted the public perception of their virtues. Even at that, much of the backlash is just plain scaremongering. Take, for example, Dele Momodu’s viral article in which he said the church’s decision was “an invitation to Armageddon” and that “the easiest way to create unrest in Nigeria today is a attempt to mix religion with politics”. Really?
Since time immemorial, and in almost all parts of the world, religion has always been at the heart of politics. The arc of Nigeria’s history itself is a testament to how easily God is weaponized by political elites. Otherwise, why is this country spending money it can barely afford on annual religious pilgrimages? Otherwise, why are we spending public money to build religious houses? In the same country where Bauchi Governor Bala Mohammed recently endorsed N100m for a nationwide Quran recitation competition, is anyone still arguing that the alchemy of religion and politics is weird? What did the constitutional provision matter when the Kaduna government allegedly gave 27 million naira to some Islamic clerics to deliver a “favorable Friday sermon” in 2019? Otherwise, why did a band of idle fundamentalists like the Hisbah have such temerity to destroy beer bottles, private property worth millions of naira, without being pushed back by the state or other elites? The fact that all of this remains, and that some still believe that religion should not meddle with politics, means that the operations of religionized politics have been so normalized that these critics are accustomed to materiality.
In Nigeria, we balance Christian political candidates with their Muslim counterparts, not because their combo guarantees ethical politics, but reality dictates that we must serve the idols of the religion. Even in their most immoral form, politicians never fail to cling to religion. Therefore, to say that the RCCG’s involvement in 2023 politics will ultimately lead to moral collapse is an unwarranted fear campaign. Even in so-called secular societies like the United States, religious appeal is central to their politics. When Donald Trump faced a crisis in his government that threatened his re-election, he led his aides outside a church to pose for a photo op. It didn’t even matter much to his evangelical base that the Bible in Trump’s hand in this photo was even upside down.
Moreover, much of the resistance against the RCCG exaggerates their influence. Pentecostal pastors may be influential, but critics also exaggerate the scope. Any politician who relies on pastors as the ruling bloc that can win an election will learn the lesson Goodluck Jonathan learned in 2015. The fact that GEJ lost despite the huge support it received from churches – so much so that some pastors have practically converted the church altar into a field plot – shows the practical limit of their clerical power to anoint a president. It’s even safe to say that the pastors’ overreach, who threw their weight behind GEJ, was part of the reason he lost.
It is also possible that we give too much weight to the religious factor in people’s voting choices. Unlike other places, Nigerian voters are hardly surveyed to quantify the factors that drive their voting decisions. Without statistics, we can only guess what people are really voting for when they say they vote for religion. Electoral victories are far more complicated than what a single church can win, no matter how wide its network. Look, if Pastor Enoch Adeboye were to devote every sermon to campaigning for Dele Momodu between now and Election Day, that still does not guarantee that he will win the votes of even RCCG members let alone the general Nigerian public. There are too many intertwined factors that determine electoral victory and religious influence is only one of them.
Religion has its practical limits, but it is an integral part of politics. We cannot wish for it, but we can only teach ourselves to develop enough emotional intelligence to differentiate between the religious politics that simply uses us as pawns in the larger power game and the one that seeks to unfold the truth of religion to refurbish a morally battered politics. As another election season approaches, we can expect to be inundated with familiar pontifications about the toxicity of religious identity politics. Perhaps this time these preachers will go beyond the usual condemnation to ask if/why those who vote persistently vote for religion give up other factors. What desperation lies at the heart of the Nigerian project for them that makes people rely on their religious identity at the expense of competence? Furthermore, what does “competence” mean to a Nigerian whose religion is central to his human identity?
As someone who has frequently criticized a church like RCCG for not leveraging its moral influence to deal with the dysfunctionality of our society, I honestly cannot accept the argument that it should stay away from the Politics. If the church is serious about intervening in the 2023 election campaign to see that its members vying for power represent the best of Christian ethics, then that should be a welcome move. If the church’s plan is really to set up some sort of “preparatory school” for their members to develop in preparation for public office, they should ignore all derisive criticism and move on. If they can identify viable candidates from among their membership – people who will do well in public office but would otherwise have no fighting chance because the political arena is already choked with the bags of money that won’t let breathe the most promising candidates – then the church should give them support.
Leadership is a perennial Nigerian issue. If a church wants to intervene in this regard, what do we have to lose? If the RCCG can define an alternative path to public office outside of the status quo of a prebendal, transactional “political structure” where vassals hand over their local constituencies to a godfather who pays them in stolen money, why not? If they can develop a system that allows candidates to circumvent the insatiable, money-guzzling political machinery that reduces all of our politics to mere power grabs, let them. Frankly, I prefer a church that mobilizes people to actively engage in politics to a church that feeds people with a false hope of miraculous salvation from their tormentors.
I’ll take a church that makes its politics open to one that acts apolitical just so they can plead plausible deniability when things go wrong.
Even if the RCCG’s decision is simply to benefit Osinbajo’s candidacy, it remains their prerogative. Asking those who have power not to use it for their purposes is futile; the best we can do is not end up like their dupe. We cannot force RCCG to comply with our will, but we can challenge their policy if it stifles our social progress. Here’s the rub though: if the RCCG goes down the partisan political route and publicly anoints a candidate, there’s no turning back for them. For a church, the price of politics can be high.
They will bear the moral responsibility for their candidate’s performance, and the indignities of public criticism of ineffective leadership will affect them as well. They cannot engage in partisan politics and their supporters claim immunity from “touch not mine anointed” if their candidate fails in public office and we criticize their judgment. So if they are prepared to be held accountable for the actions of the person(s) they are promoting to power through partisan politics, let the games begin.
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