“For the church, it is time to take up the gauntlet against this subtle presidential onslaught on its age-long independence.”
In the past few months, the Nigerian President, Goodluck Jonathan, has embarked on a Church visitation exercise some have now humorously christened ‘Church tourism.’ It started with a trip to Jerusalem, the Holy Land. Nineteen governors, as well as some serving ministers and key government functionaries including the ever voluble President of the Christian Association of Nigeria, CAN, Ayo Oritsejafor, accompanied the Nigerian President on a pilgrimage of sorts to Israel on what could be termed a spiritual sojourn of discovery. At the end of the spiritual odyssey, hands were laid on the President and prayers offered for his success.
Perhaps still energized by the spiritual rebirth he experienced after the trip bankrolled by public funds, the president embarked on a church voyage with the usual array of top government functionaries and spiritual leaders in tow. In the last few months, the president has visited over six churches and still counting. The Dunamis church has played host to the new found love of the number one citizen who worshipped there a few weeks ago. The Redeemed Christian Church of God, RCCG, Living Faith Church and the Apostolic Church, Utako including some notable churches in Lagos have also opened their doors to the President who has more or less used their hallowed pulpit to advocate what many have tagged, ‘the political patronage of the average church goer.’
The Nigerian Constitution clearly grants the President freedom of association, religious affiliation and worship. But it must be noted firmly that he also holds a unique position as an embodiment of the ethno-religious diversities of over 160 million Nigerians. Therefore President Jonathan should pursue his religious belief mindful of his status so that he’s not seen as politicizing religion or religionizing politics or further polarizing an already fractured nation dangerously along ethno-religious cleavages.
The President has been criticized severely in the past for being a master at playing the ethnic and religious card whenever it suits him best politically. His recent visits to churches filled with Nigerians who more or less share his religious beliefs, while harmless on the surface, undoubtedly gives credence to this school of thought. Given the vehement defense by the President’s handlers, Nigerians are to expect more of such visits in coming weeks as Jonathan has vowed to worship at least once every month at churches outside the presidential chapel. By using the intimidating paraphernalia of office to sway a religious segment of the society to his side, President Jonathan has taken the manipulative exploitation of religion for partisan political gains to a level unbecoming of a statesman. This desperate deployment of faith as a tool for political eligibility or qualification for election or reelection into office is a dangerous precedent.
In retrospect, the President, must be urged by well meaning Nigerians to learn to separate the pulpit from politics even if he banks on the voting strength of the Church in his mission to succeed himself in the face of mounting opposition within and outside his party. History has shown that when politics is brought into the church, or the church into politics, society is worse off in the end. The suppression and manipulation of the society by the state, through the Church and religion, dates back to medieval Britain and 20th century pre-revolution Russia where some of the worst atrocities mankind has experienced took place. A multi-ethnic and multi-religious society like ours is certainly not immune to the dangers awaiting a nation which allows power and politics to lie comfortably on the shoulders of its religious institutions. The fragility of Nigeria will be further exacerbated by heightened religious and ethnic tension which is indirectly being stirred by the President’s ‘church tourism.’ Many across religious and even political divides agree that these politicized church visits are harmful on the long run to the president’s score card which is dismal at best and his warped political calculations. The question must be asked: why has GEJ allowed religion to take the center stage of his campaign rather than corruption, jobs, security, defense spending, education etc? As a political analyst puts it succinctly, church or not, issues of performance with measurable indices are what would define the next elections.
Therefore the President should refrain from using the pulpit to make policy statements of government.
Like every other Nigerian, the President is free to worship in churches or mosques if he so chooses, but pulpits and sacred alters should not be platforms for partisan political statements by presidential aspirants. The president’s speeches from the pulpits of prominent churches have begun to attract disparagement from a large segment of society and sadly are perceived as a subtle campaign for votes from the altar. Many say that this is not the first time the President would play the religious card in his political voyage. In 2010, before the 2011 presidential election, he visited the RCCG to secure the votes of Christians. Two years after that presidential electioneering, he paid another widely publicized visit to Redeemed camp to give thanks to God and asked for prayers to enable him rule the country. The President has the freedom to decide his religious leaning and worship in any Christian denomination of his preference. However Nigerians, including those of other faiths, also own the inalienable liberty to express their dissatisfaction at a situation where the nation’s Chief Security Officer and number one citizen makes sensitive political pronouncements in Churches.
The President needs to be called to order quickly in order to avert a potentially divisive situation in the ever tense ethno-religious country like Nigeria. As canvassed by no less a religious figure than President of the Catholic Bishops Conference, Ignatius Kaigama, the President needs to stop forthwith his politically motivated visits to churches and the usage of Church pulpits to indirectly request for votes of Christians. Bishop Kaigama is not just a lone voice in this call. A prominent clergyman, George Ehusani, puts it succinctly “I think that the current President is mixing politics with religion. He is the President of the whole Nigeria; he is not only the president of Christians. He is a Christian who is President but while a Christian is President in a country that is 50% Christian and 50% Muslim, you have to be careful.”
For the church, it is time to take up the gauntlet against this subtle presidential onslaught on its age-long independence. It is wrong for the President to bring the soapbox into the church. I also don’t think Pastors should allow their pulpits to become public policy platforms for politicians, it contaminates the gospel. The sanctuary is a hallowed chamber and should not be debased by politics of transient power. This is a desperate bid of a Christian politician to use the church for a subtle endorsement without reference to the capacity to perform and deliver welfare to the people as Jesus Christ did by feeding the multitude, healing the sick and giving hope. The President should be encouraged and advised to rise above partisanship and religious bigotry and scale up to the status of a statesman. The burden of personal desires and the clamour for power is real and it takes the grace of God to rise above these. The President should ask God for this exceeding grace to overcome self and all primordial desires that do not edify him, the church and the nation.
No one should commit the error that my views are ‘anti-Christian.’ No! Far from it! I am a confessed believer in the Person and the Divinity of Jesus Christ and He constitutes the centre of my being and hope for eternal life. I therefore consider it degrading to the status of Christ to be dragged into the politics of temporal power in a manner that excludes people of other faiths that Jesus gave His life for. And if Mr. President feels he must continue on his religious trail, I enjoin him to visit Pastor Tunde Bakare’s Latter Rain Assembly; he should also extend his worship to churches in Yobe, Adamawa, Borno and Benue states. If Mr. President cannot worship with the Christian community in these volatile states, then he should stop henceforth this obnoxious religious campaign.
On a final note, from the accounts in the Holy Bible, Priests took messages of God to kings of nations and read riot acts to them through the famous quote, ‘Thus sayeth the Lord God.’ Ironically, we are now faced with the situation where an un-ordained person climbs the altar of God to say “Thus sayeth the President”. This is a reversal of spiritual protocol as we know it in the Holy Bible and this is a subordination of spiritual authority of Priesthood to the temporal powers of the President.
Indeed the President needs to be careful in his new found vocation. His decision in the coming weeks will determine if Nigerians have a President who shares the yearnings and aspirations of all Nigerians irrespective of tribe or religion or a leader who quickly retreats into his religious or ethnic enclave to achieve transient political gains. This is not exemplary leadership and clearly not the mind of Christ.
Senator Olubunmi Adetunmbi is Senator representing Ekiti North and also the Vice Chairman Senate Committee on Interior.