Religion and Democracy: An Unholy Romance? By Aku Igono
There is one more topic that we need to address—the relationship between religion and democracy in Nigeria. Though, I do not intend to put forward an academic discourse, but the event on Saturday, May 18, 2013, in Port Harcourt, Rivers State propelled me to write. Even before then, I had a chat with my own good friend, Mr. Ayokunle Odekunle, who told me he doesn’t believe in Theology. It is against his opinion I am writing.
It was in my 100 level GST class that I first had an encounter with this subject: Religion. The classroom, typical of Nigerian educational system, was crowded with new students. I made my way to the entrance as I was immediately greeted with an oven-like heat. Apparently oozing from the sweaty crowd whom I could see mobbing the wall and blocking ventilation, as they also hang on to the windows. I had to see through a sweaty armpit.
My Lecturer, Mr. Gomment Thomas, began with a definition of religion as any shared set of beliefs, activities and institutions premised upon a faith in supernatural force; as a mental collective structure with the function to generate meanings, values and purposes and to compensate for the insecurity of human existence, which could shape the believes, behaviors, ethic structures and institutional frameworks and, thus, influence directly the democratic and human development status that democracy seeks to advance.
The Port Harcourt event was tagged People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Rivers State Chapter, “Thanksgiving and Dedication Service.” The moment I saw Mr, Nyesom Wike, the Minister of state for education, I smelt the hairy hand of Esau; I knew Abuja was at it again!
But what caught my attention was the Officiating Priest who was thanking God for a good whether for the event, and a battery of Choristers who were singing “You Be God. You No Be Man” lines. As I tried to ignore the frequent disruption of the Master of Ceremony’s handling of things by party wannabes, the camera beamed on Mr. Wike deep in a conversation. Conspicuously absent were Rivers State Governor, Rt. Hon. Rotimi Amaechi and key government officials. At that point, it became clear to me that Wike’s faction organized the Thanksgiving Service.
My elementary knowledge of the word faction is a minor conflicting group in a larger one. And the priest decided to take side with the Abuja faction. This forms the crux of my piece!
Religion and politics intermingle on the level of civil society in myriad ways. Religion is not established but nor is religious engagement with politics discouraged or forbidden. Other Western democracies have sorted out this matter in a variety of ways long ago, but Nigeria.
The word democracy on the other hand, means only that the people rule. Other than, perhaps, requiring freedom of speech and equal access to the ballot, indispensable requirements of self-rule, the notion of democracy sets no limits on what the people may do in their sovereign capacity viz-a-viz religious activities.
All constitutional democracies impose restrictions on what private activity government may and should regulate, including, of course, religious behavior, and what values it may assimilate, and enforce, as its own.
There are several broad generalisations that can be made about the role and place of religion in constitutional democracies. First, citizenship is not dependent on adherence to an official religion or even a state approved religion. Religion, therefore, is not a constitutive element of citizenship.
In a constitutional democracy the government may not penalise citizens because they profess a faith that is not shared by a majority of their fellow citizens. It is also settled that in a constitutional democracy citizens enjoy the freedom to express their religious views, and to form institutions consistent with those views, without fear of punishment or civic disability. This means that citizens are permitted to order their own values and act in ways that government may not through moral codes.
Constitutional democracies also assume that citizens should not be lightly prevented from practicing their faith and that the government ought not to interfere with the religious decisions of citizens or their institutions.
From the foregoing, we must now find a new paradigm that will help us to understand the complexities of the relationship between religion and democracy in Nigeria, and what played out in Rivers State in particular. What background was the Priest at the Thanksgiving and Dedication Service officiating?
The restoration of democratic citizenship and a sense of community can be achieved when men and women, acting in common as citizens, get together and find a way to express their collective hopes and possibilities. Social movements, or what you guys here refer to as ‘activism’ may generate the moral purpose and common action that a healthy democracy requires, which are the product of religious faith.
It should be observed that there is no connection to a religious tradition that sanctifies all life and, by so doing, carries with it a moral code that obliges citizens to take responsibility for the well-being of others, but a link to throw ethnic cards for political gratifications on the pulpit here in Nigeria. There should be a tradition of a religious community that sanctioned each life as well as everyday life, and in other faiths that share the universalist belief that all human life is holy and must be respected and protected either by government or fellow humans.
Religion prepares people for democratic citizenship: First is that it cultivates the “habits of restraint” that are favourable both to the tranquility of the people and to the durability of the institutions they have established.
Religion also shapes the behavior of citizens, by directing the customs of the community. In this way it should have a powerful “indirect influence” on the democratic governance of Nigeria, even though it takes no direct part in the government of society. While religious institutions keeps aloof from parties and seems to refrains from the advocacy of policies to promote freedom, it nonetheless “facilitates” the use of freedom by fostering “great austerity of manners,” (e.g in Islam wastage is a sin) and by regulating domestic life, it regulates the state.
The third and greatest advantage of religion is that it inspires “diametrically contrary principles” to certain dangerous political/sexual propensities that are encouraged by conditions of equality, and that if left unchecked could lead to human degradation and even servitude. One propensity is an excessive taste for “physical gratification” that soon disposes men to believe that is all that matters only, trapping them in an obsessive materialism of “pernicious” and “dangerous disease of the mind.” A second is that the condition of equality tends to isolate [men] from one another, to concentrate every man’s attention upon himself, thereby feeding his love of material gratification and causing him to neglect the duties which are due from man to man. And the third is that in the absence of religion, people are beset by doubt that cannot but enervate the soul, leading to fear and confusion, a loss of will, and a readiness to accept servitude even on the part of men of God.
The disappearance of religion in democratic societies would have catastrophic consequences. Let it be a passionate appeal to ‘Collective Children of Anger’ (Apologies to Abati) that all who feel an interest in Nigeria’s future destinies of democratic society should unite, and all should make joint and continual efforts to diffuse the love of the infinite, lofty aspirations, and a love of pleasures of earth.
Political and intellectual leaders should appreciate the importance of religion in a democracy, and that the burden of preserving faith should not be entirely on their shoulders. Here is an appeal to religious leaders to understand that their best interests, as well as the goal of preserving influential and respected religious institutions, would be served if they would refrain from getting mixed up with the bitter passions of the world. It is expected that they confine themselves within their own precincts and steer clear of the bitter controversies and transient loyalties of politics. Agitation and mutability are inherent in democratic republics, and religion would lose respect amid the struggles of faction.
If Democracy fails to appreciate the essential role that religion plays in building and preserving freedom, it could be disastrous. It could also be inconsistent with proper understanding of the relationship between religion and democracy, as a finely balanced system of institutional separation and mutual inter-dependence, with religion helping democracy by preparing the people to assume the obligations of citizenship, and democracy helping religion by giving it the freedom to minister to the people and to uplift their spirits.
The Port Harcourt event typifies how Religion and Democracy engage in an unholy romance in Nigeria’s thin democratic trials. If our courtrooms are no longer rooms for hopes, our various places of worship should be sacred enough to command heavenly influence.
Our so-called Islamic clerics should sincerely listen to the people and take their messages to the legislators of democracy. Our so-called flamboyant men of God who are more at the corridors of power than the pulpit, should communicate the impeding wrath of the Almighty fuelled by anger of the oppressed to the oppressors!
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