An Unconstitutional Declaration: Why Declaring Liberia A Christian State Or Christian Nation Is Bad For Liberia?

By Johannes Zogbay Zlahn

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
March 1, 2012

A number of articles have been written, condemning the move by some segments of the Liberian population to “Christianize Liberia,” and rightly so. Because those articles, including a Commentary in the New Dawn Newspaper, have been written and hopefully widely read, I had intended to refrain from writing another article on the same issue but I had a change of mind when I came across the following headline in the February 21, 2012 edition of the Insight Newspaper: “I’ll Make Liberia a Christian State—Jewel Howard Taylor Vows.” Not only was I baffled by this headline, but I was disappointed and indignant at the same time. For someone in the position of Senator Jewel Howard Taylor (who I respect highly as a human being, an intellectual and a legislator) with the power and influence to cause an amendment of the Liberian Constitution (1986) to make such a bold, insensitive and religiously biased and discriminatory statement is disheartening to say the least—disheartening because not too long ago, a vicious civil war, fought mostly on ethnic lines in this country, butchered more than 350,000 thousand of our fellow citizens, which I had hoped would serve as a reminder to all Liberians, especially our politicians, that a country that is fractured on ethnic and religious lines is not only ungovernable, but it is by its very nature an anarchy. Religious intolerance and discrimination is at best a recipe for hatred, distrust and disunity and at worst a disastrous path to religious and ethnic war. Hence, it behooves all Liberians, particularly, our politicians to be mindful of the unintended consequences of our actions and pronouncements, lest we once again find ourselves in an untenable situation with dire consequences for the unity, stability, security and even the survival of the nation we all love and cherish.

It is essential to note that the absence of war does not necessarily denote the existence of peace in a society. The fact that there is no shooting war currently going on in Liberia does not mean that we have cemented peace and unity in this country, such that we can pat ourselves on the back and make decisions that are likely to alienate some segments of our society. There is no doubt in my mind that “Christianizing Liberia” is a code word for “Liberia belongs to Christians and not to Muslims and other non-Christians.” Such belief is not only divisive and discriminatory, but it is also dangerous to the peace, security and unity of this country and must be resisted and discouraged by all Liberians, irrespective of their religious or non-religious affiliations. I am a Christian—do I need someone or the Constitution to declare Liberia a “Christian State or Christian Nation” before I can scrupulously practice Christianity or become a true Christian? Don’t I, as a Christian, have to demonstrate my Christianity by my acts and deeds as opposed to mere pronouncement or profession of Christianity? Will the designation “Liberia is a Christian State or Christian Nation” make any meaningful change in our public and private lives? Will for instance, making Liberia a “Christian State or Christian Nation” prevent sexual and perverted sexual promiscuity, out of wed births, rampant corruption by public and private officials, lawlessness, disrespect for and abuse of the elderly, rape and abuse of minors? Or will such designation improve our education system and improve the deplorable conditions under which a qualified majority of our population lives? Will such designation also improve the dismal performance of our students on scholastic admission tests such as the WAEC Exams, improve our health care delivery system and lead to self-sufficiency in food production and other necessities of daily living? I could go on and on but we all get the picture.

Perhaps the most compelling reason for my decision to write this article is the fact that I had, on a previous occasion, expressed my fears of tyranny by an unrestrained majority of the Liberian population whose disdain for certain minorities within our society would lead them to enshrine such disdain in the organic law of the land through amendment based on our lowest common denominator, which is “fear of the other.” In an article titled “Building a Coup-Proof Government & Rotating Presidency in Liberia,” one of Liberia’s intellectuals and prolific writers, Mr. Nat Galarea Gbassagge (Mr. Gbassegee), argued, among other things, that the presidency of Liberia should be rotated between what he called “the two predominant ethnic groups” in Liberia and defined the two groups as “Americo-Liberian ethnic group and Native-Liberian ethnic group.” Mr. Gbessagee then postulated that “scores of other ethnic groups flow directly from the two major groups,” without specifying how the “scores of other ethnic groups flow directly from” his designated predominant ethnic groups. Nevertheless, by his classification of the Liberian People, Mr. Gbassagee implied or suggested the existence in Liberia of less dominant either groups that are neither “Americo-Liberians” nor “Native-Liberians.”

In my rebuttal to Mr. Gbassegee’s article, I argued among other things, as follows: “Membership in a particular ethnic group is not a qualification requirement [for the presidency]; the only qualification requirements an aspirant to the Presidency must meet are that he or she be thirty-five years old and be a natural born Liberian citizen [and must have resided in Liberia for the last ten years preceding the presidential election in which he or she wishes to participate]. The Liberian Constitution, therefore, does not grant any particular ethnic group a right to the Presidency nor does it exclude any ethnic group from seeking the Presidency. Thus, unless the Liberian Constitution is amended, Mr. Gbassegee’s proposal is unconstitutional. In addition to be unconstitutional, Mr. Gbassegee’s proposal is facially discriminatory because it effectively bars an otherwise qualified natural born Liberian citizen from seeking the Presidency if he or she is not a member of either of the groups Mr. Gbassegee calls Americo-Liberian ethnic group and Native-Liberian ethnic group.

“Because Mr. Gbassegee’s proposal is contrary to the letter and spirit of the Liberian Constitution, as presently written, should the Constitution be amended to grant his designated predominant groups exclusive right to the Liberian Presidency? I think not and call upon all Liberians to reject such amendment to, or attempt to amend, the Constitution in order to accommodate Mr. Gbassegee’s proposal. Amending the Constitution in order to rotate the Presidency between Mr. Gbassegee’s chosen ethnic groups would enshrine discrimination into the supreme law of the land...

“Furthermore, amending the Constitution to grant an exclusive right to certain ethnic groups is a dangerous slippery/slope that could have other serious consequences, including amending the Constitution to deny Liberian citizenship to some ethnic groups and/or amending the Constitution to revoke the [Liberian] citizenship of other ethnic groups because it serves the interest of the so-called predominant ethnic groups. For instance, the Constitution could be amended to bar otherwise qualified Liberians from seeking the Presidency if the two so-called predominant ethnic groups decide, as in the case of our Mandingo brothers and sisters, that they are not citizens of Liberia or the two groups may decide to amend the Constitution to revoke the citizenship of the Mandingos as well as the citizenship of other ethnic groups. This example is not intended to be overly dramatic but to show the implications of amending the Constitution to create rights that benefit the majority to the detriment of the minority. The point being that if the majority of the people can decide to amend the Constitution to create certain rights that benefit them at this time, what is there to stop them from doing so at another time to benefit themselves. We should therefore think critically about the implications of amending the Constitution before doing so.”

Like Mr. Gbassegee’s proposal for a rotating presidency between so-called Americo-Liberian and Native Liberian ethnic groups, the proposed declaration of Liberia as a Christian State or Christian Nation is inconsistent with the Liberian Constitution (1986), more specifically, Article 14 of the Liberian Constitution (1986). Article 14 of the Constitute provides: “All persons shall be entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment thereof except as may be required by law to protect public safety, order, health or morals or in the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. All persons who, in the practice of their religion, conduct themselves peaceably, not obstructing others and conforming to the standards set out herein, shall be entitled to the protection of the law. No religious denomination or sect shall have any exclusive privilege or preference over any other, but all shall be treated alike; and no religious tests shall be required for any civil or military office or for the exercise of any civil right. Consistent with the principle of separation of religion and state, the Republic shall establish no state religion.” The question that begs answering is should the Constitution be amended to declare Liberia a Theocracy and thereby create a “state religion” by declaring Liberia a “Christian State or Christian Nation?” As clearly demonstrated by Article 14 of the Constitution, Liberia cannot be declared a “Christian State or Christian Nation” in the absence of an amendment to the Constitution, which clearly and unequivocally states that Liberia is a “Christian State or Christian Nation.” I am quite sure that by now my audience knows what my answer to the question posed is. And I answer this question in the negative because of the reasons that followed.

As with amending the Constitution to accommodate Mr. Gbessagee’s proposal, amending the Constitution to officially declare Liberia a “Christian State or Christian Nation” is a dangerous slippery/slope with dire consequences and here is why. Amending the Constitution to declare Liberia a “Christian State or Christian Nation” will relegate other religions and their adherents and practitioners to second class citizens and effectively establish Christianity as a state religion in Liberia. It is noteworthy that a sizable number of our population, including our Vai, Mandingo, Fulani, Gbendee, Gio, Kissi, etc. brothers and sisters are Muslims, while still others belong to other Religious Orders or are atheists. Should we isolate and discriminate against these people simply because they subscribe to religions and beliefs other than Christianity? When the net positive result of this proposal is weighed critically against the negative effects it is likely to have on the Liberian nation, one must be wearing blinds in order to either ignore or under estimate the dire consequences of this declaration for the nation.

My fellow Christians in particular and Liberians generally, let us look at some of the dangers inherent in any amendment to the Constitution, which declares this nation a “Christian State or Christian Nation.” Suppose we amend the Constitution today and declare Liberia a “Christian State or Christian Nation” to appease those who are clamoring for this amendment, what is there to prevent future amendments to the Constitution which: (a) revoke the Liberian citizenship of some ethnic Liberians the majority believes are undeserving of Liberian citizenship; (b) declare that only Christians can hold public office in Liberia and thereby deny other Liberian citizens the right to hold public office; (c) declare that only Christians can own and operate businesses in the country and thereby deny non-Christians the right to own and operate businesses in the country; (d) declare that only Christians can own real property in the country and thereby deny similar right to non-Christian Liberian citizens; (e) declare that only Christian are permitted to obtain education of any kind in the country and thereby deny similar right to non-Christian Liberian citizens; and (f) declare that non-Christians and Christians cannot dine at the same restaurant, use the same public facilities, reside in the same neighborhood, intermarry, etc.? As one can see, if we kowtow to the wishes of those who are calling for this extremely bad and dangerous amendment to the Constitution (although they have not specifically called for such amendment), this country is headed for serious trouble that may threaten our very existence as a nation-state.

Have we considered the consequences of creating and living in a monolithic theocracy, where other religions and their adherents and practitioners are relegated to second class citizens? Where is the freedom in those countries that are governed by this system of governance? What one sees in such countries is unbelievable oppression, denial of basic rights, arbitrary executions, etc. Now, are those the kinds of things that Africa’s oldest Republic wants to practice? I certainly hope not.

To officially declare Liberia a “Christian State or Christian Nation” by amending the Constitution to so provide is, in my opinion, to enshrine bigotry and xenophobia in the organic law of the land, and it is unacceptable, unconscionable and defies all norms of descent and civilized behavior. Granted, the restriction of Liberian citizenship to “persons who are Negroes or of Negro descent,” as contained in the Constitution, is discriminatory against persons who are neither Negroes nor persons of Negro descent, and from that standpoint, one could argue that discrimination is already enshrined in the Constitution. However, such argument quickly loses its gravity when weighed against the historical and even contemporary reasons for the restriction. But assuming that the restriction on eligibility for Liberian citizenship can fairly be described as discriminatory, that would not legitimatize the extension of that discrimination to persons who are already Liberian citizens. Moreover, the fact that the Constitution currently contains a discriminatory provision does not permit us to add further discriminatory provisions to this organic law of our land. Hence, any argument that because the Constitution restricts Liberian citizenship to persons who are Negroes or persons who are of Negro descent permits us to discriminate against other Liberians on the basis of their religious beliefs or any other reason is misguided. I therefore appeal to my fellow Christians and other Liberians who are supporting this declaration, and especially, Senator Jewel Howard Taylor, to weigh the unintended consequences of this declaration, as outlined in this article against the expected benefits. I don’t know whether or not Senator Howard-Taylor will read this article, but if she does, I will certain hope that she will give this declaration some thoughts and dissuade others from embarking on this dangerous journey into an unknown territory.

About the Author: Johannes Zogbay Zlahn is an attorney-at-law. He can be reached at 0886-297-771

© 2012 by The Perspective
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