Re-examining the Article: Religion and Power in Liberia

By Rev. Wilfred M. Manyango

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
June 20, 2005


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Let me begin by thanking Mr. Dukule for his article, Religion and Power in Liberia. I believe it raised some interesting issues that need to be discussed. Though the article interested me, it was off the mark in certain areas.

Religion is a powerful force in any society, and politicians know that and always try to cultivate it for better or worse. For example, the Christian bloc in the United States is very powerful and the two major parties are always trying to reach out to them. Recently in Poland, a predominantly Roman Catholic country, the mayor of the capital Warsaw banned a gay pride parade though it went ahead. It does not take a rocket scientist to know that this decision was based on religious beliefs and the attempt to placate a constituency that is of a certain religion that forbids homosexuality. In Islamic countries, political leaders do the bidding of the religious leaders. Take Iran as an example. The real power brokers unfortunately are the Mullahs. Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries that bar women from certain functions are trying to please their religious base. In India, a predominantly Hindu nation, politicians propose rules that will placate the Hindu majority and get votes. These rules are supposedly based on their religion. I am in no way saying that these actions are right. A lot of politicians do not care. It is all about getting and keeping power. They will manipulate the people for their own ends.

Liberia is no exception. Past leaders of Liberia including William Tubman, Samuel Doe and Charles Taylor have done that. The reason why I pointed out these leaders is that they professed to be Christians, yet their actions were opposite. In fact after the famous repentance service at the SKD complex during which Taylor prostrated himself in white and prayed for forgiveness, an American friend of mine was impressed by the incident. Knowing who Taylor is, I was unimpressed and my friend was shocked by the way I responded. I am not attempting to judge them. These leaders visited churches, donated to religious causes, yet had worst human rights records and also initiated themselves in secret societies. People who profess to be Christians are forbidden by the Bible to engage in certain activities including secret societies and are commanded to love their brothers and sisters. The Bible tells us that one cannot profess to love God whom he has not seen if he hates his neighbor whom he can see(I John 4:19-21).. If these leaders truly cared for their people, they would not have inflicted hardships on them. They practiced a false religion of greed and power. The unfortunate thing about all of this is that some religious leaders have allowed themselves to be sucked into this façade for reasons know to themselves. They are easily deceived by these wolves in sheep clothing.

Well meaning Liberians need to be watchful of some of these wolves in sheep clothing especially as we approach elections. They pretend to be religious, but are evil of heart. I read months ago that a prominent presidential candidate changed his religious affiliation from Muslim to Christian after he was asked during a church service. Only God knows whether he was attempting to please a certain group or not. It has become a common occurrence in Liberia of leaders having religious service when they return from overseas. Let me say that I am very much in favor of giving thanks to God. When I arrived in Liberia last year, I privately gave thanks to God. But, I am baffled by these people who gave thanks with a massive display of pageantry and then the next day are plotting to eliminate their opponents, cheating on their wives or stealing state money. This election should be about an individual’s ability to govern and not necessarily his religious affiliation.

With regards to the assertion that Liberia is founded on Christian principles, this is another way, in my view, politicians want to appeal to the Christian constituency. Liberia’s laws may mirror the biblical commandments and some of the founding fathers may have been Christians, but I have not read any historical account that will give one the impression that Liberia was founded on Christian principles. Liberia was founded as a place to settle freed slaves from overseas during the abolitionist movement in America. It is naïve for anyone to think that our nation was founded on Christian principles. If it were, the indigenes would not have been treated like second-class citizens and denied basic rights for many years.

I am disappointed that Mr. Dukule would assert that saying prayers is a lunatic notion that was imposed by settlers. Such an assertion is naïve and an insult to people of faith. First of all, every religious group whether Buddhism, traditional African religion, Islam, or Christianity begin their “meetings” or “celebrations” with “prayers”. Traditionalist pour libation, Christians and Muslims alike pray. This is not an attempt to portray oneself as being honest or truthful than anyone else. It is invoking the presence of the “divine” amongst them. The settlers or missionaries never imposed this on us. There is an innate desire within every man to connect with something outside of and greater than himself. If we believe that our forefathers were present before missionaries, then it would be absurd to say that “saying prayers” was imposed by settlers. If an individual or group decides to “pray”, no one has the authority to say whether they are meaning well or not. Only God knows for sure. If we disagree, we can register our disagreements instead of judging them.

I believe every institution whether government, private or secular has the right to offer prayers if it so wishes. People who disagree also have the right to disassociate themselves from the group. With regards to a country, individuals not in agreement with the religious ceremonies conducted during state functions have the right to speak out. That’s why we have the courts. If a Liberian Agnostic, Atheist, Muslim, Buddhist or Christian is offended by the saying of religious prayers during state functions, the constitution provides the opportunity to register ones opposition through the courts. Apparently this is something Mr. Dukule should consider doing.

Categorizing the missionary movement as being a pawn of the colonial powers to exert control over their colonies is simply unjust. In most, if not all of these countries, the colonialist usually went in first. I must honestly say that the missionary movement took advantage of colonialism to promote their cause. They were not intent on conquering, but coming to proclaim their gospel to Africans or wherever they went. Schools, hospitals and other infrastructures were built. A lot of Liberians including myself have benefited from the coming of missionaries. The major health centers, social, and educational institutions in Liberia were established by the mission movement. If the missionary movement were part of the colonialist agenda, it would have ceased after nations became independent. The missionary movement may have had its failings, but overall, it was a religious and social program not a conquering force. Some may disagree with the missionary movement and some of its methodologies and tactics, but overall it had a lasting and beneficial effect on Liberia and Africa.

I do not know a lot about the individuals and situations Mr. Dukule mentioned about those with Muslims backgrounds who had to deny their faiths in order to be accepted in society or given high profile job. From what was written, I think it makes no sense to blame Tolbert or any system. By simply neglecting or denying their religion in order to be accepted shows that they were probably not committed in the first place. One’s religious affiliation and beliefs should me the most defended to the point that one is willing to die for it rather than compromise it. If an individual is willing to compromise his or her beliefs to attain prominence, it brings the person’s commitment into question. That person is not fit for public office. If such a person can compromise his religious beliefs, state matters could be compromised. If Tolbert or any person discriminated because of religion, it is wrong, but I believe these individuals are equally responsible for their actions and no one should blame anyone.

There is a commonly held belief that Muslims preceded the Settlers and Christians in Liberia and Africa. My brother Abdoulaye seems to subscribe to that view. Muslims did not precede the settlers or Christians in Liberia or Africa. Christians have been in Africa before Islam was even founded. Significant church leaders like Augustine of Hippo, Tertullian, Origen, etc., were from Africa. In fact in the biblical book of Acts, there were people from Libya and parts of North Africa in Jerusalem for a pilgrimage who got converted after hearing the Christian message and went home. Also there is a story of the Ethiopian Eunuch who was converted and returned to Ethiopia. This was in the first century. This happened centuries before Islam was founded. There are also other historical accounts to support this. Their presence had a trickling effect all over the continent. In fact some missionaries admit coming across Christians in Africa when the came. Christianity became more western after the church lost its influence in North Africa. The church had a significant presence in the now predominantly Muslim North Africa prior to Islam’s invasion. This is a completely different issue that could take pages to discuss.

I may be wrong, but as I read Bro. Dukule’s article, I can feel his frustration over the perceived marginalization of other religious groups by Christians in Liberia. It feels like Christians want to dominate Liberia and make every other group second-class citizens. Past leaders may have called themselves Christians and done evil but this should not be about guilt by association. Not because these people called themselves Christians meant they were. I am sure there may have been some Muslim leaders in the Liberian government who failed. This perception has the potential to create tension between these groups that have co-existed for years peaceably. Liberia has come a long way. If there is one thing that has made us a wonderful nation is the religious diversity we share. Growing up, I had a lot of Muslim friends. In fact there is still a mosque in my neighborhood. We should not try to tear down the religious fabric that has held our country together. Take a look at countries that have done that and the consequences they are presently facing. Liberians should encourage the saying of prayers and the promotion of faith. It is a tradition rooted in our heritage. Liberians should also be given the opportunity to opt out of a religious ceremony they disagree with and challenge it in a court of law. No group should feel marginalized in Liberia. The constitution offers protection to everyone. It is a discussion that should continue. May God’s blessing be upon our country.