The Mood of the Future: Rethinking their Religious Posture

By: Emmanuel Dolo, Ph. D.

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
August 2, 2006


This week, I served as one of two moderators of an intellectual forum commemorating the 159th year of Liberia as an independent nation state. Liberians gathered in Minnesota to discuss ways in which they could achieve pan-ethnic unity and surmount ethnic polarization. The panelists included Liberians from varying backgrounds: ethnic, religious, age cohort, gender, political, etc. Repeatedly, the debate focused on whether or not Liberia is a Christian state. This myth, many argued have spread so widely in the Liberian society that many have shut their eye to the reality of the co-existence of other religious traditions being practiced in the land demarcated as Liberia before the settlers arrived. But it is natural that conflict and war have led us to a place that we must objectively face the reality of a pluralistic religious landscape in Liberia. Indeed, one question is important as we move forward in reconstructing a post-war nation state. Does Liberia have a national religion?

First, let me answer this question by describing what I believe is the definition of a religious state. A religious state is one where the state apparatus is avowedly controlled by leaders of a given faith group and everyone within that state is mandated to adhere to the doctrines and tenets of the faith without exception. Using this definition as the marker, Liberia does not have a national religion. It is a secular state with the trappings of the Christian faith woven into its fabric, whereby there are instances in which observers from other faith groups, other than Christians are able to notice the dominance/hegemony of Christianity in many public venues. The founders of the Liberian state were predominantly Christian, and in their governance processes, they did not distinguish the political sphere from the religious sphere. The fears being expressed by Liberians is that overall, these moments of interaction between Christianity and the state is an impetus for the stratification process and needs to be examined more in future discourses about reconstruction.

The notion of ethnic, religious, and cultural pluralism has become prominent in the consciousness of Liberians in the wake of the war. Within the contemporary Liberian mind, it is now natural for citizens to wonder publicly if it is proper for the state to celebrate specific Christian holidays and not that of other faith groups. Why should the invocation at a state sponsored event be given exclusively in Christian tradition/ritual? It is one thing to verbalize a religion-state separation, even invite religious plurality and another to embed Christian traditions, holidays, and rituals in the structures, even the edifices of governance. Could it be that the Liberian state is just a short distance away from being characterized rightfully as a religious state?

Accommodating Christianity by the state has left several unresolved questions in the contemporary Liberian mind. Could the challenges associated with social cohesion within a multiethnic society also be linked to this phenomenon? Some would suggest that from Christianity’s introduction into Liberia, it has lived harmoniously with other faiths. Others would say that Christianity has usurped other faiths, and even the state in some instances. There are those who would add that a syncretistic mix of Christianity and Islam as well as the African Traditional Religion has existed, with Christianity accommodating or tolerating those faiths and vice versa. But reactions in some sectors of the society are very strong against what they see as clichés that have promoted a sort of intolerance from Christians, acting superior to adherents of other faiths. For the latter reason, this has revealed essentially that the state or people who have been given responsibility to administer the state have injected their religious bias into the operation of the state. There are those who will go as far to say that Christianity no longer enjoys the monopoly it once held in Liberia. Instead, ahead, is the African Traditional Religion and next is a syncretistic mix of Christianity and the former. Another vigorous competitor, which is third in line, happens to be the Islamic faith, these amateur trend watchers observe. Although they lack empirical evidence, their claims have swayed many.

Christianity will have to leave behind its cloak of hegemony and domination, even oppression some would extend their arguments. The mantle that Christianity must adapt to gain relevance is one of promoting pan-ethnicity and national identity. This is its best avenue for reaching the Liberian people. The new tradition of Christianity that some Liberians seek is one that takes into consideration the immense polarization that occurred during the war. Christians and Christian leaders, in particular, must reexamine the mission of the church and reconfigure it to match existing realities.

Religion intersects with identity, politics, and culture. Religion invariably changes these variables and constructs, and they too conversely impact religion. Hence, it was not only Christians that face the challenge of possessing hegemony. While charges were levied that Christianity dominated within the political sphere, some Christians and non-Christians alike argued that Islamic practice in Liberia is hegemonic in its own way. Moslems do not allow their daughters to marry non-Moslems. Critics cried foul since Moslems often marry non-Christians and seek to convert them. Moslems too should stop being dogmatic and let their daughters get marry to non-Christians. This will foster integration. Some Moslems responded, saying their decision is not a cultural one, nor is it a discriminatory practice, but an action dictated by religious mandate.

There are Liberians who assert that the state is illegitimate when it fails to provide for their basic needs and protect their liberties. In such a circumstance, they suggest that religion must break new grounds. It must end the political apathy and become active in pursuing the cause of justice. Instead of a religion-state synergy, a religion-state tension, healthy though, is an ideal model for the post-war era. Failure to do so makes religious institutions complicit in their oppression and suffering.

Some Christian churches, particularly the Catholic Church, argue that it has been in the forefront of activism and would like to do more with its limited resources. Islamic institutions are quick to admit that their involvement with political activism has been minimal. A matter of vigorous involvement in social and distributive justice, particularly investing in ways to build solidarity among fragmented constituencies would be a landmark. Education and caring for the poor have been areas in which all religious institutions have made significant mark, especially the Christian church. But achieving social solidarity has to be a staple of its future mission more so than ever before.

In the face of an onslaught of cultural distractions and the lack of cohesiveness within the family and community, Liberian youth now hunger for adult guidance and leadership. Youth thirst for identity – specifically Liberian identity, as they are buffeted by confusing and contradictory cultural messages that flow from all directions. Whether in Liberia or the Diaspora, they are faced with choices such as whether or not to dropout from school or find employment, migrate toward the subculture that celebrates foul as music or move toward the mainstream, celebrate academic achievement or mediocrity. Many youth are unaware of higher education as an option. They must only live to finish high school and wander off to some pedestrian job. The challenges for these youth are daunting when they lack role models and responsible adults to invest time and resources in their lives. Many youth in the homeland have not attended school regularly for so long that the rigor it requires to compete in a knowledge-based society is significantly lacking. The youth also want to harness Liberian cultural identity and the traditional values of old: hard work, strong kinship ties, reciprocity, respect for adults, and the like. We are quick to blame them, when adults have failed them, time and time and again. But functioning within the crucible of a global communications network that brings the extremely shoddy values of society into their living rooms through movies that make it acceptable to become sexually active before you are a teenager even, and popularize gangster and criminal lifestyles, the youth are at an extreme disadvantage, yearning incessantly for direction that is so scarce within our communities.

The implications for the reconstruction of Liberia are huge. Truth be told, inviting ordinary Liberians to participate in conversations about rebuilding the nation can reap tremendous benefits, insofar as if you overlook the occasional humor. You have to accommodate long-winded speeches when you ask for questions and stomach starting late and ending way passed your children’s bedtime, which typifies our general lack of time consciousness. We still have some work to do and that is being generous. But we have several advantages that the war has presented us, which we cannot overlook. The per capital number of people who have traveled has increased. Many have acquired skills and competencies than ever before and are less dependent on intermediaries to assert their interests. Liberians are learning to tolerate difference and asking one another to provide evidence for claims, thus making it difficult to sloppily point fingers without proof. The overall mood of the conversation was optimistic with Liberians aspiring for their voice and their place in the dialogue about reconstruction and nation building. Even a child not quite eight years old took the microphone and asked a heartfelt question that sent the crowd cheering. The ambience in the room invited each one to just be a Liberian. Being a nation where your identity as a Liberian, and not your Mano, Bassa, Kpelle, Via, Krahn, or Grebo identity matters was one major highlight of the evening. It made the long hours even satisfying knowing we were Liberians gathered to find solutions to rebuild our beloved nation.

If we depoliticize ethnic difference and sift it of its toxic and venomous tendencies, hold one another accountable, and show commitment to principles of equity and justice, and not be unrealistically idealistic about progress – holding these three important variables in a balance, ethnic identity would be a promising companion of national identity. Ethnic identity will reinforce national identity. One realization dawned on some of us: infusing ethnic difference with politics is simply a “survival strategy” for many Liberians who see the state as an illegitimate entity that has failed to satisfy their basic needs and maintain peace between the citizenry. They have therefore being impelled by the ineptitude of the state to turn to parochial identities for solace. Our quest for national identity is a novel one. We will achieve it by holding those among us who are callous and careless with public resources and the liberties of our people accountable. We will achieve it by continuing to expose the false claims of those among us who enjoy infusing ethnic difference with hatred and untruths. We will achieve it by standing up for truth. Finally, if the views of Liberians on religion are reliable indicators of their politics, then, it is fair to suggest that Liberians are ready for pluralism. They are ready to accommodate difference in all spheres of their life. Furthermore, they are no longer willing to avoid responsibility for peace building and reconstruction.

The Author: Emmanuel Dolo lives with his family in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. He can be contacted at
© 2006 by The Perspective

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