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‘Religionalisation’ of presidential politics: A bad precedent

19 March 2014, 10:26 Senator Olubunmi Adetunmbi

In the past few months, 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 voluble President of the Christian Association of Nigeria, CAN, Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor accompanied the Nigerian President on a pilgrimage of sorts to Israel.

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 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.

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.’  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?

Like every other Nigerian, the President is free to worship in churches or mosques if he so chooses, but pulpits and sacred altars 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. 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.

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. 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.

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 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.  If Mr. President feels he must continue on his religious trail, I enjoin him to visit Pastor Tunde Bakare's Latter Rain Assembly, and 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.

From 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 unordained 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.

Disclaimer: All articles and letters published on MyNews24 have been independently written by members of News24's community. The views of users published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24. News24 editors also reserve the right to edit or delete any and all comments received.

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