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Politicising religion

Something untoward is happening in Nigeria. An unholy mix between religion and politics has begun. It is an aberration. Yet the trend is growing. Very soon, the line between the two will be completely blurred.

We have just witnessed the ugly manifestation of this emerging national malaise. Government, through an instrument called Financial Reporting Council of Nigeria, FRC(N), has decided to invade the hallowed chambers of religion. Under the FRC(N) governance law, Not-for-profit-organisations (NFPOs), which includes churches and mosques, must ensure that their leaders relinquish their positions after 20 years of service or on attainment of 70 years of age. Following the unveiling of this governance code, Pastor Enoch Adeboye of the Redeemed Christian Church of God was said to have resigned his position. Someone else has been appointed to take over from him. Adeboye is 75.

The development has sent shock waves within a section of the Christian community, particularly the Pentecostals. We have not been told that Islam or any section of it, is bothered about the development. But as we reflect on this strange code, government is said to have suspended the implementation of the governance law and has even gone ahead to sack the head of the FRC(N). This is the latest twist in the land.

Many who are concerned are asking questions. They are probing into the rationale for the law. I do not know how this law affects Islam and will leave the religion out of our discussion here. On the contrary, Christian churches are quaking but it is only the privately owned Christian assemblies that are losing sleep over the law. The orthodox churches, such as Catholic and Anglican, have nothing to worry about. These Christian denominations belong to nobody. They are institutions in the strict sense of the word and there is no confusion or argument as to how and when their leaders should retire. In the Catholic Church, for example, priests and bishops retire at the age of 70. The FRC(N) law is, therefore, of no consequence to the Catholic faith. But we can hardly say the same thing of the army of privatised and commercialised unorthodox churches that litter the Christian landscape in Nigeria. Most of the newfound churches operate under the shadow of their founders or leaders. The personality of their leaders defines the direction of the churches. The fame or lack of it of the churches also depends on the charisma, drive or showmanship of the their leaders, whichever one that applies. Leaders of such churches are cult characters. Their followers worship them. In such churches as well, devotion must, first and foremost, go to the spiritual leader. In most cases, their code of ethics is articles of faith. Their adherents see them as infallible and models that must be emulated. This has led many to tragic errors. But that is hardly the issue here.

What must be pointed out is that the FRC(N) law is based on some wrong assumptions. It assumes that all Christian churches qualify as NFPOs. This is not necessarily the case. While we can say that leaders of the orthodox churches operate in line with well-laid out codes of conduct, you cannot say the same thing of the privately-owned churches. The new generation churches are the private enterprises of their founders or leaders. They are run as businesses. They make profit even though that is not declared. That is why there have been suggestions in certain quarters that churches and mosques should pay taxes to government. The FRC(N) law obviously overlooked this fact.

But whatever may be the case, what really rankles in this whole drama is the unfortunate fact that government is meddling into the affairs of religious organisations to the extent that it is prescribing tenure for their leaders. This is absurd through and through. Laws are supposed to be made for the good governance of the people and any law that does not meet this basic requirement ought to be discarded. Regardless of the abuse and desecration that the church in Nigeria has suffered in recent times, it should still be recognised that religion is a sacred and spiritual engagement. The primary reason for religious worship is spirituality. People present themselves to God in supplication and reverence because they want to attain a spiritual height that will lift them out of worldliness. Religion is a quest for an otherness that our human environment can neither offer nor guarantee. There may be, and, indeed, there are other motives and motivations that drive people to churches, but the primacy of spirituality remains unassailable. Since government is run by human beings, it ought not lose sight of this basic fact. Its attempt to do otherwise through the FRC(N) law is an assault on religion.

In fact, it is a contradiction, indeed hypocritical, that the same government that has been charging at some religious leaders for alleged involvement in politics is in itself, encroaching into the arena of religion. Historically, the church is not insulated from politics. Whether it is in Europe, Latin America or Africa, religious leaders have always been known to play a role in politics. But their involvement is measured. A radical involvement in politics by any church leader could lead to unimaginable consequences, as was the case in Haiti under the leadership of Jean Bertrand Aristide. Because Aristide, a catholic reverend, did not know where to draw the line between religion and politics, the Catholic Church excommunicated him. The message that the church sent out through its action against Aristide was that religion and politics have certain boundaries that each must not overstep.

Strictly speaking, the church represented by its leaders act as a moral compass, which guides and shapes society. When government is drifting, the church is usually the moral authority that calls it to order. This audacity of the church in matters of this nature, more often than not, is usually resisted by political leaders. But no church leader worth his name is bothered by such stiff resistance from civil leaders. Even where persecution is involved, the church trudges on because it has the authority and stamp of God.  Religion is, therefore, the necessary check that puts government on its toes.

But government, by virtue of its mandate and the nature of its engagement, has no business with religious affairs. Religion is something of a sacred grove, which stands in contradistinction with the worldliness, which government represents. As a worldly institution, government has no authority to assume a moral high ground on religious matters. That is why some are suggesting that government should cease to be involved in religious pilgrimages. Visit to holy lands; be they in Israel, Rome or Mecca should be the private businesses of those who choose to visit such religious sites. Government should not make itself an arm of religion by playing the role of sponsor. It is such an indecent mix that is responsible for the meddlesomeness of government in religious affairs.

Let us now take it that what the FRC(N) law tried to do with religious organisations was done in error and should, therefore, be discarded. We need not remind government that there is so much it can do to lift the people and society out of privation and deprivation. Seeking to regulate the activities of religious organisations is not one of them.

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