BY Josephus Moses Gray,Brooklyn, NY
This article deals with one of the most important issues that arose from the recent gathering in Gbarnga, Bong County, Liberia for the proposition to amend the 1984 Constitution of the Republic, declaring Liberia- a nation with diverse religious beliefs and cultural practices- as a “Christian State”. The intent of this account is not to pass a verdict, but to provide an in-depth analysis of the potential clashes of constitutional and fundamental rights under the 1984 Liberian constitution and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Besides, this article deals with the ongoing debate concerning the “Christian nation” concept. First, I will look at the historical background of this case. I will then examine the Christian nation” project itself, with a particular emphasis on the recent Bong County gathering for the amendment of certain provisions and articles in the 1984 Constitution.
The on-going debate over the “Christian Nation” project to have Liberia baptized into Christianity has been a major societal and cultural problem that first emerged as an issue in our nation over two decades ago. However, in the 1990’s and 2000’s following the end of the devastated war, the Christianization of the nation became the new national issue we still see today between two opposing ideologies, grouped into sides coined as pro-favors and pro-against. It is these struggles over which deep-rooted morals and beliefs of our society that make the “Christian Nation” project a serious controversial and divisive one. First, it is important to understand the pro-favors and pro-against side on the debate to baptize the entire nation religiously into Christianity.
The Christians-Muslims battle was already well under way during years back in the 1980s, and it has continued unabated ever since. Despite constitutional provision that makes the country a secular state for more than twenty-eight years of national history, the appropriate role of Christianity in a religiously pluralistic Liberia has never been fully resolved.
But today’s battles between the two popular religions in Liberia, a nation founded by its founding fathers on “Christian’s principles,” are much more turbulent than in the past, and may degenerate further, possibly into bedlam, if amicable solution is not proffered. The well-organized Christian conformists, both leaders and their supporters who are seeking to “baptize” Liberia, are politically stronger, more energized this time, and better determined than ever before in achieving their objective to baptize the nation into Christianity.
The preamble of the Constitution is arguably the most important part of the Liberian Constitution, as it guarantees freedoms of religion, speech, writing and publishing, peaceful assembly, movement and the freedom to raise grievances with the Government. In addition, it requires that a wall of separation be maintained between the Church and the State. It reads: ” We the People of the Republic of Liberia: Acknowledging our devout gratitude to God for our existence as a Free, Sovereign and Independent State, and relying on His Divine Guidance for our survival as a Nation”.
Article 91 of the Liberian Constitution states that constitutional amendments may be proposed by either a two-thirds vote of both houses of the Legislature, or by a petition signed by at least 10,000 registered voters and approved by a two-thirds vote in the Legislature. A proposed amendment must be ratified by two-thirds of voters in a popular referendum held no sooner than one year after its approval by the Legislature.
The United Nations recognized the importance of freedom of religion or belief in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in which Article 18 states that “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have a religion or whatever belief of his choice.” Since the Universal Declaration, the attempt to develop an enforceable human rights instrument related to freedom of religion and belief has been unsuccessful to a largest extent, with some countries being labeled as dangerous nation on earth in terms of religious ideology.
The Republic of Liberia is considered Africa’s oldest democracy. It was founded in 1822 and became an Independent State in 1847. Liberia has adopted four constitutions- the 1820, 1838, 1847 1984 but historian for selfish reason only recorded two Constitutions, the 1847 and 1984 constitutions since its foundation, with the first being the 1847 Constitution which was suspended on April 12, 1980, and replaced with the current Liberian Constitution approved and adopted by a National Referendum on July 3, 1984, with similarity, in some instances, to the constitution of the United States of America.
The “Christian Nation” project, promoted by the Christian conformist group and their supporters at the recent Gharnga gathering has been described by strong Muslim fundamentalists and their followers as a serious threat to Liberia’s social, cultural and religious diversity, propounding that the nation cannot be baptized for the benefit of a particular religious group, with specific reference to Christians.
The ultimate goal that Christian conformists are trying to achieve is for the nation to be brought close to Jesus Christ. Then it may be possible to take a course of action that will benefit the Liberian public as a whole, in that, we must look at the evolving ideologies of the two most popular religions throughout history to avoid one coming into conflict with the other, and the core purpose of baptizing the nation into Christianity, as well as relevant findings that provide empirical evidence to the “Christian nation” project. It is then with this analysis that the basis for a well-structured acceptable religious policy best suited for Liberia can be amended in the constitution.
While it may seem that baptizing Liberia has always been a critical issue in our nation, it really only became serious this time due to what many die-hard Christians and their followers believe is a curse from the Almighty God on the nation due to its evil and sinful acts.
The followers of Christ’s adherents firmly believe that “the Republic of Liberia was established on Christian principles by Christian people, with the signing of the Declaration of Independence in the old edifice of Providence Baptized Church on Center and Broad Streets in Monrovia, with Christianity assigned as a central place in guiding the nation’s destiny.” They reiterated that since the Republic has lost its moral identity as shaped by its founders, they think re-creating a “Christian Liberia” is the only solution to the country’s acute problems.
The idea of constitutional rights is one of the most powerful tools to advance justice for every citizen of a country and not to alienate or exclude another grouping. This article propounds that ‘all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.’ Some of the pressing conditions are critical issues that served as barriers in the way, or the important elements that we need to focus on in order to move forward and offer better opportunities to our survival as Liberia, and not create conditions that have the potential to create conflict.
Although secularism is proceeding rapidly in the Liberian society, nevertheless religion continues to be an important political phenomenon in the body politics of the nation, for multiple reasons. Some religious groups see the move to constitutionalize Christianity as a direct threat to their faith and alienate them, arguing that the move implies their exclusion. They argue further that it is unfair for their religious beliefs.
An advocate of Religious Rights, Rt. Rev. Joshua Z. K. Tokpah told me during my recent visit to Bismarck, the capital of North Dakota in the United States , that the 1984 Constitution in its preamble recognizes God by its reading that “We the People of the Republic of Liberia: Acknowledging our devout gratitude to God for our existence as a Free, Sovereign and Independent State, and relying on His Divine Guidance for our survival as a Nation”. He argued that while the preamble did not mention Christ, he said the word “His Divine” means Jesus Christ, as such; the nation needs to be baptized into Christianity. He said the Constitution was designed to perpetuate Christian order and values.
A Liberian Journalist, Moses Zangar, Jr. argues that “A nation is not Christian by declaration, but by deeds. Making Liberia a Christian nation promotes an attitude of indifference to others who are not Christians and could lead to religious persecution. I think we should declare Liberia a religious nation where people are free to choose what they want to worship, rather than limit their freedom of choice. God does not force people to become Christians. People become Christians through the conviction of the spirit of God and by beholding good character reflected by Christians, and not by legislation.”
But in support of Rev. Tokpah’s argument, another Liberian, Amos Hunter, told me via telephone that “Liberia is a nation based on biblical principles, stressing that Liberia’s establishment was based on Christian principles, saying that Christian values dominate our government, institutions and system. He said while the Constitution acknowledges the secular nature of the State, it does not make any reference to Christianity, therefore such an amendment would be the nationally acceptable thing to do to bring the country closer to Christ.
The advocates of the “Christian nation” project use a stream of selective biblical quotes to buttress their positions on a myriad of issues, but the Muslim group remains diametrically opposed to constitutionalizing Christianity. Minority religious groups have spoken against the proposition, saying such move is unfair and would give undue advantage to one religion over and against another
Amendments of a particular law by two-thirds of voters in a popular referendum, and I believe we should either amend or remove laws in the constitution that are inimical to present days reality and replace same with the ones that stand to improve the livelihoods of the people and protect the fundamental rights of all without violating the rights of a particular group.
Against this background, I am wondering whether Christianization of Liberia at this time is the solution to the nation’s copious problems such as abject poverty, massive employment, rampant corruption, abuse of state resources, pitiable health and education systems, just to mention few of our peculiar problems. Perhaps the best way to end this analysis is by bringing us back to first principles. What is the state and what is the Church? Once we come to a biblical understanding of these two institutions and what their purposes are, we will have no problem seeing the absurdity of declaring Liberia a Christian nation and enshrining it in the constitution.
The state (or national government) is there primarily to protect the vulnerable by regulating relationships and punishing offenders beyond the immediate context of the family (domestic government). If it were not for the fact that families have to co-exist in a sinful world there would be no need for national government. Each home would merely look after its affairs. But what happens when a husband falls in love with a sweet 16-year-old and kicks his wife out of the home? The state comes in by regulating the only legitimate context in which a husband could do that. It also protects the woman who is kicked out by ensuring that her interests are taken care of.
Also, in cases where an external enemy (either a thief breaking into a home or a foreign army invading a village) threatens its citizens, the state has a police service and an army to protect the vulnerable. That is the job of the state. Nothing more. It, therefore, functions on the premise of natural law and fairness. It is a gift of God for the whole of humanity to ensure co-existence and peace. We must not give the state any greater role than that. Many of us have reached a point where we want the government to even come and sweep the dirt in front of our door! That is wrong. Apart from ensuring this mutual co-existence through the protection of the more vulnerable among us, we ourselves as individual citizens and as homes must do the rest.
The Church on the other hand is redemptive. Its work is that of bringing people into the right relationship with God. It needs to be very defined as to its belief systems because it is not about protection primarily but about taking people somewhere—to God. Who that God is, what he wants from us, and what he plans to do for us and to us, is what religion is all about. Concerning those matters, the Church will want to be very definite.
In that sense, through its teachings, the Church will have an influence on the state—but only indirectly. Its influence will be upon the individuals whom it has convinced as to its point of view. As these individuals carry out their responsibilities within the pale of the state (or government) their decisions shall be colored by their individual belief systems. Where this clashes with that of others, the state will come in only to protect the vulnerable from physical harm. That is all. The state must never go beyond this.
This is why it is unfair to want to define the state in religious terms. It is simply an institution to ensure the protection of the vulnerable on the basis of natural law. That natural law of fairness is plain even to a child who has not been to school or church because it is deeply ingrained in us. The child may not know how to work out the finer details of fairness but when those who are knowledgeable have done their work, the child will see that the action taken has been fair. Therefore, there is no need to give the state a preamble of some religion or other. It should be left to do its primary job, and the constitution should be primarily about that and nothing more.
I do not doubt the good intentions of many of those who want Liberia to be a Christian nation by constitutionalizing Christianity in this contemporary era. But I think that they need to think further in the context of globalization. Let us be aware of the global consequences since Liberia is a signatory to the United Nations 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, most importantly to avoid being shamed by the global powers, especially the United States of America, and international bodies which have labeled the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as the most dangerous nation on earth in terms of religious ideology. If the Christian Nation proposition is successfully passed and adopted through referendum, Liberia will be the second, next to Libya, to be constitutionally religious.
A new Pew Research analysis finds that 30 of the world’s countries (15%) belong to a unique group of nations that call for their heads of state to have a particular religious affiliation. From monarchies to republics, candidates in these countries must belong to a specific religious group. More than half of the countries with religion-related restrictions on their heads of state (17) maintain that a Muslim must hold the office.
In Jordan, for example, the heir to the throne must be a Muslim child of Muslim parents. In Tunisia, any Muslim male or female voter born in the country may qualify as a candidate for president. Malaysia, Pakistan and Mauritania also restrict their heads of state to Muslim citizens. Two countries, Lebanon and Andorra, require their heads of state to have a Christian affiliation. Lebanon also has a religious requirement of its prime minister, who must be a Sunni Muslim.
Two other countries require the heads of their monarchies to be Buddhist: Bhutan and Thailand. And one country, Indonesia, requires the official state belief in Pancasila to be upheld by its head of state. Indonesia is a Muslim-majority country. A handful of countries do not require a particular religious affiliation for heads of state, but do limit candidates for the office to laypersons. Eight countries, including Bolivia, Mexico and El Salvador, specifically prohibit clergy from running in presidential elections. In Burma (Myanmar), the president is prohibited from being a member of a religious order.
According to information gathered from several publications, in addition to the 30 countries, another 19 nations have religious requirements for ceremonial monarchs who serve as their heads of state. Sixteen of these, including the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, are members of the Commonwealth of Nations with Queen Elizabeth II – also known as the Defender of the Faith – as their head of state. The other countries in this category are Denmark, Norway and Sweden.
Study shows that in most of the world’s countries, about eighty-five percent allow citizens of any religious affiliation to be head of state. In the United States, for example, the Constitution specifically prohibits any kind of “religious test” as a qualification for holding federal or state public office.
According to a historian, Brian Pellot and author John, the worst countries for religious freedom include Burma where 90 percent of its population is Theravada Buddhist, a faith the government embraces and promotes over Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. Minority groups that adhere to these and other faiths are denied building permits, banned from proselytizing and pressured to convert to the majority faith. Religious groups must register with the government, and Burmese citizens must list their faith on official documents.
In China the ruling Chinese Communist Party is officially an atheist organization. China’s constitution provides for freedom of religious belief, but the government actively restricts any religious expression that could potentially undermine its authority. Only five religious groups — Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims, Catholics and Protestants — can register with the government and legally hold services. Adherents of unregistered faiths and folk religions often worship illegally and in secret. Uighur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists and Falun Gong practitioners have faced particularly severe repression in recent years, including forced conversion, torture and imprisonment.
For Eritrea, the government only recognizes four religious groups: the Eritrean Orthodox Church, Sunni Islam, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea. These groups enjoy limited religious freedom while adherents of other faiths face harassment and imprisonment. Government rather than social concerns generally drives religious persecution in Eritrea. Jehovah’s Witnesses and other conscientious objectors who refuse to enroll in compulsory military training are subject to physical abuse, detention and hard labour.
In the case of Iran, its constitution offers some religious freedom rights for recognized sects of Islam along with Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians. Baha’is, who the government considers apostates and labeled as “political sect,” are excluded from these limited protections and are systematically discriminated against through gozinesh provisions, which limit their access to employment, education and housing. Evangelical Christians and other faith groups face persecution for violating bans on proselytizing. Religious minorities have been charged in recent years and imprisoned in harsh conditions for committing “enmity against God” and spreading “anti-Islamic propaganda.”
Also North Korea’s constitution guarantees religious freedom, but this right is far from being upheld. The state is officially atheist. The government considers established religious traditions a threat to state unity and control. North Korea allows for government-sponsored Christian and Buddhist religious organizations to operate and build houses of worship, but political analysts suspect this “concession” is for the sake of external propaganda. Christians found with Bibles in North Korea face imprisonment, torture or even death.
Author John Sweeney argued that of all, the most dangerous is Saudi Arabia; its constitution is not a standalone document. In Saudi, it is illegal to publicly practice any faith other than the state’s official religion Sunni Islam. Members of other faiths can worship privately, but non-Muslim houses of worship may not be built. The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, otherwise known as Saudi’s morality or religious police, enforce Sharia law on the streets. Apostasy and blasphemy against Sunni Islam can be punished by death.
Also on the list is Sudan, its constitution partially protects religious freedom but restricts apostasy, blasphemy and defamation of Islam. Muslim women are also prevented from marrying non-Muslim men. The country’s vaguely worded apostasy law discourages proselytizing of non-Muslim faiths.. Muslims generally enjoy social, legal and economic privileges denied to the Christian minority population.
In Uzbekistan proselytizing is prohibited in Uzbekistan, and religious groups must undergo a burdensome registration process with the government to enjoy what limited religious freedom is permitted in the country. More than 2,000 religious groups have registered with the government, the vast majority of which are Muslim but also include Jewish, Catholic and other Christian communities. Registered and unregistered groups are sometimes subject to raids, during which holy books have been destroyed. Individuals and groups deemed “extremists,” often for national security concerns rather than specific aspects of their faith, are imprisoned under harsh conditions and tortured, sometimes to death.
For example, the Constitution of Afghanistan states that Afghanistan shall be an Islamic Republic, independent, unitary, and an indivisible state. The sacred religion of Islam shall be the religion of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Followers of other faiths shall be free within the bounds of law in the exercise and performance of their religious rights.
While in Argentina, Article 2 of the Constitution of Argentina reads: “The Federal Government supports the Roman Catholic Apostolic religion.” Article 14 guarantees all the inhabitants of the Nation the right “to profess freely their religion. Freedom of religion in Bangladesh, the country was founded as a secular state, but Islam was made the state religion in the 1980s. The Constitution of Bangladesh establishes Islam as the state religion but also allows other religions to be practiced in harmony.
Egypt has a predominantly Islamic population. The Constitution of Egypt makes no reference to an official State Church because Egypt is an Arab Republic that recognizes Islam as the State Religion. Egypt’s largest Christian population, which makes up approximately 10% of Egypt’s total population follow the Coptic Orthodox Church. Regarding freedom of religion in Malaysia, Islam is the official state religion and the Constitution of Malaysia provides for limited freedom of religion, notably placing control upon the ‘propagation’ of religion other than Islam to Muslims, a fundamental part of a number of other religions. Watch out for part Two of this article.