Religion occupies a central place in the spiritual lives of many African on the continent. In all its different strands, the role it performs in fostering and maintaining social order is ineluctable. It transcends this functional role as it is also a major source of bringing in money — particularly with the Christian and Islamic strands of religious faith.
But of particular focus here is Christianity because of the huge numbers of followers it commands on the continent.
The existence of tithing in Christian churches is a call towards congregants so that they can part with a portion of their earnings as a sign of their gratitude and for the greater cause of the faith. It is a practice that Christian adherents are fiercely loyal to and failure to comply with attracts perceptions of scorn and a lack of seriousness.
Because of the individualistic nature of churches that has engulfed much of Christian denominations, some people are losing trust in the practice of paying their tithes as they suspect (with much conviction) that some of these funds are being misappropriated for private gain. Church leaders sometimes operate in shady manners that betray their illicit use of such funds.
For churches with big attendances, tithes constitute a significant source of revenues for the operations of such churches. But in some instances, they become too alluring to resist for the church leaders as they turn such revenues into their own for personal gain.
Churches are voluntary organizations (or common-law Universitas) and as such, they cannot be taxed by governments. And it makes sense. There is obviously no need to place mandatory state obligations on voluntary organizations because this defeats the whole essence of a “voluntary organization”. They are free to act in a manner desirous to their interests — as long as this is in line with such an organization’s Constitution.
However, with the dominance of neoliberal capitalism on the church, it has become imperative for churches to realize that they owe the public a duty of taking care of the vulnerable in society. As states in Africa continuously retreat from their primary obligations in social welfare — a key tenet of neoliberalism — churches are also following in line as they are privatizing money that comes from sources such as tithes. Less of such money is being used for taking care of the society’s less privileged.
States have made it clear that they will continuously take a minimalist role from the economy and as such churches would do well by filling such a role. This would be immensely helpful as some churches collect huge sums of money through tithes.
Creating social safety nets especially for the less privileged in critical areas such as healthcare and education will go a long way in improving the material reality of millions of Africans who are pushed to the precipice of abject poverty by neoliberal austerity.
Instead of church leaders accumulating fancy cars, designer clothes, mansions, and all other luxuries that capitalism can offer, using such money for the public’s interest is a nobler cause.
Christianity in Africa would do well by retaining its liberation status — not creating cults of personality in church leaders or creating celebrity church leaders (Christianity has to defeat the narcissism that comes with neoliberalism).
Tithes can be used for shielding the public against the vicissitudes of poverty. This would be a greater cause, without a doubt.