It is not a doubt that religion is an indispensable part of Africa’s collective being. From the traditional religions to Christianity and Islam, religion has always occupied an extensive and expansive place in the psyche of Africans. It is also interesting to note how it is difficult to separate religion from the state, for these two are mutually dependant on one another – either for political populism or for the church to gain material and capital gains. But of more importance to observe are the shifting dynamics of Christianity in modern-day Africa.
Christianity has mutated into being a bulwark of private capital as espoused by the state. Particularly with the proliferation of prophets and other Pentecostal religious outfits. The church, through its history from colonialism, is now an active purveyor of extreme capitalism in the form of neoliberalism.
The church has a mixed legacy in Africa, mainly because Christianity is a colonial product. Through white settler politics and propaganda, Christianity came to be viewed through a different lens. On the other hand, its introduction to the Africans resulted in the erosion of traditional religions and customs as they were derided and deemed backward. On the other hand, it came to be associated with enlightenment and literacy mainly because of mission schools in different parts of the continent.
The church was also instrumental in the liberation struggles. Most of the revolutionary fighters had a Christian background and actively fought to dismantle colonialism in Africa. Some people within the church were against the liberation struggle. In each of the cases, the place of religion in society cannot be wished away. Either for the seemingly bad or good.
With such an enormous role in the lives of people, Christianity has grown exponentially and continues to do so. Even in the future, the growth of the church will still be palpable on all levels of society. And this is where contemporary political leaders get in the mix. Political leaders view the church as a necessary part of spreading their messages. Religion is important to politicians for populist purposes without further ideological inquiries.
Some politicians join religious gatherings for genuine purposes but ultimately their presence in those gatherings is meant to spread their interests. They become ardent followers of these religions for the purposes of getting votes or getting perennial support. This is the most crucial aspect which makes it difficult to dissociate the church from the state. Some of political leaders are the biggest tithers in the church. Tithes are crucial as far as the material capital of the church is concerned. The role of politicians is stridently pronounced.
In turn, the church relies on the state for its survival and the furtherance of its ministry economy. In most countries, church land is free, as provided by the various local government authorities/ministries. With the approval of the state, churches end up having vested material investments which include places of worship, universities, banks, and the media.
The church enjoys protection from the state knowing that even if it collects massive amounts of contributions from congregants and other supporters, it is exempt from taxation. This does not preclude it from gaining more material investments. That relationship between the church and the state makes it impossible to totally divorce the two. Especially when talking about progress in secular terms.
As such, the church stays away from critically questioning what the political leaders proclaim as far as collective discussions about the political economy are concerned. The populism infused by politicians in these churches makes it hard for the church to question such politicians. There is no focus on a people-centred economy with democratic socialism and welfarism underpinning it.
Christian religious groups as they are present on the African continent have metamorphosed into sects of individualism. The liberating nature of the church has been neglected. The social function of religion has become seriously distorted. The hope carried by the majority of believers is that the church they belong to gives them a chance at being successful individually, in terms of material wealth. Individualistic materialism is glorified in the contemporary church by the “chosen ones” who lead those groups. There is no mention of history, ideology, or success in the community sense or for future generations.
The promise of individual material wealth is what gives the “prophets” a hold over their people such that critical questions about the political economy are seldom asked. The promise of that individual wealth, grounded firmly in capitalism, also gives “miracles” some potency. The promises of better personal wealth become different, based on class. The poor in the urban areas and rural areas are promised better houses, a car or two, education for the children, getting a job, and higher income.
The hope is to move from the ghetto to the upmarket suburbs. The middle classes want to move into more affluent suburbs whilst the more affluent, who own capital (comprador-bourgeoisie) would want to move to the global north countries or more affluent parts in African urban centres such as Sandton in South Africa or Ikoyi, one of the most affluent suburbs in Lagos, Nigeria. These different classes turn to religion (in our contemporary case, to Christianity) so that these hopes of lifestyle upgrades are materialized.
It becomes clear that the church is now promoting rapacious consumerism/materialism. All in line with the dictates of the state as it is instructed by global capital (even though this may not seem apparent to believers). The church relies on the state for its gain and so it does not challenge what these political leaders say. The bulk of these political leaders across the continent have become unwavering and ardent followers of neoliberalism, which in turn inspires a high sense of individualism in society.
The neoliberal principles of free market economics and less government interference in the private sector (deregulation) are being worshipped both by the state and the church. Neoliberalism dictates that the panacea to Africa’s contextual problems is by following free market economics. The preference of markets over government is embedded in African contemporary economics. Privatization and austerity are the order of the day. And because of Africa’s admiration for materialistic/hedonistic lifestyles as presented in the global north and east, it means that Africans have become highly individualistic people with less regard for the community and future generations. The new God is the accumulation of private capital and the accompanying personal glory of material success. Churches want to accumulate lots of private capital through tithes and favours from the government (land and exemption from taxation).
It should be noted that the church is promoting neoliberalism, yet this model is not ideal for Africa. The privatization of economies and the disappearance of governments from providing fundamental social services mean that scores of Africans are condemned to poverty. And they still flock to churches for promises of better personal material wealth. Instead, the church should include national consciousness in how it disseminates the ‘word’. But is difficult to do so because of the relationship between the state and religion.
Neoliberalism disempowers Africans because a population that struggles to afford universal access to healthcare, water supply, transport, housing, education, and power (which have been outsourced by African governments to private firms) cannot collectively produce much. So economic problems abound. The individualism that has become pervasive in African societies should be challenged by the church.
The economic inequalities that are rampant in African societies lead people to seek identity and belonging in churches. The churches become new shelters for those who might not have a wide array of economic opportunities. This is why promises of individual material wealth have a powerful grip over believers. The questions of institutional and organizational chaos that cause inequality and poverty are left unattended.
These contradictions in modern-day Africa are difficult to resolve, but the attempt to do so is a worthy cause. It is still of unparalleled importance to ideologically question the relationship between the state and the church – a relationship that is now inclined towards the protection of private property while the welfare of the congregants is hardly inquired about.
All that matters is making promises of cars and money to believers without addressing the contextual reasons that cause poverty and income inequalities in the first place. Or promises of leaving Africa to go in the diaspora, all for personal wealth that puts one in a different class than they were in before. The neoliberalism pursued by African governments only serves the interests of global financialized capital in the global north and east. And it creates a class-based society. This does not do well for contemporary Africans and their posterity.
While religion is dear to most of Africans, critical questions of the political economy must still be asked. The church’s active role in spreading neoliberalism and consumerist lifestyles cannot be ignored. The lack of will to question the wrong choices of political leaders show how much churches solidify capitalism and the attendant poverty in Africa. It is the poverty that keeps believers flocking to church. Hence the little interest by religious leaders to truly empower their people beyond the vacuous material promises of personal wealth.
Religious leaders and congregants should question the government so that it takes a leading role in the provision of fundamental social services and the welfare of all people, all rooted in pragmatic democratic socialism – less dogmatic approaches and more action towards the collective alleviation of poverty in African societies.