The church and politics quandary

The ongoing debate on whether the church should participate in politics or not, provokes every vigilant citizen to engage on a noble pursuit of the rationale behind the predicament.  Ann Maganga, Program Officer of the Center for Multiparty Democracy, writing on Church and Politics in Malawi said, “According to the constitution, the Republic of Malawi is a Secular State, and implied in this, is the separation of church and state.” While I was doing a little Literature Review on the meaning of the phrase, “…separation of the Church and State,” I discovered that there are various definitions pertaining to the phrase and all are debated.

However, many agree that the phrase means that the state has no power to interfere with Religion. This phrase does not reflect the confines of the Church toward the State.  Therefore, I feel it is the State that is by the constitution proscribed from interference with Religion, not otherwise. So what is it that has sparked off the controversy?

Information Minister Patricia Kaliati: Dancing at a Catholic event politicised by ruling DPP

The Church in Malawi has always made a political gesture when they find the existing political standards to be detrimental. As a matter of historical fact, the clergy has always been on the vanguard of Malawian political evolution, starting with Reverend John Chilembwe’ uprising against colonialism, in January 1915.

Then the Pastoral Letter entitled, “Living our Faith” that reprimanded the Dr Kamuzu Banda’s regime for its tyranny, and other series of Pastoral Letters that have challenged our consecutive Democratic regimes. Both the 1915, Chilembwe uprising and the 1992 Pastoral Letters, led to the consequential martyrdom of the clergy and deaths of civilians.

Fascinatingly, Rev Chilembwe’s involvement with politics is not challenged, ironically, he is acclaimed as a nationalist.  Neither are the Catholic bishops reproached for their Pastoral Letter. How ironic then, that the Clergy and the Church should now be challenged for attempting to be as nationalistic as they have always been in the past. How ironic, that the very Nation that hails Rev. Chilembwe and cuddle Democracy which was ransomed with Pastoral Letters, debate on  whether the church should participate in politics or not.

What I behold while historical scenes unfold in front of me, is that the involvement of the Church with politics was never challenged until the Church attempted to do it again in the Democratic Malawi. Why was or is it a challenge this time and not then? I have established that the challenge is that Democracy came with Multiparty. Multiparty begat many political parties, hence the call for PartisanshipParticipating in politics is not the same things as Political Partisanship. I feel we must establish a reasonable distinction between the two.

It is how we conceptualize the Philosophy of Politics that perpetuate this predicament, not our desperate attempt to amalgamate or divorce the two seemingly contradictory systems. Therefore, to understand participating in politics, we must first define Politics. The word politics has its roots in the Greek word, Politika, meaning “of, for, or relating to citizens.” Bahram Maskanian defines Politics as, “the art and science of managing and governing one’s entire social and economic affairs, interactively in conjunction with the rest of the community, especially the collective governing of a political entity such as a nation.

Politics is the activity and interaction engaged in by any given society’s citizens to build and maintain a community and establish communal social services and to protect and promote the democratic rule of law, for all citizens.” Politics is an interactive and collective activity of citizen. Dwight D Eisenhower said, “Politics ought to be part-time profession of every citizen who would protect the rights and privileges of free people and who would preserve what is good and faithful in our national heritage”

Perhaps, Maskanian’s are nominal definitions of politics; they communicate what politics ought to be, not what it really is in our country. Whatever the case, we must understand that detaching the church from politics is probably not possible. Perhaps that is why the constitution could not keep the Church away from interfering with Politics. In fact, the church is a core constituent of the very community and society that politics seek to collectively and interactively build and preserve. If the Church is a constituent of the community, then maybe the church has a civil obligation to participate in the interactive and collective activities of politics that seek to build and sustain the community.

The work of the Church in Malawi has gone beyond preaching and prayers. Since the early 20th century, just like government, the church has built a lot of primary schools, secondary schools and even universities that have trained competent citizens that have made significant contributions to economic and social development of Malawi. The church has built clinics and hospitals, trained many nurses and medical personnel, and engaged in several relief projects among many other developmental endeavors. This makes the church nothing less than a government’s political associate in the development of the community.

The so far,  accord between the church and government on the dissipation of legalizing homosexuality and abortions, is evidence enough that religious convictions can form the basis for sound politics and legislation. In addition, the clergy, their congregations and the diverse denominations pay tax, they vote, exercise human rights, use public services and infrastructure etcetera. This far, one can appreciate the participation of the church in politics and its inevitability.

Now, on Political Partisanship; there are situations when the church might seem Partisan while she is not. For example, when the church or rather the congregation without coercion decides to vote for a particular Political Party; this seems to be partisanship because it is impossible to vote for a Political Party without supporting it. Or when the church supports the government, it might seem she is being partisan because it is almost impossible to support the government in Malawi without seemingly supporting the ruling party which is hardly separate from the government. If this is not, then what is Partisanship? The Wikipedia defines a Partisan in politics as, “a committed member of a political party.”

Therefore, Partisanship demands adherence to and self identification with ideologies and policies of a particular party. When the church votes and support government, they are only exercising their democratic right to voting and fulfilling their civil responsibility to the nation.  Just like Jesus said, “….give to Caesar what is Caesar’s…”Matthew 22:21,NIV

Though there was Partisanship in the prior single party politics, it was not as problematic and complicated as it is now in an over 40 political parties Democracy. Partisanship in such a complex of parties ultimately transforms politics into a “Win or Die” game. I think this is where Partisanship conflicts with the Church, because for parties to survive the win or die game of politics, Partisans will probably stop at nothing. Will Rogers said, “If you ever inject truth in politics, you have no politics. Napoleon Bonaparte also said, “In politics stupidity is not a handicap…in politics never retreat, never retract…never admit a mistake.” In addition, Winston Churchill said, “Politics are very much like war, we may even have to use poison gas at times.”

Churchill might have used a figure of speech, however, all these quotes and many more from legendary Politicians portray that Partisan Politics is about bringing your opponent down by whatever means possible so long as you can get away with it, atleast in the meantime.  Probably, it is the selfish, unethical, corrupted and impious activities of some politicians in Malawi that tarnish the beautiful face of politics. Perhaps, its time our politicians give politics an attractive face it deserves, a face that worshipers can shamelessly associate with.

The Church in the context of this discussion might mean the Clergy or congregation where relevant. Therefore, it is imperative to consider that the Clergy or congregation come from different denominations.  These varied denominations have some discrete doctrinal structures. It is these doctrines, which congregations espouse, that dictate their faith and form the basis of their stand on matters that affect the church, like Politics. Therefore, the question of the church Participating or rather being Partisan in politics is a Doctrinal challenge. Consequently, every denomination, congregation, and individuals’ are fully entitled to their views as their doctrines and personal convictions dictate.
Arguments in this article are based on personal conviction and comprehension. The intention is not to accredit or discredit any Church or Political affiliation.

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