RDBook: Evangelical Christianity and Democracy in Africa

Terence O. Ranger, ed. Evangelical Christianity and Democracy in Africa (Oxford University Press, 2008).

What happens when a revivalist religion based on scriptural orthodoxy participates in the volatile politics of the Third World?

This is the question posed by a four-volume series, Evangelical Christianity and Democracy in the Global South, now being published by Oxford. For this huge research project, a team of scholars chose seventeen countries where evangelicals have appeared to make some impact on democratization: Brazil, Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Chile, and Peru in Latin America; Nigeria, Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and South Africa in Africa; and, China, India, Indonesia, South Korea, and the Philippines in Asia. Each study in the project addresses the extent to which evangelicalism, a religious movement based on biblical orthodoxy, has helped or hindered the inauguration and consolidation of the democratic movement in the global South.

This newest volume, on Africa, is edited by Oxford emeritus Terence O. Ranger, and it complements the great work being done by such eminent religion scholars as Paul Gifford (author of African Christianity: Its Public Role, among other books on the subject, and who contributes a response to this volume) and Philip Jenkins (The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South). For this complex task, Ranger helped in choosing an academically and religiously diverse group of Africa-based scholars to do the field work, most of it in Southern Africa, with Kenya and Nigeria representing the East and the West respectively. While one may squabble about some of the choices—why for instance, Ghana was not chosen to bring more representation to West Africa—no one volume can do everything. This book is a product of a collaborative effort among the authors, Anglican scholar Cyril Imo writing on Northern Nigeria, church historian John Karanja on Kenya, theologian Anthony Balcomb on South Africa, religion scholar Isabel Phiri on Zambia, theologian Isabel Mukonyora on Zimbabwe, and sociologist Teresa Cruz e Silva on Mozambique.

The introductory chapter by Ranger is worth reading for its breadth and depth. It is important to keep in mind that the approach followed is historical, focusing on the last ten to twenty years; the chapters draw on open-ended interviews, participant observation, and some archival research.

The researchers wisely divided the history of democracy in Africa into three “revolutionary” phases: first, the anti-colonial revolution that led to independence but resulted into autocracy for most of Africa; next, the struggle against one-partyism and military rule in the late eighties and the nineties that resulted into political pluralism but still fell short of consolidating democracy (because the elected leaders were corrupted by power); and finally, the ongoing struggle against presidential third-termism (an attempt by some politicians to amend their countries’ constitutions to remove the two-term limit). (The aim of this struggle is to consolidate democratic culture and practice; this fight has scored partial victories in Zambia and Nigeria.)

For the reader with limited time, I recommend the chapters on Kenya and South Africa. They stand out as the best written, with a wonderful grasp of the complexity of the evangelical contribution (or lack thereof) to democracy. To these I would add Paul Gifford’s spot-on critique at the conclusion of this volume. His response masterfully articulates some of the questions that arose in my reading of the different chapters, particularly with regard to the definitions of evangelicalism and democracy in relation to Africa, and the material aspects of religion.

This book has some important lessons. Mukonyora alerts us to the “special problem of definition” and Gifford warns about the problem of the use of labels. We cannot assume that terms that originate in the West, like democracy and evangelicalism, are easily transferable to Africa. The texture of Africa, with its diversity of ethnic groups, languages, formal education, exposure to the outside world, and also the general absence of legally defined structures of governance, make Western-style democracy almost impractical in Africa. Gifford is right in pointing out that we cannot adequately understand African governance outside neo-patrimonialism, a system built on loyalty where a superior ensures the security of a subordinate in exchange for political support.

With evangelicalism, there is no consensus even in the West on how to correctly delineate who the evangelicals are in relation to the fundamentalists and Pentecostals. Defining evangelicalism in the African context is doubly challenging. I wonder if “born again” would be a better label because most of the Christians who are not in mainline denominations tend to identify with it. However, Africa presents a further complication because significant percentages of Anglicans and Lutherans refer to themselves as evangelicals too. The chapters on Nigeria and Kenya that may give the impression that Imo and Karanja are talking about all Protestant Churches show the difficulty of distinguishing the evangelical Christians from their mainline Protestant counterparts.

We also learn that in some of these countries, the contribution (or lack therefore) of evangelicalism to the democratization process in many African countries is multifaceted. Some evangelicals interpret Paul’s exhortation to submit to authority in Romans 13:1-7 literally, resulting in their submission to political authority as ordained by God. Others are reluctant to participate in the secular democratic process because of their claim that it distracts them from their true pursuit, salvation. The others who lack international connections are reluctant to advocate political reform because they have nowhere to turn for help in case of state persecution; some of these welcome the patronage of politicians. Others still refuse to buy into the dualism of sacred versus secular, preferring instead to see God as fully invested in humanity’s full experience—these consider democracy an arena in which they can be the salt of the earth and light to the world and the leaders have worked, among other things, to reconcile bitter enemies or to oppose dictatorial tendencies. Generally, evangelical and mainline Christians played a marginal role in the anti-colonial revolution (South Africa is a different case). Both mainline and evangelical churches have played and continue to play an important role in the revolution against one-partyism and military rule, and in the current revolution against third-termism.

This book succeeds in painting a complex picture of the involvement of African evangelicalism in the democratization of these select countries. In some cases, evangelicals have contributed to the democracy process, while in others they have failed to challenge oppressive political structures, sometimes choosing to seek state patronage. Given the unstable nature of the second and third “revolutionary” phases, the question of the future role of evangelicalism in African democracy is still an open one. With their growing numbers and success at attracting young people, evangelical leaders will have to be careful of governments that will try to use them as leverage against the mainline churches and other political agitators.