I start from the premise that a Christian is someone who responds to God’s calling, repents of his sins, is baptised, receives God’s Holy Spirit and lives as Jesus lived (according to the book of Matthew). Principle is a fundamental truth that serves as the foundation for a system of belief for a chain of reasoning. Put simply, Christian principle is a foundation of Christ-like truth which serves as a system through which one reasons and interacts with others.
The constitution review conference held in Gbarnga, Bong County in March and April 2015 has opened up an ongoing debate about whether or not Liberia should be declared a Christian State. Whilst the idea sounds romantic to some Christian, the basis for this argument is that Liberia as a nation was founded on the principles of Christianity.
In this commentary I will use historical evidence to argue that this basis is flawed. I will also argue that declaring Liberia a Christian nation does not benefit any Liberian, but it highlights the complete disconnect between our leaders and the Liberian people. I will start by deconstructing the myth that Liberia was founded on Christian principles.
Deconstructing the myth about the foundation of Liberia
Article 1 section 3 of the 1847 Liberian constitution states that ‘all men have a natural and unalienable right to worship God, according to the dictates of their own consciences, without obstruction or molestation from others: all persons demeaning themselves peaceably, and not obstructing others in their religious worship, are entitled to protection of the law, in the free exercise of their own religion; and no sect of Christians shall have exclusive privileges or preference, over any other sect; but all shall be alike tolerated…’ the mention of Christian sects in this article does not in itself suggest that Christianity should be the only religion practiced in Liberia, the phrase ‘right to worship God, according to the dictates of their own consciences’ suggests the recognition of the existence of other religions in the republic at the time of independence.
This suggestion is supported by George W Ellis’ book ‘Negro Culture in West Africa’. He studied the Vai people and argued that Islam was brought to the Vai people by the migrating Mandingos long before the arrival of the settlers in 1822. The point here is that our forefathers recognised that there were other religions present in the new republic and, therefore stopped short of an outright declaration of a Christian nation.
Another point in this deconstruction of the myth about the foundation of Liberia is the faith or religion of our forefathers. According to history most of them were Christians and attended churches, and that the constitution of Liberia was signed in a church. There are two point that I would like to make to highlight that these had no bearing on the principles of the individuals who signed the declaration of independence. For those Liberians who are true Christians (see bible definition above), we must understand that the first use of the word Christian was in the book of Acts chapter 11 and verse 26.
The name Christian was a derogatory term used to describe people who lived like Jesus; showing compassion to the poor, fighting inequality and spreading the word of Jesus without fear to life. I will love to challenge any Liberian in a discussion if they believe that our forefathers showed compassion to the indigenous Liberians, that they fought for the inclusion of all Liberians in the building and sharing of the country’s economy, and that they spread the word of Christ without fear to life. To the contrary, they were the perpetrators of exclusion, they treated the indigenous as slaves and deprived women of the right to participate in governance.
As Monique Morgan illustrated in her 2011 paper to the Proceedings of the National Conference on Undergraduate Research in New York ‘the dehumanising effects of slavery had an impact on the Americo-Liberians which caused them to practice the same acts of superiority and discrimination they experienced as slaves in America against the indigenous people of Liberia’. This is clearly not how Christ lived his life.
The second point that I would like to use to further deconstruct the myth about faith is that signing the constitution in a church does not in itself mean that the principles which guided the declaration of independence were Christ-like. Let me remind our leaders about the Little Ben Affair, the incursion of the British and French into Liberia from Guinea, Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone and the fact that our forefathers felt humiliated, intimidated and powerless to protect themselves against these powers because they did not have the same rights as a sovereign nation. Those were some of the reasons for declaring independence. The church building at the time was probably the only venue large enough to host a convention. I believe that if the Unity Conference Centre or the Centennial Memorial Pavilion were available, those locations would have been used instead.
My final point in deconstructing the myth that Liberia was founded on Christian principles is focusing on the American Colonisation Society (ACS). Tom W. Shick wrote in his book ‘Behold the Promised Land’ that the ACS was founded in December 1816 by Robert Finley, Samuel J Mills, Henry Clay, Francis Scott and Bushrod Washington to serve the primary purpose of ameliorating the condition of freed black slaves in the United States (US).
However, what most Liberian might not realise is that the formation of the ACS was actually for the benefit of slave owners who were power brokers in the US and were growing ever fearful of the increasing population of freed negroes, and the continued societal unrest. According to Shick, the Christianisation of indigenous Africans was added later to gain the support of powerful clergymen for the ACS.
In fact slavery was given legal recognition in the 1787 US constitution, four clauses provided direct protection for slavery in American life. It was in 1865 that slavery was officially made unconstitutional in the US. Therefore, reducing the numbers of freed slaves who themselves were radically advocating for an end to slavery served the interest of the slave owners and not because of the need to spread Christianity to Africa. Talking about the benefits of the actions of our forefathers leads me to my next point.
What is the benefit?
Having provided some food for thought regarding the flawed basis for this whole Christianisation of Liberia idea, it is practical that we focus on the benefits to the ordinary Liberian person of Liberia being declared a Christian state. Evidence from Liberia and across the world, supports my argument that constitutional amendments should provide significant benefits to the population for them to be enacted. For example, the 1964 Civil Rights Act in the US which gives equal rights to blacks or the 1945-46 constitutional amendment in Liberia which gave women the right to vote.
These two examples highlights the benefits that changes to the law should bring. Therefore my questions to the leaders of Liberia are: how does declaring Liberia a Christian state benefit the ordinary person? Will it stop our government officials from being self-centred and corrupt? Would it put healthcare and education for the poorest of our people at the forefront of government policies? Does it mean that perpetrators of injustice and crime will be punish? Does it mean that the government will enact agricultural policies to make Liberia self-sufficient in food production? Will it recognise the ownership rights of indigenous Liberians to their communal land?
If the answers to my questions above are yeses, then please allow me to be the first to vote for Liberia becoming a Christian state irrespective of how flawed the Christian principles argument is. However, I am not that optimistic. My view is that our leaders have become so disconnected from their countrymen that they do not understand the needs of the people. I do not believe that the ordinary person cares about Liberia being a Christian, Muslim, Jewish or Buddhist state. They care about sharing in the wealth of our country, they care about educating their children so that they too can have the opportunity of becoming leaders, they care about not being neglected to die went they are ill and go to a hospital. I believe that the fact that our leaders would waste time and money on this argument and not on the social welfare of our people is a crime in itself.
The danger of going down this route
I trust the Liberian people to make the right decisions at the referendum. However, I do not believe that this issue should be one of such choices. I believe that any attempt to further this agenda poses serious risks to our fragile security and togetherness. We have all been witnesses to recent event in our country’s history including the Christian versus Muslim debacles. There is also no official documentation from our forefathers that categorically states that Liberia is a Christian state or was founded on Christian principles, especially not in the constitution of 1847, which is the most official of all governance documentations.
My father was a Christian and my mother is a Muslim. I am a Christian by choice, not because my mother or father cohered me into either. I have friends who are in inter-religious marriages. This is not something that we see a lot of anymore in Liberia and this law will further enhance that trend towards a less interconnected and less tolerant society. If our forefathers had in mind that Liberia was a Christian state, they would have explicitly stated that in our constitution.
I will conclude by reminding all well-meaning Liberians at home and abroad to get involved in this conversation, and if at the end of the day we believe that this action will have benefits for all Liberians, and then let us go ahead with it. But if it will further divide an already divided country, and further endanger an already endangered stability and democracy then please, NOT IN MY NAME!
Fidel C T Budy,
Candidate for PhD, Aberystwyth University,