Africa is a deeply religious continent. So how African individuals and communities understand and express their religions and protect their religious spaces and doctrines from misuse or abuse has implications for wider African society, including the spheres of politics and civil governance. These significantly affect human well-being across the continent.
For the sake of good governance and human well-being, these truths must not be lost on Africans. In a year when almost 20 African countries host elections, political competition and activity is bound to intensify across the continent.
Christianity’s transformative power
Christianity is one of two dominant religions in the continent. Islam is the other. According to the Pew Research Centre, Africa is also home to the world’s most committed Christians. At the end of 2015, referring to Christianity, The Economist reported, “The future of the world’s most popular religion is African”. These research findings are significant because religions, including Christianity, possess transformative power.
Quantitatively speaking, Christianity’s transformative power increases in countries like South Africa, where most citizens (more than 80 %) identify as Christian. Like South Africa, other African countries that have scheduled elections and whose populations are substantially or majority Christian include Chad (44.1 %), South Sudan (60,5 %), Rwanda (92 %), Mozambique (62 %), Namibia (97 %), Ghana (71 %), Madagascar (85.3 %), Botswana (79 %), and Cabo-Verde (75 %).
The extent and nature of this transformative power depends on the degree to which Christian engagement is informed by ‘the Greatest Commandant’. This is to “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’” and to “‘Love your neighbour as yourself’”.
According to Kenyan theologian Bernard Boyo, “[M]ost Christians…have no theological or biblical foundation to guide their involvement in politics. They have not been prepared to think biblically about what to do when personal, group, and national interests clash, nor have they thought deeply about what is involved in living in states characterised by religious pluralism.”
That said, Christians who wish to add value to society will do well to consider the following list of 20 scripturally informed principles and truths for Christian political engagement.
Principles and truths for Christian political engagement
#01 Politics is an inescapable and often pervasive reality for every human being, including Christians. Christian political scientist, Hunter Baker, has said, “The laws of politics have their impact on human lives just as the laws of physics do.” Christians, like everyone else, refrain from political engagement to their detriment and, depending on the extent of their biblical worldview, possibly to the detriment of wider society.
#02 The Church is a spiritual body, but it’s also a political body. Theologian Richard Neuhaus said, “The first political task of the Church is to be the Church," meaning, that as long as the Church focuses on its religious task, it will influence politics. The Church will be a political actor to the degree that Christians understand and act upon their faith as something that challenges, affects, and transcends their worldly loyalties. The same is true of the adherents of any religion.
#03 The opportunity to engage in politics is an opportunity to be a witness to the love and servanthood of Christ. Jesus says to Christians in Matthew 5:16, “[L]et your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” Why should the political realm be excluded from spaces in which Christians can and should shine their light?
#04 Engage prayerfully, according to the leading of the Holy Spirit and according to a holistic reading of Scripture.
#05 To be considered legitimate within the Christian community, prophecy (including politically oriented or politically aligned prophecy) must first be scripturally aligned and informed.
#06 Engage in a manner that honours God and his creation (including humans and the natural environment). At the very least, this involves engagement that is respectful, peaceful, honest, law-abiding (and, therefore, within constitutional parameters) and mindful of the need for environmental stewardship and sustainability.
#08 Church-State separation does not mean the Church and State have no relations or involvement with one another, or that Christians should refrain from engaging in political activity, including voting. What it does mean, however, is that the Church and the State each have their own, separate, scripturally specified functions or roles. The Church's task is to build a spiritual rather than a political kingdom.
Broadly speaking, and across societal spheres, the Church’s role is not to take over, control, occupy or dominate society. With regards to politics specifically, the Church should not seek to substitute or occupy government for the purpose of kingdom extension. Instead, the Church's role concerning politics is prophetic and informative, to be 'salt and light', to produce good citizens.
Recently, I heard a Nigerian politician and a South African pastor and aspiring politician, respectively, say, “Christians must take over political power” and “The Church is a government in waiting”. At best, these persons are ignorant. At worst, they are exploitative opportunists.
#09 In late 2023, I heard a prominent Church leader from a West African country say, “I hate democracy because God is not democratic. Democracy is demonic.” As I have argued elsewhere, democracy is the best possible form of government that Christians can hope for in this lifetime. With this argument in mind, Christians must be encouraged to support democracy and to elect leaders with democratic credentials.
#10 God doesn’t show favouritism towards any country or ethnic group. All people and people groups are equal before God.
#11 The number of people in any given country who profess to be Christian does not necessarily equate with the number of those who Kritzinger refers to as “committed Christians”. There is a difference between merely identifying as a Christian and living under the Lordship of Christ. This distinction is significant in countries like South Africa where Christians have and continue to campaign on the idea of a Christian majority.
#12 Irrespective of numbers and the form of government, Christians don’t have more of a right than anyone else to influence civil governance or occupy government office.
#13 Biblically speaking, no country, including South Africa and Zambia, can be a 'Christian nation', if only because the Church transcends political, geographic, cultural, and economic boundaries. Proclaiming a country as a ‘Christian nation’ not only loses sight of this transcendence but also risks Christian triumphalism and harming the Christian witness.
According to David Vandrunen, “Triumphalism is the tendency to make political affairs central to the Christian life. It’s a mindset that views most or all of life through the lens of culture wars—a fight that, according to the triumphalist, God has commissioned Christians to win. Triumphalism views the church as an agent for uniting and mobilizing Christians around a political agenda.”
#14 Christian nationalism, defined as “the belief that… [a] nation is defined by Christianity, and that the government should take active steps to keep it that way”, and considered a threat in South Africa, Ghana, Ethiopia and other African countries, is not Christianity. Christian nationalism is an ideology that drives a political project. Christianity is a faith founded on the Gospel of Christ.
#15 Peacefully seeking to establish or protect the rights of Christians to live out their biblical values and principles and peacefully seeking to inform governance systems with these same values and principles are legitimate activities. Any person attempting to exercise influence over a governance system cannot but do so according to his/her worldview. This includes the parliamentarian.
#16 There is a difference between non-Christian legislation and anti-Christian legislation. The former may not align with biblical values or principles, but this does not mean the legislation necessarily sets out to target or discriminate against Christians. The latter actively or intentionally discriminates against Christians and is, therefore, undemocratic and contrary to the right of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB).
#17 Christians are commanded to love their neighbours. Voting involves electing persons to government office whose decisions and actions will have far-reaching implications for present and future generations. Therefore, voting to the best of one’s ability and for political parties whose leaders are ethical and competent and whose policies are human-centric, becomes an act of love.
#18 Choosing which political party to support will always be a choice between 'fallen entities' or 'evils'. The best the Christian can do is lend qualified support to the lesser 'evil'. Consider which party most closely aligns with Scripture in terms of policy proposals, leadership character, and competency. The Christian must vote in a manner that honours God.
#19 Christians running for or occupying political office must not become guilty of the 'cult of personality'. If you are among these, take care to not elevate yourself or make yourself out to be more important or useful than what you are. Teamwork makes the dream work.
#20 Politics is vitally important and will continue to have implications for national and human well-being. Still, no manner or form of politics or government, including one made up mostly or entirely of Christians, can save or redeem a society from its inherent depravity, or fulfil on its own a society's potential.
Craig Bailie holds a Master’s degree in International Studies from Rhodes University and certificates in Thought Leadership and Public Leadership from the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute and the Open University respectively. He has completed several doctoral courses through Regent University including in Applied Exegetical Studies and Leadership Faith and Ethics. He is the Founding Director of Bailie Leadership Consultancy.