Why religion matters in politics: still on the same-faith ticket

By Rev. Prof Anthony Akinwale, O.P.

In the wake of the same-faith ticket, some have argued that religion has no role to play in a democracy. Therefore, they conclude, no one should be apprehensive about a same-faith ticket. A flipside of the argument would be that religion is neutral in politics and should be ignored in our political discussions, options and actions.

But Nigeria’s character as a multireligious entity is not and cannot be without political implications. Religious beliefs have political implications. To deny this is to deny that we have political differences, and to pretend as if we had no political differences would take us one step closer to a one-party state.

Former President Mobutu Sese Seko of former Zaire, today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo, held a similar position. “Tolingi Zaire liboke moko, lisanga moko.” (We want Zaire to be one community), that is, without political differences, he said in a speech that used to be played before every news bulletin on radio and television in Zaire during the reign of the autocrat.

But we need to explain why and how religion plays a role in politics, why and how our religious affiliation has a role to play in our political choices and actions.

Politics is about morality. This is often ignored by disciples of Niccolò Machiavelli. Politics is about steps to be taken to attain the common good. These steps are and must be informed and regulated by reason. Politics is about our relationality, our intelligent engagement with others in our common life. Our relationality is informed by and subject to rationality, that is, to our deployment of reason in our human conduct.

Rationality is existential. In other words, the process of reasoning takes place within the existential horizon of the one who reasons. It cannot be otherwise. Reasoning happens when one encounters reality. It is the reaction of the human intellect when the human being encounters reality. It is a process triggered by the assimilation of perception within the horizon of our existence.

Our knowledge and interest constitute our horizon, and reasoning is necessarily influenced by the baggage of knowledge and interests of the one who reasons. People reason because of what they know and what interests them, and within the boundaries of their knowledge and interests. That is why reasoning is an existential process.

Those who counsel us to ignore our religious differences echo John Rawls. In his A Theory of Justice, Rawls had advocated that, in a political entity of divergent religious beliefs and traditions, the search for a notion of justice to which all would subscribe irrespective of their religious differences is to be undertaken under a veil of ignorance. Under this veil of ignorance, persons in search of a common notion of justice would be ignorant or pretend to be ignorant of their religious differences. However, reality is otherwise.

Unlike John Rawls’ attempt to arrive at a consensual affiliation with a consensual notion of justice and common good, which he believed could be attained under a presumed or imagined veil of ignorance where persons are ignorant or pretend to be ignorant of their religious or cultural differences, reasoning, irrespective of efforts to be “objective”, has its own subjective pole and cannot be undertaken from a condition of real or pretended blindness. In fact, the one who reasons cannot be said to be blind even if the person were to be visually impaired, that is, deprived of powers of corporeal vision.

Human beings who desire to proceed rationally in their search for justice are not oblivious of their knowledge and interests. They are not ignorant of contents of their existential baggage, of realities within their horizon.

Now, politics, as a set of rational acts intending the common good, cannot be practiced outside the existential horizon of political actors, and this horizon is shaped by religious beliefs. Consequently, our political choices are not and cannot be religiously neutral.

For the purpose of clarification, the meaning of religion is not restricted to Christianity or Islam or our African ancestral religions or any other set of theistic beliefs. Religion is a set of beliefs and practices consequent to and expressive of these beliefs, and that includes atheistic beliefs. For, after all said and done, atheism is itself a religion.

It would be pretentious but impossible to think we can conduct politics outside our horizon shaped by our theistic or atheistic beliefs. The good we consciously desire is that which we understand to be good, and our understanding of the good is necessarily shaped by our religious beliefs. In Nigeria, political actors are affiliated to ethnic, religious and regional communities, and their multiple affiliation cannot be ignored.

Finding ourselves, by birth or by choice, within a multireligious entity that is also multi-ethnic and multiregional, all the knowledge and interests shaped and represented by the diverse communities of Nigeria must be brought to the table of discussion. That is why it would be not merely insensitive but also dangerous to pretend that religion should not be influential in the choices we make in politics, especially, in this specific instance, the constitution of a presidential ticket. We cannot pretend not to have religious beliefs that influence our political options. What is important is that I do not impose my religious beliefs or practices on others. That is why the constitution of Nigeria professes not to adopt any state religion.

To those who say what we should be thinking of is development and not religion, it has to be said that, in the light of the multiple affiliation of every Nigerian citizen, development would be a fleeting illusion without attention to and recognition and intelligent management of our diversity. Our diversity is not managed when we ignore or pretend to ignore our religious, regional and ethnic affiliation. And where diversity is either not managed or mismanaged, national integration, which is a prerequisite for development, would be missing.

“Though tribe and tongue may differ in brotherhood we stand,” say the words of our old national anthem. We may want to add to that by saying: though tribe and tongue and religion may differ, we are obligated to build and are capable of building, in the words of our current national anthem, “a nation where peace and justice shall reign”.

On a final note, although it is often abused, the federal character principle enshrined in section 14, subsections 3 and 4 of the 1999 Constitution, despite the flaws of the constitution, is intended to manage the diversity characteristic of Nigeria. According to the federal character principle in the Nigerian constitution, “the composition of the Government of the Federation or any of its agencies and the conduct of its affairs shall be carried out in such a manner as to reflect the federal character of Nigeria and the need to promote national unity, and also to command national loyalty, thereby ensuring that there shall be no predominance of persons from a few states or from a few ethnic or other sectional groups in that Government or in any of its agencies.

“The composition of the Government of a State, a local government council, or any of the agencies of such Government or council, and the conduct of the affairs of the Government or council or such agencies shall be carried out in such manner as to recognise the diversity of the people within its area of authority and the need to promote a sense of belonging and loyalty among all the people of the Federation.”

A same-faith presidential ticket would constitute a simple violation of this constitutional provision.

Leave a Reply