In the past few weeks, Nigerian President, Goodluck Jonathan has embarked on a rigorous exercise some have now humorously christened, ‘Church tourism.’ It started with a trip to Jerusalem, the Holy Land. Nineteen governors, as well as some serving ministers and key government functionaries including the ever aggressive President of the Christian Association of Nigeria, CAN, Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor accompanied the Nigerian President on a pilgrimage of sorts to Israel on his spiritual sojourn of discovery. At the end of the presidential spiritual odyssey, hands were laid on the president and prayers offered for his success in an unusually trying time in the nation’s history where he is believed to be in charge.
Perhaps still energized by the spiritual rebirth he was experiencing after the trip bankrolled by tax payer’s monies, the president embarked on another round of church voyage with the usual array of top government functionaries and spiritual leaders tow. In the last couple of weeks the president has visited not less than four churches and still counting. The Dunamis church has played host to the new found love of the number one citizen who worshipped there a few days ago. The Redeemed Christian Church of God, RCCG, the Living Faith Church and the Apostolic Church, Utako have also opened their doors to the president who has more or less used their hallowed pulpit to perpetrate what many have tagged, ‘the political patronage of the average church goer.’
The Nigerian Constitution clearly grants the President freedom of association, movement and religious affiliation. But it must be noted firmly that he also holds a unique position as an embodiment of the diverse ethno-religious, social and political cleavages of over 160 million Nigerians. This position was entrenched the day he was sworn in as President of Nigeria. In other words he is not just the president of Nigerian Christians but he equally holds sway for non-Christians even those who form the atheistic segment of the society.
The President has been criticized serially by political foes and associates in the past for being a master at playing the ethnic and religious card whenever and wherever it suits him best. His sporadic visits to churches filled with Nigerians who more or less share his religious views and lifestyle (while harmless on the surface) undoubtedly gives credence to this school of thought if one takes a deeper look at the reasons usually proffered by his handlers.
Nigerians are to expect more of such visits in coming weeks as Jonathan has vowed to worship at least once every month at churches outside the palatial presidential villa. This portrays a president who is willing to use the intimidating paraphernalia of office to sway a segment of the society to his side even as the political climate heats up. This is a sad development Nigerians must condemn.
In retrospect, the president, must be urged by well meaning Nigerian to learn to separate the pulpit from politics even if he banks on the voting strength of the Church in tilting the tide in his favor in his thinly veiled mission to succeed himself in the face of mounting opposition. History has shown that when politics is brought into the church, or the church begins the dizzying dalliance with the trappings of power, society is affected negatively at the end. A multi-ethnic and multi-religious society like ours is certainly not immune to the scourge awaiting a nation which allows the coils of power and politics to lie snugly around the shoulders of its religious institutions.
The fragility of the Nigerian polity will be further jeopardized nay exacerbated by heightened religious and ethnic tension which is naturally although indirectly being stimulated by the President’s ‘church tourism.’ Many across religious and even political divides agree that these frivolous visits are harmful at the long run to the president’s score card which is dismal at best and his warped political calculations. As a political pundit puts it succinctly, church or not, issues of performance with evident indices of excellence are what would define the next elections and gladiators like the incumbent.
Ironically critics have slammed the president for using the pulpit to make policy statements of government which has not led to any appreciable decrease in the siege of insecurity bedeviling the country. The president’s serial speeches from the podiums of these large churches now attract disdain and incredulity from a large percentage of the populace and sadly are now viewed from the myopic prism of campaigning for votes.
Many say that this is not the first time the president would play the religious card in his political voyage. In 2010, before the 2011 presidential election, he visited the RCCG to secure the votes of Christians. Two years after that presidential electioneering, he paid another widely publicized visit to the camp to give thanks to God and asked for prayers to enable him rule the country. It is not on record that he paid similar visits to other religious institutions to pay allegiance for their support during the elections making many to believe that he may perhaps hold the view that his stay in office is largely enabled by his religious circle.
The president holds the sacrosanct freedom to decide where his religious leaning and ideological faith lies and equally practice such in any Christian denomination of his utmost preference. However Nigerians including those of other faiths also own the inalienable liberty to express their dissatisfaction at a situation where the nation’s Chief Security Officer and number one citizen makes pertinent and sensitive political pronouncements Churches.
The President needs to be called to order quickly in order to avert a potentially divisive situation in the ever tense ethno-religious setting called Nigeria. As canvassed by no less a religious figure like President of the Catholic Bishops Conference, Ignatius Kaigama, the president needs to stop forthwith his politically motivated visits to churches and the usage of Church pulpits to indirectly request for votes of Christians.
His is not just a lone voice in this call. A prominent clergyman, George Ehusani perhaps puts in succinctly. “I think that the current President is mixing politics with religion. He is the President of the whole Nigeria; he is not only the president of Christians. He is a Christian who is President but while a Christian is President in a country that is 50% Christian and 50% Muslim, you have to be careful.”
For the church it is time to take up the gauntlet against this subtle presidential onslaught on its age-long integrity. It is wrong for the church to allow the soapbox to be brought into the sanctuary. The sanctuary is a hallowed chamber that should not be debased by politics of transient power. This is a desperate bid of a Christian politician to use the church for a subtle endorsement without reference to the capacity to perform and deliver welfare to the people as Jesus Christ did in the Scriptures by the miracle of the fishes and loaves.
The President should be encouraged and advised to rise above partisanship and religious bigotry and scale up to the status of a statesman. The weight of earthly desires and the clamour for power is quite heavy on the human mind and it takes the Grace of God to rise above this. The President should ask God for this exceeding grace to overcome self and all primordial desires that do not edify him, the church and the nation.
Nobody should make the error that my observation is ‘anti-Christian.’ No! Far from it, I am a confessed believer in the person and the divinity of Jesus Christ and He constitutes the centre of my being and the author and finisher of faith and hope for eternal life. I therefore consider it as degrading to the status of Christ to be dragged into the politics of state/temporal power in a manner that excludes people of other faiths that Jesus gave his life that they may come to him.
And if Mr. President feels he must continue on his religious trail I enjoin him to visit Pastor Tunde Bakare’s Church, the Latter Rain Assembly, T.B Joshua’s Synagogue Church of all Nations and Catholic Bishop, Ignatius Kaigama. He should also extend his worship to churches in Yobe, Adamawa and Borno. If Mr. President cannot worship with the Christian community in these volatile states, then he should stop henceforth with the religious campaigns.
Furthermore, from the history of the church and the state in the Holy Bible, Priests took messages of God to kings of nations and read riot acts to them through the famous quote, ‘Thus sayeth the Lord God.’ Ironically, we are now faced with the situation where an un-ordained person climbs on the altar of God to say “Thus sayeth the president”. This is a reversal of spiritual and divine order as we know in the Holy Bible and is a subordination of spiritual authority of Priesthood to the temporal powers of kings and presidents.
Indeed the president needs to be careful in his new found vocation. His decision in the coming weeks will determine if Nigerians have a president who shares the yearnings and aspirations of ALL Nigerians irrespective of tribe or religion or a leader who quickly recedes into his religious or ethnic cave when the need arises.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of universalreporters