May 27, 2024

Christian nationalism is a form of religious nationalism, drawing on specific Christian values and beliefs. Saiya identifies Christian nationalism as ‘a global problem … surging in regions as diverse’ as the Americas, Europe, and Africa.

[1] The democratic impact of Christian nationalism in the USA and Europe is much discussed; little has so far been made of the phenomenon in Africa. This is an important oversight, given that Christian nationalism is relevant in several African countries, including Zambia, Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, and Ethiopia. So how should we understand Christian nationalism, and what does this mean for the quality of democracy?

The controversy over Christian nationalism

Christian nationalism is a controversial term. For some, Christian nationalism is ‘a healthy form of Christian patriotism, of loving God and loving one’s country’.[2] For others, Christian nationalism is a religious and political project to make supreme a singular interpretation of Christianity which undermines democracy.[3] Focusing on the USA, Whitehead and Perry define Christian nationalism as ‘a collection of myths, traditions, symbols, narratives, and value systems – that idealizes and advocates a fusion of Christianity with American civic life’.[4] It ‘is undergirded by identification with a conservative political orientation (though not necessarily a political party), Bible belief, premillennial visions of moral decay, and divine sanction for conquest’.[5]

In Africa, Christian nationalists advocate a fusion of Christianity with civic life, via dominion theology. Dominion theology or ‘dominionism’ is a ‘theocratic idea that regardless of theological camp, means, or timetable, God has called conservative Christians to exercise dominion over society by taking control of political and cultural institutions.’[6] In Africa, Christian nationalists, most of whom are members of fast-growing Pentecostalist and Charismatic churches, work to operationalise dominion theology to bring about ‘God’s kingdom on earth’, where a theocratic government applies Christian values, beliefs and rules to the detriment of those with different ideas about the good society. Dominion theology had its origins in the USA and spread from there to Africa.[7]

Christian nationalism is politically influential in Zambia, Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, and Ethiopia. All were significantly affected by democratisation from the early 1990s. Democratisation encouraged civil society actors, including influential Christians, to comment publicly on issues of public concern. The 1990s also saw rapid growth of Pentecostal and Charismatic churches in Africa. [8] These developments encouraged Christians to contribute to debates about public policy.

Saiya asserts that where ‘Christian nationalism has become entrenched in national politics, the quality of democracy has been substantially degraded’ in three ways. First, ‘Christian nationalism prioritizes power and control over others’. This leads Christian nationalists to lend their support to political candidates who ‘promise to protect or restore the hegemony of Christianity, regardless of these politicians’ commitment to democratic norms and institutions’. Second, Christian nationalists disregard ‘the principle of democratic equality’, as their main aim is to build or preserve Christians’ dominant position. Third, Christian nationalism is said to threaten ‘the cornerstone of democratic governance: the peaceful transition of power’.[9] How do these claims stack up in relation to Christian nationalism in Africa?

Pentecostal nationalism

President Francis Chiluba, a Pentecostal, announced on 30 December 1991 that Zambia was a Christian nation, an assertion institutionalised in the current (1996) constitution. Today, Christian nationalists exert significant influence on politics, public policy, popular culture, and moral imagination in Zambia, via application of dominion theology.[10] The strategy involves ‘a top down approach driven by intentional, often state-led interventions in key institutions’, including law making and governance. [11] In 2023, Zambia began constructing an important symbol of Christian nationalism: a National House of Prayer.[12]

Other variants of Christian nationalism abound. Ebenezer Obadare employs the term ‘Pentecostal nationalism’ in relation to Christian nationalism in Nigeria. Pentecostalism is the country’s fastest-growing religious strand and Pentecostal churches are politically important, drawing on the concerns of ‘a cross section of Christians’ with ‘a grievance against perceived marginalization’.[13] Lederle notes the influence of dominion theology among prominent Pentecostals in Nigeria, including Archbishop Benson Idahosa (1938-98), famous as the ‘father’ of Pentecostalism in Nigeria.[14]

 

 

An American televangelist, Oral Roberts, is said to have ‘inspired and influenced many leading Pentecostal leaders in Africa’, including Idahosa.[15] Two of Nigeria’s recent presidents, Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan, were Pentecostals.[16]  Muhammadu Buhari, who stood down as president in May 2023, is a Muslim, although his administration contained several prominent Pentecostals. Bola Tinubu, who followed Buhari as president, is also a Muslim, as is his vice-president. Fears of some Christians were assuaged however when it was announced that Tinubu’s wife, Remi ‘is not only a Christian but a senior pastor’ of a Pentecostal megachurch, the Redeemed Christian Church of God.[17]

 

 

Like Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire is a religiously plural country, around 39% Christian and 42% Muslim. A former president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, built the largest Christian church in the world, the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace at Yamoussoukro. The basilica was consecrated by Pope John Paul II on 10 September 1990. The basilica is a key symbol of Côte d’Ivoire as a Christian nation, despite the country’s slim Muslim numerical superiority.[18] Christian nationalism is part of a religious discourse which, while claiming not to be political, asserts that Côte d’Ivoire belongs to the country’s Christians, referred to as the ‘children of God’. It is characterised by supposedly miraculous healings, spectacular conversions, a hunt for demons, and an anti-Muslim stance. [19] Ngimbous argues that the project ‘is oriented towards the conquest of power’ and if this ‘evangelised variant of nationalism’ does have a spiritual goal, it ‘is subordinated for a political purpose’.[20]

 

 

More than 60% of Ethiopians are Christian and around a third are Muslims. Christian nationalism does not appear to be conducive to good inter-faith relations. DeCort argues that Ethiopia is being torn apart under the rule of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in the pursuit of Christian nationalist goals, in particular to assert Christian dominance over Muslims. To this end, Ahmed is said to be pursuing an ‘ancient Christian imperialism’, promising ‘to unify Ethiopia and restore its divine glory’, characterised by a belief ‘that Ethiopia is a Christian nation created and destined by God for greatness under Christian leadership’.[21]

 

 

According to Østebø, Orthodox Christianity plays ‘a dominant role in producing a particular religious nationalism … characterized by a strong form of Ethiopian exceptionalism’. [22] Hardy notes the influence of dominion theology on Prime Minister Ahmed’s alleged attempt to make Ethiopia a Christian nation despite a significant percentage of non-Christians in the country.[23]

Why does the rise of Christian nationalism matter?

This brief examination of the impact of Christian nationalism on democracy in Zambia, Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, and Ethiopia indicates that it is manifested in various ways, depending on specific interactions of history, politics, religion, and culture. Typically, Christian nationalists employ dominion theology as a vehicle to remake governance and the economy. Christian nationalists also prioritise power and control over others, including Christians from mainline churches, including Anglican, Episcopalian and Roman Catholic. This is problematic, especially when it is combined with work to maintain their dominant position in relation to religious minorities, including Muslims. There are significant percentages of both Christians and Muslims in Ethiopia, Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire, although not in Zambia which has a Muslim population of fewer than 5%. Nonetheless, when Christian nationalism appear to be anti-Islamic (and Islam to be anti-Christian) and there is a danger that interfaith rivalries may spill over into overt conflict, threatening not only democracy, but also political stability and the survival of national identity.

 

Jeffrey Haynes (email) is Emeritus Professor of Politics at London Metropolitan University, and the author of Revolution and Democracy in Ghana: The Politics of Jerry Rawlings. 

 

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