Religious leaders in Africa have had to give a lot of thought to issues of Church and state because of the scale and urgency of the crisis that has engulfed their societies. Political instability has eroded confidence in public institutions, while corruption and sagging morale have undermined trust and a sense of security. Recent upheavals in Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, and Libya where ordinary citizens have risen up and demanded a voice in the government established to rule over them have given hope to victims of oppression and tyrannical rule in many other parts of the continent. The growing threat to the civil order in general, along with divisions and differences among religious communities themselves, has challenged religious leaders to offer an answer to the mounting crisis.
Religious institutions in Africa lack the resources and the physical assets to make a substantial difference to the material lives and conditions of citizens, and, short of abandoning their religious vocation and insinuating themselves into partisan politics, religious leaders often find themselves pushed to the margins where their voice is suppressed, or in other ways is not heard. Many observers have noted how religious officials have been co-opted for a fee to serve as moral chaplains to those in power, resulting in turning the moral witness of the Churches into a mere political gallery. It harms the cause of good governance by dimming hope and giving incentive to arbitrary power. In the long run, the continuing dictatorial abuses will likely spark popular disenchantment and a demand for change.
In many countries religious institutions have been often the only viable structures left in the wake of the collapse of state institutions, including the breakdown of the organs of law and order. Given their endurance and their increasing influence, religious institutions represent an important source of hope in a time of great uncertainty. Accordingly, the willingness of religious leaders to speak to popular despair and to strive in the cause of peace, justice, and reconciliation gives the religious voice an important public role. The choice no longer is between religious anointing of dictatorial power, on the one hand, and, on the other, moral indifference, or between resignation and subjugation, but, rather, between despair and hope. The fact that government is necessary does not mean that tyranny is inevitable. With democratic safeguards, we can have one without the other. As it is, the present status quo is destructive enough to be any longer tenable.
That is the stark choice facing religious leaders. A growing number of citizens whose lives and living conditions have been adversely affected by tyrannical political regimes and by public malfeasance happens to be self-identified religious persons whose dual status as citizens and believers means that they do not see a conflict between the allegiance they feel they owe to their countries and the duty they owe to God and to their fellow human beings. It is not a case of one or the other. Instead, they feel that government should be answerable to the will and consent of citizens while being respectful of the dictates of conscience. The state cannot compel the loyalty and obedience of citizens as the sole justification of its existence any more than it can compel or forbid love of God and of neighbor. The considerable devotion Africans give to religion while also being actively involved in civic life shows that people take their dual role as citizens and as believers seriously even though in their nature Church and state remain separate and distinct institutions.
These facts of political failure and the corresponding growth of religious allegiance have demanded from religious leaders fresh ideas about restoring confidence in the right of citizens to decide their own political destiny, and also about the crucial role of religion as the arrangement believers create to express their duty to God and to their neighbors. Religion and politics overlap to the degree that a citizen and a believer are one and the same person, and also to the degree that the will and consent of the citizen rise from the same foundation as the dictates of conscience for the believer. While not all citizens are believers, it is the case that all believers are citizens, and that dual status places on believers a dual obligation to uphold the rule and laws of government and to respect the conscience in respect of obedience to God.
These reflections form the background to the Accra Charter of Religious Freedom and Citizenship. At an important companion conference convened in Accra in July, 2010, where the subject of Christian- Muslim relations in Africa led to consideration of the Muslim tradition of faith and the public order, there was general recognition of the need to develop from the Christian side a statement on religious freedom and citizenship that would move the debate beyond the current stalemate. The Islamic prescription for the religious reconstruction of society has no exact parallels in Christian Africa, if apartheid South Africa may be considered the exception that proves the rule. The New Testament does not prescribe a blueprint for a religious state, while the experience of the early Church points to withdrawal, what Muslims refer to as hijrah, rather than to political mobilization, the Muslim jihad fi sabil li-llahi, “struggle in the path of God.” Yet Scripture and the experience of the Christian tradition do give us important models of religion and the public order, particularly about how faith invests us with a dual identity as persons created in the image and likeness of God and as subjects of Caesar. The Accra Charter affirms this dual heritage of faith and the cause of the common good as the bulwark against tyranny and hedonism.