Newspaper reports that Specially Elected Member of Parliament Moggie Mbaakanyi spent 30 minutes preaching the Word of God on gender equality are frightening (Mmegi Monitor, 6 April 2009). Notwithstanding that Botswana is predominantly a Christian nation, parliament must not be turned into a battlefield for religious wars.
Granted that the relationship between religion and politics is contentious and controversial, in Botswana the church and the state have always remained separated, real or imagined.
Whereas the doctrine of separation of church and state never intended to separate religious persons from politics or politically active beings from their spiritual roots, it has nevertheless ensured that neither the state nor the church meddled in each other’s operational spheres. It has ensured that the state stayed away from the routine business of the church and reciprocally the church did not determine our daily lives.
This is despite arguments that the church and state do not operate in distinct spheres of human life. This separation was meant to cultivate a mutually beneficial relationship between the two institutional entities to advance the interests of mankind. The Botswana state guarantees freedom of religion which includes freedom either individually or in community with others to manifest religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching. In doing so, organized religious bodies or their representatives are expected to stay alive to the fact that religious laws and values should not be forced into the lives of other citizens who do not share their convictions.
Faith though can provide useful guidance in solving society’s problems but it should not determine who we are and how we live. Faith should be used to guide us through faltering steps of life not to make us fearful of some mysterious objects and timidly submit to despotism. Botswana can be classified as a Christian nation because a greater fraction of its population is Christian and as a result, Christianity has somewhat become state religion.
This is in spite of the existence of other religions. Nevertheless, this unofficial arrangement has never provoked open-bloodied hostilities and competition between Christianity and other religions that may have rightly felt neglected and short changed by the state in preference for Christianity, thanks to the symbolic separation of the State and the Church. The state has left the church to go about its business of bringing souls to Christ so long as such business does not endanger the public order.
The church reciprocated by avoiding being too involved in the hurly-burly of routine politics. In the USA this arrangement of separation of state and church is constitutionally recognized and it is believed that this is the reason why Americans are some of the most religious people in the world. Botswana nevertheless has managed to ensure a harmonious state-church relationship without necessarily setting the legal framework within which the two operates. However, over the years there has been a growing trend towards a faith-based policy making process in Botswana.
Increasingly, public policies are justified on the basis of religion, precisely by invoking the name of God. Issues are hardly subjected to rational interrogation but there is often an immediate invocation of the Bible with legislators and policy makers asserting what the Bible says, thus having no regard for the rights of citizens who have chosen not to believe in the existence of God.
Reference to the Bible often kills the debate because it is generally assumed that the Bible is never wrong and religion by its nature assumes objectivity and cannot be challenged without reflecting rejection of God, which is a sin punishable by painful death.
The purpose of this essay is not to discount the influence of religion on human life but rather to point to the potential dangers of having a faith-based parliament.
There is absolutely nothing immoral in using religion to make sense of ethical issues but it will wrong to allow religious views to form the basis of government policy and national laws. Parliament must be seen to be making laws unconstrained by religious views. This is fundamental because Parliament must serve all; godly and the heathens.
It is disturbing that elected representatives seem to be putting loyalty to their religions above their obligations to the entire electorate, which makes one suspect that Botswana Government position on homosexuality and same sex marriages is based on religious beliefs rather than a concern for society. On the basis of this, religious bodies must carefully guard against being used by politicians who seek to further their narrowly defined political interests. By their nature, most politicians are treacherous and could fake religious beliefs or re-invent themselves as men of faith not to bring souls to Christ but to deliver converts to routine politics in order to promote and protect their interests. Should this be the case as it increasingly appears to be, faith would be susceptible to be used as a weapon of deception. Politicians would couch their language in religious tones to rouse converts while knowingly promoting their personal or group interests.
There is ample evidence of religious fanaticism as politicians seek to use religion, in particular, Christianity to shape relationships and impose their own judgment about a model of a virtuous life. People are lectured on the Biblical value of this and that and challenged to be inspired by the word of God with such comments disguised as facts. If politicians are allowed to use their religions to deceive people, religious bodies would kiss goodbye to their reputations as agents of
God as converts become disillusioned and elect to stay home. Heathens who have never heard the name of Jesus but were keen to give it a try would lose out but most significantly, for the first time in as many centuries Botswana would risk a religious war.
As stated already, in spite of the entrenched religious differences and a tacit preferential treatment extended to the Christian religion, this has never generated violent hostilities.
But recent developments are a recipe for deep-seated hostilities especially when politicians carelessly weave Christian values and laws into all aspects of human life. For instance, for a long time Halaal has been a prerequisite for access to the major meat markets and this left Muslims contended. Yet in his State of The Nation Address in 2008, President Khama announced that he has directed government lawyers to draft a Bill that provides for meat slaughtered outside of the Muslim method to be available to consumers.
In a democracy, such an arrangement guarantees real options, real freedom of choice but the decision could be interpreted as a deliberate reversal of Islamic fortunes and influence by a predominantly Christian political leadership that has over the years favored the Christian doctrine. On the basis of this, constant reference to the Bible to justify national laws and policies by the political leadership and policy makers who have been nurtured in the Christian faith is not only undesirable but dangerous and authorities should be advised to try other tricks and desist from playing with religion.