The church has a legitimate claim to indulge in political commentary. But this legitimacy is contingent. However, most of us ignore this contingency. We assume that the church has a right to political commentary simply because it is the church. In fact this legitimacy must be earned, nurtured and sustained. When the church stops guarding its legitimacy, people naturally stop respecting it as a player in national affairs.
The dilemma we face is that most Kenyans assume that simply because it is the church, Amen is the only valid response to what the church says. The idea is that precisely because church and faith are twinned, their word on anything is sacrosanct.
The church, they assume, embodies morality and this moral context gives it an unquestionable final say on national affairs, including political ones.
As a result, in our everyday discourse, to be born again unsurprisingly endows people with higher moral credit. Further, to have any of the religious titles like pastor or bishop exalts one beyond legitimate human criticism. Moral uprightness is no longer the consequence of what people do in everyday life, it is vested in the fact that you own a religious title or confess to religious piety.
This in turn gives religious leaders access to exalted spaces including, most importantly, high political spaces.
It is for this reason that the relationship between church and politics has become problematic.
When I speak of church and politics in Kenya, in practice, it does not refer to the relationship between the church as the totality of the body of Christ and government as the totality of the relationships that bring leaders and the citizenry together. Rather, church and politics has been reduced to the conviviality of politicians and church leaders.
This is depicted with accuracy during church service or functions where political leaders not only have the front seat in church but are almost entitled ‘to say a word’ after the service.
A particularly disturbing character of this relationship between politicians and the church is monetary. There were days when the church did not hunger as much for political patronage as it does today; when it was the moral voice of all without discriminating along ethnic, class or gender lines.
There were days when the church articulated the voice of the poor, the hungry and the exploited.
In those days, churches survived on the contribution of congregants and these contributions were not splashed in the media for political mileage.
Today, a church service that ends without a rich politician or businessman being invited to speak and/or give a contribution to the ‘welfare’ of the ‘church’ is a rarity. At times, the contribution is obscene compared to the context of poverty affecting vast communities in the country.
Of course, there are exceptions. These exceptional churches might not be known partly because they do not attract media advertising. But in fact, the media is quickly being rendered irrelevant to this story. How many times do you bump into a tweet or Facebook post from a politician informing you where s/he worshipped and how much s/he contributed?
This is why it is big news when the Deputy President sits like an ordinary congregant during worship. What is a personal matter between him and his God has become national news that carries political credit.
Our churches have socialised us to exalt political leaders in spaces where Christ would have counselled simplicity, compassion, humility and simple faith.
When politicians then occupy those exalted places as a right, we wonder what went wrong with church-state separation.
Politicians will be politicians. They will hog the limelight if and when opportunities arise. It is the churches to re-evaluate themselves and find the moral compass they wish to advance.
Keeping a respectable distance from politicians is key if the church wants to retain and nurture its legitimate voice in politics.
Godwin R. Murunga teaches at the University of Nairobi.