Kenyans have become accustomed to smartly dressed politicians who show up in cars with flashlights to attend Sunday services, often with cameras in tow.
They tend to come flush with cash donations – carried by their handlers in shoulder bags – that can be used to build mega churches and purchase loud music systems.
In exchange for this generosity, halfway through the service, the politician steps up to the pulpit, where the congregation becomes a captive audience for their message, which often has little to do with the Bible.
These “sermons” often make their way to television newsletters to satisfy an insatiable appetite for news about those maneuvering ahead of the upcoming elections, which are still nine months away.
Some wander in search of new congregations, leading to some clashes within churches with politicians accusing each other of invading each other’s territory.
Priests are also known to have been invited into politicians’ homes to discuss “development affairs” – as part of negotiations to alleviate these territorial wars.
There are allegations – obviously denied – that some of the donations are the proceeds of illicit earnings.
Now the leaders of established churches have had enough. They banned politicians from the pulpit, accusing them of making “divisive and unedifying” comments that “desecrate the church.”
In order to reduce media attention, churches will no longer disclose sums donated by politicians to church projects.
“In part the priests are responsible for the capture of the church by the politicians. There was a need to bring the practice back to its purity,” Catholic archbishop Anthony Muheria told the BBC.
The head of the Anglican Church in Kenya, Archbishop Jackson Ole Sapit, agreed that it was a “mistake” to give politicians a place in the churches in the first place.
“I own it 100%. But we can’t stay in the same mistake for long. We need a moment of repentance – a turnaround -” he said when the ban was announced last month.
“Politicians are selfish people”
The move was welcomed by some, especially these faithful with whom I spoke in the capital, Nairobi.
“To be honest, it was a distraction. I waited for the church leaders to take care of it,” said Eunice Waweru.
Janet Nzilani agrees: “I am happy that the decision was made because politicians are selfish people. They are not there to inspire people or to ask for unity. They do not appreciate people at all. Pastors should simply acknowledge their presence. [in church] and nothing else. “
Florence Atieno said politicians should be treated with respect, recognized by a pastor if they were in the congregation, and be able to greet the faithful after a service.
“My only problem is when they start campaigning and abuse each other in church,” he said.
But these women all attend evangelical churches whose clerics may not necessarily agree with the pulpit ban.
It is led by the Anglican, Catholic and Presbyterian churches and is facing resistance from those ministries where loyalty to self-proclaimed prophets and faith healers is enormous.
Kenyans are predominantly Christian – 85.5% of the country’s 50 million people, according to the 2019 census – with most now going to evangelical churches. The Catholic Church is the next most popular denomination.
The economy of faith is big business, and fundraising with the right politician can greatly improve a church’s fortunes.
Many churches have run out of cash due to the Covid-19 pandemic, so it’s no surprise that some evangelical clerics have opposed a general ban on the pulpit.
“I don’t think it will take root because we have churches that are opportunistic, they are looking for politicians to give them money, sometimes they even invite them themselves,” media commentator Barrack Muluka told the BBC.
Author and scholar Peter Kimani explains that the clergy of established churches no longer have the control they did in the 1990s.
“It is no longer a unifying force … Evangelicals are briefcase operations and have no organizational principles,” he told the BBC.
Religious studies scholar Josephine Gitome notes that many believers may not be so bothered by the behavior of politicians.
Most Kenyans may also be faithful to the church, but they are not as religious every day: “There is concern that their behavior between Monday and Saturday coincides with their behavior on Sunday.”
The ban on the pulpit seems to signal that traditional churches want to regain some moral authority.
Previously, church leaders had influence when they talked about public affairs and human rights issues: in the 1990s they pushed for a return to multi-party democracy.
But public confidence has declined compared to the controversial positions taken over the past two decades.
Opposition lawmaker Otiende Amollo believes churches have missed the mark on three major occasions:
- Failing to speak loud enough at the height of post-election violence between 2007 and 2008
- Opposing the new constitution, introduced after a referendum in 2010 to ease ethnic tensions
- And failing to mediate between political factions after the Supreme Court overturned the August 2017 presidential election results.
“These events have significantly reduced the church’s standing and it will take some time to regain that position,” Amollo, who was among the lawyers who convinced the judges to cancel the first 2017 poll results, told the BBC.
Pandemic restrictions were partially lifted for church congregations in June, although election rallies remained banned, meaning churches were inundated with politicians.
President Uhuru Kenyatta, a practicing Catholic, recently loosened further restrictions that allow churches up to two-thirds of their capacity, although demonstrations are still banned.
So the ban on the pulpit does not appeal to politicians in the election campaign, such as Vice President William Ruto, who is looking to the presidency.
“We come as Christians to support church projects”, he was quoted speaking at an evangelical service in central Kenya where he reportedly donated two million Kenyan shillings ($ 18,000; £ 13,000).
Amollo thinks churches should go further and ban fundraising events for politicians as well.
But church leaders try hard to say that the same politicians who wield the Bible are not banned.
“Politicians are still invited to pray, but without any preferential treatment to address the faithful,” Ferdinand Lugonzo, head of the secretariat of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Kenya, told the BBC.
“The church building is consecrated for worship purposes only.”
More information on Kenya’s religion and politics:
- Hustlers v dynasties: Kenya’s new political divide
- The true cost of Kenya’s political love triangle
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