Evangelical Christianity in Africa


Christianity is not a new thing on the African continent. Christianity’s roots are strong, and date back to the 1st millennium of the Church’s existence. By contrast, Europe became a Christian heartland only after 1500CE. The geographic heartland of Christianity has shifted from North to South, according to some experts. In 1900, 2% of Africans were Protestant Christians. In 2000, over 27% of Africans were Protestant Christians.

The common belief is that Evangelical Christianity, as a subset of Global Christianity (to include Catholicism, Greek and Eastern Orthodox, etc.) is a new phenomenon on the African continent. In fact, Africans who were veterans of the American Civil war and Black British soldiers returned to the continent and spread Christianity with missionary zeal. Current-day Evangelical and Pentecostal Christian movements in Africa, however, display certain propensities to reinforce material conditions that favor outside forces rather than economic and political stability within individuated African countries.

Christianity as practiced by Africans is as diverse as the cultural and ethnic makeup of the continent itself. Religious pluralism is one of the hallmarks of Evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity in Africa. The continent hosts some of the oldest Christians (the Coptic Christians of Egypt and the Ethiopia Orthodox churches) and the newest, which include sects such as the Kimbanguists (based upon the beliefs of an African Faith healer who died in a Belgian prison in the 1920s). The emphasis upon individual interpretation and a direct experience of the Godhead(Gnosis) that typifies Evangelical and Pentecostal churches is a grassroots and populist form of Christianity that is particularly suited to the Africa of today.

Christianity was adapted to local indigenous belief systems, partly because of Evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity’s emphasis upon individual gnosis and direct experience of God. Therefore, the path was opened for many supernatural elements, which also find expression in American Evangelical and Pentecostal Church services. This has led to schisms between Northern and Southern branches of Protestant denominations, most particularly and dramatically exemplified by the Anglican Church. And yet, the Evangelical phenomenon transcends denomination, since Evangelical adherents exist in Methodist, Presbyterian, Anglican and Lutheran denominations.

Christianity has come to be associated with political and cultural change. Liberation Theology (Catholicism, 1950s, 60s) is one traditional form of Christian proselytizing that has traditionally been known for fomenting revolutionary political and social change within underdeveloped regions and realms across the world. But many attribute right-winged political tendencies to the African Evangelical movement, stemming from their association with right-winged religious organizations in the U.S. The evidence refutes this and shows, instead, that indigenous leaders and local politics – as affected by larger, global trends – play a much larger role than do right-winged American or European geopolitics.

Economic and Sectarian issues also play a large part in determining the political alliances of Evangelicals throughout Africa. Taken alongside traditional religious and cultural alliances – Catholic and Protestant churches aligned against Muslim interests, for instance – the diversity of Evangelical political orientations ranges from the Far Right to the Far Left in African politics, although there is a noted propensity for Left-winged Evangelicals to predominate, due to the Left’s tendency to focus more so upon the issues of poor and/or minority constituents.

Africa in the 21st century is facing many geographic issues stemming from the environment to famine and warfare, to political upheaval. The legacy of colonialism inhibited the growth of Christianity somewhat, due to the strictures placed upon the full African expression of religious devotion. Black American ecstatic churches, Baptist, Pentecostal, etc., are examples of this phenomena and how it diffused into Protestant Christianity. It has become clear, as a result, that the attempt to Europeanize Africans through the missionary system was doomed to failure. In the case of African Americans, exposure to Christianity over a span of centuries has resulted in the inclusion of certain Africanisms within the Protestant branches of the faith that has led directly to the evolution and wide-spread diffusion of Evangelicalism from the North American and European heartlands, back into the Southern realms, from whence Christianity originally sprang.

Color consciousness and the association of Christianity with the colonial process were inevitable side-effects of European Colonization that resulted in psychic and spiritual damage to indigenous African peoples, cultures and belief systems. Cognitive dissonance was the inevitable result of the dichotomous roles that Christianity and Colonization played in the subjugation of the African continent. The indoctrination of many Africans through the missionary school system had the added side-effect of creating a consciousness of European market structures and norms that served the purpose of informing generations of Africans about the positives and negatives of capitalism. This background set the stage for the current spread of Evangelical Christianity.

Christianity was never seen as ‘a White Man’s Religion’ by many Africans. So, the continent was fertile ground for Evangelical Christianity. Some believe, and will argue, that Christianity is an Afro-Western religion, while Islam is an Afro-Asian religion. The places in Africa where Evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity have taken the strongest hold are also places where traditional religious values are the strongest (Yorubaland in Nigeria, exemplified by theAladura, also known as the Cherubim and Seraphim Society). Many of the social values that Christianity espouses were already inherent African social values, to include an emphasis upon marriage and devotion to family life. The general perception in the West that Africans practiced polygamy on a widespread scale has proven to be false on its face, primarily because the status of women in African society is not nor ever has been one of inferiors, as has commonly been stated in western academic and social circles, but as one of equals.

African society is primarily non-acquisitive, and non-material in nature (traditional). Therefore, consumerism has not yet taken a firm hold upon the continent. Social intercourse and relationship building have been of much more importance, traditionally speaking. Community is more important than individuals, and material possessions are less important than retaining interpersonal relationships (traditional). Many of these ideas, which are traditional African beliefs, are reflected by the Bible and Christianity.

The position that Christianity holds in Africa is not that of an interloper religion, but of “an indivisible entity” that encapsulates the entirety of physical and spiritual life for the African. Temple democracy is used as a derogatory term, although it is ostensibly concerned with combining methods by which politics (democracy) and religion work toward the goal of individual and collective political freedom. TD is seen as a faith-based philosophical system rather than a traditional political philosophy based upon rationality and logic. Because it is associated with the Establishment and forms of political and economic corruption, it is considered to be inferior to other forms of Christian political organizing.

The argument has also been made that Democracy in Africa is of foreign origin. The primary cited example of this has been the overwhelming presence of African dictators and tribal politics which have resulted in the widespread looting of natural resources, as well as the continuing dominance of American and European Transnational Corporations who plunder the material riches of African countries, enriching the indigenous political and social elite, while leaving the vast majority of people poor and needy. European and African social scientists have been implicit in this misconception, concentrating upon the manifested realities of inequality and poverty, while glossing over the macroeconomic and global causative factors which have resulted in these patterns of uneven wealth distribution.

The principles of justice, freedom, responsibility and love underlie democratic ideals and are common characteristics of many religious systems, to include indigenous African belief systems. The lack of a geographically-defined political philosophy that unites the African continent is one factor that continues to bedevil the economic and political aspirations of Africans as a whole. The Berlin Conference (1884), Colonialism and the imposition of European forms of state development (Isolated State), combined with Cold War antagonisms (minority vs. majority populations, Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, Ndebele and Shona in Zimbabwe) have fundamentally affected the ability of African countries to maintain stable and cohesive governmental forms.

Multi-party systems, therefore, are subject to anarchic conditions and single-party systems have been rife with corruption, nepotism and cronyism resulting in inevitable tyranny. Political assassination (coup d’etat), the outlawing of opposition parties, the lack of true will to work in tandem with opposing groups, have been signature hallmarks of the African political system and have all combined to work against the full flowering of Christianity across the continent. The twin pillars of God and Democracy resonate, particularly with American Evangelicals in this day and time; with historical and religious doctrine espoused by Evangelicals through time reflecting the perceived correlation between the two (see Jefferson, de Tocqueville, George W. Bush).

Material conditions in African countries reflect the outward focus of their economies, being based upon cash-cropping and the exportation of raw materials for industrial and agricultural processing in other countries. This is a phenomenon known as Neocolonialism, which can be traced directly back to the colonial era and the direct exploitation of African peoples and the material wealth of the continent itself. Once the actual physical presence of Europeans declined after the onset of the Independence Era (1950s-70s), only the political, economic and exploitative development of raw materials extraction (mining of Gold, Uranium and other valuable ores) and cash-cropping (plantation agriculture) remained. Neocolonialism has played a large part in the current trend of spatial economic and cultural diffusion that has been called Globalism by academics and futurist in Europe and America. This ‘new’ form of economic evolution has been heralded as being evidence of the onset and birth of a ‘global village’, whereby economic and cultural diffusion permeates the traditional cultures of nations and states around the world, bringing people closer together and leading to the eventual ‘evening out’ of economic trends which have continued to widen the gap between the Haves (Core countries) and the Have-nots (Periphery countries) of the world.

The resulting economic difficulties caused by uneven patterns of development between the North and the South have had both positive and negative effects upon the development and diffusion of Christianity across the continent. Foreign debt to western countries and to organizations such as theWorld Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have resulting in crushing debt regimes and the inability of some countries to even pay the interest upon their debt. The Global restructuring and governmental downsizing that characterized the 1980s and 90s left room for ‘outside players’ to enter African countries and effect fundamental change upon some of the traditional bedrocks of African society, namely, social customs and religious practices. This has resulted in the collapse of local economic infrastructures to include health facilities and structural political administrative bodies. These government cutbacks affected the meting out of social services to the general populace considerably. Conditions placed by these bodies upon African countries resulted in increased imports of European and American goods into Africa, also allowing Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and other foreign interests to move into African countries with foreign investment and aid initiatives.

In the late 1980s, the U.S., Scandinavia, and English Evangelicals descended upon the continent to build schools, houses, churches and roads. Many of these religious groups retained organizational autonomy, while working within an interlocking structure of denominationally-interrelated organizations (examples include World Vision, the Billy Graham Center Institute of Evangelicalism and many others), and endeavored to create special organizational programs that were geared toward ‘African Youth’.

The associations of Christian Evangelicalism in Africa with consumerism has been seen as an outgrowth of the missionary era and also commiserate with increasing tensions between Muslims and Christians in specific regions. Even during the early centuries of European Christianity’s incursion into Africa, missionaries actively encouraged the consumption of European material goods and the practice of taking on European mannerism and mores, in order to foment better relationships between Christianized Africans and Europeans. The same paternal processes occur today in the spread of Evangelical Christianity, to the effect that personal effects (attire) are integrally tied to the authentic expression of the religion itself (Self against Other, manifest in the form of Muslim or Consumerist). In the modern case, it is not necessary for Western Evangelicals to actively spread a consumerist message, since their arrival coincides with the remorseless progression of Globalization and the corporate media penetration (advertising) of previously under-utilized markets.

Philip Jenkins’s book, The Next Christendom, discusses the militarization of Evangelical Christianity as a type of fundamentalism and predicts the inevitable conflict between Christianity and Islam in Africa under the auspices of a New Dark Age, where Feudal relationships between Church and State will once again predominate. Others believe that the fundamental plurality and independence of Evangelicalism and the localized nature of their administrative associations preclude it from attaining large-scale mobilization. The fundamental relationship of religion to culture is one aspect of the spread of Evangelical Christianity. Also, technological changes in the method of delivery, to include the increasing growth of Mega-churches, the use of the electronic mass media and large-scale evangelistic campaigns.

The relationship of culture to market-oriented society is seen as affecting a closer relationship between global Evangelical Christianity and the Politics of Production. Because of changes in African society having to do with the loss of the traditional extended family unit because of increasing mobility, endemic poverty and rapid urbanization, the new Evangelical and Pentecostal churches are becoming ‘surrogate families’ to people otherwise marginalized by the ongoing rush of societal evolution.

The construction of Youth as an indicator of difference, and also as a tie-in to the global youth culture, to include hip hop, moral ambiguity and western clothing fashions, is one of the primary means Evangelicals use in order to define ‘value’ in a society. Much of this is related to socio-economic status, in that the youth who are targeted are usually those who come from family situations that allow them to go to secondary school, to attend youth conferences and revivals, and to eventually enter into ministry programs provided by these religious organizations for a minimal fee. The inordinate attention paid to the material artifacts of culture, i.e. clothing, jewelry as materialist fashion statements reinforces socio-economic and political messages that emphasize western culture and mores over traditionally-African or Muslim mores, or, acceptable political and culture messages being fostered by the African countries themselves.

The message is continually reinforced that Evangelical Christianity is future-oriented and outward-facing, emphasizing the relationship of Evangelical Christianity in Africa with Global Evangelicalism, and with the western countries of Europe and the Americas. This message is attractive to youth who want to be part of a global culture of educated and fashionably-dressed Christians. An upwardly-mobile social identity has been seen to be one side-effect of the spread of Evangelical Christianity in Africa that goes hand in hand with the imperatives of export-production and the neo-colonialist imperatives that require the inculcation of an indigenous elite who share cultural if not ethnic propensities with their European and American present and future economic partners.

So it seems that the process of Evangelizing African youth has taken on the air of a rite of passage of sorts, resulting in the transformation of youth into great social beings with higher cultural capital and prestige, and, by extension, a closer tie to the amenities of global capitalism forming the backbone of a new, African Elite. These examples highlight the broad diversity of Evangelical and Pentecostal movements in Africa: the attraction of Evangelicalism to the economic, social and political elite, and the attraction of Evangelicalism to the economic, social and political untouchables. The fundamental characteristics of spiritual independence and free agency tie the Protestant Evangelical and Pentecostal movements closer to traditional African contexts, where multiple religious belief systems coexisted harmoniously for hundreds of years both pre-and-post colonization.

The desire to interpret the teachings of Christ from a non-western viewpoint has led to a revitalization of Christianity in Africa and the assignation of Evangelical and Pentecostal denominations to the task of consolidating disparate belief systems within one holistic and encompassing social and cultural body. There has been increasing recognition that a certain amount of pluralism under the auspices of Christianity is a desired goal and rests upon two fundamental beliefs and one revision of the historical record: 1) Theology is inherently local. Christianity reinforces ideas that have been traditionally propagated by local belief systems, and: 2) Pre-Christian beliefs were considered to be polytheistic by Europeans. This misnomer has resulted in the inability of many to truly comprehend the momentous spread of Christianity in the last 40 years and its ability to integrate local belief systems while still retaining its fundamental Christian character.

Finally, the issue of the separation of Church and State is not the same in Africa as it is in the western countries. Governmental structures that emphasize central governments must exist in tandem with traditional political structures. At the same time, Centralized Governments are viewed with suspicion and hatred by the general populace. Development initiatives have been traditionally associated with corrupt centralized governments and organizations such as the IMF and World Bank and have, therefore, been spectacularly ineffective in alleviating the structural difficulties brought about by export-oriented economies that are in debt up to foreign countries and cooperatively-owned development institutions (IMF and World Bank). Evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity, rather than acting in a political and administrative function, serves to unify individuals and congregations around certain issues and concerns, as well as certain social and economic advances that bolster their religious beliefs as well as the material culture required to disseminate and represent those beliefs in their social lives.

Evangelicalism is the coalescence of religious movements, rather than one large, individuated movement in and of itself, all of which tend toward the dissolution of consensus, rather than the consolidation of it. This is an important characteristic of democratic movements, the existence and propagation of a formal method and population of dissenters. Because the tribalized nature of political association in Africa shares certain characteristics with the hegemonies of Churches, Priests/Pastors and Reverends, the dissent occasioned by the presence and political activism of Evangelicals serves the same purpose that the dissent of the original European and American Evangelicals in the 1700s against the Catholic Ecclesiastical Hierarchy. The moral activism of Evangelicals is a strong force for change in any society. While this characteristic certainly allows for an amount of political freedom from corruption and moral relativity, it also makes these groups somewhat susceptible to manipulation and cooptation by political leaders and organizations.

Evangelicalism and Democracy, then, are uneasy partners, with each equally likely to turn on the other. The feared fundamentalism of one is anathema to the other, while the feared moral relativity of the other is anathema to the first. The geography of Evangelicalism in Africa is a Geography of Difference, of social and cultural landscapes that shift in response to micro and macro-level indicators, both economic and political. While incorporating the ‘best of the past’ with the ‘best of the present’, African Evangelicals look to the future as a measure of relative prosperity and growth, dependent upon, if not beholden to, both worldly and otherworldly trends.

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4 Comments

  1. Mark congratulations on making freshly pressed. I have long been looking for a blog like this. I trust that I have finally found what I am looking for. I will be hanging out here alot. I almost feel connected in a way to the continent through what I have read so far. I guess I feel this way because I have been disconnected for a while. God bless and I will talk to you soon.

    1. Thank you for visiting, Walter, and for your kind press. Freshly pressed, now that’s the WordPress Hightlight series, eh? Well I am honored, then. Good to meet you, I look forward to future discussions. ~Mark

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