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As the body count of victims from the Shakahola Forest mass graves has ticked up, the Kenyan public has reacted with a mix of revulsion and horror. President William Ruto’s description of Pastor Paul Mackenzie, head of the Good News International Church, as “a terrible criminal” and someone who “did not belong to any religion” captures something of the incredulity that many Kenyans and observers of the church scene in the country feel, particularly following reports that many of the victims most probably starved themselves to death, while others, including children, may have been “strangled, beaten, or suffocated to death”.

While many are puzzled as to why Pastor Mackenzie’s parishioners would agree to starve themselves to death in order to “meet Jesus in heaven,” others are at a loss as to the depth of the hold that a barely educated 50-year-old pastor exercises on the minds of his followers.

As Kenyans search for answers to these questions, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that, beyond Pastor Mackenzie and the specific relationship between him and his congregants, these dilemmas point to broader issues around civic distrust, deepening social precarity, and state-society disarticulation that transcend Kenya as a country. At the same time, far from the irreligious monster that an understandably frustrated President Ruto takes him to be, as a sociological type, Pastor Mackenzie is as a matter of fact a familiar and ubiquitous presence across the African Pentecostal landscape, the beneficiary and driver of profound alterations in the social structure of many African countries. In the epicentres of the Pentecostal resurgence in Africa (Nigeria, Zambia, Ghana, Zimbabwe, and Kenya) “Men of God” like Pastor Nthenge cast a growing shadow over politics, the economy, education, and increasingly, popular culture, raising fundamental questions about the location of authority as the state continues its acknowledged retreat from people’s lives.

Pastor Mackenzie is as a matter of fact a familiar and ubiquitous presence across the African Pentecostal landscape.

If that is the case, the real question is not about Pastor Mackenzie in specific relation to his enchanted parishioners, though that itself is illuminating, but about the outsize influence of his tribe of Pentecostal pastors in the lives of their congregations and the larger public across various African countries. As “existential micromanagers”, pastors increasingly “play god” in a variety of life situations, from congregants’ choice of spouses and sexual partners to seemingly mundane decisions about what to eat, what to wear, and, in a few eyebrow-raising cases involving female church members, when to undress.

In order to answer the question of pastoral influence successfully, the antecedent question of why religion, particularly Charismatic Christianity, has come to occupy such a prominent role in people’s lives must be discharged. As the extensive literature on the subject has copiously documented, popular desperation for meaning and anchor in the aftermath of the economic crisis of the 1980s precipitated a spiritual turn that simultaneously transformed the social landscape in favour of religious authorities and changed the terms of social engagement in favour of sundry spiritual agents and intermediaries. Put differently, recourse to the authority of the spiritual increased in direct proportion to the decline of the state.

Pentecostalism was particularly primed to take advantage of this emergent formation. Armed with a coherent theory that grounds both private crisis and public underdevelopment in an intangible realm of spirits, it found easy appeal among sections of the underclass who had become frustrated at the protracted failure and hit-and-miss explanations of secular institutions. This is not to say that Pentecostalism is an exclusively underclass phenomenon, though poverty is an undoubted lubricant. Among the educated classes pegged back by the sudden freeze in social mobility, Pentecostalism’s theology of prosperity resonated. Across the class spectrum, its contagious sensuality and theological deregulation furnished opportunities for self-making not otherwise available in the mainline churches.

Pastoring is the centrepiece of this new-fangled space for self-curation and the expected upward mobility. In a majority of cases, and unlike what obtains in the mainline churches, “calling” is the only “certification” needed to become a Pentecostal pastor. For instance, we are not surprised to learn that Mackenzie, after years of a dogged quest for stability, including a stint as a street hawker and taxi driver respectively, eventually found his “calling” as a pastor, following the same path as many young African men caught between peer pestering to “catch up” and “fit in”, and communal pressures to “become someone”. In this regard, the correlation between the crisis of masculinity in Africa and the popularity of pastoring becomes difficult to ignore.

For many young men, the attraction of pastoring is almost irresistible. In a status-conscious African society, it is the quickest route to social eminence and prestige without the rigours and uncertainties of professional certification. At the same time, such is the high regard in which pastors are held that, oftentimes, being a pastor is as good as living in a state of (ecclesiastical) exception.

As pastoring has become socially irresistible, so has the pastorate become a prime target for elite political co-optation. In many African countries, Kenya included, the pastor-politician alliance has become a key component of elite dealmaking. Unsurprisingly, the ongoing battle for political supremacy between President Ruto and opposition leader Raila Odinga has devolved into a battle among Kenya’s clerical elite. In Kenya as elsewhere, the pastor-politician alliance is a model of mutual gratification. While the politician seeks a path to the pastor’s vast following and connections within civil society, the pastor desires the perks and preferments available only through political access. In a continent-wide arms race for political capital and social prestige, the pastor and the politician are joined at the hip.

Following the Shakahola discovery, the Kenyan government has promised to crack down on “fringe religious outfits” in the country. President Ruto has vowed to “get to the root cause and to the bottom of the activities of . . . people who want to use religion to advance weird, unacceptable ideology”. Many church leaders apparently agree with the government. For example, the Coast Christian Clergy, comprising clerics under the auspices of the Evangelical Alliance of Kenya (EAK), thinks it should be mandatory for preachers and churches to “identify with” umbrella bodies with “guides or codes of conduct”. Other religious leaders have urged the government to drop the hammer on “fake pastors” who “use religion as a cover to carry out their illegal activities that harm society”.

In a continent-wide arms race for political capital and social prestige, the pastor and the politician are joined at the hip.

While the outrage is understandable, this may be easier said than done. While “regulation” or “monitoring” is a good idea in the abstract, the devil is, as always, in the detail. For one thing, it is not entirely clear what exactly is to be regulated and how such can be implemented without infringing upon the individual’s rights to freedom of worship, a right guaranteed by the Kenyan constitution. Furthermore, as our analysis in the foregoing has shown, the state itself is hardly an impartial arbiter in these matters. True, the Kenyan political elite may not have any direct links with the Good News International Church. However, and crucially, it is deeply imbricated with the Pentecostal pastorate and the Kenyan Christian elite. Kenya’s first family is a Pentecostal family; both Ruto and his wife, Rachel, are born-again Christians. In September last year, after Ruto’s victory at the polls was upheld by the Kenyan Supreme Court, the new president invited about 40 evangelical pastors led by popular televangelist Mark Kariuki to “purify” the presidential residence in Nairobi “until all the evil forces are driven out”.

Finally, and as experience from other societies has shown, it is not always easy to claw back from the state powers handed over to it in an emergency. If the state is allowed to “regulate” what churches can and cannot do, what about the rest of civil society?

Reina Patel contributed to the research for this article.