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Statehouse has all but turned into a house of religion since President William Ruto took office. I am all for the freedom of worship and have nothing against Christianity. But what happens when the president of a secular state whose citizens are of many faiths keeps quoting the Bible (sometimes inaccurately)? And what does this mean when it happens at a time of welfare reform when almost all state subsidies are being scrapped and taxes are being increased daily? Could there be a relationship between the president’s evangelising and the greater emphasis on individual responsibility in this neoliberal era?

The church has throughout history has been used to advance various political interests and Kenya is no different. Through the missionaries, the church essentially acted as a facilitator of colonialism, which was justified as the white man’s burden whose philosophy was underpinned by the three pillars of Christianity, commerce and civilization. Imposed by colonial military power, mission Christianity went on to become the dominant religion in the country, with numerous strands and manifestations. But to date, most Africans, even the most educated, refuse to acknowledge the colonial dimension of the missionaries’ enterprise. Perhaps it is this denial that has emboldened the neoliberal machine in using the evangelical movement to advance its own interests.

Christianity has grown at an impressive rate in the country since it was first introduced in the 19th century. From relatively insignificant numbers in the early 1900s, the Christian population in Kenya had grown to about 53 per cent of the population by 1962 at the time of independence, and to more than 80 per cent by the 2010s. Given that a significant proportion of citizens is affiliated to the Christian religion, it makes sense that the neoliberal machine would seek to interact with the church and align the church with its values. Drawing from David Harvey’s writings on how the way people experience space and time is influenced by the political economy of the time, Stephen Keating writes that for capitalist regimes to function, they need to bring individual behaviours under a semblance of uniformity (neoliberalism). As individuals internalize whatever social rules dominate that era, similar rules/ideologies manifest in their social institutions, including in churches. This is to say that, under a neoliberal world order, the church is likely to espouse neoliberal values.

Neoliberalism benefits from the church in that it finds an ally who can evangelize on its behalf among the proletariat, who are the most likely to reject neoliberal policies, thereby co-opting the segments of society who would object to their implementation by the social, economic and political elites. However, the injustices that neoliberalism perpetuates are everything that the scriptures ask us to reject and, therefore, the church should reject any attempts at co-option by a neoliberal government. Moreover, it is important to remember that according to the constitution, Kenya is a secular state. Historically, one of the constitution’s main functions has been to regulate the relationship between state and religion — either by establishing a dominant religion in the constitution or by not establishing one. Kenya’s current constitution, which was voted in by 69 per cent of voters, clearly establishes Kenya as a secular state.

This same constitution also provides for freedom of religious expression and some would argue that, in attending church services, the president is simply exercising his constitutional right. However, the president does not attend these church services in his personal capacity as a private citizen but does so as the head of state. His attendance is highly publicized including through his official social media platforms. His actions could therefore be construed to be state evangelism. This evangelism did not begin with Ruto’s entry into statehouse. While on the campaign trail Ruto often called upon God and positioned the electoral contest as a spiritual battle rather than a political contest. Ruto echoed the same sentiments at a service during an official visit to South Korea in late 2022, stating that “In the last election, it was not just about issues of politics, it was also a referendum between those who believe in God and those who believed in men. And those who believed in God won.” In addition to this narrative of the election being a “spiritual battle”, Ruto also presented his election as a win for the “hustler”, for the common man who had long suffered under former president Uhuru Kenyatta’s government that catered to the interests of the bourgeoisie.

One of the institutions that has been used to amplify Ruto’s rallying cry for a wider tax base is the church.

How are these two narratives related? In his 1976 paper, The Religion of the Poor: Escape or Creative Force, Harry Lefever invites us to consider an alternative explanation of the religious behaviour of the low-income demographic, deviating from the misconstrued perception of religion as the opium for the poor, an escape from the conditions that surround them, a perception frequently attributed to Marx without any regard for the words that precede this frequently cited dictum.  Instead, Lefever calls us to think of religion as a creative force, with religious expression in the masses arising out of a social dislocation that creates its own identity and values.

What Ruto managed to do was to co-opt religion as a protest function and combine it with bottom-up hustler economics, creating a political identity. This clearly worked in his favour and, fast-forward to six months after the election, he continues to evangelize as part of his political identity. Ruto’s evangelism, however, in typical neoliberal fashion, is that it ignores structural solutions to the country’s problems and instead calls for individual solutions such as through “prayer”. Ruto’s presidency began with a wave of highly noticeable structural adjustments. These structural adjustments are neoliberal policies that are often part of the conditionalities attached to aid from the Bretton Woods institutions. Under the International Monetary Fund directives, the president announced the scrapping of fuel and maize subsidies among other measures that include increased taxes. These measures come at a time when most Kenyans are grappling with the high cost of living, record inflation and multi-season drought.

One of the institutions that has been used to amplify Ruto’s rallying cry for a wider tax base is the church. During a service at Faith Evangelical Ministries in Karen, the president asked that people pray so that revenue collection may increase to 25 per cent of GDP. There can be no better example of the church being used to evangelize for the neoliberal state. It is also remarkable how similar Ruto’s calls for austerity to eliminate “the cancer of debt that is threatening to destabilise the economy” (that were made at an interdenominational service in Kirinyaga) are to the evangelical call for self-discipline. By making this statement in a church, Ruto manages to place the state’s debt within a spiritual frame, reducing it to a problem that can be solved simply through austerity and heavier taxation. But the existence of debt is central to neoliberalism, and the success of a neoliberal world order requires the existence of indebted subjects. Consequently, lending to the poor (the Global South) has become a highly lucrative industry for international financial institutions while the exploitative arrangements that accompany such credit are presented as inevitable or problematic yet necessary.

Yet the reality is that these arrangements only further impoverish millions and cast aside local development to “open up” the country to capital outflows to multinationals. This is the IMF’s and World Bank’s preferred way of doing business; making it easier for wealth extraction by foreign private entities. Moreover, the bailouts extended by these institutions only allow a country to pay its existing debt by contracting even more debt. If anything then, Ruto should call this out and use the scriptures to denounce these structural injustices. While Christian teaching does highlight the need for self-discipline and financial responsibility, it also denounces unjust systems (Isaiah 10:1-2; Amos 5:10-15). In addition to condemning injustice and those who make unjust laws, God also prescribes what justice is. In Isaiah 1:17, God says “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” In Isaiah 1:13, God calls out those who offer meaningless offerings and prayers saying, “Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations — I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.”

The existence of debt is central to neoliberalism, and the success of a neoliberal world order requires the existence of indebted subjects.

Indeed then, God is telling us that he requires more than just prayers and worship services from us; he wants us to instead practice justice by taking up the causes of the oppressed, after which he invites us to settle the matter (Isaiah 1:18). Let Ruto then draw on these teachings and scriptures to denounce the unjust systems that have led Kenya to the precarious economic state it is in and while at it, advance theologies of economic and social justice. Neoliberalism as an ideology only hurts the majority, and those who misconstrue quotes from religious texts, while those continuing to push for declarations that hurt the so-called hustler are frauds. Let us not allow the gospel and the church to be used to consecrate neoliberal practices. The gospel is good news for the poor — and any affirmation of the gospel by religious and political actors while continuing to do nothing about the worsening economic conditions is bad theology that is devoid of praxis.