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How religion shapes Africans’ political behavior

“From Pews to Politics” offers unique insights

- June 4, 2020

What motivates voters in Africa? How do ordinary people see their place in the world, their ability to enact change, and the role that political participation might play in changing their personal well-being, that of their community, and that of the nation? Where do they get these ideas, and who is capable of changing them?

In their new book, “From Pews to Politics: Religious Sermons and Political Participation in Africa,” Rachel Beatty Riedl and Gwyneth H. McClendon consider these questions, using a unique frame: religious affiliation and belief. Through a methodologically sophisticated and empirically rich study, the authors build a case that religious beliefs shape political behavior in profound, if sometimes subtle, ways.

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Scholars of African politics, even if religious themselves, may tend to ignore or minimize the impact of religious beliefs in the lives of their research subjects. While many studies examine the role of religious communities in providing social services and serving as safety nets in times of trouble — or the benefits of social cohesion and networks that come from religious affiliation — few consider the importance of the actual beliefs of their subjects, and the ways that those beliefs might vary across different types of religious institutions.

How religious beliefs affect political participation

McClendon and Riedl fill that gap, comparing three types of Christian belief across Africa to develop a typology of religious commitment. Their work differentiates between the ways that belief about two variables — the possibility of change in this world and the sources of problems in this world — affect belief about the efficacy of political participation.

To do so, Riedl and McClendon first distinguish several categories of religious belief, using the factors noted above. They point out that some churches teach there is a high possibility of change in this world, while others see less possibility of change. Likewise, what churches teach about the source of problems in this world can be divided between individual responsibility or collective, relationship-based responsibility. Churches that blame individuals and their sins for problems in this world fit on the individual end of the spectrum. Churches that teach that issues with relationships and group behaviors are the problem fit on the collective side of the chart.

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Through a detailed examination of the content of sermons preached in each type of church, McClendon and Riedl are able to categorize the ways that churchgoers engage in politics. They find four categories:

1. People who attend churches that teach liberation theology, meaning they have a high belief in the possibility of change and ascribe collective responsibility for problems, are what the authors call “Empowered Reformers.” These people are highly engaged in politics and social activism and who look to structural solutions to solve problems.

2. People who attend contemporary Pentecostal churches in Africa, meaning they have a high belief in the possibility of change in this world and attribute individual sin as the cause of problems, are “Empowered Players of the Game.” These folks are very engaged but look to individual transformation, through leadership training, trying to convert and influence public officials, and recruiting others to become personally transformed to effect political change.

3. People who attend contemporary mainline Protestant and Catholic churches, meaning that they have a low belief in the possibility of change in this world and point to collective responsibility for problems, are “Reluctant Reformers.” People in this group are sometimes engaged in petitioning and protesting, and tend to focus on structural change as the solution to governance problems.

4. People in the early 20th century Holiness tradition (a precursor to modern Pentecostalism in Africa) have a low belief in the possibility of change in this world and point to individual responsibility for problems in this world. Riedl and McClendon call these people “Reluctant Players of the Game,” people who are rarely engaged in politics and instead are focused on individual transformation and growth.

McClendon and Riedl build this typology through the use of a wide variety of methodological tools, including sermon analysis, experiments on the ways exposure to different sermon messages affected participant responses about potential political engagement, focus group discussions about sermon content and a series of case studies. The result is a treasure trove of unique and significant information that will be of great use to future scholars seeking to replicate and extend their findings.

Chapter two also provides a rich review of how and why different types of Christianity took hold in different parts of the continent, as well as a fascinating typology of the typical characteristics of different kinds of Christians in different countries. For example, a typical Pentecostal in Congo is an 18- to 29-year-old female who owns a mobile phone and lives in an urban area while the typical Catholic in Congo is a rural male of similar age who does not own a mobile phone. This is invaluable data from which future scholars of religion and politics in Africa will greatly benefit.

McClendon and Riedl have written a brilliant book that offers a solid model of both methodological and topical sophistication. The authors take seriously the fact that 90 percent or more of Africans claim a religious affiliation, and the obvious implications of that fact for political action. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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