A controversial clergy-led campaign to officially return Liberia to its Christian heritage has sparked debate in the West African nation.
Liberia was founded under the "blessings of the Christian religion" by freed American slaves in 1847, but became a secular state following a 1980 military coup and subsequent civil war. In April, an international tribunal convicted former president Charles Taylor, once supported by Pat Robertson, of crimes against humanity.
Today a group of pastors called the Liberia Restoration to Christian Heritage Committee has stirred up popular momentum to add Christianity back to the constitution—similar to Zambia, a "Christian nation" since 1996.
The Liberian Council of Churches has remained tight-lipped about its opinion, but vice president W. Nah Dixon, archbishop of Don Stewart Pentecostal Church, has appealed to pastors to stop collecting signatures. He worries that imposing a state religion could refuel civil conflict in a nation with a sizable Muslim minority (12 percent). Catholic, Baptist, and Lutheran leaders have echoed his concerns.
Another umbrella group of pastors, the Fellowship of Full Gospel Ministers (FGM), has divided over the issue. One camp dismisses the Christian heritage campaigners as a small group seeking publicity; the other sympathizes but says well-established organizations—such as the FGM—should have been the ones to champion the cause.
The campaigners argue for a state religion based on Liberia's present—Christians make up 85 percent of its 3.8 million people—and its past. The country's Declaration of Independence was signed in Monrovia's Old Providence Baptist Church, preserved today as a national shrine. Campaigners label the 1986 decision to separate church and state as a devilish act responsible for disrupting national peace over the past two decades.
Crafters of the current secular constitution argue that it derives from the American model of religious freedom. Yet the pastor who initiated the campaign, Jomah Woiwor of Kingdom Harvest Church, counters, "A state religion doesn't suggest religious intolerance as being portrayed by our opposition."
The Liberian constitution requires only 10,000 signatures from qualified voters for the national legislature to consider a petition; the campaign aspires to gather one million signatures to demonstrate popular demand.
Repeal of Liberia's secular status would require a two-thirds majority vote by the legislature and the president's endorsement. The chances of this coming to pass remain unpredictable, though Lutheran bishop Sumoward E. Harris told ENI he is confident the campaign "will not materialize."
Time will tell. Despite stiff resistance from critics, campaigners have reportedly gathered more than 150,000 signatures—with two-thirds of the nation's political subdivisions still left to canvas.
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Previous Christianity Today articles on Liberia include:
Charles Taylor, Former President of Liberia, Found Guilty of War Crimes in Sierra Leone | However, the international tribunal says it was not proven Taylor had command of the rebels in Sierra Leone's bloody civil war. (Liveblog, April 26, 2012)
The Ceasefire Prayer Behind Leymah Gbowee's Nobel Peace Prize | How faith led to Nobel Peace Prize winner's push for reconciliation. (April 20, 2012)
Bringing Order from Chaos | "Churches help with refugees, hunger, and the lasting trauma brought on by war." (November 1, 2003)
Christian History Corner: Liberia's Troubled Past—and Present | The nation's history explains why the current conflict succumbs to, yet simultaneously transcends, the stereotype of African tribal wars. (July 1, 2003)
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