When William Ruto won the 2022 general elections to become Kenya’s fifth president, local and international media were awash with discussions of Ruto as an evangelical president. The excitement, however, was informed less by Kenyan religion or politics and more by right-wing Evangelical America and its war on homosexuality and abortion. Le Monde, a major newspaper from a country that boasts of being the home of the Enlightenment, was understandably preoccupied with Kenya’s adherence to secularism. The BBC was curious about the president’s stand on homosexuality, but not about secularism, which would have been strange for the public broadcaster of a country whose head of state is also the head of the Anglican church.
Kenyan intellectuals, who are largely educated on Western liberal values and human rights, were also inclined to focus on concerns about secularism. Editorials of Kenyan media waxed lyrical about the need to separate the church from the state. Other observers, inspired by the reversal of Roe v. Wade in the US, voiced concerns that women might suffer an attack on their reproductive rights under a Ruto presidency.
Much of this analysis misses major nuances of religion and politics in Kenya, and comes from rigid adherence to the false dichotomy which Eurocentrism has placed between reason and faith.
The ambiguity of Evangelicalism
It is important to note that most Kenyans cannot distinguish the doctrines of different Christian faiths. In the 70s and 80s, they might have defined that distinction largely by the concept of “getting saved,” because Catholics stood out as the only branch of Kenyan Christianity that did not believe in salvation from a personal relationship with Jesus. From the late 80s onwards, a Kenyan might have offered a vague distinction of Protestantism from other faiths based on the style of worship, pointing out that mainstream Protestant churches sang hymns, listened to choirs singing in four-part harmony and prayed silently, while Pentecostals and African traditional churches sang vibrant songs to musical instrumentation, danced in the sanctuary and prayed loudly in tongues.
But by early 2000, however, that difference had largely disappeared, because many mainstream churches changed their worship to a more Pentecostal style, thanks to some clergy who felt that the Pentecostal expression was more “spiritual,” and others who felt that adopting the Pentecostal style of worship would prevent the youth from leaving the church. Children who grew up since that time would therefore scarcely know the difference between a Protestant and an Evangelical.
Therefore, there is little clarity in the Kenyan mind about what constitutes the Evangelical church. Most of the churches called “evangelical” in Kenya do not consciously profess the evangelical faith, if by evangelical, we mean those who believe in the centrality of the bible in faith, and who profess to be “born again” after having a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. In any case, the concept of being “born again” was already in Protestant circles in the 1930s, thanks to the East African Revival Movement, and back then, British missionaries were irked by their African converts who claimed to be “born again.”
But that lack of clarity on Evangelicalism is evident even in academic scholarship. Kenyan scholars who are close to American evangelical circles, and who seem at pains to prove that even Evangelicals are interested in social issues, often cite Protestant clergy and academics who are vocal on faith and society as “evangelical.” They do so even when those whom they cite would not consider themselves Evangelical and are even critical of Evangelicals.
Christianity and the state
Part of this confusion emanates from the failure to appreciate the different political attitudes of American and European missionaries towards the state, and how that difference influences Christianity in Kenyan political life today. European missionaries tended to be driven by liberal ideas and to collaborate with the colonial state in providing education, but they also took a stand against human rights abuse by the colonial government. The American missionaries, however, wanted to keep their distance from the colonial government because they believed that Christian mission work should rely on God (meaning on donations from fellow believers). Neither side fundamentally challenged the concept of colonialism itself.
After independence, the mainstream churches continued their engagement with the ex-colonial Kenyan state, either in agreement or opposition. For instance, in 1969, mainstream churches opposed Jomo Kenyatta’s adoption of the oath to solidify political support of his Kikuyu ethnic group against Kenyatta’s political rivals. That Kenyatta listened to the church shows that his use of traditional spirituality to bind people to his political project, and of the church to maintain his hold on the ex-colonial state.
After independence, however, American missionaries continued to distance themselves from the state. Much of that conceptual work was done through the concept of culture. The argument of American missionaries was that faith was expressed through culture, and no culture was superior to the other. The utopian implication was that under Christ, there was no African or American, no black or white. In reality, however, this focus on culture supported the imperial project of the Cold War by steering African Christianity away from politics. The cultural focus of theology was important for US imperialism to block the development of African solidarity with black theology, which influenced by the Black Panther movement, and liberation theology which was influenced by Marxism.
During the 80s and 90s, as Moi’s rule became more draconian and as the economic conditions deteriorated, mainstream clergy were at the forefront of speaking out against the shrinking democratic space. By contrast, American missionary founded churches like the AIC, Moi’s home church, took the stance that leaders are chosen by God and should be supported spiritually rather than criticized, and that the church should keep off commenting on political matters.
The Evangelical Alpha Male
But as the Protestant churches focused on the relationship of Christianity to the state, the evangelical churches modeled for us how to live as Christians. In the context of Structural Adjustment Programs that gutted down the few public services available, and the rise of the HIV-AIDS epidemic, Evangelicalism gained momentum by offering personal lifestyle responses to social problems.
For instance, evangelicalism filled the intellectual space in the public sphere which had been evacuated by the persecution of academics, students, professionals and artists, and by the reduction of funding for education. As Dr. Damaris Parsitau has demonstrated in her scholarship, that vacuum was rapidly filled by the omniscient Evangelical preacher.
At the same time, a socio-political vacuum was developing due to the privatization of social services. For the youth who were joining the job market and expecting to start families, the charismatic churches provided practical remedies to the social services falling apart. The churches promised private services like homeschooling to compensate for education, miracle healing for failing medical services, and abstention from sex for the HIV-AIDS pandemic.
Thus rose the figure of the pastor as the alpha male. He exuded a positive attitude as approach to all problems in life. He was the intellectual who explained how to navigate the crippling economy. He was the educator who exemplified homeschooling through the work of his wife. He was the model husband who motivated his wife to do that work. He was also the entrepreneur who embodied the promise of neoliberal capitalism, because he had started his own church with a few members and was now living a lavish lifestyle as the head of a mega church.
As such, the word “evangelical”, though not commonly used in Kenya, usually refers to a certain profile of churches and their clergy. The churches which Kenyans call “Evangelical” loosely refer to churches which revolve around the personal enterprise of the pastor in the case of men, or of the pastor and his wife, or sometimes of unmarried women pastors. In such churches, major decisions, including the management of church property and finances, are managed almost exclusively by the pastor, as opposed to an elders’ council or a general assembly, and so the evangelical pastor embodies the figure of the CEO. Most of these churches are morally conservative, but any missteps in their own morality, like fathering children out of wedlock, receives a generous lathering of Christ’s forgiveness to wash away a multitude of sins.
By contrast, mainstream Protestant churches are identified by institutionalization, church hierarchy, leadership elections whose chaos often mirrors the elections for political leadership, and clergy who are likely to take positions on political issues.
This landscape suggests that despite the denominational differences, spirituality in Kenya is one continuous space where Kenyans navigate their political and social lives in the face of local and global dilemmas. That spiritual whole includes local and ethnic African spiritualities, which Kenyans revert to even though they may continue to attend church.
Victorian morality as “African culture”
One major confusion in Kenya that is directly related to Evangelicalism is the discourse of morality. This confusion comes from the fact that Kenya is governed by a rigid manufacture of consent, where public discourse on a wide range of issues is tied to how such matters relate to the state. When it comes to the personal space, especially in matters of femininity and sexuality, this discursive control is expressed as concern for “African traditions,” and often includes quotations from the bible. However, when one scratches beneath the surface of those concerns, one finds what is being called African tradition is closer to Victorian morality.
As such, Kenyans will criticize women for wearing their hems above the knee as flouting African tradition, and have nothing to say when reminded that in many African traditional fashions barely cover the body. Kenyans will share pictures of men on catwalks in Europe wearing skirts and declare that those catwalks flout African morals, forgetting that most African traditional wear for men is in the form of clothes that flow from the shoulder or from the waist.
One must therefore avoid reading statements about African culture as exclusively expressions of Kenyan right-wing conservativism. When Kenyans say that something “is not culturally African,” they could be saying less about African culture and revealing more about the limited intellectual space in which Kenyans can contemplate anything outside what is acceptable to the state. They could be expressing the fear that allowing minorities to have a voice, or their right to life and social services, or autonomy of one’s body or sexuality, requires disentangling many other convoluted beliefs which Kenyans must uphold, if they are to avoid a direct confrontation with what the late ES Atieno Odhiambo famously called Kenya’s “ideology of order.”
This entanglement explains the contradictory signals on homosexuality that confound Western and liberal journalists. Most of the pronouncements by government officials against LGBTI are made in situations of crisis, or in reaction to news reports, or in interviews by foreign journalists, rather than as political campaign issues.
For example, Ezekiel Mutua, a state officer, often weaponized homophobia in his drive to censor the arts in the name of morality. In 2016, his office proposed laws with draconian requirements that would have gagged artists using bureaucracy. When the artists protested, Mutua sought the support of the church by justifying censorship as a concern about morality. He was hoping that the public would pick up the fact that one of the prominent faces in the protest against censorship was gay gospel musician Joji Baro.
However, the state’s issue with the arts is not morality; it’s control. Together with the church, the state has always had a fractured relationship with the arts because of the power of the arts to influence society independently of Kenyan institutions. Arts are an intrinsic threat to the “ideology of order.“ Many artists, of whom Ngugi wa Thiong’o is one of the most famous, were persecuted for their creative work. Campaigns against arts education have been led by politicians, the media and the business sector who call the arts irrelevant to the job market, and by the church whose schools expel children for drawings which are dubbed “demonic.” Ruto has repeatedly called arts education the teaching of irrelevant facts such as when Vasco da Gama came to Africa, yet his government is actively trying to coopt artists into the state under the banner of the “creative economy.” Mutua’s appeal to homophobia was therefore an additional alibi for the suppression of the arts.
Mutua once again weaponized homophobia to rally the church to endorse state ban against Wanuri Kahiu’s film Rafiki. Viewing was eventually opened up for a week, apparently to help the film qualify for international film festivals. Thus we see an ambiguity that “morality” faces when the state is confronted with the international arena. A similar ambiguity occurred when CNN journalist Richard Quest, who is gay, visited Kenya, and was a guest of the Jubilee Celebration Centre, one of the quintessential “evangelical” churches of Nairobi.
My focus here is not the cliché intersectionality of struggles of class, gender, religion and sexual orientation, which obviously applies. It is that hostility to women and sexual minorities is intertwined with other forms of incoherence in Kenyan life, including our visceral hatred for the youth which is seen in the violence in schools and in extra judicial killings. To challenge these injustices inevitably touches other live wires of social traumas which may not necessarily be an expression of Evangelicalism, even when they borrow expressions from Evangelicalism.
All this to say that the place of the church in Kenyan politics, and especially what constitutes the “Evangelical” church in Kenya, is more fluid than a Euro-American reading would allow. A rigid subjection of Kenyan Christianity to the framework of European secular thought or American Christian fascism, hides the impact of US militarism and capitalism on Kenya through the suffocation of cultures, diversity and ideas. More than that, it is largely a project of intellectual class.
The obsession of the Kenyan middle class with enforcing Enlightenment secularism is an intellectual tragedy of major proportions.
Ruto’s faith and political career also demonstrate these ambiguities. In the run up to the 2010 constitutional referendum, for example, Ruto was the most prominent politician in the “No” camp against the constitution, but his interest was largely driven by his own political ambitions. More strange is that his opposition to the constitution was that it was not capitalist enough on the land question.
Meanwhile, the Kenyan pastors who waged war against the constitution voiced their concerns as moral concerns about abortion, and they argued that the inclusion of the Kadhi courts in the constitution went against the principle of secularism because it promoted Islam. The deal with the Kadhi courts was a political one made before independence to maintain Kenya’s Indian Ocean coastline as part of Kenya, but the evangelical clergy chose to ignore the politics and restrict the question to religion. What’s ironic is that now, the same clergy who claimed to be concerned about secularism in 2010 are now asking for state appointments. American evangelicals had sponsored some Kenyan pastors to oppose the constitution, on the claim that the constitution promoted abortion and homosexuality, as an extension of America's own cultural politics.
During the referendum campaigns, therefore, Ruto and the clergy were largely partners of convenience. Mark Kariuki, who would pray fifteen years later at Ruto’s swearing in as president, even clarified that “No yao si no yetu” (Their “no” is not our “no”), meaning that Ruto and the clergy may have been on the same side against the constitution, but for different reasons.
The moral posturing of the clergy was not enough to persuade Kenyans to forget the legal and political agendas that had brought Kenya to this new constitutional moment. Contrary to their expectations, Kenyans - many obviously Christian – ratified the constitution. To date, many Evangelicals, especially professionals, carry that rejection of the clergy's position as a trauma, as one member of that group inadvertently informed me.
The greater manifestation of Ruto’s faith is in his economic thinking. Four years ago, Kenyan journalist Christine Mungai wrote a brilliant analysis of Ruto’s “gangster theology,” arguing that Ruto’s camaraderie with evangelical churches was a tactical strategy in propping himself up as a hustler. To distinguish himself from Uhuru Kenyatta as a dynasty, Ruto had to portray himself as a person who pulled himself by the bootstraps to become a politician of national prominence. His religion therefore needed to reflect that image of “Kenyan ordinariness.” Aligning himself to a mainstream, stiff-necked institutional church would have been detrimental to his image. He had to align himself with pastors who had begun their churches in abandoned buildings with a few congregants before they became wealthy heads of mega churches.
Despite rooting for hustlers, Ruto is no socialist, as the West initially feared. He hates the arts and believes that science, technology and finance, not social change, are the solution to Kenya’s economic challenges. He has called arts and humanities education useless knowledge that has no relevance to Kenya’s problems. As such, his answer to crippling economic inequality has been to avail cheap micro-credit to the poor, otherwise dubbed as the “Hustler fund,” and promise very little in terms of social support. If the evangelical God blesses individuals for the work of our hands, then that theology perfectly aligns itself with micro-credit as a route out of poverty. It is up to the poor to “work hard” using the loans they receive, albeit at high interest rates, in the same way that Ruto says he rose from a chicken seller to become president, and in the same way pastors became owners of mega churches. In other words, there is an economic, and fundamentally neoliberal logic to the alliance between Ruto and the evangelicals, as opposed to an exclusively cultural, moral and anti-secular one.
To focus on Ruto’s stereotypical answers on women and sexual minorities is therefore to miss the basic gist of Ruto’s politics. That is not to say that the human rights of these groups are not important, or to minimize the spectacular violence that they suffer. It is to point to the socio-economic and political dimensions of this violence – which are the crippling inequality, the narrow public sphere and the cruelty of daily life under neoliberal policies. These dynamics are often obscured when critics engage in moralistic, human rights-centric discourses. Many times, their hard stance locks out potential allies in faith who would also oppose violence against those minorities and would raise concerns about inequality. And most of those who dominate this exclusionary discourse are Kenyans who have received advanced education and are likely to be working in close contact with Western liberal journalists, lawyers and human rights advocates. The possibility that the ordinary Kenyan from outside that class profile, can be religious or not, and can hold politically progressive views, does not feature on their radar, yet those in whose name they speak belong to the same group outside the middle class.
The concern about secularism is largely a form of snobbery that minimizes the sophistication with which ordinary Kenyans without education navigate their lives through religious spaces. For many Kenyans, religion provides the spaces where they can meet without the state shooting them down. It provides the spaces where they get social status and community leadership outside of politics. It's where they can carry out both traditional and modern rituals like weddings, birth, initiation and death. It's where they get education, because the government is not providing enough schools and the church has often stepped in to fulfil that role. But many of the Kenyan middle class ignore this material reality and share extreme incidents of abusive pastors, sort of to depict ordinary Kenyans without similar education as stupid for being religious.
A problem within Euro-America itself
This complete misunderstanding of educated Kenyans is a failure of education. The war against arts education, which began during colonial rule and is still waged by Ruto, has denied educated Kenyans a historical understanding of religion, be it in Europe or in Africa. And the greater irony is that Kenyan schools are notoriously religious, despite not teaching anything useful on religion.
As such, educated Kenyans do not understand that the problem here is the fundamentally Euro-American framework in which religion represents the conflict between the traditional monarchy, liberal secularism, fascist conservatism and anti-religion left politics. For Europe, religion has always been read through the lens of the power of the state and its accountability to the people. During feudalism, religion justified the monarchy, and inheritance of power and wealth by birth, as the will of God. After the Reformation, the conflict between Catholics and Protestants was fundamentally a political one on divine rights to power and the people’s right to have a say about power. This new shift caused a lot of bloodshed in Europe, leading to atrocities such as the St Bartholomew Massacre against French Protestants, and the Thirty Years War whose casualties were only rivalled by those of the 20th century great wars.
To protect their revolution from the return of the monarchy, the French literally had no choice but to declare a secular state. Other Western European countries who still have monarchs had to compromise and create state churches, headed by the monarchs, as a compromise to the church’s divorce from Rome. Left politics, which sees religion as a weapon of the ruling class, has been successfully muzzled in Euro-America, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ironically, many Kenyans who would not normally quote Karl Marx cite his statement on religion as the opium of the masses.
For Europe therefore, Christian denominations are necessarily political positions on the relationship between power and the will of the people. In the United States, however, the religious dynamics are different and reveal a struggle over the voice of faith in social life. While European Christians in the US wanted no ties with the state, they were implicated in dispossession of the indigenous people and in the enslavement of Africans. Slave holders justified the enslavement of Africans as biblical, and during the Civil War, some American churches split, because some argued that slavery was not a religious issue, since justice was not a “fundamental” of faith like baptism and repentance. At the other end of the spectrum, white Christians became abolitionists,. Some like William Lloyd Garrison would cite the book of Isaiah in calling the much venerated American constitution a “covenant with death and an agreement with hell,” after the constitution was amended to institutionally support the enslavement of African peoples.
For the people of African descent, however, expressions of faith are not tied to monarchies and republics but to liberation. For the last four centuries, freedom has been the fundamental spiritual and religious preoccupation of Africans on the continent and in its diaspora. Enslaved Africans sang spirituals as songs of resistance in the plantation. The spark of the Haitian revolution was the Boukman prayer, where the proclamation of freedom was a spiritual articulation about the God “who orders us to revenge our wrongs” and against “the white man’s god who is so pitiless.” The Rastafari movement in Jamaica and the Candomble in Brazil are just some of the many religious articulations that voiced the political aspiration of freedom. In Africa, Kimpa Vita, Simon Kibangu, Elijah Masinde and Lucas Pkech are some of the Africans who used contrapuntal readings of scripture in resisting colonialism.
The civil rights movement in the United States followed the same tradition, for both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X grounded their struggles in faith. If anything, the modern articulation of right-wing, white Evangelicalism has piggy backed on the impact of the liberation theologies and struggles. White racism learned from the victories of the civil rights movement that raw racist ideologies and violence had made the United States a laughing stock of the world and had given credibility to Communism during the Cold War. The American right, led by figures like Paul Weyrich, therefore made a deliberate effort to coopt the Evangelical religion in the fight against the social gains of the civil rights movement while hiding behind the façade of faith and morality. To counter desegregation of schools, the right-wing offered homeschooling and faith schools. In the place of diversity and social welfare, it offered family values. Against the political gains of women, it turned abortion into its rallying cause.
But rather than attack this theology, the Euro-American acolytes of the Enlightenment have blocked the development of theological responses to fascism. In the place of theology, they offer reason, human rights and landmark court cases, claiming that religion automatically made one a conservative, and often implying that peoples of the Global South who wanted to harness religion had failed to decolonize their minds. The silence which they have imposed on emancipatory readings of religion have created space for right-wing, anti-political and hateful theology to gain momentum, and that momentum was used to capture the US Supreme Court. And now, instead of learning their lessons and removing the walls which Eurocentric ideas have constructed around religion, these intellectuals are trying to force African politics and religion into restrictive Eurocentric boxes of constitutionalism and human rights activism.
The anti-colonial alibi
Here at home, educated Kenyans have unsuccessfully tried to adapt European Enlightenment into the framework of anti-colonial struggles. On social media and in their op-eds, their enthusiasm makes them repeat inaccurate facts. A year or so ago, I got into an argument with someone who shared a poster that said that enslaved Africans were forced to read only the bible. I tried to point out that that is not true, that reading in and of itself was forbidden to enslaved Africans. I even urged people to read what Frederick Douglass said about the risks he took to learn how to read. The reaction to my comment was literally hysterical. I was accused of defending Christianity when I was simply stating a fact that slave masters did not want enslaved Africans reading any material, bible or not.
Since then, I’ve noticed many similar posts on social media, such as statements that all enslaved Africans became Christians, suggesting that Africans in the Americas acquiesced to their enslavement because they were stupid enough to accept the white man’s religion. The fact that many of these falsehoods refer to the enslavement in the Americas has made me suspect that these posts are pro-American psyops which are trying to prevent any African connection of religion or spirituality to politics.
My suspicion is strengthened by the way Kenyan theological education was depoliticized in the 1960s. American churches gave scholarships to Kenyan clergy to study biblical studies or missiology instead of theology. In the 1970s, J S Mbiti, whose book “African religions and philosophy” has become a classic, vehemently criticized black theology for being “bitter” and of no use to Africans who now had independent states. Kenyan theological studies are notoriously preoccupied with culture and sociology, rather than with prophetic insights into the impact of state power on ordinary life. This focus on acculturation is consistent with the effort of the US missionaries to distance themselves in Africa from colonial missionaries, and to present American and African Christianities as cultural equals, in order to deflect theological consideration of the role of US economic and military imperialism in Africa. Meanwhile, African and liberation theologies barely feature in the curriculum of Kenyan schools or of the few seminaries that churches have not converted into faculties offering business degrees.
Theology is political
What this middle class activism denies is that interpretation of religion is fundamentally political, because interpretation informs and is informed by decisions we make in society. That reality is not affected by secularism, for as Ali Mazrui said many years ago, the separation between the church and the state does not necessarily translate into a separation between religion and politics. By the same token, blocking discussion of religion is fundamentally political as well, but worse, it depoliticizes people by imposing moral conversations (the goodness of individuals) where there should be political ones (what people should do about power and wealth).
A large part of the Euro-American oversimplification of religion emanates from the Euro-American state’s discomfort with knowledge outside of the rational. Unlike reason, religion and spirituality allow more space for ambiguity, fluidity, contradiction and intersection, which is inconvenient for forms of power that rely on the letter of the law, precision and empirical proof. Add to that racism, which is notoriously impatient with appreciating Africans as complex human beings, and humanity as having limits, especially in the exploitation of the planet. This potent mix produces the misreading of African political theology and an obsession with depicting religious Africans as stupid and colonized.
This delusion leaves the political space for neoliberalism to entrench itself in Kenyan life through religion. To date, there is no pro-poor theology from our pulpits, or pro-poor politics from our political parties, that tackles the question of whether micro-credit is a way out of poverty, or whether deteriorating living conditions should be the price we pay for balancing the economy to please the IMF. Meanwhile, the government is committed to restricting the arts to economics by coopting artists into state appointments, while actively engaging in a war against arts education. The middle class have not understood this larger impact of Ruto’s religion. And the moral superiority with which they refuse to listen to logic is spectacular.
Instead of addressing the plight of the “least of these,” the middle class is wailing about secularism and calling the poor stupid for going to church. So we’re back to the days Fanon described in The Wretched of the Earth, where the native intellectuals equated cultural nationalism with anti-colonialism and missed the larger struggle against exploitation of the majority. The Kenyans who are really blinded by religion are not ordinary ones who are actively religious, but the educated ones who are against religion. It’s an intellectual entanglement so spectacular that would put the emotional entanglement of the Smiths to shame.