By Bob Allen
Baptist leaders in Liberia have spoken in opposition to a proposed constitutional amendment declaring the West African republic a Christian state.
A committee charged with reviewing Liberia’s 1986 constitution recommended 19 changes during a five-day conference March 29-April 2. The most controversial, adopted overwhelmingly by about 400 delegates, according to media reports, would declare Liberia a “Christian nation.”
The Liberia Baptist Missionary and Educational Convention, the nation’s oldest Christian denomination, responded with a statement declaring the amendment inconsistent with “Baptist Christian principles.”
The statement, signed by convention president Olu Menjay, said Liberian Baptists “have no room for sectarian arrogance within the country’s diverse Christian persuasions and in a progressively more pluralistic world where Liberia is for all persons regardless of faith persuasion or affiliation.”
“A nerve center of our denominational sensibility as Christians called Baptist is not merely religious toleration, but religious liberty,” the statement said, “not merely sufferance, but freedom not just for us, but for all people. As such, we affirm our stance against making Liberia a Christian nation.”
The proposal, which will be submitted to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf before passing on to the national legislature for approval before being put to a referendum about a year later, sharply divided Christians and Muslims.
Muslims, who make up about 12 percent of Liberia’s 4 million residents, say the proposed amendment is discriminatory. A national Muslim student association that just met declared if it passes, territories that are predominantly Muslim could secede.
A representative of the Christian community at the conference urged delegates to vote for the amendment because the country was “built on Christian principles.” When the result of the vote was announced, the meeting hall went noisy with Christians shouting and singing hymns, while members of the Muslim faith walked out in anger.
Supporters blame changes in the original 1847 constitution making Liberia a secular state for disrupting the nation’s peace. Last year a meeting of the Liberia Council of Churches passed a resolution saying the Ebola virus was a sign that God is angry with Liberia because of rampant corruption and immorality, such as homosexuality.
Liberia, about 85 percent Christian, was founded as a colony for freed American slaves. The American Colonization Society, founded in 1817, was the brainchild of Robert Finley, a Presbyterian minister who believed blacks would never be fully integrated into American society and could only fulfill their potential as humans in Africa.
The effort had backing from some of America’s most influential leaders, among them “Star Spangled Banner” author Francis Scott Key and three-time presidential candidate Henry Clay.
Motives of individual members varied. Some genuinely supported blacks and were concerned for their welfare. Some hoped the effort would eventually end slavery.
Others defended slavery and thought the best way to maintain the institution was to rid the country of freed blacks, viewed at the time as potential instigators of a slave rebellion. By the 1830s abolitionists denounced colonization as a slaveholder scheme. By 1867, the society had assisted in the movement of more than 13,000 Americans to Liberia.
Many of the emigrants were Christians. Liberia’s Declaration of Independence and 1847 constitution were both signed in Monrovia at Providence Baptist Church, built in 1822, and the country’s oldest church.
The original constitution acknowledged God’s goodness in “granting to us the blessings of the Christian religion,” while affirming the right of all people to “worship God according to the dictates of their own consciences.”
“No sect of Christians shall have exclusive privileges or preference over any other sect, but all shall be alike tolerated,” the 1847 document said. “All shall be alike tolerated, and no religious test whatever shall be required as a qualification for civil office, or the exercise of any civil right.”
That constitution remained in effect until 1980, when a military coup overthrew the presidency of William Tolbert, a Baptist minister active in leadership of the Baptist World Alliance, setting up a secular state followed by civil war.
A new constitution adopted in 1986 says “all power is inherent in the people.”
“All persons shall be entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment thereof except as may be required by law to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others,” the 1986 version says.
“All persons who, in the practice of their religion, conduct themselves peaceably, not obstructing others and conforming to the standards set out herein, shall be entitled to the protection of the law. No religious denomination or sect shall have any exclusive privilege or preference over any other, but all shall be treated alike; and no religious tests shall be required for any civil or military office or for the exercise of any civil right. Consistent with the principle of separation of religion and state, the Republic shall establish no state religion.”
Menjay, vice president of the Baptist World Alliance and principal of Ricks Institute, said Baptist history is unblemished by the practice of religious persecution.
The statement said Baptists “have persistently refused to bend their own necks under the yoke of suppression,” and the same time “have meticulously withheld our hand and heart from” placing such yokes up others.
“We do not support any legislated domination of any group or individual, because we strongly are driven by the words of Jesus as recorded in Matthew 7:12 to ‘treat others as you want them to treat you.’ This is what the Laws and the Prophets are all about,” the statement said.