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Christian Religious Fundamentalism in Kenya; What do we know about it?

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An empirical approach to studying religion and religiosity has yet to take root in Kenya. This is why the study we carried out seeking to explore the association between religious fundamentalism and attitudes towards Sexual and Gender Minorities among religious leaders in Kenya, and now published in the Journal of Pastoral Psychology, is so ground-breaking.

The lack of interest in taking an empirical approach to studying religion is surprising given the significant influence that religion and religious fundamentalism particularly, have in the shaping of world history – including Kenya’s.  

In this study we sought to establish levels of religious fundamentalism among religious leaders in Kenya and what association exists between religious fundamentalism and attitudes towards gay men, lesbian women and transgender (also commonly referred to as LGBTQ+) people in Kenya.

Globally, religious fundamentalism has been found to be negatively associated with acceptance of lesbian women and gay men, acceptance of gender diversity, and positively associated with social distance towards gay men and social distance towards lesbian women.

A total of 113 religious leaders’ participated 66.4 per cent of whom were male and 33.6 per cent were female. Male religious leaders had significantly higher levels of religious fundamentalism than female religious leaders.

[Courtesy: Twitter]

In Africa, religious fundamentalism is largely understudied. To our knowledge, this was the first study of its kind in Kenya. There have been a few studies in Egypt, where one study established that among the youth, religious fundamentalism was associated with increased support for militarism, deference to religious authorities as the knowledge source for the socio-political role of Islam, support for Islamic orthodoxy, fatalism, and feelings of insecurity.

A study in South Africa, exploring the relationship between religious fundamentalism and life satisfaction and meaning, established that fundamentalist religious attitudes may in some cases provide a framework of meaning and definite answers to life's existential uncertainties.

In studies conducted in other parts of the world, religious fundamentalism has consistently been found to be associated with prejudice against outgroups and minorities more generally and with pro-in-group bias, that is preferential evaluation of members of one's in-group over out-group members.

Religious fundamentalism has also been shown to be associated with stigma against gay men and lesbian women and transgender persons. Furthermore, people who score high on religious fundamentalism solve moral problems through the quick and unequivocal application of previously established moral codes as opposed to a more flexible approach that pays attention to the consequences of moral choices. While religious fundamentalism has predicted pro-forgiveness attitudes, it is not associated with the actual tendency to forgive.

In the Kenyan study, we established that overall religious leaders had a negative perception of LGBTQ+ people. Acceptance of lesbian women and gay men, as well as acceptance of gender diversity, was very low and inversely related to religious leaders’ level of religious fundamentalism.

In terms of social distance, religious leaders did not want to be in close proximity with gay men, lesbian women or transgender persons. Indeed, they were most uncomfortable with gay men and the least with transgender persons.

The influence of religious leaders in supporting discrimination, violence, and the continued criminalization of sexual and gender minorities in Kenya in Kenya and many African countries is well documented.

Emergent research also indicates the growing influence of religious clergy in politics and religion becoming an organisational base for political mobilisation. As a result, then, pervasive stigma against sexual and gender minorities among religious leaders and politicisation of this stigma does in fact have practical negative public policy outcomes for LGBTQ+ people.

Given this strong association between religious fundamentalism and stigma against LGBTQ+ people and the growing influence of religious leaders in the formation of public policy, there is need to interrogate what impact such can have on comprehensive equality and non-discrimination as guaranteed in the 2010 Constitution for all Kenyans.

By definition, religious fundamentalism is exclusionary because religious fundamentalists believe in the superiority of their religious teachings, and in a strict division between righteous people and evildoers. Religious fundamentalists believe that there is only a single set of religious teachings that provides an inerrable set of truths that dictates how people should live their lives and must be defended against any other views that are in opposition to these truths (Altemeyer & Hunsberger, 1992).

From this study, we can deduce three practical approaches that can be adopted, both to advance the rights of religious fundamentalists in Kenya, but also promote and protect the constitutional rights of LGBTQ+ Kenyans. These approaches urge religious leaders and other Christians to:

  1. Adopt a loving and compassionate pastoral response
  2. Severe the link between Christianity and colonialism  
  3. Reflect on theology of grace versus the law – Can there be salvation for LGBTQ+ people? 

These three practical approaches are detailed in a 4-page article where we demonstrate that the negative views that religious leaders have on LGBTQ+ persons do change as well as their levels of religious fundamentalism once they encounter the humanity of LGBTQ+ people.

We encourage religious leaders and all Kenyans of goodwill to read the much richer article (4 pages only). Download and read at your own time - website link: 

www.kuriafoundation.or.ke/publications/WhitePaper_Religious leaders_LGBTQ_in_Kenya.pdf   

You can also access the published findings of our study in Journal of Pastoral Psychology here: - https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11089-021-00942-9