Evangelical role in William Ruto's journey to the presidency

President William Ruto with  Nairobi Governor when they attended a church service at Jesus Teaching Ministry (JTM) Church, Donholm, Nairobi. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

In his first tweet as president, William Ruto quoted Psalms: “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Religion was a key part of Ruto’s campaign.

The evangelical leanings of the president, First Lady Rachel Ruto and the Deputy President and his wife were open for all to see during the swearing-in ceremony at Kasarani Stadium.

A sermon by Bishop Mark Kariuki of Deliverance Church International was included in the handover protocols, as was a prayer by Teresiah Wairimu of Faith Evangelical Ministries.

The First Lady spent her first day in office meeting guests who included Prophet Victor Kusi Boateng of Power Chapel Worldwide Ghana, Dr Ian Ndlovu and his wife Evangelist Angel Ndlovu, and band members of the Zabron Choir who paid her a courtesy call at State House, Nairobi.

The church has as much been the cornerstone of Ruto’s run for State House as has been the ‘hustlers’ that the United Democratic Alliance Party built its campaign around.

Religious attire

It was a strategy that Ruto, an evangelical Christian, settled on early.

Way before he was rallying the ‘hustlers’ to his cause, Ruto was rallying the church with donations for construction of bigger churches, purchase of buses, or cars for the clergy.

Almost every Sunday since 2017, Ruto was in one church or the other showing the faithful that his beliefs were compatible with theirs.

He knelt down in supplication and was brought to tears by the Word. Ruto wore religious attire of obscure sects and even became the butt of of jokes online. He was called a deputy Jesus.

Yet the number of religious conservatives, especially among the evangelical churches, who supported Ruto was anecdotally high.

“In Ruto the chicken seller who wanted to become president, we saw ourselves. We saw that the mabati churches that we ministered in could be something bigger, our supporters saw that faith in God does indeed bring prosperity,” Bishop Thomas Wahome of Helicopter of Christ Ministries in Nairobi said.

First Lady Rachel Ruto and prophet Victor Kusi Boateng from Power Chapel Worldwide Ghana at the State House on September 14, 2022. [Courtesy, Twitter]

Wahome was not one of the mainstream ministers who supported Ruto. He was not called to minister at Ruto’s church in his Karen residence, and Ruto did not worship in his church.

But Wahome says that he felt connected to Ruto — that Ruto was available to him and his colleagues. 

Bishop Kariuki dismissed any suggestion that the administration had taken an evangelical leaning or had become too religious.

Mobilise the faithful

He said Ruto was worshipping God the way he knows best.

“The mouth speaks out of the abundance of the heart. He is doing what he knows to do. It is not overdoing,” he said.

Bishop Kariuki added that the attacks on Ruto for making offerings to churches and comments against the church were taken as an affront, and could have served to mobilise the faithful.

“It was not taken as an attack on him but to the evangelical churches, so they made their mind long time ago. Some people also opted to talk against the church and if the church is attacked, it is not just the evangelicals,” he said.

“They felt threatened and sought a place a refuge in Ruto.”​

But even as mainstream churches look forward to good times, the atheists in Kenya are rattled. In a statement, they faulted Ruto for taking sides.

‘‘It is our hope that President William Ruto will promote secularism and freedom of religion as specified under Articles 8 and 32 of our Constitution. Atheists should never face discrimination. We will vehemently oppose any attempt to privilege religious organisations and beliefs in Kenya,’’ said Harrison Mumia, president of Atheists in Kenya Society.

‘‘Both believers and atheists have important roles to play in building a democratic, pluralistic and inclusive Kenyan society. The State House, which is the official residence of the president, should be used for State functions only, and not religious functions. Any religious functions by the First Family should be conducted in their private residence.’’

The Christian vote is one that Ruto seriously campaigned for. An evangelical himself, Ruto used the church to reach out to voters at a level no other presidential candidate did.

It helped his case that he was a preacher when he was younger and the deputy president’s wife, Dorcas Rigathi, is an actual pastor.

This scenario provided Ruto with an unprecedented opportunity to kill two birds with one stone: Build his profile among the evangelicals and question Raila’s commitment to the church.

It did not help Raila’s cause that some statements he and members of his campaign made could be misconstrued as attacks on the church.

While presiding over the launch of a book by Archbishop Emeritus Habbakuk Abong’o at the Church of Christ in Africa in Kisumu, Ida Odinga challenged the National Council of Churches of Kenya to control the mushrooming of churches.

“We want Kenyans to subscribe to religions that are formally registered and not those whose belief systems are commodified. It is also important that we conduct training for all those who minister the word of God,” Ida said.

Bishop Daniel Kabono, the secretary general of Association of Pentecostal and Evangelical churches, said that the church had to decide to vote for either their destruction or advancement of Christianity.

Bishop Kabono feels some statements made by Azimio members were alarming and made the churches to be impartial.

While addressing the Muslim community in Nairobi, Raila said that Kenya was a secular natrion and all religions were equal. He said that a colonial ideology had placed Christianity above other religions.

“There is a colonial ideology in Kenya that elevated Christianity above all other religions. This ideology still exists. My government will end that. The Constitution says that Kenya is a secular society and is a God-fearing nation and we must respect all religions, so we have said that we will respect all religions.”

But Bishop Kabono said that the statement suggested that the government could pass a policy that would control the growth of Christianity.

He said that evangelical Christians were doing good to Ruto by supporting him out of self-preservation and out of direction from the Bible which demands the support of those with similar beliefs.

Deputy Jesus Christ

“The choice for us and the fellow Christians then became between a practising and proud Christians and another candidate that wanted to regulate small churches and stop pastors from doing ministry without a degree,” Kabono said. “That is how the church was forced to make a stand.”

Ruto’s Christianity has been used against him by those who believe that he was using Christianity to gain political capital.

“Jesus Christ has no deputy… stop pretending to be his deputy on earth, he belongs to all of us,” Azimio la Umoja running mate Martha Karua said at a rally in Kakamega.

Reuben Kigame, a gospel musician and presidential hopeful, weighed in on the matter last week, saying that the new administration was ‘overdoing religion’. It was an observation that former Chief Justice Willy Mutunga had made too.

“I think the Ruto administration is overdoing religion. While we acknowledge the hand of God in bringing us this far, the presidency must observe Article 27 of the Constitution,” Kigame wrote on social media.

“During the inauguration, the evangelical wing of the church was overrepresented. This was unnecessary. I do not know what the transition committee intended to prove to Kenya and the watching world.”

Ruto has used that discontent to appeal to the evangelical church that is still feeling the effects of a moratorium on the registration of new churches.

President Uhuru Kenyatta clamped down on the registration of churches in 2014, and that ban remains in place.

At a town hall meeting organised by Evangelical Association of Kenya in May, Ruto said the moratorium should be the reason that the church takes a greater interest in who is leading the country.

“I know that we’ve had issues with registration of churches. There is a moratorium. It needs to be discussed. What is the nature of this moratorium, and for how many days? What are the reasons? posed Ruto.

“The church again must step forward and have a conversation with the government.”

[Additional reporting by James Wanzala]