President William Ruto shakes hands with Benny Hinn during the televangelist's crusade at Nyayo Stadium in February 2024. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

Last weekend’s crusade by Toufik Benedictus “Benny” Hinn sparked an interesting discussion about the role of religion in public life.

Since the President attended the crusade, many bristled at the idea of blurring the line between church and state.

Others took umbrage at the presidential endorsement of “miracle Christianity,” a belief system often politically escapist and inimical to our understanding of the natural world as well as our ability to master it (including through scientific methods).

Both tracts of critiques came off (perhaps unintentionally) as essentially anti-religion. Which is unfortunate. There is nothing wrong with holding religious beliefs. History and research suggest that religion can be a crucial mechanism for organising life in both the private and public spheres.

At the individual level, religion can be a source of inspiration for managing risks presented by life’s randomness and mysteries, as well personal character formation. In the public sphere, religion can be a powerful tool around which to construct a public morality that jives with individuals’ private beliefs and motivations, thereby enabling groups of otherwise divided people constructing a well-ordered society.

However, the quality of religious beliefs and practices matter in determining societies’ ability to reap these benefits of religiosity. Religiosity works best if it is organised around personal morality at the individual level, as well as a public commitment to a higher purpose beyond base individual material pursuits. In addition, it helps if religiosity encourages things like literacy, science, industriousness, collective action to solve societal problems, and organisational mechanisms for achieving these objectives.

This has been the story of the world’s most successful religions. Religiosity becomes a liability when it is trivially superstitious and escapist. While it is true that there will always be unfathomable mysteries, humans have come a long way in making sense of the material world.

The best forms of religion are those that do not introduce mysteries where we have accumulated actual knowledge. Religiosity also fails when it leads to depoliticisation, excessive deference to authority, and an unwillingness to improve one’s material wellbeing in this life (as opposed to waiting for the afterlife).

Which brings us back to Hinn. The strongest critiques of “miracle Christianity” are those that highlight its unnecessary mysticism and escapism. Religion is most useful when it demands the best of us both individually and collectively in this world.

-The writer is Associate Professor at Georgetown University