Kenya's a secular state; we must separate religion, state affairs

President William Ruto at AIC Homa Bay on October 2, 2022. [Michael Mute, Standard]

The thanksgiving prayers at State House to bless the incoming administration elicited a robust debate on whether our governments should maintain a wall between state and religious affairs. Considering the president and his deputy have vowed to conduct more religious services at State House, it is safe to assume we have not heard the last of this debate.

The debate on the appropriateness of prayer meetings at the State House came hot on the heels of an earlier storm that was prompted by an assertion by the Azimio presidential candidate Raila Odinga that Kenya is a secular state. Although correct, Raila beat a hasty retreat under heavy fire from political opponents who used the statement to portray him as an atheist. In a country where 97 per cent of people profess some religion, stating that Kenya was a secular state was not the smartest thing to say in an election season. Unfortunately, the retreat by Raila stopped an important debate.

The historical justification for the separation of state and religion is the need to respect different beliefs and ideologies and the turmoil that results from ignoring diversity. Already, mainstream churches have accused the Ruto government of displaying a soft spot for evangelical churches to the extent of signing a secret MOU with them. Such favouritism is not only disconcerting, but it also shows an administration that is frighteningly insensitive to the historical dangers of mixing religion and state affairs.

Equally unsettling is Kenya Kwanza's use of religion to woo voters. The practice, which is the oldest trick in the world, was first identified by Machiavelli as a favoured tool for a Prince to gain power. While there is nothing wrong with a politician to woo voters with shared beliefs, it is difficult to judge how much of the piety displayed by a Kenyan politician is genuine and how much is pretense. In a country where you cannot trust a politician to escort your five-year-old to kindergarten because he might steal lunch money, images of politicians wearing religion on the sleeves of their latest designer jackets merely evoke cynicism.

Moreover, even if by Machiavellian standards manipulation of voters is a pragmatic and a smart move, such hypocrisy makes citizens cynical and distrustful of leaders.

Those defending State House prayer meetings argue that aside from being the seat of government, it is also the home of the first couple and the Constitution protects their freedom of worship just like other citizens. According to this argument, the president, has the right to invite anyone to his home for fellowship without having to seek permission from anyone. Moreover, the first lady has strong ties with evangelical groups that predate her husband's political career and has an inalienable right to exercise freedom of worship.

The second argument in defence of prayerful leadership comes from many believers who genuinely yearn for religion to be at the centre of state affairs. According to proponents of this argument, the preference of majority of Kenyans for a religious state was unequivocally underscored by an overwhelming vote for a new constitution that recognises God as the almighty.

Given the strong arguments advanced by those for and against separating religion and state affairs, ultimately the final arbiter of this debate has to be our constitution. As both sides acknowledge, the Constitution protects the rights of every Kenyan to exercise freedom of worship. However, just like all other rights, freedom of worship is not absolute and the government can interfere when such freedoms are misused or if worshipers infringe on rights of other citizens. Indeed according to section 24 of our Bill of Rights, "individual freedoms enshrined in the Constitution can be limited by the need to ensure that the enjoyment of rights and fundamental freedoms by any individual does not prejudice the rights and fundamental freedoms of others".

The wording of this limitation is based on liberal philosophy which considers individual freedoms as indispensable to the evolution of humanity. Liberalism believes human beings need unfettered freedoms in order to actualise their full potential. Going by this liberal philosophy, Kenya is not a secular state just because it is written in our constitution, but because we do not have a choice as a liberal democracy.

Mr Githieya is a political and economic analyst. [email protected]