The Pulpit President: Religion and Ruto
By Iddah Apondi
The great Marxist thinker Karl Marx once opined that “religion is the opium of the people.” These words hold great resonance in the African continent. In examining Kenya and its dance with religion like other African countries, one can see that there exists a mixture of religion and the daily lives of people. The 2020 report on International Religious freedom: Kenya estimated that as of 2019 approximately 85.5% of the total population of Kenyans are Christians, 11% Muslim and less than 2% fall in to the religious groups of Hindu, Sikhs and traditional religions. Even though, constitutionally Kenya is a secular state. Consequently, like other African countries religion and politics form the fabric of the Kenyan existence as evidenced in conversations in pubs and matatus. It is then safe to assert both religion and politics form the backbone of conversations between strangers and friends. Hence, the role played by religion in the lives of Kenyan shapes the nature of political mobilization and participation in the country.
Political candidates over the period of Kenya’s democracy have taken on mobilization in religious sites and have campaigned in churches, synagogues and mosques. The extent to which religion has entrenched itself in Kenyan politics is not a new concept as seen in the use of podium politics by politicians to woo religious Kenyans in church services through their “messiah-like” political words and generous church donations in the name of political goodwill. The intrigue here lies on the heavy weight felt the 2022 election with the emphasis on religion, particularly Christianity.
The just concluded general election and campaign period saw the rise of religion as a tool for political campaign used by political aspirants. The two main candidate, William Ruto and Raila Odinga, through-out the campaigns etched on discussions surrounding religion, particularly Christianity, with Ruto seen more frequently than his contenders in church and regularly donating to Christian causes. During the campaign season William Ruto during a prayer meeting at his Karen residence made the following observation “this election is more of a spiritual battle than a political contest”. Raila Odinga on the other hand, stated in July that Christianity is a result of colonial ideology that has been elevated above all other religions. Odinga’s remarks sparked outrage by Christian Kenyans especially when the atheist community endorsed his statement. This sentiment was greatly capitalised by his opponent and to a great extent, elevated the debate of the role of religion in the election. This almost overshadowed the kernel of hustler versus dynasty rhetoric used by the Kenya Kwanza team. At Bomas of Kenya where the presidential tallying was being done, the guests were being entertained by Gospel choirs, Kenyans online asked why Christianity was being elevated over other religions. When Ruto was declared president, the role of God and religion became more dominant. Ruto claimed that it was because of God and prayers that he won. This narrowed the space between state, politics and religion.
Few days before the elections, photos and videos of Ruto singing praise and crying during prayers trended on social media. When he was declared as President Elect at Bomas of Kenya, Ruto attributed his presidential victory to prayers stating that “I was prayed to victory.” This is however not his first dip at the altar, in 2018 he was reported to have generously endorsed the Church through offering amounting to over Sh60 million, mostly in cash. It is key to note that, Ruto and his wife Rachel have often declared their Christian faith in public and have not shed away from this fact. For instance, in their first week in their positions, the first lady hosted at prophets from Ghana and Zimbabwe and later both president and first lady hosted the Tanzanian Zabron Gospel singers at state house. During his swearing in ceremony the nation was treated to a religious like through the use of Christian music.
What importance does this play, one may ask? The creation of local and international policies is informed among other things by the idiosyncrasies of the policy maker. This trend is worrying for a state that is constitutionally considered a secular state. Drawing examples around the globe, conservative parties and religious leaders have drafted policies, often invoking a challenge to governance and rights of people, recently the overturn of Roe versus Wade decision by the US supreme court, which some argue was backed to some degree by evangelical conservative judges. The more days go by in Ruto’s presidency, the more the use of religion becomes stronger. It is in the hopes that as a secular country, Kenyan politics does not become muddied with religion as a core characteristic of political interaction and governance of a country that is not entirely a Christian state.
While Ruto claims that his win was attributed to prayers and God, we are yet to see what else in his tenure will be attributed to the same. As it stands, we are yet to see the direction that Ruto will take in his governance, as his testing period ticks during his 100 days in office.
Iddah Apondi Odhiambo is a graduate of International Relations from United States International University- Africa (USIU-A), majored in Diplomacy and Foreign Policy and psychology. My career interests lie in the psychology of diplomacy, African Foreign Policy, and African governance.