William Ruto and the evangelicals

Which theology we will use to make sense of the relationship between church and state in Kenya?

Image via the World Trade Organization on Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0.

When William Ruto won the 2022 general elections to become Kenya’s fifth president, local and international media were awash with discussions of Ruto as an “evangelical president.” The excitement, however, was informed less by Kenyan religion or politics and more by right-wing evangelicals in the US and their war on homosexuality and abortion. Kenyan intellectuals, largely educated in Western liberal values and human rights discourse, also focused on concerns about secularism and for the rights of women and sexual minorities in Kenya.

Much of this analysis misses major nuances of religion and politics in Kenya, and comes from rigid adherence to the Eurocentric framework in which religion represents the conflict between traditional monarchical fascist conservatism on the one hand and liberal secularism and anti-religion left politics on the other.

For people of African descent, expressions of faith are not tied to monarchies and republics but to liberation. For the last four centuries, freedom has been the fundamental spiritual and religious preoccupation of Africans on the continent and in its diaspora. The spark of the Haitian revolution was the Boukman prayer, where the proclamation of freedom appealed to the God “who orders us to revenge our wrongs,” and against “the white man’s god who is so pitiless.” In Africa, Kimpa Vita, Simon Kibangu, Elijah Masinde and Lucas Pkech are some of the Africans who used contrapuntal readings of scripture in resisting colonialism.

The civil rights movement in the US followed the same tradition, for both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X grounded their struggles in faith. If anything, the modern articulation of right-wing, white evangelicalism is a reaction to the impact of the liberation theologies of the 1960s and 1970s in the US. Led by figures like Paul Weyrich, the right wing actively sought the collaboration of American evangelicals to fight against the gains of the civil rights movement without mentioning politics or race. To counter desegregation of schools, the new alliance offered homeschooling and faith schools. In the place of diversity and social welfare, it offered family values. Against the political gains of women, it turned abortion into a rallying cause.

But rather than confront the capture of theology, the acolytes of Enlightenment (i.e. liberals), offer reason, human rights and landmark court cases, hinting that religion automatically makes one a conservative, and implying that peoples of the Global South who want to harness religion have failed to decolonize their minds. The silence that they impose on emancipatory readings of religion has allowed space for right-wing, anti-political and hateful theology to gain momentum, which has culminated in the capture of the US Supreme Court. Instead of learning their lesson and removing the Eurocentric walls around religion, these intellectuals now try to force African politics and religion into restrictive Eurocentric boxes of constitutionalism and human rights activism.

This hubris is oblivious to the fact that any interpretation of religion is fundamentally political, because interpretation informs and is informed by decisions we make in society. And this reality is not affected by secularism, for as the Kenyan historian Ali Mazrui once wrote, the separation between the church and the state does not necessarily translate into a separation between religion and politics. Blocking discussions of religion is political as well, but its effect is to depoliticize people by imposing moral conversations (the goodness of individuals) where there should be political ones (what people should do about power).

A large part of this oversimplification of religion emanates from the Euro-American liberal discomfort with knowledge outside of the rational. Religion and spirituality allow more space for ambiguity, fluidity, contradiction, and intersection, which is inconvenient for forms of power and knowledge that rely on the letter of the law, precision, and empirical proof. Add to that racism, which is notoriously impatient with appreciating Africans as complex human beings, and you have a potent mix that misreads African political theology.

Ruto’s Christianity

Ruto’s faith and political career illustrate the fluidities of Christianity in Kenya. In the run-up to the 2010 constitutional referendum, Ruto was the most prominent politician in the “No” camp against the constitution, but his interest was largely driven by what appears to be his concerns about his own political future. Ruto campaigned on a platform that the constitution did not respect the capitalist principle of limitless land ownership, and that the proposed devolved governance did not assign enough resources to the counties. The evangelical churches were opposed to the recognition of Kadhi courts and the clause on abortion allowing doctors to determine the threat to life. The Kenyan pastors who waged war against the constitution voiced their concerns as moral, but in reality, they were daring the state to a supremacy contest, hoping to wield their supposed Christian majority as a power bloc to vote against the government.

During the referendum campaign, therefore, Ruto and the clergy were largely partners of convenience. Mark Kariuki, who would pray fifteen years later at Ruto’s swearing-in as president, even clarified, “No yao si no yetu” (Their “no” is not our “no”), meaning that Ruto and the clergy may have been on the same side though not for the same reasons.

The moral posturing of the clergy still did not persuade Kenyan Christians to abandon the legal and political agendas that had brought Kenya to this new constitutional moment. Contrary to the clergy’s expectations, Kenyans ratified the constitution. Many elite adherents of evangelical Christianity, including professionals, carry that rejection as a trauma to date.

The greater manifestation of Ruto’s faith is not in his view of sexual identities but in his economic thinking. Four years ago, Kenyan journalist Christine Mungai wrote a brilliant analysis of Ruto’s “gangster theology,” arguing that Ruto’s camaraderie with evangelical churches was a tactical strategy in propping himself up as a “hustler.” To distinguish himself from his former boss, Uhuru Kenyatta, as a dynasty, Ruto had to portray himself as a person who had pulled himself up by the bootstraps to become a politician of national prominence. (Kenyatta, like Ruto’s main rival for the presidency, Raila Odinga, is a member of Kenya’s political dynasties, which has ruled for much of the post-independence period or controlled access to wealth.)  Ruto’s religion, therefore, needed to reflect the image of “Kenyan ordinariness.” He had to align himself with pastors who had begun their churches in abandoned buildings with a few congregants before they became wealthy heads of mega-churches.

Despite rooting for hustlers, Ruto supports the neoliberal ideology of individualism. He hates the arts and believes that science, technology and finance, not social change, are the solution to Kenya’s economic challenges. As such, his answer to crippling economic inequality has been to avail cheap micro-credit to the poor, otherwise dubbed as the “Hustler fund,” and to promise very little in terms of social support. If the evangelical God blesses individuals for the work of their hands, then that theology perfectly aligns itself with micro-credit as a route out of poverty. It is up to the poor to “work hard” using the loans they receive, albeit at high-interest rates, in the same way that Ruto rose from a chicken seller to become president, and in the same way pastors became owners of mega-churches.

To focus on Ruto’s stereotypical answers on women and sexual minorities is therefore to miss the gist of Ruto’s politics. That is not to say that the human rights of these groups are not important, or to minimize the spectacular violence that they suffer. It is to point to the socio-economic and political dimensions of this violence, which are the crippling inequality, the narrow public sphere and the cruelty of daily life under neoliberal policies. These dynamics are often obscured by critics who engage in moralistic, human rights-centric discourses and who, even worse, lock out the possibility of alliances with other groups who may or not be religious.

Ruto’s politics chose evangelical religion more than evangelical religion chose his politics. Ruto’s evangelicalism is an integral part of his neoliberal economic policy, which he believes will address the plight of the people at the bottom.

For the same reason, he and his deputy president, Rigathi Gachagua, have appealed to African spirituality as the spirituality of the non-elite, in addition to evangelical faith. Ruto sought the blessings of the Talai clan, who suffered brutality during the early years of colonial rule, because the colonial administration considered them to be the kernel of the impermeable Kalenjin anti-colonial resistance. Meanwhile, Kikuyu politicians led by Rigathi prayed facing Mount Kenya, to emulate the Mau Mau who fought for land justice.

The question is therefore not the relationship of religion to the Kenyan state, rather which theology we will use to interpret Ruto’s faith, assuming that theology is necessarily political. We can interpret Ruto’s religious expression based on the tradition of African spiritualities of liberation, or based on the European theology that pitted of the constitutional monarchy and the capitalist republic. If we choose the former tradition, we will find that Ruto’s evangelicalism falls in the latter one.

In my view, the new prominence of religion in the public sphere is a good development because, as the African experience shows, religion is a knowledge resource that can bring together people of diverse backgrounds, especially the oppressed who are denied access to institutions. Since 2010, political discourse from the public sphere has been dominated by constitutionalism, which generally hands over politics to lawyers. Religion, on the other hand, allows ordinary people access to political conversations. Rather than close that door because Ruto has taken advantage of that space, we need to open the door even wider for ordinary Kenyans to bring the riches of their knowledge to politics. Religion is one space where humanity can accommodate diverse knowledge. At least that’s what Africans have used it for.

Therefore, critics need to be patient, learn to deal with the ambiguity of the current political moment, and let Kenyans figure out what Ruto’s religion means politically and theologically. This situation is new for us and we need to figure it out as well. Forcing Ruto’s neoliberal wine into old liberal wineskins depoliticizes, rather than empowers us.

Further Reading