Church in Jamaica lacks influence


Wednesday, June 06, 2018

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On a scale of one to five — with one being very little and five being very much — I rate the influence the Church in Jamaican has on the affairs of State at two (below average). Before my fellow clergymen with whom I enjoy a congenial and close working relationship take out their long knives, let me provide the basis for my less than satisfactory rating.

The 2011 Statistical Institute of Jamaica Population and Housing Census reported that out of a population of 2.7 million, 2.1 million people (78 per cent) claimed to have had affiliation spread over 21 religious associations. In a June 2006 Gleaner/Bill Johnson poll, 65 per cent of Jamaicans said they take the Bible seriously and 80 per cent said they attend church regularly or once in a while.

A 2006 survey by the Centre of Leadership and Governance, The University of the West indies, Mona, found that the Church is near the top — just below universities, schools and the family — as the institution in which Jamaicans place most trust. My low rating of the Church's influence on the affairs of State is in the context of the Church being the largest, most widely dispersed and trusted membership body.

Compare the influence of the Church in Jamaica to the influence of the Church in the United States — a country whose constitution draws a separating line between Church and State. In 1979 Southern Baptist pastor Jerry Falwell, along with Christian fundamentalists, discontent with America's declining values, formed the Moral Majority — a right of centre movement intended to give conservative Christians greater influence in American politics. Since its founding, the movement has played a key role in electing every Republican president. Donald Trump's troubled presidency is kept alive largely through the support of evangelicals. Rev Robert Jeffres is chairman of the president's Advisory Evangelical Board. The evangelical position on Israel is a key factor behind the president's decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem. Jeffres, along with another conservative evangelical pastor, John Hagee, were the president's emissaries at the opening of the new embassy on May 14, 2018. That's influence!

The close relationship between politicians and the clergy, where it does exist, is usually one of convenience. Politicians have something that is important to the clergy — influence over the affairs of State. And the clergy has something that politicians want — influence over votes.

David Kuo, a devout Christian who served as second in command in President George W Bush's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, in his book Tempting Faith — An inside story of political seduction, speaks to the sometimes sordid but important relationship between politics and religion: “Throughout nearly 20 years involvement in politics I have seen the tender seduction of well-meaning Christian leaders and their followers by politicians parched for votes but apathetic about these Christians' faith. On the one hand, this shouldn't be surprising; politicians are all about courting (or seducing) voters so that they can win. On the other hand, Christian leaders are supposed to be putting Jesus above and before all things. Instead, it looks like they believe political power is the most important thing in pushing the Christian agenda.”

Do Jamaican churches and their leaders possess influence over affairs of the State equal to their strength when it comes to contentious issues, like LGBT rights, being pushed by global trends and powerful interest groups? There are at least two reasons for the Church's lack of influence.

One reason is the very thing that gives the Church its strength. Jamaica is reputed to have the most churches in the world per capita. But it is a divided body. The Jamaica Umbrella Group of Churches, which claims to represent upward of 90 per cent of traditional Christian membership on the island, has not been able in significant ways to leverage this power to influence government policy toward, for example, making the justice system more equitable or the economy more inclusive — two issues that directly affect those sitting in the pews.

A second reason is the Church's disengagement from the corridors of power and influence. When pastors speak publicly on the airwaves, or write in the newspapers, it is usually on narrow religious themes — not economic, social or political ones. Outside of saying opening prayers or blessing the meal, pastors are seldom seen at government, diplomatic, or corporate events. It is a rarity to see pastors on the golf course, at swanky corporate events, poolside parties in ostentatious homes overlooking the city or on the cocktail circuit — places where the influencers network, socialise and determine the course of future events before they even get debated on the floor of Parliament.

Jamaican pastors, by what they do with, and where they choose to spend their time, seem to do too good a job responding to the biblical admonition to “come out from among them”. No wonder a July 2017 Bill Johnson poll found that only 26 per cent of people in the survey said they can rely on the Church to tell them what is happening in the affairs of the country.

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