Why are some African Christian leaders and their followers loyal to seemingly morally corrupt and socially problematic American politicians and their political agendas? This was the question Prof Dion Forster from the Department of Systematic Theology and Ecclesiology at Stellenbosch University (SU) explored in a recent Stellenbosch Forum lecture. The lecture, the second in the series for 2022, was themed “A critical consideration of the relationship between African Christianities and American evangelicalism: A cautionary tale of theo-political exceptionalism?".
The Stellenbosch Forum lecture series was started in 1990 and provides regular opportunities to SU staff and students as well as members of the public to learn more about the world-class research conducted at the University. Presented in an accessible and understandable way, these lectures offer both academics and non-academics a platform for critical debate across disciplinary boundaries.
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According to Forster, some African Christians' infatuation with American politicians goes back to the intersection of politics, economics and the spreading of American evangelicalism to Africa in the last century. He said the arrival of American evangelicalism on the continent coincided with the historical emergence of rampant materialism and individualism, which are characteristic of modernity and were deeply embedded in American Christianities of the time.
“Evangelical mission has uncritically transplanted sets of cultural, political, economic and moral beliefs that are more American than they are Christian," Forster said. “These values place 'America first' and allow American exceptionalism to spread throughout the world by means of donor aid and patronage, and often do so in ways that mask this intention in theological language and religious activity."
Given the subtle ways in which American evangelicalism had spread, Forster added, we shouldn't be surprised that its influences were still evident in the theologies, political views and moral sentiments of some African Christian leaders. “Many prominent political and religious leaders in Africa rely on funding and patronage from American funding bodies – some with overt evangelical political theological agendas, and some who more subtly veil their intentions – or belong to Christian churches who are uncritically informed by American evangelical political theologies.
“Some donors require African recipients of funding to prescribe to certain doctrinal or moral commitments," Forster said, “while others simply will not fund any project or initiative that is viewed to challenge or question their core theological beliefs or ideological commitments."
As a result, they “fall in step" with American evangelical theology and politics on issues such as the denial of sexual minorities' rights, and the curtailing of women's reproductive rights, nationalism, xenophobia and conspiracy theories. “Similarly, many African evangelical leaders who were trained at American evangelical theological institutions may have adopted, or at least subscribed to, the values of those institutions, particularly if the institution funded their studies."
“Among the more concerning elements of these relationships is the misshaping of African theological convictions through the exercise of economic influence and unequal power relationships between American donors and overseers and their African Christian beneficiaries," Forster concluded.
Although not all African evangelical Christianities emerged from, or were co-opted by, American evangelical ideals, we should still be cautious of American evangelical political theologies that perpetuate the heresy of American exceptionalism, he said.
To this end, we should have the courage to ask important, self-critical questions about the theological and political histories and views that shaped our African evangelical Christianities, Forster added.
“And where we identify the presence of new, subtle and powerful forms of imperialism and colonisation, we should be willing to critically engage them and root out what is theologically untrue and socially destructive. African Christians should guard against being 'bought' or 'captured' by values, ideologies and beliefs that do not have our interests at heart."