The forthcoming presidential election in the U.S. is generating some lively debates in Nigeria. In some recent social media conversations with fellow Catholics, I realized that many of them, particularly those from my ethnic Igbo nation, are as fervent in their support for Trump as his diehard American fans here in the U.S. I have also seen similar trends among some African Christians and clerics from other parts of Africa. It was not surprising then that the BBC recently did a story with the bold title, “The African Evangelicals Praying for Trump to Win.”
While Nigeria’s social media are awash with ‘copy and paste’ soundbites, utterances, or political ads in the U.S for or against Trump, many of my interlocutors have little or no interest in the successful effort of ECOWAS in Mali, led by President Goodluck, which pulled that nation from the brink. Many of us also have taken no interest in the political tension surrounding Guinea’s presidential election this month. Most others are not even aware of the seething political tinder box on which Cote d’Ivoire sits right now. This political crisis was triggered by President Ouattara’s decision to run for a third presidential term this month, thus reneging on his promise in March to step down at the end of his second term.
It worried me that at a time when our people are drowning in the double burdens of pandemic and poverty, at a time when our young people are standing up to police dictatorship, lawlessness, and the impunities of the Nigerian state apparatus against her people, we spent precious time fighting over a U.S election which in the bigger context of history has only a tangential bearing on what happens in Nigeria. There is no doubt that what happens in the U.S affects the rest of the world, but I was quite surprised that American politics consumes our energy while our nation is burning. Apparently, there are many Nigerians who are convinced that our fate and destiny lie in what happens outside Africa.
The fact that such people are comfortable in embracing any historical processes spawned in the West is a sign of a decline in Afrocentric thinking and acting about how to construct our own future in order to become the artisans of our own history. I have always wondered particularly as an African Catholic student why many divisive moral issues, made in the West and for the West like abortion, and same-sex marriage should define my faith and conversation as an African when these issues do not reflect the immediate moral, political, economic, and spiritual challenges facing our people. Why should everything we do as African Christians these days be defined comparatively by what happens outside the lived spiritual and social experience of our African brothers and sisters?
Paradoxes and Complexities
Four paradoxes and complexities struck me in my fruitless attempt to engage in online conversations with colleagues and friends from Nigeria on the U.S presidential election. The first is the passionate and near idolatrous adulation of Trump by many of my interlocutors. However, what we think or feel as Nigerians about the election in the U.S will have no bearing on that election’s outcome. On November 3, 2020, only the American citizens will decide whether to terminate their contract with Trump or to renew his contract. Most Americans will vote first and foremost based on who among the two candidates best represents the American interest at home and her strategic interests abroad. By the same token, Trump or Biden are driven primarily by American interests. Any other consideration is secondary or instrumental to American national interests and strategic interests abroad.
The second paradox for me is that as I think of Trump’s popularity among Nigerian Christians, I contrast it with Buhari’s popularity among Muslims and the way both presidents came to power in their respective countries. This came to my mind when Buhari stood side by side with Trump at the Rose Garden in the White House in 2018. This serves as a good classification and clarification by contrast. Trump and Buhari share a striking similarity in the pattern of their ascendency to the presidency in their respective countries-they both rode to power on the crest waves of populism. Trump landed on the American political tarmac, hoisting the flag of American exceptionalism, buoyed by White Catholics and evangelicals.
Buhari, on the other hand, rode into Aso Rock with a broom in hand to clean up the corruption in Nigeria, with massive support from Muslims of Northern Nigeria. Trump’s popularity is still solid today among White Christians in America who believe that he is upholding traditional Christian values, even though America is convulsing in the fire of social unrest, anti-racist protests and the anguish of the nation over the shocking number of Americans who have died from Covid-19. The same pattern can be seen in the case of Buhari, who still remains popular among Muslim northerners even though his Islamist agenda and failed leadership have brought so many deaths, violence, terrorism, poverty, and suffering to the masses of our people. While Trump is accused by his opponents as a White supremacist, Buhari on the other hand is accused by his opponents as a Muslim supremacist. One must raise the uncomfortable question: If promoting a particular religious belief, morality, and institutions in a pluralistic society is the touchstone for good leadership, what then is the difference between what Trump is doing in the U.S and what Buhari is doing in Nigeria?
The truth is that populist regimes offer people empty hopes through what Ernesto Laclau calls ’empty signifiers.’ They make grandiose promises like ‘fighting corruption’, ‘making America great’ and many other slogans which have a magical hold on people’s imagination, but which represent no policy, program, actionable and measurable alternatives or praxis of reform or reversal. At the end of populist regimes, people are left with sour tastes, frustrations, bitterness, and anger, which boil over as citizens turn against one another in us vs them binaries. At the end of the day, when the people’s energies have been exhausted and their hopes shattered, they begin another futile search for a new saviour or hero.
In the case of Buhari, most Nigerians are just hoping that this dark night in our nation’s history will soon come to an end. The popular Buhari has become the polar opposite of what anyone, including his Islamic acolytes, would want in any national leader. Like Trump whose former defence chief, General Mattis accused of not trying to unite America, but one who is actively dividing the country, Buhari makes no effort to unite Nigerians. Buhari has become the most divisive and polarizing president to ever occupy the presidency in Nigeria, just like Trump in America.
Just like Trump did during the anti-racism protests in the U.S. when Trump threatened to deploy the military; so also, Buhari is doing now in the current youth anti-police and anti-unmerited suffering protests in Nigeria. As Nigeria is currently seething in anger over insecurity, police brutality, and insensitivity of the government to the sufferings of the masses of our people, Buhari is threatening young Nigerians through his military. Buhari’s military recently issued a statement that they are on standby to deploy to bring law and order to the streets against peaceful protesters. Buhari like Trump has failed to admit his role in bringing about or enabling the kinds of social policies breeding these band of criminals, miscreants, and violent people who hate fellow citizens. In a sense, Trump and Buhari are both populist regimes riding as they both did on popular discontent, but who at the end of their tenure create more problems, discontentment and polarization than they found.
The third notable paradox in my discussion is that unlike their African American brothers and sisters who take pride in Obama, most of my Nigerian conversation partners loathe Obama. They also blame him for most of the problems of Nigeria today including the emergence of President Buhari, and the fall of President Goodluck. They wish that Goodluck could come back. I was intrigued by the fact that the first black American president is less popular among my conversation partners than President Trump who is regarded by most African Americans here in the U.S. as a racist, nativist, and White supremacist. President Trump denies these accusations while claiming -without evidence though-that he has done more for African Americans than any other American President besides Abraham Lincoln.
My fourth paradox is similar to the third in a different way. This is the fact that Joe Biden, a Catholic of Irish ancestry, has a less favourable rating than Trump among my Nigerian Catholic conversation partners. Trump, a nominal Christian, is preferred to Biden by most of my Catholic colleagues because these Trump adherents believe that he has upheld traditional Catholic teachings on abortion, and same-sex marriage. His anti-Muslim rhetoric and anti-Muslim immigration policy and his condemnation of religious persecution against Christians in Nigeria gained him a lot of points in our conversation.
Trump is also presented as one who, contrary to Biden or Obama before him, according to my interlocutors, is promoting the public visibility of Christianity and will lift high the Cross and the Bible and build a strong unbreachable fortress for traditional Christian values that cannot be shaken by the storms of liberalism or secularism in America and the rest of the world. In general, I noticed that the main source of the ‘research’ for these conclusions about Trump, from my interlocutors, were mainly from social media sources and soundbites.
What became obvious to me as a preliminary thought is that unfiltered knowledge, cheaply gained through social media has become a daily staple for many of our people. I was saddened by the lack of any sophisticated engagement with history and evidence in our online chats. I was worried about the gullibility of our people and the lack of any critical engagement or hermeneutic of suspicion of opinions and video clips that my interlocutors circulate or refer to. More troubling too for me was the lack of historical consciousness about the way global politics works, the unjust and exploitative asymmetries of power between Africa and America and between Africa and the rest of the West, and now China. Many of my interlocutors have not adopted any robust and critical social analysis that could have helped them to engage more objectively with the mixed baggage in the policies and programs of successive American governments in Nigeria and Africa, particularly evident in Trump’s America First’s foreign and economic policies today.
Trump a Favorite of White Catholics, White Evangelicals, and Nigerian Christians
Trump’s high favorability rating among Nigerian Christians is consistent with the trends in the most recent polls in America, even though he is losing some support because of his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the Pew Research Center, President Donald Trump continues to be White Christians’ preferred candidate for the November election, but support among voters in three major traditions – White Catholics, White Protestants who are not evangelical and even White evangelical Protestants – has slipped since August. Democratic candidate Joe Biden, by contrast, is leading the presidential contest among every other religious group analyzed in the survey, including Black Protestants, Hispanic Catholics, Jews and the religiously unaffiliated.
Among White Catholic voters, Trump is ahead of Biden by 8 percentage points: 52% in this group say they would vote for Trump (or lean that way) if the election were held today, while 44% favour Biden. White Christians are a key segment of the electorate because they make up roughly 44% of U.S. registered voters. Roughly 7% of registered voters are Black Protestants, 5% are Hispanic Catholics, 2% are Jewish and 28% are religiously unaffiliated. The survey’s findings of 2020 voting intentions are in line with trends in party identification – Trump’s strongest supporters – are the most solidly and consistently Republican among major religious groups in the electorate, and they have grown even more uniformly Republican in recent decades. White Catholics and White Protestants who are not evangelical also have shifted in a Republican direction in recent years. By contrast, according to this Report, Black Protestants, religiously unaffiliated voters, Jews and Hispanic Catholics have long been solidly Democratic.
What this report shows is that the American electorate is polarized. American voters have traditionally followed some fixed patterns of affinity based on religious beliefs, ideological leanings, and cultural traditions. Particularly among traditional Catholics, the issues of abortion, opposition to gay marriage, and Trump’s rhetoric against Islam and religious persecution have helped his favorability than Biden’s. However, Black Catholics in the U.S are generally leaning towards Biden and the Democratic Party traditionally because of issues of racism, social justice, the legacy of slavery of which the Christian churches were complicit, and the health inequities promoted by the libertarian policies of the Republican Party on healthcare.
The Burden of Conscience for Many American Catholics.
Many Catholics in America have a burden of conscience as this presidential election draws near. I am happy that I am not an American voter because for me as a Catholic it will be hard to vote for either Trump or Biden. Unfortunately, there is no third party. I have heard some American Catholics wonder: How could a faithful Catholic vote for Biden who supports abortion, same-sex marriage, and the use of taxpayers’ money to fund anti-life groups like Planned Parenthood? A White American nun who spoke to me over the phone recently said to me: “I have a burden of conscience in this election. I like Trump’s pro-life policies, but how could I ever support Trump who only became pro-life when he started to run for office? How could I vote for someone who does not embrace Catholic social teaching and supports the death penalty, gun-ownership, war, and defunds the WHO, the world body fighting COVID in poor countries, and whose anti-immigration enforcement separates children from their parents at the borders; and whose moral conduct, utterances, and personal ethic are revolting to me?
This burden of conscience is also worsened in America for many Catholics because American Catholic bishops, nuns and priests have also taken sides with either candidate. Cardinal Doran of New York led the opening prayer at the Republican Presidential Convention, which was in the opinion of the public a tacit endorsement of Trump. At the other side of the political divide, the popular Jesuit priest and writer, James Martin, led the prayers at the Democratic Presidential Convention. Catholic newspapers, radio and television stations are divided in their allegiance. All these contribute to the moral dilemma of American Catholics and making it even more complex in America to affirm any distinctive Catholic position on most issues on the ballot.
What has become obvious to me as a resident of America is that moral issues are often defined by politics here. Christian social ethics, morality or spirituality are not what drive the values of American politics. Rather, political expedience, ideological differences based on historical precedence, economic variables, and pragmatic choices drive the stand of most politicians with regard to Christian moral issues. The issues which are vote-rich are the ones most politicians will gravitate towards. In other words, a politician might publicly be a champion of a particular position not because he or she is interiorly convinced of it or practices what he or she publicly professes, but rather because of political expediency.
Religion, particularly Christianity, is being deployed not for evangelical purposes, but for short term political gains. For instance, abortion became law in the U.S under a Republican Party, but ever since then, the Republican party in every election will run on a pro-life ticket. However, once the elections are over, nothing is done by the party to pass any legislation to change the abortion laws or how they are applied. But in order to win an election, most politicians will say what they think that the electorate wishes to hear. This has become an art of the deal under the Trump administration. On November 3rd we shall see if this works for him.
What we see then today, like in previous elections in the U.S, is the full display of the culture wars in America. It also reflects the changing landscape of America and the complex conundrum it faces in dealing with many challenges facing her like Covid-19, racism (America’s original sin), diversity and the emergence of new centres of power outside America like China. As Fareed Zakaria argues in The Post-American World, it is not as if America is declining-requiring to be made great again-but rather that other peoples and nations are rising. This means that America’s strategic interest is defined by how she negotiates with those rising powers that offer her the possibility of partnership in a win-win situation. Is Nigeria a rising power? I don’ think so. However, as the second-largest trading partner of the U.S in Africa, and with more than 350,000 Nigerians calling America their home or country, Nigeran-American relationship can be reset to enrich the mutual strategic interests of both countries. But is this possible? What will such a relationship look like? What strategic interests will a future American president seek in resolving the curse of the sinking and stinking ship of this unjust and unworkable federation called Nigeria?
To be continued on Part II
By Fr Stan Chu Ilo, a Catholic priest of Awgu Diocese in South-East Nigeria, a research professor of World Christianity and African Studies at DePaul University, Chicago, USA; Honorary professor of Theology and Religion at Durham University, Durham, England.
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