Liberians approved secularism out in favor of Liberia becoming a Christian nation. Instead of holding informed debate and heeding Liberia’s obligations under international human rights convention, members of the Constitution Committee and their advisors have become mere onlookers as we slowly slide into the dark ages. The justification many Liberians gave for removing its secular declaration is that Liberia is a Christian state founded on Christian principles.
The constitution of any nation, in my opinion, is a sacred document that embodies the principles on which a state is governed. It should be as Ndulo once wrote “an autobiography of the nation . . . People should be able to look at the constitution and see themselves and their lives and aspirations within its pages and their protection within its words.” All Liberians should be able to see themselves reflected in this document, not some, but all.
In Liberia today, religious leaders have become part of the administrative fabric of the country commenting on government policies and, at times, influencing policy direction. Encouraged by religious zealots from abroad, African religious leaders full of “righteous” affectation have taken up a crusade to bring back hell and damnation and old time religion. If, as it has been touted by clergy and laymen alike that Liberia was founded on Christian principles, then it must be that they are speaking of the coming of the freed slaves and not of those that the freed slaves met (who were not Christians). Are indigenous beliefs not worthy of being protected in the constitution or is it just the “civilizing” religion that is worthy of such esteem?
Liberia was never founded on Christian principles despite what many believe and what old documents espoused.
Most of the slave owners (fervent church goers) and church leaders in America and England owned slaves. The first three presidents of the American Colonization Society (ACS) kept their slaves: Bushrod Washington (1st president) owned slaves, Charles Carroll (2nd president) did not allowed any of his 2,000 slaves to emigrate to Africa, and James Madison, (ACS third President who later became America’s fourth president) owned over a hundred slaves.
The beginning of the ACS started off in response to the dilemma on what to do with the Black population in America.
Robert Finley, a Presbyterian pastor on February 15, 1815, wrote a letter to a colleague (Mumford) explaining that "Everything connected with their condition, including their color, is against them; Could not the rich and benevolent devise means to form a colony on some part of the Coast of Africa, similar to the one at Sierra Leone, which might gradually induce many free blacks to go. . . . . . We should be cleared of them; we should send to Africa a population partially civilized and Christianized for its benefits……”
The ACS, although given a philanthropic and religious face, was formed for the sole intent “that the slaves not be restored to liberty except for transportation; and that, as the free colored people never can mingle with the whites, the only practicable way of doing them good, is to remove them from their own country to the distant land of their forefathers.” The 13th Report of the ACS continues “the present number of this unfortunate, degraded, and anomalous class of inhabitants cannot be much short of half a million, and the number is fast increasing. They are, emphatically, a mildew upon our fields, a scourge to our backs, and a stain upon our escutcheon. To remove them, is mercy to ourselves, and justice.” Charles Fenton Mercer of Virginia favored removal of the freed blacks because they were “every day polluting and corrupting public morals” and furthermore “more than half the freed blacks females were prostitutes and half of the males rogues.”
At the first general conference of those that favored colonization of the freed slaves, Elias Caldwell explained:“ It was expedient because the free blacks have a demoralizing influence on our civil institutions; . . . Africa seemed the best place to send them: ….the climate was agreeable to the colored man's constitution, they could live cheaply there, and above all other reasons, they could carry civilization and Christianity to the Africans. . . . With the promise of equality, a homestead, and a free passage, no black would refuse to go” (Alexander, 82).
But refuse many did. Most Blacks distrusted the ACS and made their opposition loud and clear, claiming the US as their place of nativity and expressing outrage that they should be banished from a land they viewed as their own.
Some went so far as to approve a petition in 1817 calling for colonization “while we thus express our approbation of a measure laudable in its purpose, and beneficial in its design, it may not be improper in us to say, that we prefer being colonized in the most remote corner of the land of our nativity to being exiled to a foreign country.. . . whether it would not be an act of charity to grant us a small portion of territory, either on the Missouri river, or any place that may seem conducive to the public good.”
However, this was to no avail. The 15th Report of the ACS Resolved—That a select committee be appointed to enquire into the expediency of making an appropriation for the purpose of removing, from the United States and her territories, the free people of colour, and colonizing them on the coast of Africa, or elsewhere!" Cloaked in pseudohumanitarianism, members in December, 1816, voted for the formation of an association for the purpose of deporting the free blacks to Africa.
So, Christianity served merely as a façade for forced emigration. A lie told, a lie believed, and the rest is history. To sell this mass movement of people from America, the ACS had to mask the migration as a crusade, to sell to the freed slaves that their removal was for a grand undertaking, that of “civilizing and Christianizing” the ‘savages’ in Africa.
So if indeed Liberia was founded on Christian principles, those principles were founded on deception. And now we are faced with another “Christianizing and civilizing mission” but this time it is a mission that we have to oppose.
The concept of state is a secular concept. Religion does not need a secular entity to promote it. Many states in the world including some African states such as South Africa, Botswana, Angola, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Ethiopia, Gabon, Guinea, Mali, Senegal, (which has a huge Muslim population) Rwanda, Zimbabwe, the Gambia, among others are secular. Senegal’s population is 92% Muslim, yet Senegal has taken an unprecedented stand to declare itself a secular state. Progress in its truest form! As the most progressive thinker put it “render unto Ceasar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”
Indeed, if any religion is to lay claim to Liberia, it would have to be traditional indigenous beliefs and Islam. Islam’s role in Liberia’s history is an important one. “In the third decade of the nineteenth century, when Christian freed slaves from America established themselves in the coastal area, Islam was already practiced in the hinterland where it influenced some of the forest and coastal segmentary socieites in the North east and West of what later became the republic of Liberia….By the end of the fifteenth century, Islam had become an influential presence along the trade routes of the savannah region” (Gershoni). The Muslims not only influenced the other societies, but helped create trade blocs as well. “Under the leadership of Mandingo traders (who were Muslims), a loose trade confederation known as the Condo conferation was established. This included the Gola, Lomaa, Vai, and Dey people, all of who lived among the trade routes that connected the forests to the coast” (Liebenow 1987).
I am not advocating for either religion or traditional beliefs to be the law. Secularism ensures that all religion is equal under the law. The UNDP noted in a 2004 report: “Cultural liberty is a vital part of human development because being able to choose one’s identity – which one is-without losing the respect of others or being excluded from the choices is important in leading a full life. . . People want the freedom to practice their religion openly, to speak their language, to celebrate their ethnic or religious heritage without fear or ridicule or punishment or diminished opportunity.”
The act of stating that one country favors one religion or asserts one religion above another in the law of a land is exclusionary. In the words of jurist and orator Robert Ingersoll "to put God in the constitution was to put man out. . .
They knew the terrible history of the church too well to place in her keeping or in the keeping of her God the sacred rights of man.. .. all should have the right to worship or not to worship . . . to found and frame a government for man and for man alone. . . to preserve the individuality of all to prevent the few from governing the many and the many from persecuting and destroying the few.”
By its very true definition, democracy means inclusion. If Liberia is to truly reconcile all within its borders and move forward, it must remain a secular state. As Blackmun observed “a government cannot be premised on the belief that all persons are created equal when it asserts that God prefers some.” If it is to give everyone the dignity and equality that each person deserves, our constitution must secure and preserve secularism. That means that all should be reflected in the laws of the land and we should begin the task of building a new Liberia, one not built on falsehoods but on the core truth that we are all entitled to respect and equality under the law. The founding lie has gone on for more than a century, it is time to set the truth free.