Religion and enforcement of COVID-19 protocols
I kind of liking the role of the government officials in both Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19 and that of Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) levels to the secular/humanist attitude and value of the 18th century king of Prussia, Frederick the Great who lived between 1740 and 1786. Prussia used to be a monarchic sovereignty in Europe before French revolution, which successfully put an end to monarchy as a form of government. This happened when enlightenment became the paradigm for constructing society and rationality became the new normal for ordering society politically as against the pre-eminence of theology in previous centuries. Frederick as king often described his role as that of “first servant of the state”. To him, his subjects’ religions were their own affair, a matter of private conscience, and not a public matter of state. Frederick’s overriding concern instead was with building an army and a stable bureaucracy, and putting in place a tax structure to fund them.
For him, his rationally organised state machine would assure the security and prosperity of his subjects. Frederick refused to see religion as an instrument he could use to mobilise the people to support policy and statecraft. He refused to see religious issues as public matter of state. He refused to see religion as instrument that could ensure unity, peace and prosperity of the state. He refused to see religion as instrument that can ensure racial and social harmony if used positively. Then, how can such a leader value and respect the sensibility of religion and religion adherents? How will he respect their feelings at all time? I have carefully followed the COVID-19 policies of this government through these officials since the pandemic birthed in Nigeria. They talked about a lot of issues like issuing regulations, which eventually stopped people from worshipping their God in church halls, mosques and shrines.
For them, religion is not a public matter of state especially at this time of pandemic. People don’t have to congregate in Churches, Mosques, and Shrines to worship God. In other words, religion has become a matter of private conscience. Or religion has become a virtual experience something you follow on television, radio or online. They even advised people to gather their children in their living room on days of worship to observe the ritual of collectedness and devotion. A mock worship of sort! I am very sure they carry the same mindset to the President whenever they visit him to offer their expert advice to him. This mindset, in turn, shapes the pronouncement of the president in every broadcast he has made on the pandemic. In all, the value of religion to bring about social change and enthrone the new normal is obliterated. Little wonder, they always lament that people do not obey their regulations, and that Nigeria is daily recording community transmission and a spike in the number of covid-19 cases.
Who is to blame?
Because they have watered down religion this way in a secularistic fashion, three classes of believers have emerged. The first class believe in the power idea of religion, which states that religion has the power to influence the minds of people with its message. If in mundane parlance, people believe in the power of the word, those who believe in this power idea ascribe great power to religion to influence them for social change. This means the only way to change the present indifference to COVID-19 regulations might just come through the influence of priests, pastors, imams in religious houses, church halls, mosques, and shrines. People will listen to them because the men of God control the minds of their adherents through the power of the word. Apart from this, religious leaders have proven that they have the scientific power and divine inspiration to contribute to the cure of covid-19 especially in Nigeria. Such scientific breakthrough is already in the public domain only waiting for government approval for sick people to access it.
However, the second class of believers are those who believe in the fear idea of religion. These people believe that corona virus is lurking within church premises, mosque premises, and in shrines. They believe that the virus will pounce on the people like a monster if government allows them to congregate, but they forgot that the same government allows people to congregate in markets, in buses and other public spaces. Maybe those public spaces have been effectively fumigated and sanitised while church halls, mosques, and shrines are not! Many of our government officials who pontificate every week briefing Nigerians belong to this class. They have poisoned the minds of people so much that some people have doubted that faith will remain the same never again after all this is over. To put it succinctly, will some people lose their faith as a result of this self-imposed secularistic fear? Will the ranks of the unaffiliated swell by the time all this is over? Meanwhile, some Nigerians who object to this fear idea continue to profile the proponents and their followers as suffering from fear virus.
The third class of believers are those who dismiss both power and fear ideas of religion as unproven. They are people who do not follow any religion nor trust the policy of government. Let me, however, remind Nigerians and our government officials of nations that have used religion to their advantage in history. During the Chinese-Japanese war between 1894 and 1895, the Japanese military used Shinto religion as one important element in providing public support for their expansionist policies. Again, the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) contributed to sustaining post-Apartheid South Africa. How? Even though the church provided religious justification for government policies of apartheid before late 1980s, Church officials later renounced its theological positions and apologised to those it had harmed by propagating the false interpretations of the Bible. According to them, this decision demolished the theological justification for political separation of the races and therefore helped in dismantling apartheid.
In the post-Apartheid South Africa, however, the DRC has been playing mediating role to engender racial and social harmony in the new “rainbow nation”. Although this new role for the church has not succeeded in eliminating all remnants of racist ideology among its former adherents, the majority of the whites who have chosen to remain in the DRC have demonstrated a genuine desire to see the fledgling multiracial society succeed. The foregoing establishes that religion cannot be isolated and expunged from life; its values can influence the actions of its adherents towards attaining a COVID-19 free society. Because people cherish their religion, it becomes a spiritual weapon for mobilising the entire nation to guard the safety and prosperity of the nation. Those who will attempt to separate the people from their religion are attempting to separate them from life, from fulfilment, and from attaining a COVID-19 free Nigeria, not the other way round.
They are doing this at their own peril and at the country’s peril as corona virus that we are trying to chase away will then remain with us for a long time.
• Rev. Fr. Akodu Peter Kehinde is a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Ekiti