The Public Role Of Religion

The Public Role Of Religion

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The Public Role of Religion in Modern Ghanaian Society

Comfort Max-Wirth

Perez University College, Pomadze-Winneba, Ghana


This article lends its voice to the discussion on Charles Taylor’s Varieties of Religion Today: William James Revisited, which critiques William James’s view that the public dimensions of religion will be less real and less necessary and, therefore, will decrease in modern societies. The article uses Ghana as a case study to show that religion is still a public phenomenon in modern African societies. Religion has always been a crucial part of Ghanaian public life, including politics, although today it finds expres- sion in the context of pentecostal Christianity. As the religious phenomenon with the strongest presence in contemporary Ghana, Pentecostalism informs the lives of many. Nowadays, during political elections, voters would consider whether or not a candi- date exhibits pentecostal religious qualities in deciding to vote him or her into office. Likewise, politicians use religious communities and leaders for the purposes of mobi- lizing voters or organizing constituencies. Furthermore, religious language has come to dominate political discourse and debates with politicians casting their messages and visions in religious (mostly biblical) imagery and allusions to appeal to worshipping populations both imaginatively and emotionally. In demonstrating the increasing pub- lic quality of religion in modern societies, this article identifies some of the strategies Ghanaian politicians use to play on the pentecostal imaginations of the Ghanaian pop- ulace, all in a bid to secure political power. This article argues that while religion is a private experience in modern Western societies, it is public and mainstream and influ- ences almost all facets of life in modern Africa, particularly Ghanaian politics.


Charles Taylor – religion and politics in Ghana – secularism – Pentecostalism – Africa

© koninklijke brill nv, leiden, 2018 | doi: 10.1163/15700747-04001031





Charles Taylor’s writings have mostly focused on the areas of philosophy and politics, at times directly addressing the topic of religion.2 In A Secular Age, which is a precursor toVarieties of Religion Today: William James Revisited, Tay- lor joins contemporary debates on religion and secularization.3 A Secular Age examines the connection between religion and politics in modern Western societies; it argues that the various theories of secularization that view it as the disappearance of religion from modern societies are narrow.4

A Secular Ageputs forth two important accounts for secularization: the first one distinguishes between the public and private roles of religion and the sec- ond a “general decline of religiosity, both in practice and in belief.”5 In the for- mer, religion is privatized and plays little to no public role in secular societies. In such societies, “you can engage fully in politics without ever encountering God.”6 In the latter, modern societies have moved “away from God”; instead, they now depend on secular reasoning, thus liberating themselves from reli- gion.7

In The Varieties of Religions Today: William James Revisited, the book under discussion here, Taylor further critiques William James’s view that the corpo- rate dimensions of religion would be less real and less necessary and would thus experience decline in modern societies.This article agrees withTaylor and contends that while James’s prediction may be said to be true in some indus- trialized nations, the opposite is true in some other parts of the world, such as countries in Africa and elsewhere. In many societies religion has become much more visible and public than individualized. In this article I use Ghana, a small country in West Africa, to illustrate the public quality of religion, espe- cially pentecostal religiosity, in modern times. I use the political and religious

1 Some portions of this article have been adapted from my MA thesis (Pentecostalism and Pol-

itics in Ghana: The Manipulation of Pentecostal Symbols for Political Gains in Ghana’s Parlia-

mentary and Presidential Elections from 1992 to 2008, Florida International University, Miami,

Florida, 2010) and PhD thesis (Juju and Statecraft: Occult Rumors and Politics in Ghana, Vic-

toria University of Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand, 2016).

2 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age(Cambridge,MA: Belknap Press, 2007).

3 Charles Taylor, Varieties of Religion Today: William James Revisited (Cambridge, MA: Harvard

University Press, 2002).

4 Taylor, A Secular Age.

5 Carlos Colorado, review of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age(Touchstone, May 2010), 58. 6 Taylor, A Secular Age, 1.

7 Colorado, review of Taylor’s A Secular Age, 58.

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realities occurring currently in Ghana to demonstrate that religion plays an “authoritative role in understanding the world—the foundation for ethical and political discourses”—in Africa.8Contrary to being a private experience, then, religion is public and influences almost all facets of life in modern African soci- eties, particularly politics.

Many scholars have defined religion in myriad ways. William James, for instance, defined religion as “the feelings, acts and experiences of individual men in their solitude as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.”9This highlights religion’s characteris- tic as an individual phenomenon and not a public one.10Edward Burnett Tylor also defined religion as “a belief in the existence of an invisible world, often thought to be inhabited by spirits that are believed to affect people’s lives in the material world.”11 Nowhere else is there more evidence to support Tylor’s claim than in Africa, specifically Ghana, where the spiritual universe is viewed not only as dovetailing into the material world, but also as sustaining it. In the context of this way of looking at the world, religion and politics are related to a greater extent. African politicians, for example, believe that the spirit world is the originating point of their power.12Stephen Ellis and Gerrie ter Harr have observed:

Most middle class Africans understand that “politics” and “religion” are parts of the same terrain: that power flows between the visible material and the invisible spiritual world; and that the political kingdom contains a politically significant spiritual terrain. Moreover, intelligent and gifted politicians know the contours of this terrain and are comfortable travers- ing it in either its material or spiritual manifestations. They understand that in their culture, power is unitary and cannot be divided into separate boxes.13

8 9 10 11



Colorado, review of Taylor’s A Secular Age, 60.

William James,The Varieties of Religious Experience(Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982), 31. Taylor,Varieties of Religion Today, 7.

Ivan Strenski, “The Shock of the ‘Savage’: Edward Burnett Tylor, Evolution, and Spirits,” in Thinking About Religion: An Historical Introduction to Theories of Religion (Oxford: Black- well, 2006), 94.

Stephen Ellis and Gerrie ter Haar,Worlds of Power: Religious Thought and Political Practice in Africa(Oxford: Oxford University Press 2004), 3.

Ellis and ter Haar,Worlds of Power, 4.

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Religionhasalwaysbeenacrucialcomponentof publiclifeinGhana,includ- ing politics, although today it finds expression in the context of pentecostal reli- giosity. Pentecostalism influences political life in Ghana. As the religious phe- nomenon with the strongest presence in contemporary Ghana, Pentecostalism informs the lives and lot of many. It is this overwhelming influence over peo- ple’s lives in Ghana that has transformed Pentecostalism into a crucial political tool a politician can use to influence his or her fortunes in elections. Nowadays, during political elections, both local and national, voters consider whether a candidate has been “chosen by God” in deciding to vote him or her into office. Likewise, political elites use religious communities and leaders for the pur- poses of mobilizing voters, creating clienteles, or organizing constituencies. Some politicians rely on the services of spiritualists, including those who dab- ble in the occult, to probe into the supernatural world in order to secure their victory during elections, while almost all of them creatively manipulate peo- ple’s religious beliefs, fears, and anxieties in order to win their votes or secure their hold on an office. Furthermore, religious language has come to dominate political discourse and debates, with politicians casting their messages and visions in religious (mostly biblical) imagery and allusions to appeal to both the imaginations and the emotions of worshipping populations.

The thrust of the argument presented in this article is that the positive light cast on a person believed to be associated with pentecostal Christianity is opening Pentecostalism to manipulation by Ghanaian politicians. A strat- egy adopted by politicians in Ghana in recent times is to demonstrate their own association with, or an opponent’s disassociation from, pentecostal reli- giosity. In Ghana’s constantly changing political culture this practice has, in fact, become the strategy that guarantees a politician political office. In the discussion that follows, I show how contemporary Ghanaian politicians make beneficial use of pentecostal religious discourse, praxis, leaders, followers, and spaces, all in their bid to acquire political power, demonstrating the public role of religion in contemporary Ghana. I argue that what is currently happening in Ghana has precedents; it has roots in Ghana’s indigenous religious and politi- cal life. What is new is the present dynamic, which I attribute to changes taking place in Ghana as she interacts more than ever before with the rest of the world and the continuous expansion of pentecostal Christianity.

Religion and Politics in Ghana

In order to fully grasp the political and religious realities currently present in Ghana, we must first understand the relationship between politics and reli-

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gion. Religiously, Ghana is a heterogeneous society, although Pentecostalism shapes Ghanaian public culture. According to the results of the 2010Population and Housing Census Summary Report, the religious affiliations of the Ghanaian population were: Catholic (13.1); Protestant or mission-established mainline churches (18.4); pentecostal/charismatic (28.3); other Christian (11.4); Muslim (17.6); traditionalist (5.2); no religion (5.3); and other (0.8).14 This means that approximately 95 percent of the Ghanaian population subscribes to one reli- gion or another, and Christianity is far and away the largest religion in Ghana. Religious beliefs constitute the fundamental basis of Ghanaians’ sense of social identity, values, and destiny, among other things.15

There is ambivalence in modern Ghana with respect to the separation of religion and politics. Formally, Ghana is a secular state; yet, religion influences the country’s politics as it does almost all other aspects of life, and informs peo- ple’s choice of political leaders. This intersection between religion and Ghana’s public sphere is evident in electoral politics. In this context, national political actors routinely play to the electorate’s religious, mostly pentecostal, sensi- bilities in order to win their support and votes. Pentecostalism emerged as a significant religious force in Ghana around the 1970s and has since become per- vasive. Its discourse informs the outlook of many Ghanaians, with this form of Christianity now attaining “a prominent public presence.”16Consequently, the Ghanaian political field has turned into “a pentecostalite public sphere.”17Pen- tecostalism is a political asset; the power it wields over people is enticing to politicians, who seek the support of the electorate, the majority of whom are Pentecostals.

The Pew Research Center’s Spirit and Power: A 10-Country Survey of Pente- costals has observed that “Pentecostalism has become an increasingly promi- nent feature of Africa’s religious and political landscape.” According to this survey, Pentecostals in Africa constitute 12 percent (about 107 million) of the





The report referred to religion as “the individual’s religious affiliation as reported by the respondent, irrespective of the religion of the household head or the head’s spouse or the name of the person. No attempt was made to find out if respondents actually practiced the faith they professed,” 11.

John Kuada and Yao Chachah, Understanding the People and their Culture (Ghana: Woeli Publishing Services, 1999), 36.

Birgit Meyer, “Religious and Secular, ‘Spiritual’ and ‘Physical’ in Ghana,” in Courtney Ben- der and Ann Taves, eds., What Matters? Ethnographies of Value in a (Not So) Secular Age, SSRC-series (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 92.

Meyer, “Religious and Secular,” 92.

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continent’s nearly 890 million people.18The report further notes that “even by African standards, the Pentecostal boom stands out, and many of Africa’s most populous and politically significant countries reflect this trend.”19 The World Christian Databasehas also named Ghana as one of the countries with a dom- inant pentecostal influence, with Pentecostals (and Charismatics) making up over 20 percent of the nation’s population.20As previously mentioned, Ghana’s 2010 National Population Censusfurther showed that Pentecostals represent the single largest religious grouping in Ghana with 28.3 percent of the population. This increase in the pentecostal demographic has made them crucial political power-brokers, to the point where pentecostal discourse and praxis shapes the politics and public life in contemporary Ghana. In demonstrating the increas- ing role of religion, especially pentecostal religiosity, in modern Ghanaian pol- itics, I highlight the four main ways in which the nation’s politicians utilize pentecostal symbols for political gains. I show that, far from being a private phenomenon, religion is visible, vibrant, and powerful in the public sphere.

Political Utilization of Pentecostal Symbols

Political elections engender a context in which the fierce drive of individu- als to secure power or hold on to it at all costs is exhibited. This seems to be exceptionally typical of the Ghanaian political landscape where power held in trust, be it elected or appointed, provides the shortest route from poverty to riches. To be accepted as a political leader and have followers embrace one’s vision, a candidate for political office must appeal to the imaginations of the Ghanaian populace, the majority of whom subscribe to pentecostal religios- ity. This involves demonstrating values associated with the pentecostal reli- gious tradition, and courting the friendship of its leaders. In fact, the latter has become something of a sine qua non for a politician’s ascent to the “throne” because the favorable disposition of these preachers and their numerous fol- lowers toward a candidate’s decorum, message, and vision translates into votes for the candidate. Political elites, and aspirants who have come to know this trend, play on the beliefs, aspirations, fears, and anxieties of Pentecostals in order to secure their votes. They utilize various pentecostal symbols for politi- cal gains, four of which I examine in this paper: the use of popular pentecostal


19 20

Pew Research Center, “Spirit and Power: A 10-Country Survey of Pentecostals,” October 5, 2006;‑pentecostalism‑in‑africa/. Pew Research Center, “Spirit and Power.”

Pew Research Center, “Spirit and Power.”

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discourse/imagery; adoption of pentecostal tunes and lyrics; physical associ- ation with Pentecostals; and delegitimization of African Traditional Religion and associating opponents with its signifiers.

Use of Popular Pentecostal Discourse/Imagery

One way in which Ghanaian politicians seek to appeal favorably to Pentecostals is by deliberately borrowing images from their discourse to frame their cam- paign messages. Whether articulating the themes for their campaigns, adopt- ing mottos, or using slogans, politicians seem to make a point of demonstrat- ing sympathies toward Pentecostalism or an association with the pentecostal “fire.” While some may couch their messages in biblical language, others will spice them with actual quotes from the Bible, thus using pentecostal religious rhetoric to their advantage.

Gatherings of Pentecostals provide congenial contexts and opportunities for individual politicians and political parties to exhibit how their views are in keeping with the pentecostal religious culture or the agenda of its churches, and so they compete against one another to speak at functions organized by Pentecostals.21 A case in point was when Nana Konadu Agyemang Rawlings, wife of former President Jerry John Rawlings, addressed the Ghana Pentecostal Council (GPC) in November 2000. She used the opportunity to cast herself and her husband as “born-again” Christians who shared the same values as the wor- shippers. She explained to them that voting theNDCinto power would catapult the nation into an era of socioeconomic prosperity, the very condition of life that prosperity gospel discourse promises faithful worshippers.22When Presi- dent Rawlings also addressed an international convention of the African Faith Tabernacle Church in 1996, a few days before the 1996 general elections, he used the platform to campaign for his party, theNDC. Rawlings described himself as a divine agent whose campaign against corruption was not only in keeping with God’s ways, but was leading the nation in a morally good direction. He appealed for the worshippers’ support in the forthcoming elections, borrowing from the language of Ghanaian Pentecostals, “so that I can continue the good work the Lord has entrusted into my hands.”23 Rawlings concluded by saying that “God


22 23

Paul Gifford, Ghana’s New Christianity: Pentecostalism in a Globalizing African Economy (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2004), 176–178.

Gifford,Ghana’s New Christianity, 176–177.

Gifford,Ghana’s New Christianity, 176–177.

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is on our side.”24This statement was intended to demonstrate his identification with pentecostal values.

Ghanaian Pentecostals tend to rely on God to resolve apparently insur- mountable problems, drawing on biblical teachings and figures for models or exemplars. This inclination was demonstrated by John Evans Atta Mills in the run-up to the 2000 general elections.25Paul Gifford argues that “while theNDC were plotting to win the election by every means at their disposal, Mills took the opportunity to present himself nationally as the anointed and God-fearing leader the Deuteronomic history required.”26 Mills established his credentials as a pentecostal vice president when he said some few weeks before the 2000 elections that:

I have come to realize after being Vice-President for four years that there are many problems that we cannot solve as human beings, and that it is onlyGodwho canassistus tosolvealltheproblems.Ourprayerhasalways been that God will lead us in all our endeavors and set us on the right path. We are, therefore, convinced that with the help of God we shall succeed in all we are determined to do for the nation.27

For Mills to claim that the success of his government hinged on the help of God could sound as if he was shirking his responsibility as an aspirant to the presidency. However, such utterances appeal to the sympathies of many Ghanaians; they helped Mills to distance himself from his predecessor, Rawl- ings, and the rumors about dabbling in occult practices that circulated around the latter. As Gifford further puts it, “if … one refused to have any truck with Rawlings because he was an idolater and thereby bringing God’s wrath upon Ghana, one could still rally to his intended successor, Mills, because he was totally born-again.”28 A few weeks before the 2000 elections, Mills was pro- vided another opportunity to demonstrate his pentecostal credentials while hosting a reception for the Accra Hearts of Oak soccer club after they became

24 25

26 27 28

Gifford,Ghana’s New Christianity, 177.

Mills was Rawlings’s vice president during his second term in office (1996–2000), and suc- ceeded him as the NDC’s flagbearer for the 2000 presidential elections. Mills lost both the 2000 and 2004 elections, but succeeded in winning in 2008. He passed away toward the end of his first term as President. Mills was the first president to have died while in office.

Gifford,Ghana’s New Christianity, 178.

Gifford,Ghana’s New Christianity, 178.

Gifford,Ghana’s New Christianity, 177–178.

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the new African soccer champions. This event received nationwide television coverage. Although it was a secular gathering, Mills saluted the guests with a familiar pentecostal greeting, “Dear brothers and sisters in Christ.”29 He con- nected the team’s victory to his own election as vice president. Indicating the spiritual implication of his own rise to political power, Mills cast himself as an agent of God and claimed that:

I believe I am on a mission from God. One moment I am an ordinary gov- ernment functionary, the next I am the second most powerful person in the land, in an office that others fought for years. If this is not a miracle, then I don’t know what it is … It has become apparent to me that God has not finished with me yet … I need your prayers. Nothing I do will succeed unless I have the support of God.30

In transforming a social event, such as hosting a soccer team watched on tele- vision by a nation with a strong pentecostal presence, into a pentecostal event, Mills was undoubtedly responding to the sensibilities of worshippers. As a result of all these instances, Mills had a positive public reputation as a staunch pentecostal in the eyes of many Ghanaians.

Assigning titles or praise names to candidates of political parties by their fol- lowers is another common practice in Ghana. These titles are carefully chosen, because they are often interpreted as reflections or expressions of a candidate’s positive attributes that would make him or her a good leader. An example of thisisthedeliberatemovetowardtitlesorpraisenamescelebratingpentecostal values or resonating with its rhetoric. A case in point occurred during the 2008 presidential elections, when theNDCdubbed their candidate, Mills, “Prince of Peace”(AsomdweeHene),atitleassociatedwithJesus.Whiletheobviousreason for this choice was to draw a sharp contrast between Mills’s so-called peace- ful demeanor and the alleged arrogance of the NPP’s candidate, Akufo Addo, it was an attempt to make the former appeal to pentecostal imaginations. A similar practice applies to political slogans that parties adopt. The adoption of the slogan “The voice of the people is the voice of God” by the NPP during the 2008 elections was intended to demonstrate that their candidate was “God’s chosen” to lead Ghana, generating the sense that he would further pentecostal interests.

29 30

Gifford,Ghana’s New Christianity, 177–178. Gifford,Ghana’s New Christianity, 177–178.

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Moreover, positions of presidential candidates on the ballot papers have become a crucial campaign tool, with political parties reading pentecostal spir- itual meanings into them. On the 2000 presidential election ballot sheet, the NDC’s Mills was the first in the list of candidates while theNPP’s John Agyekum Kufuor was last. Immediately after specimens of the ballot sheet came out, the two parties began to read religious meanings into their positions. The NPP named their position Asee ho (“down there”) and that of the NDC Esoro ho (“up there”). The NDC interpreted the “Asee ho” of the NPP as having a spir- itually negative undertone, associated with the devil and his cohorts in the underworld, while claiming that their position, Esoro ho, resonated with the biblical verse “All good and perfect gifts come from above/up there/God.” With this the status of Mills as a “born-again” Christian was reinforced.31Similarly, in the 2008 general elections the positions of the rulingNPP’s and the opposition NDCs’ candidates on the ballot sheet were numbers one and three respectively. Both parties creatively read meanings into these numbers in a bid to win over support from pentecostal worshippers. TheNPPalleged that since their candi- date was number one, it went to show that God had already ordained him to be president, while theNDCclaimed to have heaven’s backing since number three stood for the Holy Trinity.

The Ghanaian Daily Graphicnewspaper published a story about a so-called “extraordinary occurrence” of the appearance of a dove on Thursday, Novem- ber 13, 2008, at an NDC rally in Tamale in the northern region of Ghana.32 ApparentlyawhitedovehoveredabovethestagefromwhereMillswasaddress- ing a crowd of NDCsupporters. The crowd cheered the appearance of the dove, compelling Mills to stop his speech for about thirty seconds.33 Knowing that Christians associate the dove with peace, the NDC likened the incident to the episode in the Bible when a white dove descended on Jesus after his baptism by John the Baptist, with a voice from heaven declaring, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.”34The appearance of the dove confirmed Mills’s candidacy as one ordained by God himself.35 The dove is a positive symbol in a number of religious traditions, including Pentecostalism. In this instance, a chance encounter with one provided the NDC with an opportunity to deploy the pentecostal meaning invested in it to make their candidate appealing to a


32 33 34 35

J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu, African Charismatics: Current Developments within Indige- nous Pentecostalism in Ghana(Leiden: Brill, 2004).

The Ghanaian Daily Graphic, Saturday November 15, 2008, 14.

The Ghanaian Daily Graphic, November 15, 2008, 14.

The Ghanaian Daily Graphic, November 15, 2008, 14.

Cf. Matthew 3:16–17.

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crowd of supporters, the majority of whom undoubtedly were Pentecostals. All these creative readings of pentecostal meanings into numbers on ballot papers were geared to winning the approval of Pentecostals.

Adoption of Pentecostal Tunes and Lyrics for Campaigns

The adoption of tunes and lyrics of pentecostal church songs and their adap- tation for electioneering campaigns is another manifestation of the political use of this religious capital. Not many social functions in Ghana can take place without being opened with a prayer and a pentecostal song as a way to invite God into the ceremony. Pentecostal songs are popular and enjoy mas- sive airplay on the various radio and television stations in Ghana; they are highly patronized and the musicians who perform them are equally popular. The popularity of these songs has transformed them into political capital that individual politicians and political parties deploy for political ends. During the 2000/2004 general elections, the NPP appropriated the pentecostal song Awu- rade Kasa(“Speak Lord”) by Cindy Thompson as the theme song for their cam- paigns.Atthetime,AwuradeKasawasthemostpopular tuneinthepentecostal repertoire; its adoption directed the attention of Pentecostals and, for that mat- ter, voters, to the party. In addition to Awurade Kasa, the NPP has consistently used “Go High,” composed by Philippa Baafi, and “Through Jesus Christ I Am Moving Forward” by Christiana Love as their major campaign songs. Follow- ing this practice by theNPP, the other political parties in subsequent elections adopted gospel songs in their bid to bolster their claims to being those “chosen by God” to lead the country. One such party was theNDC, who, for the past elec- tions has used Di wo Hene(“Keep on Reigning”) by the late Comfort Annor and “Jehovah, You Are the Most High God” by Pastor Lenny Akpadie as their major campaign songs.

Through the use of pentecostal songs, politicians and their parties manage to transform political rallies into religious “crusades,” drawing huge crowds and demonstrating enough support base to convince undecided voters (or “floating voters,” as they are popularly known in Ghana) that their parties are the win- ning teams to follow. An instance was the report by the NPP News, the official newspaper of theNPP, about how Akufo Addo wept on stage during one of the NPP’s “gospel fests” in Kumasi on Sunday, July 27, 2012.36This incident purport-


A “gospel fest” is a type of campaign rally where pentecostal musicians perform popular music after which the political parties would put their campaign messages across to the crowds.

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edly occurred when MosesOK, a popular gospel musician, was performing one of his equally popular songs, Nea wode me abedu yi, eye me fe dodo. Nea waye ama me no, eboro me ntease so. Enti me paa mini na waye me see yi; Awuarade, woho ye hu, which means “I appreciate how far the Lord has brought me, he is Wonderful.” The newspaper claimed that Akufo-Addo had to “pick a hand- kerchief from his jacket and began wiping tears from his eyes” because he was moved by the lyrics of the song.37To weep in public in the Ghanaian culture is considered a sign of weakness, and so a man cannot or must not weep in public no matter how moved he might be by a situation. An outward show of emo- tion, especially one of sadness or remorse, even joy, makes a man look weak, and someone like a presidential aspirant would know better than to weep in public. In the Ghanaian pentecostal culture, however, weeping has become a way for worshippers to show how deeply they are “touched” by an act of God or the Holy Spirit. The need for Akufo Addo to play to pentecostal sensibilities and, by extension, to win their much-needed sympathies seemed to override his concern about being regarded as weak and unfit to rule.

So alluring are the benefits that accrue to becoming a president or a high- ranking politician in Ghana that men and women can cast aside the norms and conventions and do the unthinkable in public if that will help them to attain their political goals. The aim of this particular gospel fest was for the party (NPP) to “thank the Almighty God for the relative peace the nation was enjoying under the NPP and also to commemorate their sixteenth anniver- sary as a political party.”38 No context could have been more congenial for a politician to show how touched he was by God’s benevolence than this gospel fest.

Physical Association with Pentecostals

Ghanaian politicians like to be seen in public with Pentecostals. They do this by worshipping with them, donating money to their causes, and chairing har- vest committees. These are strategies they deploy in winning the confidence of these political power-brokers (Pentecostals). A politician’s connection with pentecostal “superstars,” such as Mensah Otabil of the International Central Gospel Church and Nicholas Duncan Williams of the Christian Action Faith Ministries, and winning their endorsement can determine victory in an elec-

37 38

The Ghanaian Daily Graphic, November 15, 2008, 14. The Ghanaian Daily Graphic, November 15, 2008, 14.

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tion or the success of one’s political career.39 Pentecostal preachers seem to have a special power to influence the voting pattern of their followers; winning their support, then, to a large extent, can ensure a politician’s victory. Thus, another way in which Ghanaian politicians play on the sympathies of Pente- costals for political gains is their physical association with them.

Ghanaian politicians also visit pentecostal churches for prayers against the alleged occult machinations of their political opponents and for God’s favor before, during, and after their electioneering campaigns. By asking for prayers against the purported occult dealings of opponents, they portray themselves as godly candidates who would govern with the help and favor of God when given the nod by Ghanaians. Additionally, political parties and individual politicians commission gospel musicians from pentecostal churches to compose songs for them, tapping into their popular appeal and sometimes replacing the lyrics of existing pentecostal songs with their campaign messages. Mills had a personal relationship with Bishop Charles Agyinasare of the Perez Chapel International (formerly Word Miracle Church International) and Prophet T.B. Joshua of the Synagogue Church of All Nations. Agyinasare and Joshua are among the most popular pentecostal preachers in Ghana and Nigeria. During Mills’s tenure as vice president in the Rawlings administration, prayer sessions were held for him every week in the Castle, the seat of Ghana’s government.The prayers were to ward off evil from him and his government and to ask for God’s favor for his government as well. Mills continued to enjoy the support of pentecostal churches and their leaders when he ran for president on theNDCticket in both the 2000 and 2004 elections. Even though he did not win either of these elec- tions, Mills maintained his friendship with them as a guarantee for victory in future elections. Eventually, he won in 2008.

T.B. Joshua claimed ownership of the spiritual power that ensured Mills’s victory in the 2008 elections. He asserted that he had prophesied the win dur- ing one of Mills’s regular visits to his church prior to the elections: “I saw three different elections ahead of him then … the results would be announced in Jan- uary 2009. By the grace of God, he believed in the prophecy, we prayed over it and we glorified God that it came to pass.”40 Mills himself confirmed Joshua’s claims. Soon after his swearing in, he gave a testimony in Joshua’s church in Nigeria about how he won the elections as a result of the prophet’s support, prayers, and prophecy. This testimony was broadcast live on the church’s tele-



Paul Gifford uses the term to refer to the celebrity status presently enjoyed by these pen- tecostal pastors in Ghana and elsewhere in Africa (Gifford,Ghana’s New Christianity). The Ghanaian Spectator, Saturday November 29, 2008, 6.

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vision station as well as on the national television of Ghana’s (GTV) “News Watch” program. Mills’s victory made Joshua very popular in Ghana, which shows how pentecostal preachers also gain popularity through their associa- tion with politicians.When a client wins an election, it enhances the preacher’s image, attracting more members to his or her church, even beyond national boundaries, as the victory testifies to the efficacy of the preacher’s spiritual powers. Thus, while politicians win pentecostal support and votes, pentecostal leaders also get access to the corridors of power as a result of their association with politicians.

Kufuor (of theNPP) was also known publicly as a Catholic, but in the run-up to his election, he sought support from pentecostal churches and their leaders. One could say that Kufuor became a pentecostal overnight, and he frequently attended Otabil’s church for prayers to be said for him and his government. He became close friends with Otabil and enjoyed the support of his church throughout his eight years in office. John Mahama, the current immediate past president, is openly a pentecostal; he worships with the Assemblies of God Church. Akufo Addo, the sitting president, was and is still hugely supported by Ghanaian Pentecostals because he is seen as “one of them.” This is not to say that all politicians are insincere in the public expression of their pentecostal religiosity and identity, but even for pentecostal politicians, the need to win pentecostal support is a significant factor.

Delegitimization of ATRand Associating Opponents with Its Signifiers

Dominant religious traditions sponsor the delegitimization of minority com- petitors in order to secure their hold on the religious field.41The delegitimiza- tion ofATR, one of Pentecostalism’s competitors in Ghana’s religious field, espe- cially when it comes to the manifestation of supernatural power, is another feature of the pentecostal discourse. A discourse on demonic powers and their purveyors perpetuated by Ghanaian Pentecostals is serving as the framework for this delegitimization. Pentecostal discourse demonizes almost all facets of ATR, describing it as an important repository of “demonic doorways.”42 Pente- costals believe that people come under the influence of evil powers through



Pierre Bourdieu, “The Social Space and the Genesis of Groups,”Theory and Society14, no. 6 (1985), 723–744.

Asamoah-Gyadu, African Charismatics.

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the public role of religion in modern ghanaian society


such “demonic doorways.”43 Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu uses this term to refer to areas of moral vulnerability, which open doors to demons, or spiritual “gate- crashers.”44Non-Christian religions, especiallyATR, are perceived as “the abode of evil spirits,” and whoever has connections with them puts him- or herself under curse.45

Many Ghanaians perceive the realm of ATR as “the occult” and, therefore, morally and spiritually backward. Ghanaian Pentecostals cast those who as- sociate with it as opponents and as agents of the devil. Equally important in reinforcing the negative opinion of those who associate with ATR practices is the pentecostal perspective on modernity as a Christianizing project. Accord- ing to this view, ATR represents the premodern past from which all Ghanaians should distance themselves if they want to progress in life.46 Suspected ATR agents and their clients are thus described by Pentecostals as occult agents who are backward, uncivilized, and stuck in the past. Pentecostals admonish all Ghanaians to desist from ATR and its occult agents in order not to be asso- ciated with moral and spiritual backwardness.

There is a political side to this discourse on ATR as a demonic doorway that lends it to easy exploitation by politicians. Developments in the past national scene, especially failures of government policies, national disasters, corruption by officials in power, frequent coup d’états, assassinations, and the ensuing chaos in national and personal affairs are attributed to demons residing on the African traditional religious landscape. Pentecostals claim that the association of politicians with ATR gods and other aspects of the religion’s praxis bring curses upon the nation. They allege that the continuous pouring of libation at national ceremonies, for example, has rendered the country economically, socially, and spiritually impotent. This was because the so-called fetish gods that are called upon inject evil forces into the atmosphere that fight against the prosperity of the nation.

Birgit Meyer has talked about how Nkrumah and Rawlings attempted to adopt some Ghanaian indigenous religious practices that are viewed as part of the people’s tradition, such as the pouring of libation, to be part of state cer- emonial functions.47This was because these practices reflected the heritage of

43 44 45 46


Asamoah-Gyadu, African Charismatics.

Asamoah-Gyadu, African Charismatics.

Asamoah-Gyadu, African Charismatics, 110.

Birgit Meyer, “‘Make a Complete Break with the Past’: Memory and Post-Colonial Moder- nity in Ghanaian Pentecostalist Discourse,” Journal of Religion in Africa 28, no. 3 (1998): 316–349.

Meyer, “Religious and Secular,” 90.

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the Ghanaian people and were, therefore, necessary to perpetuate Ghanaian religiocultural values. The two leaders wanted to uphold the Ghanaian ideal of going back to their indigenous roots “to promote unity based on the recovery of Ghanaian cultural heritage”—“Sankofa.”48But Pentecostals,

resisting a reading of heritage in mere symbolic terms, … found such state policies implied an invocation of traditional spirits who, certainly from a Pentecostal perspective, were regarded as demons that led people into “backward” customs and brought them under satanic control. Cultural heritage, in this sense, was a ‘bad’ religion in disguise, to be replaced by a “decent” religion as (Pentecostal) Christianity.49

The pentecostal discourse on the “backwardness” of ATR beliefs and practices suggests not simply that they have been made obsolete, but also that they possess demonic elements. Most Pentecostals blame the failure of the nation on Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president, for his association with Kankan Nyame, a god from Guinea.They maintain that Nkrumah sold the fate of Ghana and her future toKankan Nyameand thus put the nation under a curse, thereby making God angry with the nation. Pentecostals assert that if Nkrumah had instead made God the “cornerstone” of the nation from its inception, Ghana would have been more prosperous than it is now. The then opposition party, the Supreme Military Council, took up this accusation and used it to discredit Nkrumah in the eyes of Ghanaians.50

Exploiting the discourse onATRas a morally and spiritual backward religion from which all Ghanaians must dissociate themselves, politicians and their par- ties skillfully associate their opponents with its signifiers as a way of sponsoring theirdelegitimization.Thedeathof ayoungpoliticianorhisorherinvolvement in a mishap, such as a vehicle accident or affliction with a “strange” disease dur- ingorafterbeingelectedintoofficeisanopportunityforthevictim’spartytoas- sociate those on the other side of the political divide with occult forces present in theATRlandscape. Such mishaps are placed on the doorsteps of opponents with the intent to discredit them. A related strategy is for the affected party to


49 50

Ogbu Kalu, African Pentecostalism: An Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 171. (According to Kalu, “Sankofa is the bird that turns its head to look backward in the direction from where it came and is used to remind a person to be conscious about where a journey started, otherwise the person may not know where he or she is going.This symbol urges people to go back or look back and reclaim their cultural heritage”). Meyer, “Religious and Secular,” 90.

Ellis and ter Harr,Worlds of Power, 91.

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make a plea to Pentecostals for supernatural fortification by the Blood of Jesus, the signature symbol of Pentecostals, in order to stay clear of danger.

The backwardness of ATRwas demonstrated in an incident that occurred in 2015 during a by-election campaign in Talensi in the northern region of Ghana. This was after the NPP Member of Parliament for the constituency, Robert Nachinab Mosore, resigned due to his enskinment as the Tongo Chief.51 The election was very crucial; its outcome was supposed to be representative of the general political climate in the country and a test of the popularity of the two leading political parties,NPPandNDC, among the electorate. Therefore it pro- voked fierce competition between them, with theNDCandNPPaccusing each other of using “unorthodox means to win the coveted seat.”52Just a week before the elections, a rumor emerged that Bernard Antwi-Boasiako, popularly known as “Chairman Wontumi,” the Ashanti Regional Chairman of the NPP, had con- sulted an occult deity in Talensi ahead of the elections. The media reported:

Pictures of him [Antwi-Boasiako] and other able-bodied men walking bare-chested on a vast land and subsequently appearing at a deity[’s shrine] have gone viral on social media platforms, sparking speculations that the NPP has resorted to employing superstitious means to win the seat.53

The report sparked some controversy and rumors among the Ghanaian pub- lic, which threatened the NPP’s electoral fortunes. Sensing the potential of the rumors to mar the NPP’s chances at winning the impending by-elections, Antwi-Boasiako came out to deny them.54

[He] admitted that the said pictures were his, but … as you know every traditional area has its norms; where we visited one has to take off his clothes and footwear before he is allowed to meet and speak with the peo- ple; hence my appearance. As you know, one has to do what the Romans do when you go to Rome and give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. I have not consulted any juju man.55


52 53 54 55

Kasapa-fmonline, “I’ve not consulted any juju man ahead of Talensi election: NPP’s Won- tumi,” July 2, 2015;‑not‑consulted‑any‑juju‑man ‑ahead‑of‑talensi‑election‑npps‑wontumi/.

“I’ve not consulted any juju man.”

“I’ve not consulted any juju man.”

“I’ve not consulted any juju man.”

“I’ve not consulted any juju man.”

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According to Antwi-Boasiako then, he and his men only took off their shirts in order to follow the traditional requirements of their hosts, which they did not see as a jujuact. In Ghana, every traditional community has its social, cul- tural, and religious norms that they expect visitors to abide by. Antwi-Boasiako and his men thought that as long as what they did was within the parameters of the culture of their guests, they were simply following local customs, which did not constitute partaking in an evil religious activity. That explains why he admitted that what he and his men did was part of the traditional religious customs of his hosts and not juju. Antwi-Boasiako saw the rumors as part of the NDC’s political stunt of discrediting the NPP in the eyes of the Ghanaian populace. Although he discounted the effectiveness of the rumor and claimed to rely on the “good works” of the NPP to clinch the victory, his denial meant that he knew the rumor could be detrimental to the NPP’s electoral fortunes. He was aware that many Ghanaians, and specifically Pentecostals, saw juju as both morally and spiritually backward and so did not want to be associated with it.

The strategy of identifying with Pentecostalism and advertising pentecostal credentials has been employed for some time in Ghana by politicians, in com- bination with another strategy of besmirching opponents with claims of their association with ATR elements. Writing after the national elections of 1996, Meyer says she “noted a strong inclination on the part of politicians to stress that they were ‘born again’ and to assault other politicians as being in league withdemonicspirits.”56SuchalignmentwithPentecostalismsometimesoccurs in response to accusations of occult practice. In the 2000 elections, for exam- ple, theNPPplayed on pentecostal sympathies and fears by associating theNDC withATRand occult forms. Rawlings, the founder of the party, was said to have dabbled in traditional fetish practices ( juju) during his tenure in office, that plunged the nation into poverty and brought hardship to all Ghanaians.57 He was alleged to have made a deal with Antoa Nyama, arguably the most power- ful and popular god in Ghana, and sold the destiny of the nation and its people to it.58The politics of the future, the NPP argued then, should be a God-driven one, informed by pentecostal values; the leaders must be God’s own anointed, and their visions must be divinely ordained.59 In doing this the NPP sought to

56 57 58


Meyer, “Religious and Secular,” 98.

Meyer, “Religious and Secular,” 163.

J.S. Pobee, Religion and Politics in Ghana: A Case Study of the Acheampong Era, 1972–1978 (Ghana: Ghana Universities Press, 1992), 44.

Pobee, Religion and Politics in Ghana, 44.

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align their vision with the rhetoric of Pentecostals. It is worth noting here that some leading pentecostal ministers supported this claim.60

The aim of the use of pentecostal symbols bypoliticians and political par- ties is to gain the political advantage of buttressing their moral credentials— seeking trust among the electorate that they have been chosen by God to lead the people, while casting opponents in a negative light—and winning much- needed votes. It also highlights how religion can be used as a tool for political domination.


This article has examined the resilience of religion in modern societies, using Ghana as an illustration. It showed that although the enlightenment scholars in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries speculated about the privati- zation of religion and its diminishing role in the public life of modern societies, it has stood the test of time in terms of its pervasive influence in public life, and thus confirmed Taylor’s argument against James’s position on the priva- tization of religion in modern societies. Modern societies are still very much religious; the events that occurred on September 11, 2001 and its aftermath also brought religion back to the forefront of world politics. Especially in contempo- rary Ghana, religion, more than ever before, has become visible and influences public discourse, with the advent of pentecostal Christianity. The pentecostal influence is prevalent; its discourse, communities, praxis, and symbols inform how many people feel, think, and act in Ghana, including their choice of politi- cians, making Pentecostals the “default” political power-brokers. Associating with Pentecostals for legitimation and support can guarantee a boost in a politi- cian’s or political party’s electoral fortunes. Consequently, many politicians invoke their pentecostal credentials in order to be accepted as candidates fit to rule the nation.

This article also highlighted four main ways in which Ghanaian politicians employ pentecostal symbols to bolster their electoral fortunes: couching cam- paign messages in popular pentecostal discourse/imagery; adopting pente- costal tunes and lyrics for campaigns; physical association with Pentecostals; and delegitimizingATRand associating opponents with its signifiers. In Ghana, public life and religion are inextricably linked; religion legitimates both human behavior and political authority. I contend here that far from being a private


Asamoah-Gyadu, African Charismatics; Gifford,Ghana’s New Christianity, 164–165.

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experience, religion is public and mainstream and influences almost all facets of life in modern Ghana, particularly politics. In the African, in this case the Ghanaian political experience, “you can[not] engage fully in politics without ever encountering God.”61Thus, religion is still relevant in both the private and public affairs of Ghanaian life. The visibility of religion in the public sphere will surely continue to flourish in Ghana specifically, and Africa more gener- ally, with the steady growth of Pentecostalism.


Cf. Taylor, A Secular Age, 1.

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