The question of whether Liberia is a Christian nation has remained a persistent and controversial one for many Liberians. Many writers have approached the question legalistically, analyzing Liberiaâ€™s original Constitutions of 1820 and 1847, and other founding documents for any explicit references or clues. Such a legal approach is important but only to a certain extent, as it leads ultimately to an inquiry of laws, statutes, and institutions by which legalistic claims may be substantiated. The evidence of relevant laws and statutes are more likely to be confined to government and other institutions of the state. The world beyond government and official state institutionsâ€”the world of everyday life and people, particularly of the countless indigenous ethnic communitiesâ€” becomes invisible and obscured.
In this essay, we take a somewhat different approach to the â€œChristian Nationâ€ question in Liberia. Unlike the legalistic approach, our approach seeks to answer this question by first attempting to understand the important relationships between Liberiaâ€™s formation as a nation-state in the early 1800s, and the nationalist and religious ideologies which have been essential to its construction as a sociopolitical community, in the same sense that the political scientist and historian Benedict Anderson discusses it in his famous 1974 book, Imagined Communities. In his book, Anderson focused on the necessity of collective myths and ideologies to bind people within a nation. Reflecting upon such founding ideologies and myths is therefore important as we address the Christian Nation question on this auspicious July 26th Independence Day celebration marking 172 years of Liberiaâ€™s existence as a â€˜modernâ€™ state.
We argue that the â€˜Christian Nationâ€™ myth is indeed the foremost of Liberiaâ€™s founding myths â€“ that idea that from its inception, Liberia has always been a nation guided by God and grounded in Christian principles. But one may ask: Why is it important that we understand Liberia as an idea, or a myth? What does it mean to be a Liberian? Is a Liberian living in Monrovia the same as a Liberian in Foyah, Lofa County, orÂ in Picnic Cess, Grand Kru County, or even a Liberian living outside of Liberia?
In his highly influential article â€œThe Two Publicsâ€, and writing within the context of European colonialism in Africa, the Nigerian scholar Peter Ekeh (1975) defines ideology as â€œthe distortion or perversion of truthsâ€ and â€œan interest-begotten theoryâ€ invented to serve the interest of a particular group(s) of people. But Ekeh distinguishes ideologies from genuine expressions of socially constructed thoughts and realities that are informed by specific cultural contexts and worldviews. The latter, Ekeh suggests, are more identifiable by their culturally contextual elements, and thus are distinguishable from falsifiable scientific truths. These, Ekeh suggests, do not detract from the truth itself, but are interpreted in a particular socially constructed manner. In contrast, ideologies detract from scientific truth, and â€œare biased in favor of an identifiable group.â€ In other words, ideologies are abnormal elements of social theory construction. Ekeh developed this particular view of ideology under the influence of, and in dialogue with social philosophers such as Werner Stark, Karl Mannheim, and GyÃ¶rgy LukÃ¡cs.
Within the scheme of European colonialism in Africa, invented ideologies served a decisively important function. Ideologies helped to compensate for Europeâ€™s lack of legitimacy to rule over African peoples. According to Ekeh, this lack of legitimacy necessitated the invention of two particular kinds of ideologies. The first was imperial ideologies, which were designed to meet the imperative of rationalizing and persuading European taxpayers of the necessity of continuous and unquestioned financing of overseas colonization projects under fictive guises of philanthropy and a â€˜civilizingâ€™ mission. The second kind of ideology was a colonial ideology, invented to persuade Africans that their cultures, histories and societies were â€˜backwardâ€™ and â€˜primitiveâ€™; and of the need for EuropeanÂ tutelage in order to advance into the so-called â€˜modernâ€™ age.
The relationships between invented ideologies and colonialist power are already well known, having been amply exposed, for example, by the scholar Edward Said in his famous 1978 work, Orientalism. Under European colonialism, colonial authorities created ideologies and false knowledge which justified the cultural and racial superiority of European societies (i.e. â€˜Whitesâ€™), and the subordination of colonized peoples, including Africans. Of course, ideologies are superficial and subject to change. They are never static. Certain ideologies can even be understood as contradictory extremes. What this means, therefore, is that ideologies must be understood according to not only how they are theoretically constructed to operate, but also according to how they function empirically. With this conceptual framing in mind, let us now turn attention to the ideological creation of Liberia in history.
In the Beginning
Few people in Liberia today may recall that as recently as 1964, a majority of Liberians living in what was then known as the â€˜Hinterlandsâ€™ lived as subjects under customary laws and Hinterland Regulations promulgated by the Interior Department (now the Ministry of Internal Affairs). Not all Liberians were citizens. The majority of hinterland dwellersâ€”so-called â€˜tribalâ€™ peopleâ€”were, in all legal and administrative senses, subjects. In 1964, however, under the National Unification Program of President William V. S. Tubman, all legal, political, and administrative distinctions between â€˜countyâ€™ and â€˜hinterlandâ€™ jurisdictions were abolished. In an address delivered in November 1960, President Tubman acknowledged that the Hinterland Administration was â€œpatterned after the colonial system and [therefore] must be abolishedâ€. The impact of this abrogation was neither immediate nor permanent. But it signaled the start of credible efforts to demolish historic sociopolitical barriers between descendants ofÂ Liberiaâ€™s Afro-American settlers (known today as Americo-Liberians) and Liberiaâ€™s original inhabitants. Despite the abrogation, vestiges of an entrenched bygone era still linger. Even today, some areas of Liberia remain completely disconnected from the capital Monrovia, where numerous government services are centered.
A far greater segment of Liberians appears even less aware that Christianity and ideas of what it meant to be â€˜civilizedâ€™, were in fact the decisive factors fueling the County and Hinterland distinctions. Through these distinctions, indigenous Liberians in both county and hinterland jurisdictions were denied rights and privileges of citizenship under Liberiaâ€™s Constitution. Too often Liberians have wrapped themselves in the pride of belonging to a Christian nation without a clear understanding of exactly what this means, or its origin.
The historical records of Liberiaâ€™s establishment in the early 1800s describe its founding Afro-American settlers as devout Christians, mainly of American Protestant persuasions such as Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian, and Presbyterian. In popular Americo-Liberian history, the settlers are described as Pilgrim Fathers, in an apparent analogy to early Europeans emigrants who settled and established colonial America in the 1400s. According to historical records, AfroAmerican settlers and their descendants did envision the nation they were building as a Christian nation. The Sunday Sabbath, for example, was scrupulously observed, as were enforcements of prohibitions on countless other forms of social infractions such as fornication, vagrancy, alcoholism, slothfulness, and petty theft. Americo-Liberians also interpreted advances and setbacks in their national politics as the works of God. This deep Christian influence is discernable in original records of early settlement and colonial activities, the Declaration of Independence, and Liberiaâ€™s first Constitution. It can also be seen in countless correspondences and speeches of Americo-Liberian leaders, compiled and reproduced by Liberian historians Joseph Saye Guannu (1980)Â and D. Elwood Dunn (2011). The question that must be asked is, why and how did Americo-Liberians come to view themselves and the state they founded as a Christian nation?
Colonizing Ideologies and Myth-Making in 19th Century America
The idea of Liberia as an asylum for free Blacks from the Americas has its roots in 18th and 19th century United States, at the intersections of systemic racism and slavery of Black people who were perceived as an inferior race. Ironically, this same period coincided with Americaâ€™s great Christian Revivalism (especially the â€˜Second Great Awakeningâ€™ of 1800s-1830s). This was a historical moment in America when Christian theology and doctrinal precepts supplied powerful undercurrents for an array of social and political movements. Various ameliorative societies, Bible and tract societies, and Christian charities sprung up. Calvinistic doctrines of â€˜disinterested benevolenceâ€™ (the idea that good deeds must be completely selfless in order to be truly good) and Divine Providence (the notion that all human conditions conform to divine purposes), for example, animated both sides of the debates about race, slavery and abolition, as well as ideas of colonization of free Blacks. Quakersâ€™ and Presbyteriansâ€™ doctrines were equally influential. The instrumental works of men of faith such as Jonathan Edwards and Samuel Hopkins, Samuel J. Mills and Elias Boudinot, and the Presbyterian Minister Robert Finley, reside within the annals of this Christian movement. The movement itself evolved and acquired its greatest intensity within the context of efforts by states and federal authorities to address Americaâ€™s need for racial separation following the Revolution and Independence in 1774 and 1776, respectively.
A key contribution of U.S. Christian communities to the Black colonization movements of the early 19th century was the introduction of a missionary purpose into what was purely a political project. There is evidence of earlier efforts, for example, by a small group of Quakers from Germantown, Pennsylvania, inÂ 1713 to colonize parts of Africa in order to â€˜civilizeâ€™, â€˜Christianizeâ€™, and introduce productive commerce to its inhabitants. But such efforts were confined to narrow and often unresponsive audiences. It was, however, the teachings and efforts of men of faith such as Dr. Samuel Hopkins of Rhode Island and Reverend Robert Finley of Basking Ridge, New Jersey, that postulated colonization as a â€˜missionary enterpriseâ€™, and more forcefully imbibed it with a theological agenda. These men believed that true Christians were duty-bound as trustees over the downtrodden, oppressed, and less fortunate in society, among them Americaâ€™s black population. Thus, a â€˜social gospelâ€™ was invented which combined theology with social and political actions of patronage, stewardship and trusteeship of the downtrodden, emphasizing the Christianâ€™s duty to fulfil these. Finley for one believed that colonization was the only logical and viable solution to slavery and Americaâ€™s race crisis. Through mission, Finley argued, colonization could plant â€œa seat of liberal learning in Africa from which the rays of knowledge might dart across those benighted regions.â€ He envisioned and is quoted as expressing the view that free black returnees would embody the regenerative motor for the black race in Africa â€“ â€œwho have learned the art of life and are softened by the power of true religionâ€¦to tame the wild and wandering people who now roam over that great section of the globe.â€
It is important to underscore the fact that the colonization movement of the early 1800s was in large part an effort to preserve slavery in America rather than abolish it. By removing free Blacks whose presence many Whites considered unfavorable to their industry and morals, many within the Christian movements, including prominent founders of the American Colonization Society (ACS), are recorded offering assurances to Southern slave-owners that the ACS had no intentions of unsettling the racial status quo, or of abolishing slavery itself. Instead, the ACS simply desired to remove free Blacks away from a society hostile to their interest. It was for a reason that the ACSâ€™sÂ official name is the Society for the Colonizing of Free People of Color of America.
These Christian advocates, mainly Whites, did much to animate the black colonization movement. However, they suffered their most significant setback when it came to raising needed funds to finance a project of such scale and magnitude. The political and international legal implications associated with a wholesale removal overseas of an entire race further undermined any solo efforts by a segment of the Christian community. Sensing these obstacles, Reverend Robert Finley swiftly devised a plan for colonization that offered theological justifications for U.S. governmentâ€™s involvement as the master atoner of what Finley termed the â€œinjury and injustice of slavery â€“ that hallow commerce in the Souls of Men.â€ In this great national atonement, Finley argued, Americaâ€™s political leaders (mainly Congress) had a moral duty to put forward the needed resources for the task of removing free Blacks back to Africa. Ralph R. Gurley, an associate with whom Finley jointly organized the ACS, also expressed similar sentiments within the context of state-based colonization initiatives. Gurley reasoned that â€œIf Congress has no right to save a state from its will, it is most sacredly bound by every law, to exhibit the means, if such exist, by which such State may secure its own salvation.â€ Gurley argued further that â€œThe object [of colonization] is national. It demands national means.â€ When skeptics of Finleyâ€™s colonization plan questions about its viability, the clergy-man had only one retort: â€œThis plan is from God.â€
Towards this end, Finley embarked upon the difficult task of persuading influential state and federal leaders about his plan, and enlisting their support. Finley successfully won over prominent men such as Bushrod Washington (then Associate Justice of the Supreme Court and nephew of President George Washington); Honorable Henry Clay (Speaker of the House of Representative); Congressman and later Secretary of State Daniel Webster of New Hampshire, Congressmen Paul Wright, and John Carlyle Herbert of Maryland. Together withÂ other leading members of society, Finley founded the ACS on December 21, 1816 at a meeting in Washington, D.C. A handful of states Congresses were soon persuaded to fund or be associated with Finleyâ€™s colonization efforts. The U.S. Congress appropriated $100,000 for the task. Congress also financed initial prospecting and purchases of lands in parts of West Africa (now Liberia), provided Naval protection for colonization voyages beginning in 1822, remunerated federal agents accompanying the settlers, and made numerous grants for the settlement in Liberia of recaptured Africans under the Congressional Recaptured African Fund. Although meager, Congressâ€™s appropriation provided the critical impetus for the commencement of the removal of free and manumitted Blacks.
Persuaded by circumstances of adversities, thousands of free Blacks from Virginia, Georgia, North and South Carolinas, Maryland, and elsewhere across America journeyed back to Africa (Liberia), the land of their ancestors. Thus, colonization came to be viewed by its prominent Christian advocates as the fulfillment of a divine plan – an act of Divine Providence which Americaâ€™s political leaders had a moral obligation to effect. In the end, the success of Finleyâ€™s colonization initiative, unlike all others before it, came to rest upon its distinctive missionary agenda, and the central role it assigned to Congress. It is precisely this strategy of state involvement in the fulfilment of the Divine Plan that Americo-Liberian leaders reenact towards indigenous Africans on the other side of the Atlantic. One finds evidence of this in the countless correspondences and speeches of leaders from Joseph Jenkins Roberts, Liberiaâ€™s first president, to William R. Tolbert, the last leader of Americo-Liberian heritage.
It is particularly striking to note that at the same time that Reverend Finley was advocating to some audiences a missionary purpose for colonization, he was also offering multifarious justifications to others. Finley wrote in mid-1916 to John P. Mumford, a wealthy New Yorker dedicated to benevolent causes, remarkingÂ â€œCould they [free Blacks] be sent back to Africa, a three-fold benefit would arise: we should be cleared of themâ€ â€“ a cause intended to appeal to Americaâ€™s larger White population; â€œwe should send to Africa a population partially civilized and Christianized for its benefitsâ€ â€“ a cause intended to appeal to free Blacks, Christians, and benevolent societies alike; and â€œour Blacks themselves would be in a better situationâ€ â€“ a cause designed presumably to appease Southern slaveholding states still committed to slavery. In this sense, the Divine Plan can be thought of both as an imperial and colonial ideology in the same manner Ekeh suggests, as it sought simultaneously to persuade Americaâ€™s White society and free Blacks of the moral and political efficacy of Black removal.
Finleyâ€™s new emphasis on a Christian missionary agenda did not mean, however, that Blacks in America had never envisioned their emancipation and escape from slavery in religious or other terms; or for that matter, actively pursued them. Our focus on White missionary activities is neither intended to denial nor erase black agency. As a matter of fact, we note the evidence that early Black evangelists and Pan-Africanists had long expressed fervent anticipations of the fulfilment of the biblical prophecy â€œthat Ethiopia shall stretch forth her hands unto God, and she shall be restored to Majesty.â€ Others like Reverend Daniel Coker, a mixed-race founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in America and Black colonist to Sierra Leone, also drew analogies between black slavery in America and the biblical bondage of ancient Israelites in Egypt. Coker and other Black religionists envisaged emancipation (i.e., an exodus) from slavery to freedom and racial rebirth through a biblical Canaan whereby Blacks in America and the diaspora would wander before entering the â€˜Promised Landâ€™. Liberia, for many black settlers, was that Promised Land. The classic works of social historians Tom Shick (Behold the Promised Land, 1980) and Charles Johnson (Bitter Canaan, 1987) reflect these founding Christian religious inspirations.
The idea of profitable commerce in Africa was equally appealing to some wealthy black industrialists and businessmen such as Paul Cuffee of Massachusetts. But hardly can the significance of commerce be asserted as a key motivation for the larger community of free Blacks, compared to the desire for freedom, and the Christianizing and civilizing causes. Amidst black misery, it is therefore not surprising that such biblical prophecies garnered considerable appeal among black intellectuals and religionists, including prominent Afro-American leaders such E. Wilmot Blyden and Alexander Crummell. Exactly how this â€œrestoration of Ethiopiaâ€ and the â€˜Promised Landâ€™ would be brought about remained a matter of diverse and contradictory opinions within the black and settler communities. It was not until the onset of the American Civil War that prominent African American leaders such as Frederick Douglas and Robert Purvis began to more boisterously reject black colonization as a racist ploy to deny black people rights and equality in the nation of their birth.
Thus, the Divine Plan to civilize and Christianize Africa became an integral part of Afro-American colonization to Liberia. But as has already been shown, the idea was not entirely of their own making. In a way, Americo-Liberians were the first victims of what was by its very definition a colonial ideology. Through this colonial ideology, White Americaâ€”led by its Christian advocates and those desirous of racial separationâ€”persuaded large communities of free and enslaved Blacks to embrace self-deportation as an avenue of relief, and as a means of spreading Christianity and civilization to a supposedly primitive and backward continent of Africa. This self-deportation, it was believed, would also offer Blacks the opportunity to regenerate their culture and race, free from White hostilities. It was precisely this Divine Plan that President Tubman alluded to in a 1950 Commencement speech when he noted that his forefathers â€œbecame civilized and Christianized [during slavery in America] and prepared for the great and arduous task of establishing a new state, not only for themselves but for theirÂ fathers and brothers whom they have left back here.â€
Christian doctrines, despite their theological roots, came to function as powerful tools for colonization and Liberiaâ€™s ultimate state formation. Americaâ€™s Christian advocates for colonization appeared most successful in their strategy of offering support for abolition, but without any corresponding commitment to racial equality or full integration of blacks within the evolving American republic. While men such as Thomas Jefferson, Ferdinando Fairfax, and Governor James Monroe of Virginia perceived colonization in purely political and philosophical terms based upon views of racial hierarchy, it was arguably Minister Robert Finley and his Christian associates of the ACS who imbibed colonization with a deep missionary purpose in which Congress held a cardinal role. Thus, Americo-Liberian leaders, without exception, perceived themselves (and indeed the Liberian state) as possessing a divine mandate of trusteeship over African peoples â€“ to Christianize and civilize them.
In this â€˜Christianizingâ€™ and â€˜civilizingâ€™ mandate, however, indigenous Liberians were not always compliant. In such instances, this righteous Christian mandate provided the pretext for subjugation and calls for the use of force even by missionaries and liberal proponents of the so-called native uplift. The Liberian bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in late 19th Century, S.D. Ferguson, for example, reportedly commented in 1886 that the â€œheathen minds that cannot be affected by moral suasion must be brought under subjection by physical force.â€ Even the acclaimed Pan-Africanist and clergyman, Alexander Crummell, seemed in 1871 to be supportive of the use of force as a mean of proper guardianship and democratization of a â€œrude people, incapable of perceiving their own place in the moral scale.â€
On the Other Side of the Atlantic
It is, however, important to keep in mind thatÂ Americo-Liberians, as a small society of black New World settlers, were neither monolithic nor static in their views, identities, and representations. Settler society diverged along every imaginable social and political lines, including ethnic, religious and even racial lines. In this respect, the Divine Plan and Christian Nation myth served a particularly useful purpose of consolidating internal cohesion, solidarity, and particularistic identities among them, amidst a sea of indigenous African polities often hostile to settlersâ€™ interest. These African polities held tightly to their own particularistic identities and diverse social, cultural, and political interests. In the face of such hostilities, therefore, Americo-Liberians needed a social glue for group solidary and loyalty by which they could be held together. They needed a powerful ideology, a rallying idea, perhaps one centered around a higher and uncompromising moral authority, or some sort of deity, or faith. They discovered this glue in the Divine Plan and the Christian Nation myth bequeathed to them in America.
Soon, these ideas were vigorously assimilated in various institutions of the Liberian state. Following a major war between the state and coastal Grebos in 1874, Americo-Liberian leaders recommitted themselves to the Christianizing and civilizing cause. The Legislature passed a law in 1879 establishing a national honor, the Humane Order of African Redemption, â€œhaving for its object the glory of God in the civilization of the African tribes around and within the neighborhood of Liberia.â€ Until recently in the 1980s, December 1st of each year (Matilda Newport Day) was celebrated as the anniversary of the â€œthe beginning of Africaâ€™s regeneration,â€ marking the first battle between settlers and indigenous inhabitants which, according to Americo-Liberian leaders, â€œpermitted civilization and Christianization to enter this goodly land chasing away its moral darkness and revealing to the millions of its aboriginal inhabitants the deep degradation in which they were living, and the awful destiny to which they were tending.â€
Religion by its very nature can beÂ intoxicating. Faith has a tendency to make believers cling to unlikely myths, miracles, and holy stories often ascribed to unseen deities and powerful saints. Such myths are too often expedient fantasies contrived to gain the loyalty and secrecy of membersâ€”tightly woven â€œlappasâ€ that conceal real motives. But the Divine Plan and Christian Nation myths gave Americo-Liberians a sense of national purpose nonetheless. And it is no surprise that despite their Christian ideals and loftiness, Liberia has in so many ways remained un-Christian. Liberia has lied about its relationship with the Divine. The intricacy of this deception is mesmerizing and extraordinarily puzzling today as it was in the beginning. It is, in fact, a mosaic of deep contradictions.
We suggest that the deployment of the Christian Nation fiction attained its greatest intensity in the 20th Century during the rule of President William V.S. Tubman (1944-1971). More than any other Americo-Liberian leader, President Tubman repeatedly invoked the Divine Plan both as a tool for his own political longevity, and in pursuit of economic development. Tubman employed the Christian Nation myth in part as a strategy of dissuading opposition to his rule. He often reminded Liberians of their Christian mandate â€œto obey constituted civil authorityâ€ over which he held absolute sway. Tubman drew strong connections between the Divine mandate to â€˜civilize and Christianizeâ€™ the tribes, and his often nebulous programs of â€˜developmentâ€™ and â€˜modernizationâ€™ to justify, for example, the mass dislocation and violence against Kru communities located in Old Kru Town on Bushrod Island, in order to make way for the construction of a seaport at the Free Port of Monrovia in 1944. At that time, Tubman claimed that all affected residents of Old Kru Town were duly compensated for lands lost. However, the popular Kru leader and social justice advocate, Didho Tweh, disagreed. Twehâ€™s hope of mobilizing urban Kru opposition against Tubman yielded no fruits. Tweh would pay dearly for this political miscalculation.
There is another inherent contradiction of theÂ Christian Nation myth that deserves equal attention. It is the gender dimension in society. Gender roles are often powerful indicators and expressions of identity and standards of morality. Superficially, the Christian myth appears to venerate women as the embodiment of the moral character of society. And yet, there are few things more damning than a critique of feminine and maternal values and practices in Liberia. This much seems true within both civil and customary spheres of the Liberian society. The subordination of women and girls pervades the so-called Christian Nation, belying its very Christian foundation. Or is Christianity itself a worthy target of feminist critique? In this regard, however, Liberia is not unique. Many other Christian societies have subjugated women even as these women constitute the lifeblood of the family, and pillars of society. In Liberia, their subjugation has been integrated into the Christian Nation myth in subtle and insidious ways, through conjugal responsibilities and other perceived domestic roles. Sadly, many women have bought into the fiction, becoming vocal proponents of Christian paternalism. The familyâ€”the building block of societyâ€”has been subverted and transformed into sanctuaries of secrecy for male misconduct. Fathers and father figures abuse the family sanctity to the extent of gbapwen â€“ a Kru term for incest. Utterances of this sad practice are muted if ever voiced at all. In this regard, the various indigenous societies can hardly escape criticism. For some of their own practices have been causes for concern: domestic slavery, the occult, child marriage, female genital mutilation, sassywood (trial by ordeal), etc.
The mistreatment of children, especially other peopleâ€™s children brought from the so-called interior as wards and domestic workers, embodies yet another contradiction of the Christian Nation myth. Such practices, upon careful scrutiny, may constitute child abuse. In Liberia, the roots of this practice as a national policy can be traced, unsurprisingly, to Americo-Liberian â€˜civilizing and Christianizingâ€™ mission. In the 1850s, for example, the Methodist Episcopal Church, in partnership with theÂ Liberian government, devised a â€œPlan for Educating and Civilizing Native Children in Liberiaâ€. Christian ministers, as well as every settler of means, were encouraged to take into their homes native children, to teach them the gospel and â€œto subject them immediately and entirely to the habits and customs of civilized society.â€ The practice itself was not new to many indigenous societies. After all, indigenous people had themselves indulged in human pawning and domestic slavery long before their encounter with black settlers in the early 1800s. However, the Christian discourse about â€œcivilizing the nativesâ€ reinforced the practice, transforming it into a national process of cultural cleansing and rebirth for indigenous children.
Sanctioned by the Liberian state, indigenous people soon learned that in order to belong, one must first become Christian and civilized. Over time, a great many Africans adopted Western Christian names, parlance, rituals, forms of worship, and decorum. Many joined the Free Masons and were persuaded to view themselves as following a superior moral code, and inhabited a higher moral order beyond which existed degenerate African traditions and religions. As with all colonial ideologies, many indigenous Liberians imbibed such characterizations of themselves and their cultures, dismissing these as inferior, and their religions, as idolatrous. But this conversion was merely mimetic. For they could never truly become civilized. They could only become â€˜civilized nativesâ€™ â€“ imposters and mimic men and women. Thus, many never truly abandoned their own cultures. In the end, they would fashion new forms of cultural and religious syncretism.
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Liberiaâ€™s first female president, once belonged to its patriarchal Christocracy. As the granddaughter of a traditional Gola chief, and daughter of a ward in the household of a settler family, she inhabited both worlds as did many other indigenous children. She writes in her memoir This Child will be Great about her struggle with her own identities, and the implied sociological contradictions. Mrs. Sirleaf became aware ofÂ how her own indigenous father took on the name of his patron family, the Johnson, and thus became associated with the appurtenances of anglicized names of Americo-Liberian society. Mrs. Sirleaf must have read Liberiaâ€™s case files very keenly, mastering the ruling establishmentâ€™s ways. She remained able, however, to articulate, so to speak, the languages of both worlds, â€˜at homeâ€™ both in the countryside and at her civilized Congo Town home, a historic settler settlement near Monrovia. The sociological conundrum posed by such simultaneous existence is indeed complex and difficult to comprehend. In Liberia, it has undoubtedly challenged the identities and relationships of many Liberians to these disparate spheres of society.
Is Liberia today the Christian nation its founders proclaimed it to be some 172 years ago? No doubt, Christianity and Christian ideals supplied the building blocks and ideological ingredients of Liberiaâ€™s formation, and the construction of its early national identity. Yet, these building blocks were an embarrassing perversion of what many would admit are core Christian values â€“ of love, human equality, tolerance, hospitality, and justice. This was neither the first, nor would it be the last time such perversion of Christian ideals occurs in the human experience. Christianityâ€™s role in the enslavement of black people in Europe and America is already well-documented. That Liberia is a Christian nation is, therefore, both true and false at the same time. And it is this contradictory dialectic that renders impossible any explanation of how for over a century and a half, a small group of Afro-American immigrants cocooned mainly in Monrovia and coastal settlements, still pretended to rule over some 1.5 million indigenous Africans under some of the most unequal and discriminatory circumstances until the 1960s and 70s.
As with all myths, the mythic elements of the Divine Plan and Christian Nation have harbored contradictory ideas â€”of Christian love, divineÂ benevolence, violence, inequality, and injusticeâ€”while simultaneously obscuring their eventual resolution. At no time in Liberiaâ€™s history, therefore, is a clear-eyed examination of the countryâ€™s past more urgent than now. More importantly, as Liberiaâ€™s past and present become increasingly entangled, we must seek to unravel the legacies of this Christian Nation myth, thereby hastening its eventual demise. It is up to Liberians to unravel false colonial claims of a Christian nationality. We must embrace the best of ourselves as Christians, Muslims, adherents of African traditional religious values, and peoples of all faiths, social and political hues. Only then may we further the successful rediscovery of the true purpose of Africaâ€™s first independent republic: as a haven for an uncompromisingly free people of diverse origins, heritages, and beliefs.