Nana Constantine

Undoubtedly, one of the most important figures in Christian history has been [1]Constantine the Great (c. 272-337 AD), the first Christian emperor of the Roman Empire reigning from 306-337 AD. He was influential in bringing about the Edict of Milan in 313 AD which ended the worst period of Christian persecution under the Emperor Diocletian and ushered Christianity into a new epoch of tolerance. He also called for and chaired the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD which was the first step in formalizing Trinitarian doctrine. As you can see he had a huge impact on Christianity but he was, and will always be, a controversial figure. Love him or hate him as the founder of Christendom, his political legacy in the West lasted for over a 1000 years and he has left an indelible mark on Christianity.

My country Ghana has unquestionably been influenced by Christendom being a former colony of the British Empire with long history of European missionaries coming to the former Gold Coast. Like the Christendom of old there is a pervasive cultural Christianity in the country. [2]Pre-Constantine, your religious identity was based on your ethnic identity. You worshipped the gods of your country. Christianity being trans-ethnic and trans-local, separated religious identity from ethnicity. Post-Constantine when Christianity gained political power, it eventually became the official religion of the state which meant religious identity was once again coupled with the national identity. So during Christendom, as the name implies, being Christian was just part of what it meant to be European.

According to the 2010 census, Christians make up 71.2% of the Ghanaian population. However, the devil is in the details because there is a lack of serious commitment to historic Christian faith. Unfortunately, there is lack of data to confirm this strongly held suspicion but many scholars have called [3]nominalism the biggest threat to Christianity in the country. From my experience living in this country all my life I fully agree. What makes Ghanaian nominalism more insidious than say what is happening in the United States (the last Western nation to have a statistically large Christian population even though it is clearly post-Christian) is that there are probably higher rates of church attendance. [4]In many religious surveys in the US regular church attendance is defined as low as once a month. The nominal Christian in Ghana may attend church on a weekly basis, pray every day and may even have quiet time once in a while yet lacks any distinctive Christian convictions. In Ghana when you do not know what to indicate on a form about your religion you put Christian, you don’t say none. Christianity has become a religion of social convenience.

There are two prongs of Ghanaian nominal cultural Christianity, syncretism and compromise. Ghanaian Christianity is highly syncretised with a polytheistic worldview. Many church goers highly reverence indigenous deities and fear them which is completely antithetical to biblical Christianity. Many have no problems visiting the shrines of local deities right after church. In their view there are other gods and the Christian god is simply one option on the menu. God is therefore viewed in inherently pagan terms. The other facet of nominalism is compromise. A glaring example of this is the corruption that has permeated every facet of Ghanaian society and has ravaged our country since independence. The recent Galamsey crisis, which left unchecked will mean in a few years the ordinary Ghanaian will not have access to affordable clean drinking water, is another manifestation of systemic corruption. Given that Christians are the overwhelming majority why is there so much immorality, and that is what corruption is, when it is completely contrary to historic Christian ethics? Nominal Christianity is a faith of convenience, so when it interferes with your personal goals without hesitation you set it aside. However, it is always socially beneficial to maintain a superficial Christian façade.

All the presidents we have had stretching back to Nkrumah have claimed to be Christian and it is almost politically impossible to become the Head of State without being Christian. Nkrumah himself held a bachelor’s degree in theology from Lincoln University, Pennsylvania and often mixed biblical allusions into his public utterances, the most famous being “Seek ye first the political kingdom, and all these things shall be added unto you.” Nkrumah strategically appropriated a lot of Messianic symbolism to aid his cause. Now that is very un-Christian but many political leaders since have followed that mantra, successfully using religious posturing to gain political points. Jerry John Rawlings, the longest serving head of state who began as a dictator was nick named “Junior Jesus.” Former presidents Atta-Mills in 2008 and Mahama in 2012 are recent examples of using piety for power. The current president Nana Akufo-Addo, who was a staunch Nkrumahist in his youth, also did the same in the last year’s elections in December however, there was a major difference: no presidential campaign has been as explicitly ‘Christian’ as Akufo-Addo’s.

While others had used mostly subtle nods to their Christian faith to present themselves as demure and virtuous, Nana took a different strategy. He presented himself as incorruptible not based on his perceived religious piety, but rather on his track record throughout his long political career. He used Christian faith for something else. His slogan was “The Battle is the Lord’s” implying God will give him victory so that he may be used as an instrument of divine intervention in rescuing the country from its recent economic woes. When he delivered his victory speech, he acknowledged a long list of Christian leaders from almost every denominational stripe, many of whom were present. Soon after that, the party organized a huge thanksgiving service at the Accra Sports Stadium. Things did not end there. Two months after being sworn in, he announced plans to build an interdenominational National Cathedral led by a 13-man committee comprised of some of the most respected and well known Christian leaders in the country. President Akufo-Addo is a man who has sense of destiny about himself and is bent on leaving the best lasting legacy, and the cathedral is surely one of them. There have been many presidents who have identified as Christian in the past but Nana Akufo-Addo is the first Christian president. He is at least the most overtly Christian by far. Now there were many more important and complex factors to Akufo-Addo’s rise to power than him being religious. However, his campaign did have a distinctly Christian tinge to it. Given the dominance of cultural Christianity on the social landscape and Nana’s highly Christianised route to power, he is reminiscent of Constantine I, the first Christian emperor.

Constantine’s father was a co-emperor and he was expected to succeed his father when he died. This did not happen and he eventually had to fight his way to power. His opponent was Emperor Maxentius whose troops outnumbered his and also had one of the most elite military guards in his ranks. At the decisive battle between the two in the year 312, the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, Constantine had a vision of a cross of light above sun, with Christ saying to him the famous words in hoc signo vinces “in this sign you will conquer.” He believed in this omen and instructed his troops to mark their shields with the Chi-Rho, a now famous Christian symbol. Constantine was victorious and took control of the Western Roman Empire. The following year he issued the Edict of Milan, declareed himself a Christian and was the lifelong patron of the church. Like Constantine, Akufo-Addo’s father Edward was also a former head of state as well as being a founding father. Like Constantine there was obviously a weight of expectation on him and he too had a long journey to power, only being successful on his third attempt for presidency. Though Akufo-Addo did not wage a military campaign both men used Christianity to gain political success. Whiles Constantine’s ascension to power is labelled the “Triumph of Christianity” I regard Akufo-Addo’s election as the pinnacle of cultural Christianity in Ghana.

Beyond the favourable policies Constantine enacted for Christians, he built many churches and magnificent cathedrals, which apart from being places of worship were monuments to the Christianization of the Roman Empire. The National Cathedral that is being built is the chief symbol of cultural Christianity. Symbols are essential parts of worldviews and since they physically represent a particular view of reality. Terrorists often attack cultural icons like important landmarks because of what they embody about a culture. Constantine was an ecumenical leader out of political savvy in preventing doctrinal differences from destabilizing his Christian empire. Akufo-Addo successfully brought together Christian leaders from a wide swathe of doctrinal persuasions for his campaign and also for the cathedral. He unwittingly became the most significant ecumenical leader in this country’s history by appealing to a common cultural Christianity.

Constantine sincerely believed himself to be Christian even though scholars debate whether he actually was one. Critics also have legitimate concerns whether he took Christianity in the right direction. Yet it is undeniable that he did many great things for the church and the church enthusiastically, and quite understandably, seized this newfound power after centuries of marginalization and persecution. However, I am convinced the joining of church and state was a mistake. Yes, Christendom had its wonderful benefits, many of which have positively shaped the modern world. One of the reason why I think it was wrong is precisely because of the comfortable, nominal Christianity it bred. Now I do not know how sincere Akufo-Addo is, I would like to believe that he is given the impression he makes. I have no problem with Christians being involved with politics or publically displaying their faith. However, I still think it was wrong of him to use Christianity to gain worldly power. The church belongs to a kingdom not of this world and therefore we represent an alternative, cross-shaped form of power. If we collude with worldly kingdoms we lose our identity and cannot bear the image of the Messiah as people living under his lordship. Genuine or not, Akufo-Addo’s behaviour is symptomatic of the larger problem of Ghanaian cultural Christianity. If his campaign methods are not evidence enough, the National Cathedral is.

It is a bad look for the government of a secular state to help build a place of worship for a particular religion even if the particular religion, in this case Christianity, is the majority. It opens a political and possibly constitutional can of worms because it is only fair that all religions should get equal treatment from the government. Unsurprisingly, some people are taking it to court and I personally hope that they win. My opposition to the cathedral is far more than political, it is theological.

Living in the world Christians have to interact with the state. However, in Christendom, church and state were officially intertwined. When that happens, it becomes very difficult for the church to be a prophetic witness to the powers that be. It is hard to criticise the one you lie in bed with. When the state is perishing, and all worldly systems decline, the church goes down with it. Similarly, in Ghanaian Christianity the church and culture are mixed together so the Church cannot be an effective critic of the culture or effectively bring renewal to it. For example, the corruption that is killing the country could be reversed if there was a genuine Christian witness. I recently wrote about how the church could be an effective agent in combatting the menace of galamsey. Instead, the Christian Council of Ghana is reduced to offering platitudes while the average Ghanaian Christian is exclusively concerned about their personal prosperity and that of their loved ones. We have no concern with being an alternative community, modelling what it is like when Jesus is Lord, a foretaste of the world to come in which God will finally establish his reign over all creation.

Nana Akufo-Addo is the Constantine of Ghanaian cultural Christianity. He represents the height of cultural religion in the post-colonial era. I do not know for how long the status quo will last. Christendom lasted for more than a millennium and it was only within the last couple of decades that the West became truly post-Christian. However, that is my point. May be it will last 50 years or 250 years but it will come to an end. Either we gain true Christian conviction or lose the cultural religion, either way cultural Christianity will not remain forever. Somethings gotta give. Judging by the witness of what happened with Western society, apart from not forging any real allegiance to the Messiah Jesus, cultural Christianity may end disastrously with a wholesale repudiation of the Christian faith.

Right now it is great to be a Christian in Ghana and many will think what I am positing will never happen. Presently, there are no obvious signs that Christianity is on the decline. In fact, the statistics tell us things are on the up. Remember, no one in Europe thought that things will be so severe that Christians will become a small statistical minority, but it happened. Ghanaian Christianity is like seed sown on rocky ground. Right now it springs up in joy, and Christianity has enjoyed phenomenal statistical and social growth in this country in the last 100 years, but when adversity comes it will wither because the ground is shallow, it has no root. We will probably not face the challenges Western Christianity had with the Enlightenment and postmodernism. We might face new contextual challenges no has faced before which I, nor anyone else now, could ever fathom. However, the present challenges we face need to be addressed with fresh prophetic voices sounding old truths in new contexts.

Being Christian has to mean more than a thin social veneer. Revivalism however is not the solution. Revival is good at getting things going but not at sustaining things. We need unwavering conviction. Christians, instead of seeing themselves as cultural dominant, need to see themselves as a minority, a creative minority, outsiders and exiles in this world. When you are a minority you need to think of ingenuous ways to resist the totalizing power of the dominant culture and still preserve your distinct identity. That way you keep on being vibrant and innovative instead of being stuck in stagnant triumphalism. That change in thinking comes through Spirit-energized communal study of scripture and prayer. In other words, we need proper discipleship. As absurd as this post might seem to you, I would like you to prayerfully consider my words and ponder the present state of Christianity in the country and what it will be for our children and our children’s children.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constantine_the_Great_and_Christianity, 1707h, 09/05/17.

[2] Larry Hurtado, Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (e-book version), pp. 180-239, Baylor University Press, 2016. Chapter 3: A Different Identity, explains how early Christians created the category of religious identity.

[3] Jones Darkwa Amanor, Pentecostalism in Ghana: An African Reformation, p. 1, 2004.

[4] The Pew Research Center and Gallup, two respected American research companies on religion both rank monthly attendance just above seldom/never.

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