Zimbabwe: 2013 Polls - Church Groups As Voting Constituencies

"THOSE who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion is," Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian philosopher and non-violent protest proponent once said.

Judging by the number of high-profile politicians who are foraging the religious backdrop for support ahead of elections, it would seem politicians from across the political divide have taken Gandhi's assertion seriously.

President Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party plan to intensify their attempts to woo millions of church goers to support them in the forthcoming polls analysts expect to be a winner-takes-all election, as they pull all the stops to ensure victory.

Even the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) led by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai has also been actively luring the religious vote.

Over the past three years, both leaders of ZANU-PF and the MDC-T have had highly publicised sojourns to church meetings of Apostolic sects in Marange with President Mugabe even appearing at a Johane Masowe church meeting donning the sect's apparel, complete with stuff. He was reportedly later sanctioned by his own church, the Roman Catholic for the act.

His Vice President Joice Mujuru has also been reinforcing President Mugabe's strategy by also addressing large gatherings of different church groups. Last year, she attended an Apostolic church meeting at Mafararikwa in Marange where she addressed more than 300 000 people.

PM Tsvangirai also had his day with the Apostolic church, albeit, via a campaign to encourage them to take their children for vaccination.

Religious groups, an important constituency in the power matrix, are known to easily pull large groups of people at any given time.

Lance Mambondiani, a political analyst, said churches have always been a big constituency and one that is easily influenced by the persuasion of its leadership.

"Assuming one of these Pastors who are believed to pull a congregation of 60 000 people a week endorse a candidate, that is more than enough to vote a Member of Parliament into office or even sway a Presidential election," he said in reference to Emmanuel Makandiwa who leads the United Family International Church, which draws up to 60 000 people to its Sunday services while its Easter rally held last year, dubbed "Judgment Night" drew close to 100 000 people.

Although some politicians might have been going to church prior to attaining political office, the importance of the swaying power of fellow congregants' vote has obviously converted non-believers while some politicians have gravitated to those churches with a pull factor.

Significantly, this has coincided with the rise of the Pentecostal churches in Zimbabwe which have brought to the fore the issue of prosperity gospel. It is a fact that most politicians in the country have amassed a lot of wealth and so the patronage of these rich politicians at such churches would be welcome.

The telling point is when the politicians use the church to preach and propagate party politics. Significantly, both President Mugabe and PM Tsvangirai have tried to woo the groups deemed to be able to pull huge crowds at any given time, the ZCC, Vapositori and more recently, the new Pentecostal congregants.

"Whether the strategy will work or not could depend on many factors, but in an environment of political timidity, in which people are sometimes afraid of going to political rallies, a different approach could always be beneficial," said Mambondiani.

Anshul Rox in an essay on misuse of religion for political gain says religious freedom becomes an evil when it is misused, "when religious appeals are made for securing votes".

Indeed whether the campaign forays into the religious groups will bear any fruit for any particular political party is a point for debate.

Theologian Jim Harris in his essay The Role of the Church in Politics, while defending the role of the church in politics, says the state does not have a role in the church serve that individual politicians are free to belong to a church of their choice.

"It should be reasonably clear that the church's role in politics is an ethical one. I'm not concerned here with party politics which is often partisan, though I concede that individual Christians belonging to parties of their choice will apply ethics within the framework of their party's policies. I consider ethics as an expression of God's compassion for humanity: God's desire for the best for creation," writes Harris.

He says many Christians struggle with the church's involvement in socio-political-economic issues yet Scripture and history clearly support the church's place in these concerns.

"Daniel becomes a leader in Babylon, Amos and other prophets speak into political and social matters in Israel, Judah and the surrounding nations. Both John the Baptist and Jesus refer to the political concerns of their day," he says.

In both the Old and New Testament God's representatives spoke out against abuse of political power and sought just use of power. Giving examples of Anglican bishops David Russell and Desmond Tutu, Harris says the key role the church plays in politics is through its prophetic ministry, speaking into policy, structure, or issues in the name of God and Christ, or on behalf of humanity in general or of a community in particular.

"Hence the church needs to continue engaging with government on justice, corruption, leadership, economic debt, housing, education, health care, safety and security, policy, and whatever else is morally important," concludes Harris.

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