#BookClub: Religion and Politics in Africa

From Pews to Politics
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A new book, From Pews to Politics,  by Gwyneth McClendon and Rachel Beatty Riedl, reveals what Christian pastors preach to their flock, how denominations differ in their worldviews – and how Pentecostal sermons, even when not explicitly political, boost the political engagement of their listeners. For the latest version of our popular #BookClub feature, the authors were interviewed by Benjamin Kalkum.

Does religion influence political participation? This book takes up this pressing question using Christianity in sub-Saharan Africa as its empirical base to demonstrate that religious teachings communicated in sermons can influence both the degree and the form of citizens’ political participation. McClendon and Riedl document some of the current diversity of sermon content in contemporary Christian houses of worship and then use a combination of laboratory experiments, observational survey data, focus groups, and case comparisons across Zambia, Uganda, and Kenya to interrogate the impact of sermon exposure on political participation and the longevity of that impact. From Pews to Politics leverages the pluralism of sermons in sub-Saharan Africa to gain insight into the content of cultural influences and their consequences for how ordinary citizens participate in politics. The authors, Gwyneth McClendon and Rachel Beatty Riedl, apply their collective knowledge of context and cases, combined with careful methods and data, to show that religious ideas do have political effects, with implications for the culture of democracy.

The Q&A

Benjamin Kalkum: The influence of religion on African politics is known to be significant, and it seems to be growing in the last decades. Usually, we imagine this influence as an interaction between religious leaders and politicians, but in your new book, you have focused on the political impact Christian Churches have on their members.. …

McClendon & Riedl: Globally we wanted to focus on the impact on ordinary people. Around the world, many citizens feel disempowered, vulnerable and marginalized. They feel that they do not have a place in their political system that represents them, that gives them voice and power. This is why we wanted to understand to what extent religious ideas and messages provide that empowerment that may push people into the category of being politically active, despite the costs of time and resources, and the real threats and difficulties that one might face in doing so.

So, in our study we analysed the political content of sermons from a variety of different denominations within Christianity, focusing our data collection in Kenya in particular, and conducting a more limited assessment in other countries across Africa as well, in order to assess sermons’ impact on believers. We used a variety of methods, from sermon content analysis and focus group discussions to evidence from the lab and surveys.

What political messages did you find in the sermons?

The striking thing that we can conclude from our data analysis is that overall it is very rare for sermons across the board to be explicitly political. (By explicitly political, we mean endorsing specific candidates, political parties or political policies.) There were certainly topics that every religious leader used as reference, such as praying for peace or wishing for the wellbeing of the country, or participating in elections in a peaceful manner – but rarely were there specific political directives given. When sermons broached political topics it was around problems the majority of citizens in the societies would agree upon: e.g., reducing poverty, corruption and conflict. There were few differences across denominations in whether sermons identified these as problems to be addressed.

What differences did you find among the denominations?

The sermons did, however, differ in their portrayal of how the world works; the kind of metaphysical instructions they provided for understanding the world. Here, the sermons were remarkably different by denomination: Pentecostal sermons saw problems rooted in the individual. By transforming oneself and strengthening one’s faith, they tended to claim, one can address these problems; through religious transformation one can also address the problems of a nation and improve the nation. Catholic and mainline Protestant sermons had a very different portrayal of how the world works: that its problems are often also rooted in systems, structures and institutions – not just in individuals. Therefore, problems must be addressed by tackling these systemic sources of problems, something that is difficult to do (and may not be achievable in this world).

Is it possible to speak of Pentecostal churches in such general terms? The movement is highly decentralized, there are no central training programs – do they really communicate in such similar ways?

Indeed, we also expected a great deal of diversity among the Pentecostal churches. However, our sermon data showed us that the coherence of the messages was very tight and that there was a metaphysical core of instructions that are consistently shared across the decentralized Pentecostal churches. We think that this is really remarkable and it speaks to the compelling nature of the message as well as the very networked set of religious leaders – the many forms of communication through which the religious leader just share their sermons and share ideas with each other, through radios and Youtube channels and books and websites.

How does this play out in the political attitudes of the believers? 

Broader patterns are that people who hear Pentecostal sermons are much more likely to see themselves as what we can empowered players. They want to be able to engage in politics as leaders and they see the way to address issues that they care about is by electing individuals who have strong faith. So they focus on leadership qualities and characteristics. In contrast people who hear Catholic and mainline Protestant sermons focus much more on systemic and structural changes, things like the way in which institutions, political parties and the constitution needs to be reformulated in order to achieve systemic and structural changes that can bring about the wellbeing of the population. Those changes are much harder in some senses, and so the ability to actually enact those change are more doubtful. In consequence, people who hear Catholic and mainline Protestant sermons appear to be much more what we call reluctant reformers.

Indeed, you found that the political engagement of Pentecostals is significantly higher than of other Christians. How do Pentecostal churches shape this attitude among their flock?

We argue that they shape individual understanding about the political world in two key ways: the first is that Pentecostal sermons tell believers that there is the possibility for a change in this world. Even if it may seem difficult, the sermons say that you as an individual have the capacity to make change in this world and that, indeed, a transformed believer will be capable of doing just that. The second message is that the source of problems in this world is located in the self, in the individual. Therefore, the route to changing things is through this individual – religious – transformation. So people both have the ability and the necessity to change themselves and therefore the world. Now what this means is that citizens of all types, even the most vulnerable and most marginalized in society see themselves as being empowered players; they believed in their capacity to change the political world and their own wellbeing. We found that these citizens had increased senses of political efficacy, for example, they were more willing to participate in the political system by sending a text message to non-partisan, non-religious NGOS, to report what they think the political system should be prioritizing, or to make a request, or join with others to raise an issue. They are motivated to act because they believe they have the capacity and that they will benefit from doing so. This attitude makes Pentecostals (those who often hear Pentecostal sermons) very interesting for politicians who are looking for supporters who are easy to mobilize.

So religious teachings are deep-seated, powerful motivators of political engagement?

Religious teachings are powerful tools to help people tackle difficult questions about the causes of problems, possibilities for change, and the nature of human agency. But, one important and interesting finding in our study is that most effects are difficult to sustain over time, without frequent repeated exposure and reinforcement. That is to say, it is challenging for any individual to feel empowered and effectively participatory in the face of contrasting life experiences on a daily basis.  Sustaining particular conceptions of the physical and spiritual world can be at odds with other inputs, and may not always stay at the front of one’s mind.  If we think about the forms of religious practice that have evolved over centuries, this is well understood at a basic psychological level: believers need frequent “reboots”  – prayers, attending services, reading a holy book, social group association, ritual practice – to maintain the state of mind in the face of other realities in the social and political world.

Did you find these different approaches playing out on the national level and how the Churches engaged in politics as well?

Mainline churches have played incredibly important roles in the countries where we conducted case studies – Zambia, Kenya, and Uganda – as well as elsewhere on the continent, in calling out authoritarianism and pushing for constitutional change that could be more democratic and highlight the role of human rights. Pentecostals on the other side have been much more likely to seek leadership positions and mobilize around those leaders in attempting to seek a personalized solution to the problems that they see. Take for example Zambia’s second president, Chiluba, who was himself a Pentecostal. His leadership is in itself striking because he took a personal decision to declare Zambia a Christian nation. That wasn’t something he consulted broadly with religious leaders about. He didn’t bring the Catholic bishops in and the Muslim clerks to discuss with a coalition of religious leaders. He felt that God called upon him personally to make that declaration. And that’s exactly the kind of empowered leadership that the Pentecostals would expect to see and that in doing so one is working for the betterment and the development of the country.

That sounds as if Pentecostals were more prone to follow a populist style of politics, would you agree?

That’s difficult to say. On the one hand, Pentecostals in our study were less willing to criticize the government as a whole and more likely to see the system as fair, which is not necessarily the populist claim. On the other hand, a certain style of individualistic or charismatic leadership appeals to them, going beyond systems and structures. We also didn’t see the Pentecostals in our study aligned with a particular party or political platform per se, in contrast to the United States, for example, where Pentecostals and Evangelicals are more likely to be mobilized on the right wing of the political spectrum. But, in these countries in particular, parties are often weakly institutionalized and fairly fluid in terms of what they represent ideologically. In most of the places we study, ethnic group membership (another driver of voting behaviour) cut across Christian denominations. For all parties, the overarching theme is that political issues are about development and addressing inequality and bettering the nation. For Pentecostals then, the question is really: who can do that best? Who do we think has the capacity to do so, and in what ways?

So one does not have to be afraid that Pentecostal churches might undermine the democratic progress the countries in your study have made in the last decades?  

We want to be very clear here. What’s interesting about the Pentecostals is not at all that they necessarily embrace democracy or oppose it outright; they embrace leadership. In doing so, they claim their rights to participate, but without a critique of the system as they find it. We think this is very crucial to highlight that there is an engaged participation – but to what end?

The book covers a broad geographical range across Anglophone Africa, and suggests a methodological and conceptual roadmap for disaggregating religion into component parts that vary across time and space. It provides a pathway for understanding the power of ideas, and their potential to serve as distinct interpretative maps that diagnose political problems and shape individuals’ understanding of their place in the social and political world.

From Pews to Politics is a part of the Cambridge Studies in Comparative Politics Series, and is available here.


Gwyneth McClendon (New York University) is a scholar of comparative political behavior, religious and ethnic politics, and political participation, and author of Envy in Politics (Princeton University Press 2018). 

Rachel Beatty Riedl (Cornell University) is a scholar of democracy and autocracy, institutional development and regime legacies, local governance, and religion and politics, and author of Authoritarian Origins of Democratic Party Systems in Africa (Cambridge University Press 2014).

This interview was conducted by Benjamin Kalkum, who is a research affiliate at the Southern African Institute for Policy Research (SAIPAR) and a graduate of the RWTH Aachen University.  The interview was originally prepared in German for www.welt-sichten.org.


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