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Religion, Status, and Power

In the era of the first republic, one's membership in a specific denomination or church was related to one's social status, which was acquired by birth, achieved, or maintained as a goal. The Protestantism of most early settlers was conservative, evangelistic, and emotional. Evangelical fervor and informality of worship characterized Baptist and Methodist church meetings in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the revival meeting was the preferred form of service. Even the more formal Episcopalians stressed evangelism during that period. By the late 1950s the services in the churches of which the Americo? Liberian elite were members were more formal and conservative and less well attended, changes that apparently reflected a secularization of the outlook of the postwar generation of the educated elite. At the same time, however, membership in a recognized church continued to be relevant to social position. In 1959 the United Christian Fellowship Conference, a group made up of a small number of the elite concerned about the place of religion in Liberian society, charged that the typical Americo? Liberian tended to regard the church as if it were an exclusive club rather than a house of worship. The conference claimed that regular church attendance was sparse and that "with the passing of threats to existence, the church became a less significant force in the lives of its communicants and more instrumental as a means of assuring advancement in other aspects of life."

Observers of the social and political elite of the 1960s and 1970s have indicated that this pattern persisted and was perhaps intensified. A church or denomination was not, however, an autonomous locus of power. It was more likely that lay offices in a church would accrue to those who were already politically important than that church membership would provide an avenue to power and status. Indeed, there were instances when loss of political office led almost immediately to loss of lay office in a major church. In view of the close connection between the political and social elite and certain denominations, the clerical leaders of those denominations and the ministers of specific churches within them were not in a position to be critical of the social and political order. Often, in fact, the clergy of prestigious churches depended for a living on government jobs dispensed by the elite.

The 1980 coup also affected the churches that had been the bulwarks and symbols of the old regime. Political scientist J. Gus Liebenow noted in early 1981 that "those churches in which the clerical and lay leadership were synonymous with political leadership ...were found to suffer at least diminished status." Clearly, the synonymity of church leadership and political power no longer held after 1980. How members of the erstwhile elite have related to their churches since that time has not been clear. Also uncertain was the extent to which the churches of the elite have lost status in the eyes of indigenous Christians of the same and other denominations. There were indications that some very active Christians had questioned the spirituality of the elite churches even during the era of the first republic.

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