The recent news regarding the expulsion of 200 students from Covenant University- a Christian run institution owned by the founder of Winners Chapel Worldwide Bishop Oyedepo has drawn a lot of debate. The basis for their expulsion was described by the University as a disregard of paramount core values including not attending a departure service marking the end of the semester, smoking and violating other rules bordering on the University’s core values. As expected, the heated arguments summarily take sides with either the expelled students or the University. There are several perspectives on this matter depending on individual convictions or beliefs in a country where the interpretation of the law is not sacrosanct unless there is a public outcry and sometimes, not even then.
Underlying all the debates however is the issue of the influence of the church in the affairs of the state; the separation of these institutions and limits to the power they wield. The state does not appoint the head of the church nor participate in her intra-organisational activities and in turn, the church does not appoint presidents or governors, provided the rule of law exists. There are overbearing influences and lapses as a result of the multiple identities of citizens who are Christians and work in government. However, the state remains a neutral party in activities involving religious organisations and the rights of citizens to practice their faith or live as atheists. The right of one person or a group of people to practise Christianity does not justify any claim on Nigeria as a “Christian Nation” neither is it grounds for promoting a “Christian” political agenda bearing in mind that we have a good percentage of non-Christians in the country.
More than often, the popular Christian interpretation of Psalm 105:15 “Do not touch my anointed ones; do my prophets no harm” (Holy Bible, NIV), has shaped the thinking of many citizens when it comes to issues relating to the church and its leadership. How do we present this religion and its activities as deserving of more protection without subduing the other interests and rights that are equally important before the law? Does the society portray these religious rights and its activities as outweighing all other rights? How do we set out to protect religious rights as a fundamental right, yet avoid its misguided and unintended manifestations and interpretations?
The society is built on fundamental laws which relate to justice, rights, crime etc. in order to guide the state. When these religious beliefs and practices are in conflict with the fundamental laws on which a society is built, which one trumps? To what extent must a religious act be reprehensible before the state applies the rule of law? Ultimately these questions border on defining what is a private or public case and the interface between civil and religious rights. To a large extent, religious conviction is a subjective conviction based on human preference/choice; one could have a change of mind as to which faith to subscribe to without consequences. Ethics and morals guided by religious beliefs will always be contentious in a secular state. The rule of law in a multi religious state should not derive authority from religious books, institutions or authority. The ambiguity remains in a society which cannot clearly define the function of the state and subject everyone to the rule of law.
Martin Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms implies that GOD rules the world in two ways; the earth through the government which a lot of churches misunderstand as not being the state, which exists by the law and the heavenly – the spiritual kingdom ruled through the gospel of grace. The Roman Catholic Church shares this same opinion with its doctrine of two swords. The function of the state must be exercised to the letter in ensuring law and order and protecting the rights of every citizen. While on earth the activities of all religious beliefs and rights must conform to the laws of the state, the duty of the state in overseeing conformity cannot be given up lest there be chaos.
To a larger extent, the activities of Covenant University is guided and defended by the rights to freedom of association and religion and by extension, the church and its leadership. Bishop Oyedepo acknowledges such authority by applying to the state for the license to operate a private university. The state has however failed in its primary duty to oversee that the university does not abuse its right via incidences such as the recent expulsion of students. Neither the Minister of Education nor the Nigerian University Commission has reacted to the news possibly because in carrying out their statutory functions, the state is simply overwhelmed by the religious sentiments of its individual actors.
Quoting from the excerpts of Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists:
“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people, which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.”
The Nigerian state must rise to the occasion to resolve the impending crisis arising from the expulsion of these 200 students from Covenant University; the state must not set precedence for wrong religious manifestations over the rights of her citizens. In speaking of religious manifestations, the state must not set precedence for wrong religious manifestations (referring to Islam, Christianity and all other faiths) over the rights of her citizens. Tomorrow like yesterday will throw up very contentious issues related to religious freedom and rights, as this debate has been on for far too long.