The Case for Engaging Religious Leaders in Anticorruption Efforts

The Kenyan Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) recently launched a somewhat unconventional initiative: an anticorruption Bible study guide. The EACC collaborated with the Evangelical Alliance of Kenya and the Fellowship of Christian Unions to first publish the guide in 2008, but in September it launched the guide’s use in a formal event with the Inter-Religious Sector. Though the EACC has worked with religious leaders from across traditions in the past, this guide is limited to the Christian faith. (Roughly 85% of Kenyans identify as Christian.) Intended for use in small group studies, the guide has 12 lessons divided into three sections: understanding corruption, developing values, and responding to corruption. Each lesson contains an introduction, discussion questions rooted in Scripture, a memory verse, and a final point of reflection. The EACC Twitter account declared that the study guide “is intended to help Kenyans interact with the Bible and discover God’s position on corruption and his direction on living a corruption free life.” And as the guide’s forward explains, “we believe that this fight will benefit from a much greater impetus if we use places of worship as the vanguard platform of advocacy against corruption in Kenya.”

Many in Kenya are not so sure. The decision to invoke God in the fight against corruption was met with skepticism and outright derision on Twitter and local media. (See here, here, and here.) Critics argued that the anticorruption Bible study guide would be ineffective (and therefore was a waste of resources), and also that anticorruption advocacy should be grounded in general morality, not religion. And it is hard to ignore the hypocrisy of religious groups and leaders speaking out against corruption given their imperfect records. (See here, here, and here). Furthermore, the collaboration between a government agency and religious leaders in producing this guide raises concerns both about the separation between church and state and about whether scarce government resources are best spent recruiting religious organizations into the anticorruption fight.

These criticisms are overblown. Working with religious stakeholders—and framing ethical arguments in religious terms—is a powerful and legitimate tool in the anticorruption movement’s arsenal, and activists should not shy away from using it. Religious leaders and organizations make particularly effective partners in anticorruption efforts for several reasons:

  • First, and most generally, many people are used to looking to their faith organizations, and specifically their religious leaders, for ethical and behavioral guidance. And, in speaking to communities about corruption, those leaders can draw on texts and lessons that are both familiar to their communities and of heightened importance in their lives. The EACC Bible study guide, for example, points to the story of Ananias and Sapphira (two early Christians guilty of embezzlement), Jesus’ commandments to taxpayers and soldiers not to extort money or take more than they were due, and the change of heart of Zacchaeus (a corrupt tax collector). Similar lessons can be found in other faith traditions. For example, the Qur’an commands in verse 2:188: “And do not consume one another’s wealth unjustly or send it [in bribery] to the rulers in order that [they might aid] you [to] consume a portion of the wealth of the people in sin.” Book 2, Chapter 6 of Vishnu Purana, a Hindu text, states, “He who takes unlawful gifts goes to the Adhomukha (or head-inverted) hell.”
  • Second, and following on the first point, religious organizations already serve as institutions of public education on issues of morality and ethics, and opposition to corruption is embedded in the teachings of every major religion. Engaging religious teachers on anticorruption thus activates existing education systems for social good. Other countries have already successfully targeted religious leaders as educators in their efforts. Nigeria, for instance, held a workshop in October called “Train the Trainers” to encourage imams and Islamic scholars to speak against corruption in their sermons and school lessons.
  • Third, beyond serving as institutions of education, religious organizations are also social networks. That means they are distinctly well-equipped to collect, interpret, and distribute information, both within a given group and across groups in their tradition. Should a government or NGO wish to reach certain communities, doing so through their religious leaders and organizations can be effective, especially when targeting religious minorities or marginalized groups. Religious organizations can also mobilize large groups of people, whether through fundraising, marches, or volunteer efforts.
  • Finally, despite the blemishes on many religious organizations’ own records when it comes to integrity, surveys show religious leaders are considered one of the most trustworthy groups in society. Across the world, they are trusted more than the police, government officials, judges, and business executives. This gives religious organizations significant, perhaps unique, advantages in pushing a pro-integrity, anticorruption message. For those who are initially bothered by the perceived hypocrisy of working with religious organizations that may themselves be corrupt, it’s important to keep in mind, first, that working with religious groups need not constitute an endorsement of all their practices, and, second, that fostering strong relationships between anticorruption activists or agencies and religious groups may offer the opportunity to pressure the religious groups to reform themselves as well. After all, the EACC’s Bible study encourages its readers to not only look at corruption’s roots and forms in Kenyan government, but also to turn their gaze inward, looking at the manifestation in the Church as a way of “removing the log in our own eyes” à la Matthew 7:5. By partnering with religious groups, anticorruption advocates can encourage religious groups to do exactly that while engaging them in the broader battle against corruption.

Engagement with religious groups is by no means a panacea, and nobody is suggesting that religious outreach should be the only, or even the primary, anticorruption strategy. After all, not everyone puts much stock in religion, and those who do may not faithfully apply it to their lives. (One study in India found that “[r]eligion was considered to come in handy within the home, but to be less relevant outside it” in people’s professions and businesses.) But no anticorruption strategy is perfect or universally applicable. Religious groups, for all their imperfections, have played considerable roles in peacemaking efforts, civil rights movements, and human rights advances. They can bolster the fight against corruption, too.

2 thoughts on “The Case for Engaging Religious Leaders in Anticorruption Efforts

  1. While I appreciate this post and think it addresses an important issue, the way it’s presented is sloppy. First, I would urge GAB to remain above the fray of other bribery blogs and maintain academic integrity in the sources used. The Transparency International survey relied upon to show religious leaders are considered one of the most trustworthy groups in society does not say what the author purports. Rather it states that 18% of respondents thought religious leaders were “mostly” or “all” corrupt — the lowest percentile of the groups identified but still quite different from calling them “trustworthy”. Further, none of the media outlets relied upon for this article (Nairobi Wire, MediaObserver) are well-known in Kenya or would be considered reputable. Authors should use reports to help formulate their thoughts, not scour the internet looking for articles that support their predetermined beliefs. Understand this is a blog, not a law journal, but it is tied to HLS nonetheless. Second, I find it disappointing that the author fails to mention that on Jan. 14 the EACC swore in a new Chief Executive Officer, Twalib Mbarak, who is a former military officer in an apparent move AWAY from his predecessor, who was a man of the cloth. Third, the fact that religious texts have parables related to corruption (point No.1) says nothing about why these texts are legitimate tools “in the anticorruption movement’s arsenal.” Should every text that purports to make claims about corruption suddenly be legitimized?

    Again, the subject of this article is an important one and should be studied, but it deserves more serious attention than what’s given here.

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