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Are we a 'Christian nation'?

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Samoa is not and cannot be a Christian nation when people here do a “patchy” job of practicing what they preach.

That’s the opinion of Samoan academic, Professor Rex Tauati Ahdar.

In a paper published this year titled “Samoa and the Christian State Ideal,” Professor Ahdar explored the notion of a Christian state in the context of Samoa.

He looked at the political and social mores associated with Christianity and concluded that it was “not possible” for Samoa to be such.

“Is Samoa a Christian state?” he asks. “No, not in a legal (de jure), constitutional sense.

“It is, however, possible to argue that, yes, in practice, it is a de facto Christian state insofar as the substance of much of Samoan law reflects Christian teaching.

“Is Samoa a Christian nation? In terms of self-identification, yes, most definitely.

“We can also give a reasonably firm ‘yes’, to the question whether Christianity is a source of moral guidance for most Samoans.

“The traditional core doctrinal beliefs of Christianity seem to be widely believed, so another ‘yes’.

“The political culture and ethos is Christian, so ‘yes’, yet again.

“In terms of Samoans’ obedience to Christian teaching, the verdict is, in the author’s opinion, ‘no’, or at most, ‘maybe’ or ‘somewhat’.

“Overall, they do a decidedly ‘patchy’ job of practising what they preach.

“As judged by Christianity itself, Samoa is not and cannot be a Christian nation. “So the final answer is ‘not possible’.”

In drawing this conclusion Professor Ahdar looked at whether Samoa was a de jure Christian State, looked at it as a de facto Christian state, assessed Samoans’ self identification and belief in Christian doctrines, looked at how they expressed this belief in their behaviour and then placed this within Christianity’s own view.

“Samoa (or Western Samoa as it was then known) was the first independent Pacific Island nation, achieving independence from New Zealand in 1962,” he writes.

“Since the missionaries arrived in 1828, Christianity flourished and became the overwhelmingly dominant religion.

“This article explores to what extent Samoa is a Christian state and the significant role of the churches in Samoan life.

“The word ‘state’ is here taken to signify the set of governmental institutions or public legal authorities within a country.

“In Weberian terms, the state is ‘a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory’.

“The Samoan Constitution 1960 (O le Fa’avae o le Malo Tutoatasi o Samoa), Article 3, defines ‘the State’ to include ‘the Head of State, Cabinet, Parliament and all local and other authorities established under any law’.

“The Constitution carefully distinguishes between the ‘state’ (o le Ma ̄lo ̄, in the Samoan text), the ‘nation’ or ‘country’ (atunu’u) and the ‘culture and customs’ of the people (aga ̄nu’u).”

While the main focus of the article is on the ‘Christian-ness’ or otherwise of the State of Samoa, it also goes on to say something about whether it is a Christian ‘nation’.

Professor Ahdar looks at three types of political typology based on the substance and form of a State.

Type 1 is a de jure state – one where religious doctrine and politics are not separate, where the state is under the control of religious leaders to further their particular religious agendas.

A ‘type 2’ Christian state has the form but not the substance – where the state formally recognises God in some official form, but it doesn’t require its policies and legislation to confirm to the Christian precepts.

“We might then identify a ‘type 3’ or de facto Christian state where there is the substance but not the form of a Christian state.

“Here the core principles and ideals of Christianity are present in the laws and institutions of the state without any formal acknowledgement or entrenchment of Christianity per se as the national religion.

“So the forms of a religious state differ,” writes Professor Ahdar.

“From the formal, de jure, to the informal, de facto kind, and from the purely symbolic or nominal in contrast to the substantive sort.

“Is Samoa a Christian state in a formal, legal (de jure) constitutional sense? The answer is ‘No’.

“There is nothing in the Constitution that expressly says Christianity is the official religion of Samoa, having rights and privileges above any other faith.

“There are none of the traditional markers of a religious establishment that we find in nations that do have a state church or faith.

“Nothing in the Constitution says the law must not conflict with the Christian religion.

“There is no committee or council of religious leaders that must approve proposed legislation.

“There is no religious test for public office – one does not have to be a Christian to be a Member of Parliament, judge, CEO of a government department and so on.

“Full rights of citizenship do not depend upon profession of Christianity.

“There is, importantly, a guarantee of religious freedom in the Constitution.”

He says Samoans when confronted with this denial that Samoa is a Christian state, immediately point to the Preamble to the Constitution.

“IN THE HOLY NAME OF GOD, THE ALMIGHTY, THE EVER LOVING WHEREAS sovereignty over the Universe belongs to the Omnipresent God alone, and the authority to be exercised by the people of Samoa within the limits prescribed by His commandments is a sacred heritage,” the preamble reads.

“WHEREAS the Leaders of Samoa have declared that Samoa should be an Independent State based on Christian principles and Samoan custom and tradition.”

Professor Ahdar argues however, the limited role of preambles as purely interpretive guides is part of the common law tradition.

“In a very few nations, constitutional preambles do confer substantive rights – France and Nepal, for example – but the common law countries (the United Kingdom, United States, New Zealand, Australia, Canada and so on) have never accepted this possibility.

“It may be that there is a global trend toward giving preambles more substantive force, but it would, in the author’s opinion, require very clear parliamentary intent before the traditional interpretive-only role of the Samoan Preamble could be expanded.

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“Recall the definition of a ‘type 3’ Christian state as one where the core principles and values of Christianity are present in the laws and institutions of the state without any formal entrenchment of Christianity itself as the national religion.

“There is little doubt that the substance of much Samoan law reflects Christian doctrines and precepts.

“The current proposal by the Samoa Law Reform Commission to reform parts of the Crimes Ordinance 1961 highlights this.

“In the Preface to the Report, the Commission made a point of acknowledging that the nation’s primary faith was ‘a paramount consideration’ in its deliberations:

“The current criminal code reflects Christian teaching.

“Overall, and not without some hesitation, one could say that the general tenor of most laws in Samoa is derived from and reflects Christian teachings and beliefs.”

In regards to Samoans’ self-identification as a Christian nation, Professor Adhar reports it was evident that, in terms of self-identification, the people of Samoa are overwhelmingly Christian.

“The results from the latest Census in 2006 reveal that around 99.3 per cent identify with some form of Christianity,” he writes.

He does note that there do not appear to be any surveys that ask Samoans rather personal questions such as ‘how much do you rely upon Christian faith for moral guidance?’ or ‘how much do the Bible or church teachings direct your daily decisions?’

“By contrast, if Samoans were asked if Christianity is their moral compass, the vast majority would, in the writer’s view, reply firmly, and with a note of indignation, that it is.

“So we can conclude, ‘Yes, Samoa is a Christian nation in this sense.’”

So while Samoa is Christian in this sense according to Professor Ahdar, do they believe in the classic credal tenets such as the beliefs in one God, the Trinity, the divine creation of the universe and humankind, original sin, the fall of humans, the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, his sinless life, his atoning death and so on? Do they accept the Nicene Creed?

“Again, there is a dearth of survey evidence in Samoa, but the author’s impression is that Samoans’ acceptance of credal Christianity is higher here than the United States,” he argues.

“An indirect, inferential measure of this is Samoa’s ban on The Da Vinci Code film, after complaints to the government by church leaders.

“Catholic and Congregational representatives watched the film at a special pre-release screening.

“Archbishop Alapati Mataeliga said the movie would affect those of weak faith, causing confusion among Samoan Christians.

“Another brief example of the importance of Christian doctrine occurred in 2011. “There were two lengthy and, at times, vitriolic newspaper debates; first, about whether Mormons are really Christians, and next, about the role and status of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

“People who do not take Christian doctrine seriously do not bother to debate, and debate vigorously, such things.

So how does this belief translate into practice – are Samoans doers and not just hearers of the Word?

“In terms of rates of churchgoing, it is difficult to find accurate, indeed, any figures, but the author’s first-hand impression is that a very large percentage of Samoans attend church weekly,” writes Professor Ahdar.

“Christian ritual is widely observed throughout Samoan society.

“Both village life and life in the urbanised capital, Apia, halts at dusk to ensure evening prayers are said in homes. Everywhere one hears church bells ringing at appointed times each day.

“Churchgoing is a part of Christian practice but there is more to the Christian life than that. ‘Churchianity’ is not the same as Christianity.”

Professor Ahdar in his report poses the question outside of church, to what extent does Samoans’ everyday  behaviour reflect Christian teaching?

“There are many kinds of virtuous Christian behaviour but none of them are easy to assess,” he writes.

“How does one gauge generosity, charity, kindness, compassion, forgiveness, faithfulness, and so on?

“On the relief of poverty, there is a recent study that criticise the efforts of the ‘mainline’ churches (Congregational, Catholic, Methodist) to alleviate the plight of the poorest in modern Samoa.”

He cites a paper by his contemporaries Thornton, Kerslake and Binns Alienation and Obligation: Religion and Social Change in Samoa who argue: “the lack of faith-based community or social welfare programmes that serve the immediate material or physical needs of an individual or a community, which are independent from serving the institutional aims of the church itself, may be entirely unique to the practice of mainline Christianity in Samoa…The mainline churches interpret community development as ensuring that the spiritual needs of the congregation are met, while it is the role of the aiga [extended family] to look after its own family members who are struggling.”

Professor Ahdar says the authors conclude on a more optimistic note that ‘the church in Samoa, as a social trust, has great potential to become a unifying force for bottom–up development, or development from below’ to meet the suffering of the poor and landless in an increasingly urbanised society.

“An indirect way to gauge Christian conduct is to look at the extent to which vices are prevalent,” he writes.

“The basic level of honesty is low. Family-run small businesses in Samoa report that it is very difficult to get honest staff who keep their hands out of the till and off the stock on the shelves.

“Petty theft and pilfering is rife. Similarly, it is hard to find trustworthy domestic staff (‘house girls’, as they are called) who are not ‘light-fingered’.

“A great many more homes and businesses have high-security fences now than the writer observed in his first visit from New Zealand 25 years ago.”

Professor Ahdar also cites the Editor of this newspaper Mata’afa Keni Lesa.

He says Mata’afa laments: “The growing number of incestuous and indecent assault cases involving young girls is disgraceful. Not a day goes by without a story of a young girl or boy who is sexually abused. Take the newspaper you are reading today for example. [ . . . ] Keep in mind that these are only the reported cases, which have made it to court. We don’t know how many other cases are happening every day, unreported. But if this is the number of reported cases, and it is quite a high number judging by the constant stream of stories, then this is an extremely sad reflection of the moral fiber of our society.”

Professor Ahdar does say however, on the positive side, there is, compared with the West generally, no overt pornography, red-light districts, no gangs or organised crime; prostitution is illegal, abortion and euthanasia are unlawful; there are no moves to decriminalise marijuana.

“Overall then, the answer to the question whether Samoans’ behaviour is Christian is ‘not really’, at its harshest, or ‘very patchy’, at best,” he argues.

“It may be that one is setting a demanding standard, setting the bar unrealistically high.

“The political ethos is ‘the persisting tone of public affairs, their moral and aesthetic style and mood’.

“Samoa’s public and political life is heavily imbued with Christian references and trappings.

“It would be unthinkable for a Samoan Prime Minister to declare he or she was not a Christian.

“Both major political parties in Samoa extol the crucial importance of God to their work.”

He then looks to Christianity’s own perspective to gauge whether a nation can be Christian?

“It is, in the author’s view, a mistake to call any nation a Christian one,” he claims.

“There is a tendency to take biblical Israel as a relevant pattern or template for nations today.

“The core assumption here is that a nation can be a ‘religious agent’, that it can be the sort of entity that can embody or profess the Christian faith and be held accountable to God for its failure to live up to the faith.

“There is no doubt ancient Israel was such an entity, but there is little or no convincing biblical support for the notion that the special covenantal status of Israel extended past the Jewish people to future Gentile nations. (One may discount the possibility that some nations, including neighbouring Fiji, may believe they are direct descendants of the ‘lost tribe’ of Israel.)

God may and does judge all the nations according to his standards (Matt. 25.32).

Professor Adhar argues in a very broad sense it is true that nations are ultimately accountable to God and there are adverse social consequences to flouting God’s laws, albeit not the crude cause-and- effect model of divine punishment by natural disasters for societal moral permissiveness.

“While the State is not the Church and cannot pursue the mission of the Church, this is not to say, as Oliver O’Donovan has argued, that a state cannot facilitate the transmission and outworking of the Gospel,” he writes.

“There may be many ways in which a state can assist the Church in its mission.

“These can be done – albeit it takes great care – without infringing religious freedom, without imposing a theocracy and without committing the entire nation to a strong, binding constitutional confession of Christian faith.”

So is Samoa a Christian nation? In terms of self identification, belief in the Christian doctrines, and political ethos yes, argues Professor Adhar.

However “as judged by Christianity itself, Samoa is not and cannot be a Christian nation.”

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