Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare Minister Nicholas Goche on Tuesday told Senate that the authorities were in the consultative stages of formulating a policy framework that would regulate churches.
The intervention seems to be in response to a growing number of criminal prosecutions against church leaders that molest their congregants under the guise of spirituality. But it is precisely for this reason that the authorities must not seek to widen the scope of State power in religion. If there is a growing number of prosecutions it seems evidence sufficient that the system is working perfectly well.
Sexual assault within the walls of a church is no more egregious than the same in a night club. It is important to recognise that the advent of Pentecostal and Apostolic churches (the major culprits in these types of cases) did not introduce a new class of criminal conduct.
The successful, even if somewhat suspicious, prosecution of Gumbura for intimidation, gross abuse of power and rape is instructive. The laws to deal with criminal men of the cloth are available on our books.
That said, it is not difficult to see why the authorities are inclined to intervene. The sudden arrival of bling-bling preachers and spiritual healers has drawn millions of very often vulnerable people by promises of wealth or deliverance from spiritual oppression. It is tempting to want to defend the vulnerable from perceived manipulating, but the authorities must resist any such urge.
If the authorities are particularly concerned then they should opt for soft power solutions as opposed to codified regulations.
The chief weapon in the authorities’ arsenal is education. An educated and well-informed population is less susceptible to the persuasions of the glittering coats so effectively used by charlatans.
The danger in seeking to mollycoddle the population and insulate it from any possible manipulation is that we intrude on an essential human right, the right to be foolish. Only through foolish experience do we grow wiser.
Shall we all ban lottery scratch cards, which are perhaps one of the few legal scams around? If there was any regular chance of winning, surely the employees standing on street corners would have picked up on the trend and would simply buy all the tickets in their possession, scratch them and win. That they don’t speaks volumes.
The authorities cannot possibly legislate for every single situational permutation to protect the public from manipulation. In any case, many of the abuses and manipulations in churches are difficult to define in a specific and measurable way without infringing on the person’s right to believe in whatever they will; this makes it nearly impossible to enforce any policy framework designed toward that end.
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