The concurrent existence of high religiosity, alongside high fraud and corruption, represents an intriguing question. However, as the title suggests, the sociological outputs of a religiously embedded system of morality can be to some extent theorized and articulated. In this article, I attempt to summarize into a few paragraphs a set of ideas I have gradually developed over time as I have read and looked more deeply at Malawian history and politics, complemented by social sciences literature commenting on South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia.
To begin, social solidarity depends on various conditions that foster cohesion. They may vary from classical to more contemporary views, sets of formal and informal norms; institutions that form the normative backgrounds against which social action is generated (both creatively and then later structurally); the politics of appropriation that occur within contexts of meaning-making, and so on. Implicitly, the idea is that the higher the externalization of norms into the actual societal structures, the more predictable social systems become or the more apparent expectations appear to social actors, even though these predictabilities and expectations can usually be authoritarian.
On the other hand, should norms become socially understood as a set of vague guiding principles whose exact details remain confined to the individual social actor, what then one obtains is a scenario within which the society divorces itself from standards of collective moral living in exchange for individual preferences that meet the vague code in general, but contravene it deeply in its daily social pragmatics. Note that the word moral here alludes to whatever definitions a society or individuals hold to some measure of virtue. This is the generic use of this word in sociological literature and does not involve actual judgements or determinations about what is or isn’t moral. As we will see below, this creates a dualism in which one sphere becomes the designated arena of somewhat socio-historically predicated actions within which all sociologically legitimate political symbols for enabling action exist, and another which escapes this politics by being kept strictly within the domain of the personal or the private as it were.
Religion, and in particular the charismatic Christian movement, has exacerbated this split within the lifeworld of Malawian society, generally, after 1994. In the first 30 years of Malawi’s independence under the autocratic rule of the liberation party, Malawian public morality was transformed into a morality of social projection as a result of the ominous authoritarian State which could, at will, suspect, convict, detain, exile and even execute its perceived opponents. The word perceived is important because it essentially created the imperative that led people to adopt moralistic projections – that is, it caused people to act extraordinarily consensual towards the State for purposes of warding off the dangers associated with insubordination, and in the process, inciting others to get involved in these projections as well in what would then become a contest of who was more consensual than the other.
By 1994, not only had this process created a morality defined in a nationalistic sense that invoked the idea that citizens had the noble duty to uphold Malawi primarily through their yielding to authority, but also, and much more profoundly, it had become a public affair. To be moral was not so much about private ideals of wrong, right, or gray at the personal level but more importantly it was about co-projecting alongside others a strong adherence to the nationalistic duties of yielding when in public. A close look at this condition betrays the fact that the private sphere had largely lost the ability to influence the public sphere about the criteria of morality outside of that which was or had been made already available or potentially possible within the public sphere, and secondly, that the public sphere had in fact become amoral – and fundamentally dramaturgical.
Nevertheless, the private sphere had as a result transformed into what I refer to as an alinguistic and asymbolic arena of plotting how to align personal or group motivations into social actions that fit into the expected configurations of the public sphere at least in content (that is in terms of expected social or moral projections) while at once maintaining or harboring the ulterior motives behind such actions. There is as such an apparent split into the two spheres of Malawian society with one turning into as it were the plotting subconscious that animates the other: a subconscious because of its profound lack of structure or symbols or even a vocabulary for expressing itself publicly, while maintaining its capacity nonetheless to keep the pretentions of the public sphere (that is the conscious or the society we live and see as we project our morality) true to its lifestyle of meeting expectations and working within socio-historically accumulated social action criteria.
The expansion of the Charismatic Christian movement benefitted greatly from this public sphere condition and had as such grown exponentially. Doctrinally, the Charismatic movement implores its members to develop a personal relationship with their God to whom they account for their personal sins and from whom they acquire their access to material blessings and success. These doctrinal expectations neither make nor made any joined up requirements for public sphere moralization even in the traditional ways through which the Christian religion had sought to influence public morals (either through the State or through its church activities). Rather, it spoke directly to the dichotomy that had been created during the autocratic rule and had become accentuated after its removal in 1994 by only requiring that its members account to a personal God through a personal relationship, and emphasizing that a good relationship with God always led to material abundance.
Additionally, the public sphere could remain the theatre through which the material blessings from God could be obtained through the righteous works of his chosen people be it in business, in professional jobs, in academics or whatever other enterprise. The crucial point being that God had empowered them with the capacity or enablement to function profitably within a decaying system: the more innocuous note being that God could take care of his chosen ones regardless of the social circumstances that prevailed (a first absolution of responsibility), and a more pernicious one being that a substantial go-ahead had been granted therefore for the chosen to actively participate within the decay as they accrue their material blessings. In both these cases, the line of action from the private sphere where accountability happens to the public sphere is profoundly and fundamentally similar in form not just to the consensual system already in place historically, but also the moralist projections that engulfed the post-autocracy period within the socio-historically contrived normative of the public sphere.
In this regard, the concurrent existence of high religiosity and high corruption (in the broadest sense of the word) are fundamentally interlinked and mutually reinforcing by, in the last instance, serving to further excite public sphere politics aimed at reconfiguring a general canon of morality that contextualizes a fundamentally amoral pragmatic politics for the purposes of private motivations.
In conclusion, it is not unusual within Malawian public life to hear religious arguments for defending or promoting various positions. More accurately these are interlaced with other arguments that are derived from a so-called African culture which predates the corrupting influences of the colonial projects that were imposed on our part of the world. However, as alluded to in a previous article titled “The Day Malawi Mourned for Paris,” I explained that a minimal classism however remains in place in order to account for the manner in which certain ideas are able to rise above others within this canonization process of public morality. Much of the semblances of order and stability necessarily arise from the clamoring towards socio-historical norms which are important for imposing social regulation in a context in which everyone seems to want to rebel by demanding that others conform completely – only to find themselves conforming religiously in order to be able to rebel. This contradiction is precisely the adhesive for much of Malawi’s public life, in my view, and it has become the requisite sociological condition that enables high religiosity alongside a decay in public morals as defined by the religions and the religious people themselves.
Mphatso Moses Kaufulu is a political and cultural sociologist from Malawi concerned with questions about social epistemology in Southern Africa. He is a PhD student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. He is interested in the idea of culture as “play”, culture as history, and culture as power.