What happened to African liberation theology?

I’ve been puzzling over this question for a few weeks now, ever since reading about the connection that Samuel Huntington drew between the evolving Catholic church (with regard to Vatican II and liberation theology) and democratization in Latin America.  Liberation theology sprang up from the 1950s – 1970s as an intense critique of the church’s role in abetting oppression and poverty, of which there was plenty in both Latin America and Africa at the time – but whilst it left a lasting impression on both faith practices and (selon Huntington) politics in LatAm, it didn’t seem to spread across the Atlantic in any meaningful way. (The exception appears to be South Africa, where “liberation” had an unusually clearly defined sense.)

This might go back to the general debate over why Africans don’t protest more (see here and here), but I’m also wondering about the specific political facets of religious life in Africa that might have incentivized religious leaders not to adapt and adopt this type of faith-based social movement.  Were organized faiths regularly co-opted by by the state during this period?  Or did religious leaders & laypeople face the same incentives against rebellion as any other citizens?  Science Encyclopedia offers some stylized facts about religion and the state in Africa, but nothing systematic enough to draw conclusions.

With regard to Catholicism specifically, January Makamba points out that this tradition was not nearly as deeply entrenched in Africa as it was in Latin America, which could be relevant if theologians are less likely to adopt new ideas across denominational lines (or across different faiths all together, given that there are estimated to be more Muslims than Christians in Africa).  Check out Worldmapper’s depiction of the distribution of Catholics around the world:

For comparison, here’s a map of global population distribution:

Latin America clearly has a greater-than-proportional share of Catholics, although central and east Africa also appear to be holding their own, making it less immediately obvious that “lack of Catholicism” is a good explanatory variable.  Thoughts and recommendations for further reading would be welcomed!

5 thoughts on “What happened to African liberation theology?

  1. Interesting post. Off the top of my head, I would really consider the penetration of Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. Again, this is off the top of my head, but Catholicism has been in LatAm for much longer than in Africa, and it is much deeper entrenched in society than in most African countries, Eastern and Central Africa inclusive, especially during the period you indicate. For instance, I don’t seem to recall ever reading anything about the strong involvement of the church in the decolonisation process, which happened during the period.


    1. Hi Loomnie – good point about involvement of the church during decolonization. I went to a great lecture by Frank Fukuyama yesterday in which he highlighted the importance of the power of the Catholic Church in Europe during the Middle Ages in constraining domestic political power, which I think points to an interesting avenue of inquiry about how the embeddedness/power of the church plays against political power in the modern age.


  2. I think you’re on to something on religion. Something one notices in Nigeria is this praise of being the long-suffering person.

    Watching Nigerian films is especially interesting, because one would easily notice how the good wife is the long-suffering wife, who endures her husband’s beatings, while praying to God to save her husband’s soul. Innumerable movies celebrate the long-unemployed, who eventually gets his job after being close to the Lord, and rebukes the man or woman who does something (always underhanded, always “devilish”) about his miserable situation in order to live well. I don’t want to extend this point of view any further, but it’s worth of note that films with these themes resonate so well across the continent.

    I think it’s also worth pointing out that, as far as Nigeria is concerned anyway, protests are discouraged by political actors who feed the short-term needs of people. It’s not unusual to see political actors doling out cash to poor people (usually not more than 3 to 10 dollars), bags of rice and material to sew clothing. Perhaps in this environment you won’t see protests because it’s not like the poor people are being ignored; it’s their long-term needs that are being ignored.

    Personally, I don’t expect us to see any kind of mass revolution until the people who are so easily bought over reject this appeal to their short-term desires and fight for the long haul.


    1. Hi Saratu – these are great points! The observation about religion being supportive of the idea of quiet suffering is well-taken, and I appreciate the insight about Nigerian political actors attending to the short-term needs of their constituents in ways that subdue protest but don’t address deeper structural problems. Much food for thought…


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