Theses Doctoral

Deus ex Machina? New Religious Movements in African Politics

Sperber, Elizabeth Sheridan

The majority of political science research on religion and politics examines how religious variables influence political outcomes. Either implicitly or explicitly, this literature posits a one-way causal arrow from religion to politics. This dissertation argues that in many developing countries, however, religious and political change have been endogenous (interrelated). This is particularly true in weak states, where established religious groups mobilized to promote third wave democratization. In such contexts, politicians simultaneously faced heightened political competition and established religious groups mobilized to demand accountable democratic governance after the Cold War. Under these conditions, I argue that politicians faced incentives to intervene in the religious sphere, and to actively propagate conversionary religious movements. In doing so, politicians sought to cultivate both moral authority and new constituencies that would compete with the established "watch dog" religious groups. I term this strategy "politicized propagation," and argue that it is an important mechanism undergirding the endogenous relationship between religious and political change in the region.
Although the theoretical argument advanced in this dissertation is general, I assess the argument empirically by focusing on the explosive rise of pentecostal (born again) Christianity as a politically salient identity in some, but not all, sub-Saharan states in recent decades. I begin by evaluating the dissertation’s broadest claim — that religion and politics are endogenous — at the cross-national level. Specifically, I assess the degree to which a country’s pentecostal population share in 2010 is predicted by that country’s (i) level of political competition in the 1990s and 2000s, and (ii) prior mobilization by established religions for democratization. The evidence reveals a strong, and significant positive correlation between these political context variables and pentecostal population shares in the region. Moreover, through a controlled comparison of born again movements (i.e., charismatics and pentecostals), I am able to adjudicate between the appeal of born again doctrine, and the organizational features of pentecostal churches (such as decentralized network structures, and relative freedom from transnational oversight and rigid training requirements for leaders), which make pentecostal churches accessible and malleable political allies. The dissertation’s cross-national findings therefore refute alternative explanations for cross-national variation in the rise of pentecostalism, as well as the null hypothesis that political and religious change were not endogenous in sub-Saharan states.

The latter half of the dissertation proceeds to evaluate causal process mechanisms by examining church-state relations in a single case over time. Specifically, I focus on Zambia, a predominantly Christian nation, where I collected quantitative and qualitative data in 2011 and 2013. My analyses of these data reveal that Zambia's ruling party systematically targeted local pentecostal churches with cash grants, media permits, urban land plots, and political appointments between 1991 and 2011. Moreover, I find that the government was significantly more likely to allocate perks, such as lucrative tax breaks or church business licenses, in the lead up to national elections. This evidence provides strong suggestive support for the theory of politicized propagation. Zambians' subjective perceptions of the relationship between different religious groups and the state are consistent with the theory of politicized propagation, but also belie the wide-ranging motivations of pentecostal converts. I conclude with reflections on the impact of politicized propagation, as well as the ability of this argument to illuminate political dynamics of born again Christian movements in Latin America, and Islamic movements in sub-Saharan Africa.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Political Science
Thesis Advisors
Snyder, Jack Lewis
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
November 2, 2016