Religious Liberty at Risk
Our Parliament signed off on 2016 with among other things two pieces of legislation that have rightly generated comment and concern.
In the first instance, there was the first reading of Constitutional Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2016 which, according to the Samoa Observer’s report of the Bill’s Explanatory Memorandum, is to “insert in the Constitution that Samoa is a Christian nation, to declare the dominance of Christianity in Samoa.”
The second is the amendment to the Police Service Act 2009 ostensibly to simplify the process of Cabinet terminating the appointments of the Commissioner of Police, and of the Assistant Commissioners if the need arises.
The two appear innocuous enough at first glance, but there is much more to them than meets the eye. Take for example the inclusion in the body of the Constitution of the idea that Samoa is a Christian country, and that Christianity has dominance over other faiths.
But one hopes the law fraternity will express a view as to what all this means in layman’s terms and what impact it will have on Article 11 of Samoa’s Constitution on Freedom of religion.
For according to the Attorney General, there is no cause for concern.
The government he suggests is not trying to control religious freedom in Samoa. That is all well and good, but we do need to hear as well from legal sources outside government on the subject. It is said of war that it is too important to be left to the generals only.
So it is with our country’s laws and fundamental freedoms. They are much too important to be left to our present rubber stamp Parliament, and one party state form of government.
Up to this point in time in Samoa’s history, there was never any ambiguity or about the meaning and application of the Constitution’s Article 11 on freedom of religion. We also know that from the start, the concept of religious freedom has never really been fully understood and embraced by certain quarters like the village governing councils, parts of the mainline churches and even parliamentarians. The idea that individuals might have so called inalienable rights that are beyond the power of those in authority is quite alien to Samoan culture.
After the 2009 tsunami for instance, there was any number of people calling for Sunday observance to be made mandatory for all. According to them, this would spare Samoa from further natural disasters which were caused apparently by people going to the beaches on Sunday instead of going to church or sleeping at home. This is not the first time such unbiblical superstitions have been openly used to justify the making of rules to control religious behavior.
But thanks to the way our Constitution was written, and the role of the Judiciary in interpreting it, this form of mindless authoritarianism has not had its way. The people of Samoa, as befitting its claim to a Christian heritage, continue to have protection from the worst aspects of religious intolerance and ignorance. In fact religious intolerance of this kind has been an inseparable part of religious history. Even today, religious minorities suffer persecution and discrimination in all too many parts of the world where as is happening in Samoa, democratic values are being labeled and rejected as foreign ideas. We find that this is also always happening in places where governments and politicians take it upon themselves to meddle in matters of religious worship again as in Samoa.
As for making Christianity the dominant religion in Samoa, Christianity is already that and more. Giving that dominance a legal standing as well, as the proposed amendment will do, is as unnecessary as it is undemocratic. Samoan culture has already changed the Christ-like Christianity of the New Testament into our very own Samoan-like version of Christianity. In the same way, we now have our very own Samoan Parliamentary Democracy, as well as our very own Samoan Human Rights.
Given this urge to turn most things on Samoa’s cultural values, it will only be a matter of time before Samoan Christianity knuckles down with Samoan Democracy and Samoan Human Rights to do away with foreign and un-Samoan concepts such as Religious Liberty. One can understand the need for context, when applying these principles and rights of the individual. But context goes too far when values that are universal in meaning and application are equated with Faa-Samoa values and practices that apply only in the Samoan context.
Significantly, the Chairman of the National Council of Churches and representative of the Catholic Church on the Council was reported as saying that the proposed change is unnecessary. This is something of a surprise, but then, the Catholic Church is a global faith with universal values and principles like Christianity itself to accommodate its global reach. That is not the case with Samoa’s home grown denominations where Samoan culture and Christianity have been welded into something uniquely Samoan with an outside appearance of Christianity.
Religion is a matter of conscience and for the individual to decide. Christ did not use force or coercion to make people follow him. One would think his followers would like to follow his example and not invent their own version of Christianity.
Readers may recall that for quite some time, we ran a column under the heading “Elections Maketh not a Democracy”. It set out to among other things raise the alarm about the changes then being wrought in our democracy. The title of the series sought to take the discussion past the one sided election results that were being touted as the result of the democratic process and will of the people. We wanted to focus instead on the re-engineering of Samoa’s political system then in progress, which was generating those results and eventually, the one party state system we have today.
By way of recall, our column made the point that democracy has become a universal ideal, and was no longer exclusive to the nations of Europe that first devised systems to put democracy’s values into practice. These values are universal and came to form part of Samoa’s Constitution. Our own country’s history tells us that when Samoa was preparing to govern itself in 1962 and take its place among the nation states of the world, it chose a Westminster styled parliamentary system of government with adaptations to recognize selected aspects of Samoa’s culture and traditional governance practices. These included among others the matai only suffrage and provision of places at Head of State and Council of Deputy levels for Samoa’s traditional leaders.
That history also says that democracy was not forced on Samoa as some commentators promoting a return to “things” Samoan are now suggesting. Samoa’s own home grown governance system, the Faa-matai is based on entirely different values and principles best illustrated today by the Samoa’s village government system. Unlike the universal values of democracy, this is a system where, as the Village Fono 1990 stipulates, each village governs itself in accordance with “village usage, customs and traditions” And there are as many variations in usage, traditions and customs as there are villages in Samoa.
As from the start, Samoan village governance values and practices revolve around the confines of the village group itself and its family or tribal connections and allegiances and history. “E sui faiga, ae tumau faavae” “The values and principles (of Faa-Samoa) remain the same but are expressed differently to reflect modern practical realities” is a saying that encapsulates this process today. It’s a system we as Samoans relate to with pride and loyalty because it is us, an extension and expression of our identity, even if many do so from afar. And because of its tradition bound underpinnings, village government has not moved much if at all with the times and with the challenges of today.
Nevertheless, this culture based village system has also served as the repository of Samoan culture and way of life in a rapidly changing environment. It has also afforded the social stability and cohesion that has characterized Samoan society in recent times. But its values and practices, based as they are on Samoa’s own unique local context, are no foundation for a modern state. The leaders who guided Samoa to independence and modern statehood understood that reality. Like most countries emerging from colonial rule, Samoa chose to govern itself the democratic way. Other countries like Tonga chose to remain with their own traditional systems but have since also turned to democracy,
We referred earlier to a re-engineering of our political system that’s been going on since the early 1980s. Whatever the motives might have been, the result has been far reaching. It includes among other things the entrenchment in government of the HRPP party, the architect of that re-engineering. The crowning achievement of that process was the one party state, Samoa’s very own form of government as the event was labeled at the time, following the general elections last year. It also marked the total takeover by the Executive or Cabinet of the levers of power and relegation of Parliament and the Judiciary to supporting roles. We are witnessing some of the fallout from that upending of the foundations of our democratic system of government.