The "fundamentalist Roman Catholic who doesn't steal"

Jul 17, 2011

Former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young is among those who still manage to see more morality than malice in Mugabe's rule. "Americans cannot be rational about Mugabe," Young said. "We've always miscast Mugabe. He's a fundamentalist Roman Catholic. ... He doesn't steal."

This was part of a 2008 editorial in the Atlanta Journal Constitution about why 'the tyranny of Zimbabwe's black president, Robert Mugabe, has met with little reaction from America's black elite.'

Mugabe unquestionably has a lot of tyranny to answer for in his 31 years in power. But Young was also right when he said much of the reaction to Mugabe in the Western media in general is emotional more than it is rational.

Mugabe has been characterised as every kind of possible monster under the sun.

The AJC editorial quotes a black US activist as saying, "Americans shouldn't "demonize" Mugabe." The AJC responds, "There's just one problem with that. Mugabe has become a demon."

He certainly is to many, especially in the West. But he is also a hero to many others, and there are probably still many others who view him as a little bit of both. This is just one of the things that make him so sharply controversial across the world.

But Young's description of him as a misunderstood and miscast "fundamentalist Roman Catholic who doesn't steal" is interesting. In Zimbabwe the more polite "devout Roman Catholic" is used to describe him when it is thought useful to clothe him in religious garb. That is not done as frequently as it once was, no doubt at least partly because many of his statements and actions do not any longer make it easy for even his most fanatical supporters to convincingly cast him as an upstanding religionist.

There is no doubt that Mugabe takes his religion seriously, at least on the level of ritual. Like many other religionists, he can be easily found wanting in the arguably more important and meaningful realms of trying to live the best values of the religion, rather than to just give them lip service and to take part in elaborate rituals.

Young uses the description "fundamentalist Roman Catholic" in regards to Mugabe in a positive way; that of not stealing. There have certainly never been any specific charges with any hint of evidence to suggest Mugabe's personal involvement in corruption in the way it is usually meant. If anything, there have only been insinuations of the "he is an African ruler, therefore he is necessarily corrupt" type.

But even if it were true that his Catholicism prevents him from stealing, is fundamentalism of any kind a good thing, especially in the governance of a nation? Young could have been strictly correct, but he chose an odd defense of Mugabe because direct 'stealing' is not necessarily the worst harm that a ruler can inflict on his country.

Your religious fundamentalism might be of a type to prevent you from stealing, but that very same fundamentalism might make you view mere political opponents as 'enemies' working for 'the devil' who you therefore have license 'from God' to harass, imprison, brutalize or worse.

All in the name of being a good 'devout' religionist of course. "God told me to wipe out my/his/our enemies!"

This aspect of religious fundamentalism has plagued the world from day one, and is far more dangerous than mere stealing. So calling someone a 'fundamentalist Roman Catholic who does not steal' may not exactly be praiseworthy, depending on what other things the fundamentalism makes the person do or not do.

Mugabe's brand of fundamentalist self-righteousness helped make him a formidable liberation war-era guerrilla leader against a powerful then-ruling regime. It made it possible for him to controversially spearhead the headache of land reform in the face of massive world opprobrium. Most other (less fundamentalist) rulers would have caved in to the pressure. Today Mugabe is similarly pushing for a controversial plan for black Zimbabweans to have at least 51% shareholding in all businesses.

If a fundamentalist outlook and posture is sometimes useful at rallying the faithful for difficult tasks (e.g. liberation war), more flexibility might be a greater asset in tackling the problems of day to day governance, and in coming back from the brink of policies that clearly have not worked.   

The immediate results of all radical 'empowerment' efforts may be deeply negative (the long term results for Zimbabwe could be very different), but Mugabe's general fundamentalist outlook means he is either unable to see the negatives, is past caring about them, or both. Fundamentalism means that you hold onto your belief regardless of any evidence to the contrary.

If that evidence becomes overwhelming (e.g. decline of agriculture after land reform), it can be explained away without shaking the fundamentalist belief. In this case, there is no room for consideration that the results so far indicate that the reform could/should have been done differently. No, the fundamentalism instead explains it with, "No, I was right all along in every way. The problems and failures that have resulted are because of the plotting of my many enemies."

And to a fundamentalist, the more enemies one imagines/sees/has, the better the proof that you must be really doing God's work!

It is not the choice of religion or political philosophy/ideology that is problematic, but the fundamentalism of the adherence to them. Fundamentalism is by nature intolerant, which means that when in a position of power, the fundamentalist will almost by definition and by nature be repressive. 

Fundamentalism at the top has definitely played a strong and prominent role in Zimbabwe's politics, but not always or necessarily in the positive way implied by Andrew Young in 2008.


Anonymous said...

It's frankly amazing that the Catholic Church has not excommunicated Robert Zimbabwe just based on the hundreds of thousands of deaths that can be laid at his feet.

The Church continues to lose members because of its unwillingness to stand for what Jesus did and unless that institution wakes up soon, it, too, is looking at a future as bleak as Robert Mugabe's.

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