Alongside Zimbabwe's great economic and political challenges, another big social phenomenon of the last decade or so has been the astonishing rise of an aggressive form of religious fundamentalism. Still to be well-studied and explained, it is perhaps not surprising that when a society is under deep stress, fundamentalist thinking and answers including the religious have huge appeal. There are now signs that the gradual 'normalization' of Zimbabwean society from its 'crisis decade' has also began to create the conditions for more people to question many of the more outlandish claims and practices of the religious fundamentalist wave. But if that fundamentalist wave has finally peaked and is now waning, it is in spite of rather than because of the role of the media in this strange period in Zimbabwe's development.
The media went to sleep while dangerous religious fundamentalism 'colonized' Zimbabwe. That media is not at the forefront of warning Zimbabweans about the hypocrisies, outrages and dangers of that fundamentalism. Instead it is merely following behind the public reaction and revulsion to the evident excesses and contradictions of the drivers of the once unchallenged religious fundamentalists.
If you didn't know better, a casual look at and listen to the Zimbabwe of the last ten years or so would have you thinking it was a very 'godly' society. As is becoming increasingly clear, it has instead only gone through an intensely surface-religious stage. Looked at from any angle, it is hard to see how the purportedly ultra-religious Zimbabwe of today is in any way better than the less loudly, aggressively religious society of 10 or 20 years ago. Sometimes it almost seems that the more a person deliberately calls public attention to how religious they are, the less they exhibit the highest manifestations of godliness.
Whatever the negatives of this phase of (mostly) Pentecostalism-driven fundamentalism, perhaps one positive is that many Zimbabweans have come face to face with how an individual or a society being fanatically religious does not necessarily have anything to do with that individual/society being 'Godly' or better than one which is not loudly religious, or that is religious in very different ways.
Constitutionally Zimbabwe is a secular state. In practice, large sectors of the society have adopted a deep attachment to various types of the basic Christianity that was introduced by the European colonists more than a century ago. Somehow most people are able to navigate between expressed belief in the fairly recently introduced-to-the society religion and older socio-cultural values.
Where there are contradictions between the two world views, pointing them out is taken as quite clear evidence that one is a 'heathen' who will must likely go straight to hell. The more genuinely 'christian' of believers will sadly shake their heads in pity at your lack of understanding, point you to the relevant Bible passages to help you 'see the truth' and perhaps offer to pray that you 'see the light' (i.e. see things from their point of view.)
That is the nature of belief, in 'Christian' Zimbabwe, 'Islamic' Iran, 'Hindu' India, 'Bhuddist' Japan or anywhere else. All these societies dominated by one flavour of religion are convinced that their version (and them) are 'closer' to God than any and all the others. So in that regard there is nothing particularly surprising about the tightness of the expressed belief in what has come to be thought of as 'religious truth' in Zimbabwe, which is one or another of many types of Christianity.
What is fairly recent in Zimbabwe is the rise of fervent types of expressions of religiosity, including the emergence of the phenomenon of the pastor as also a kind of entertainer. It is mixture of religion and show business that has had tremendous appeal to many Zimbabweans. From this has also morphed the phenomena of religion as a business, and as a personality cult for the founder of whatever church the founder claims 'god' told him/her to start.
But almost everything in human affairs has hills and troughs. It may be far too early to declare the period of intense religious fundamentalism in Zimbabwe over, but there are finally signs that more people take the claims of the dime-a-dozen crop of purportedly miracle-working 'prophets' with increasing skepticism.
Zimbabwe's wave of religious fundamentalism is slowly succumbing to its own excesses. So many obvious charlatans joined the bandwagon for its material benefits, and made such unrealistic, heavenly promises to their 'customers' that it was only a matter of time before disillusionment, cynicism and disbelief began to set in.
A fascinating aspect of the growth of religious fundamentalism in Zimbabwe has been the complicit, largely un-questioning role of the media in it. In fact, much of the media actively aided and abetted it. The Zimbabwean media almost completely suspended the watch dog role parts of it wants to be seen as being fierce champions of - but apparently only in regards to politics, not religion.
So when self-proclaimed 'prophets' promised their adoring flock one 'miracle' or another (as long as they made sure they paid their tithes and obeyed the 'prophet' of course), the media dog that should have been first to ask tough questions was largely missing from the watch.
Worse than that, much of the media even led the effort of encouraging an un-questioning followership of the 'prophets' and other brands of religious businesspeople by the public. Media companies often offering deeply different news and views of political developments were/are astonishingly at one in cult-worshiping Zimbabwe's many and seemingly increasing number of 'prophets' and 'miracle workers.'
Reporters and columnists sometimes seem to be in competition to show off which one is more religious than the other; which one can quote Bible verses with more alacrity than the next one, which one is 'holier' than the next.. A reader of a business or a sports story will be startled to find the sudden injection of a religious reference meant to show off how 'churchy' the writer is when 'straight' writing with no reference to the writer's religious inclinations would be more professional and more appropriate. More disturbingly, there are frequently what can only be described as praise-singing promotions for one religious leader or another, which invites a raft of ethical and professional questions.
Journalists are entitled to be full political actors with their individual party preferences, but it is also expected that they will largely keep them private rather than let them obviously affect their writing. This is entirely in keeping with a constitutional dispensation that allows freedom of political choice, but that also requires non-partisan professionalism from its media writers, outside of opinion pieces.
Why do the same standards not apply to respecting Zimbabwe's constitutional freedom of religious choice in a secular setting, but with a similar expectation of religious neutrality in reporting? If it is widely agreed that 'Journalists should be apolitical,' as one Newsday columnist argues, why is it considered acceptable in the Zimbabwean media for those journalists to so frequently gratuitously inject their religious preferences/beliefs into their stories?
If Zimbabweans are increasingly taking the outlandish claims of 'prophets' with large helpings of salt, the media has unfortunately largely not been part of asking the tough questions which it might have been expected that they would be at the forefront of doing. It should be possible for individual journalists, media owners and management to have their religious views, but to not foist them onto their readers. That is merely the same standard of professionalism that is expected of (and largely accepted by) them with regards to political issues.
The Zimbabwe Review