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Op-Ed: Moving our ship forward, part 3

Church, Culture, Politics, and things that go bump in the night

I have been writing on health care financing for the past five months. This third part of the “Moving our ship forward” series will touch upon the impact of church and culture on territorial politics and development implications. I had said there would be only three parts to this series, but have decided to continue the “Moving forward” series to address timely issues during this political campaign season.

Let me state off the bat that these few comments will not do justice to the loaded title of the editorial piece, and that this effort draws primarily on my general observations, readings, and firsthand experience in said areas.

Although I might encroach on sensitive nerves of certain and significant sectors of our community, I do so willingly in the humble hope that this discussion is useful in the grand scheme of things pertinent to the development of our territorial ship and moving it forward.

If any in the Samoa News family of readers and general public find any of my statements offensive, I beg your pardon — but urge you to read it again with an open mind; if useful.

Church, Culture & Politics

Our territorial government motto of “Samoa muamua le Atua” (Samoa God is first), and lyrics of a popular Samoan song “Na fa’avae e le Atua Samoa ina ia pulea e matai” (God founded Samoa to be ruled by chiefs) in no uncertain terms spell out the roles the church (representing God) and culture (as embodied in the leadership of chiefs) play in the governance of the territory.

Our belief in the Higher Being — Tagaloa-a-Lagi (God) — predates our introduction to Christianity by several centuries. The late Moseniolo Ioane Vito Fonoti of Samoa in his recently launched book “Faafaaipoipoga o le Faakerisiano ma le Aganuu Faasamoa” (Inculturation or Intermarriage of Christianity and Samoan Culture), lamented the naivete of the early missionaries who attempted to rid Samoa of its culture when such a beautiful culture was of God, and offered a compelling account of why chiefs might have been chosen by God to rule and lead Samoa.

Nothing illustrates better the influence of the church on politics in the territory than the influence the Christian Congregational Church of American Samoa (CCCAS), with the most following in the territory, has had on gubernatorial elections. Since the positions of the governor and lt. governor of the territory were elected, the governor or lt. governor or campaign manager of the winning team had held the position of chairman or vice-chairman or some other high position of the CCCAS general assembly annual conference prior to or concurrently.

Right now, however, while several candidates for either governor or lt. governor in this election are members of the CCCAS — they are not in leadership position of the CCCAS general assembly bi-annual conference — thus CCCAS as a determining factor is probably diluted (in terms of supporting a particular team). Otherwise the influence of the church in government remains.

In this piece I try to shed some light on the danger of accepting the implied Divine-bestowal of authority on the church and chiefs without questioning whether the representatives of God are acting according to the teachings of God hence the best interest of the territory; after all they are human, like you and me.

The influence of the church is evident in any government function where it is started and ended in a prayer and a message from the gospel is offered as counsel to guide the event.

I cannot forget the church service for the 2012 Flag Day where the faifeau (priest) leading the service criticized the Fono for not working together with the governor (by supporting his bills in the last regular and special legislative sessions) and the critics of ASG who complained about the pot holes ridden roads and the Mormon lake in Ottoville.

If I read the priestly lesson correctly that Sunday evening, the Fono should not engage in the checks and balance exercise that’s vital in a democratic government, but respect the authority of the governor without reproach; and the people should not be as concerned about the very bad roads and Mormon lake — but instead focus on the pot holes and lakes of alcohol that’s being consumed in the territory by young people.

Herein lays the danger of church influence on government. Because his word is respected, the priest’s counsel could (and most probably will) reverberate within the halls of the Fono and influence an outcome that’s not democratically determined and may be detrimental to the welfare of the people. 

Secondly, alcohol consumption among young people is a real concern, but it’s also a serious problem among adults including members of the clergy. And there’s no doubt that church sponsored bingos every night are taking parents away from their children in the evenings, and are contributing to the alcohol problem among young people.

The point is the alcohol problem is more complex and should be addressed appropriately, and not be used to rationalize the authority of the governor. Both the alcohol and bad roads are serious problems affecting our community and need to be dealt with properly and immediately.

The intermarriage of culture and government in the territory is cemented in the Fono where senators are selected based on their status as chiefs by county councils comprising village chiefs; and members of the House of Representatives, although elected through popular elections, are mostly chiefs or products of the chieftain system in their respective families and villages. Moreover, there hasn’t been an elected governor who wasn’t a traditional Samoan chief.

Until recently, the traditional and chiefly respect for authority explains the ease with which the administration has been able to push its pieces of legislation through the Fono. The $20 million loan after the 2008 election is an example of a bad piece of legislation that passed through the Fono without proper scrutiny; now it’s costing the territory much more than the loan interest.

The influence of culture on government is further entrenched in the territory by the selection of members of the cabinet (department directors) and other key positions in ASG from the ranks of chiefs, often without experience or educational background —and usually serve as figureheads — presumably because of their implied God given wisdom as chiefs to hold together and lead a group of workers. 

There hasn’t been a scientific study to review the effectiveness of chiefs as department directors or agency heads in terms of productivity and meeting departmental or agency goals (if they exist); however it’s not difficult to see the talented and skilled non-chief workers being stifled by such hiring practice, which leads to the discouragement or exodus among young qualified and educated people from said departments, ASG, or the territory (brain drain).

The one inescapable conclusion that can be discerned from the intermarriage of church, culture, and government is that such relationship can forge a strong political machine such as the one that dominated politics in the territory from the first Lutali administration to this day. 

Like the CCCAS influence discussed above, the influence of this political machine is now in doubt as possibly three or four of the five gubernatorial candidates were once disciples or participants in one capacity or other of this powerful political machine. This election may very well spell the end of the CCCAS influence and the dilution of a political machine — or certainly re-define its role on the playing field.

Is there another denomination blinking or emerging in the political radar? Is this election a beginning of a new alliance to form a new political machine? Or is there brewing in the wilderness a new school type of political machine where a premium is placed on education, skills, high quality work experience to mobilized the territorial ship forward? We shall find out in six months.

Implications

The intermarriage of the church, culture, and government can produce a political machine that dominates political leadership in American Samoa. And with such domination come career opportunities, job security, and a comfortable standard of living for beneficiaries of a political machine.

We also learn that the longevity of a political machine does not necessarily translate into solid efforts to establish development goals for the territory and the successful achievement of those goals. It behooves the next administration to take the state of the territory’s development seriously by start implementing a sensible development plan to include economic development, education, health and health care, social welfare, and political status within the first three months of 2013.

I included political status on the list because it is important but placed it last because we can develop our territory with the existing sources of funding under the current political status. In my opinion it isn’t worth the resources to explore alternative political affiliations while more pressing human needs deserve the government’s full attention.

For the territorial development effort to succeed, two events must take place:

• First, key government workers as with all other workers in government should be hired based on qualifications, and not on one’s chiefly status or cultural obligations, position in church or church obligations, or politico and familial affiliations; and,

• Second, church and culture should not interfere with the democratic process of governance where checks and balance reigns supreme.

Finally, I believe the Tagaloa-a-Lagi our forebears worshiped two thousand years ago is the same God we worship today as Christians. In my heart of hearts, I believe, as the late Moseniolo Ioane Vito Fonoti appeared to suggest in his aforementioned book, that God anointed Samoan matai (chiefs) to lead and care for all people in American Samoa.

But when Samoan chiefs and church leaders neglect their Divine-anointed custodianship and leadership responsibilities, then we the people do what we need to do to develop our ship and moving it forward to our destination, where everyone has a chance at making it in this life.



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