Comedians, Pastors, and the Miraculous Agency of Charisma in Ghana

Peer Reviewed


This essay traces Charismatic preaching and the moral importance of the fake pastor across public spaces and genres in Accra, Ghana. I argue that fear of the fake pastor creates a local theory of moral performance that sets the conditions of possibility for the legitimacy of the pastor as a public figure. Although rapid circulation generates anxiety about spiritual sincerity, it also produces continual hope for the miraculous and the potential for morally legitimate agency. The specter of the fake pastor provides a symbolic nexus for the transformation of spiritual into economic value in privatizing Ghana. This transformation occurs in the language of public moral belonging. A pastor's moral authority relies on public style and performance to connect spiritual power, moral sincerity, and economic potency. Fakery appears as the margin, the horizon against which a moral center is clarified. The fake's centrality to public moral discourse is rooted in the possibilities and dangers of individuated agencies associated with Ghana's liberalization.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published a number of essays that describe emergent cultural formations in Africa.  See Rosalind Shaw's “Displacing Violence: Making Pentecostal Memory in Postwar Sierra Leone” (2007), Danny Hoffman's “The City as Barracks: Freetown, Monrovia, and the Organization of Violence in Postcolonial African Cities” (2007) and David McDermott Hughes' “Third Nature: Making Space and Time in the Great Limpopo Conservation Area” (2005).  

Cultural Anthropology has also published many essays on performance.  See Galit Saada-Ophir's “Borderland Pop: Arab Jewish Musicians and the Politics of Performance” (2006),  Jonathan Shannon's “Emotion, Performance, and Temporality in Arab Music: Reflections on Tarab” (2003), and James Boon's "Showbiz as a Cross-Cultural System: Circus and Song, Garland and Geertz, Rushdie, Morrden,... and More" (2000).

About the Author

Jesse Weaver Shipley is an assistant professor of Anthropology at Haverford College.

Editorial Overview

In the August, 2009 issue of Cultural Anthropology, Jesse Shipley outlines the moral importance of fake pastors through the rise of Charasmatic preaching in Ghana, where fundamentalist pastors promise economic salvation for congregations with limited access to material wealth. Implicating the rise of call-in radio talk shows, the religious conversion of popular musicians and comedians, and tensions between IMF-sponsored privatization and pan-African ideals, Shipley describes the role of fake pastors –  and the fear of fakery – as both dynamic and productive within an emerging sphere of moral deliberation.

For Shipley, fake pastors and fear of fakery play a role in the production of local theories of moral performance, setting the conditions of possibility for the legitimization of the pastor as a public figure. Where a pastor's moral authority rests on connecting to spiritual power through public style and performance and economic potency, fake pastors provide a backdrop against which a clear moral center becomes visible. Additionally, fake pastors are constitutive of a sphere of moral deliberation, in which key contradictions of neoliberalism and postcolonialism are worked out, often through the circulation  of parodies by comedians and musicians.

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