In the last few weeks, I have been thinking a fair bit about religion in the public sphere in South Africa and have – not for the first time – been rather dismayed by the level of discussion. This is a topic that could fill several books, but I wanted to record a few points here, even if they only serve as a springboard for further reflection.

I couldn’t help being struck by the juxtaposition of two clusters of discourse around this topic in the course of the same week. The first was the reaction (here, among other places) to Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng’s speech suggesting – in rather measured tones – that religious traditions could make a positive contribution to the social good by influencing our legal framework. The second was a conference at which a group of Christians got together because they were concerned that freedom of religion is under threat in South Africa.

The problem, as I see it, is that the shrillness of the reaction to the Chief Justice’s speech only serves to underline the concerns of those who feel that freedom of religion is under threat, while the issues around which certain Christians seem intent on lobbying – such as the right to spank children – only confirms the prejudices of the secularists who see religious groups as inherently oppressive and basing their arguments on an arbitrary appeal to (often conflicting) religious texts.

In the midst of the heat-without-light reaction to Mogoeng’s speech, Ryan Peter published a helpfully sane article entitled “Are today’s secularists really secular?” In it, he argued that, instead of wanting to keep a neutral secular space, today’s secularists are rather seeking to impose their own views on others. While Christians should not be able to impose their ethical standards on others – and, predictably, much of heat generated had to do with sexuality – neither should secular society be able to impose its norms onto Christians, and, presumably, the followers of other religions.

Now this is fine as far as it goes, but the problem is that it does not go that far, and I fear that the idea of a neutral public sphere is something of a modern illusion. Acknowledging this does not mean retreating into theocracy, but it does mean that the sort of conversation the Chief Justice was initiating is a conversation that needs to be had. And it forces us to reflect on where our social values and norms come from, the different weight that we give different “rights,” as well as their sometimes mutually incompatible nature.

The fact is, there are areas in which the law will inevitably curtail freedom of religion in one form or another. Should the children of Jehovah’s Witnesses be allowed to die because their parents’ religion does not allow blood transfusions? Should Quakers be exempted from paying taxes that fund the military because their religion requires them to be pacifists? Should Christians who appeal to certain biblical verses be exempted from laws prohibiting corporal punishment? And, if they are going to base their argument on such verses, what is to stop another group arguing that stoning adulterers is a religious duty? The list could continue and it is small wonder that secularists accuse religious believers of cherry picking from often conflicting religious texts.

Yet there are also weighty matters at stake at stake here. Not so long ago, a Methodist minister who had been disciplined by her church for supposedly marrying her female partner, took her church to court on the grounds that they had discriminated against her unconstitutionally. While she didn’t win, it was not inconceivable that she could have done so (and she is continuing to appeal the judgement) and some of her most vocal supporters are precisely those people attacking Mogoeng’s speech. Moreover, while the forthcoming Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill has been amended to exclude religious bodies, there are nevertheless voices that would like to see religious groups forced to comply with what is seen as gender equality.

These are real issues and they will not ultimately be solved simply by appealing to a supposedly neutral public sphere, for it is precisely the values of that public sphere that are being contested. This is not to suggest a retreat into theocracy, but rather that we should critically examine where the values of the public sphere are coming from and what they are informed and nourished by. Neither secular nor biblical fundamentalism is particularly helpful here – and the former can be just as fundamentalist as the latter. But what is notably absent – at least as far as I can hear – is a robust articulation of the Christian vision of the human person in the South African public discourse.

Of course it’s understandable, given our history, that South Africans should be wary of the role of religion in the public sphere. Too often, Christianity has come to be identified with a fundamentally pessimistic view of humanity in which human potential is stunted out of deference to an arbitrary and vengeful God. And yet, ousting and controlling God does not so much mean freeing human beings as redefining and reducing them. For what is at stake is not so much God as humanity – what it means to be human. For ultimately, for Orthodox Christians, to quote the words of Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, “The glory of God is the human being fully alive. And the life of a human being is the vision of God.”

*****

Some brief and probably disjointed appendices:

1. I’m not the only one who has noted the lack of any local forum for discussing issues of religious or theological concern in a serious way, and now Ryan Peter has come with a new initiative which looks promising. Do go and look at The Christian Blogger, which he is in the process of setting up.

2. Very close to the surface of any discussion on religion and public life are questions of sexuality. I’d better not start on this now as it probably requires a separate post – if not several books – and I sort of wish someone else would write it. But there are important questions that need to be probed, especially on the contrast between how such discussions play out in our context with how they played out in the early Church. (Of course, there are other issues too – individual autonomy, economics, etc. – but they too will have to wait).

3. I’ve recently started listening to the podcast series Paradise and Utopia by Father John Strickland on the rise and fall of Christendom – and on how the faith of the early Church influenced the society around it. It raises issues that are not unrelated to this post and which I may say more on again.

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