Religion and state must be in balance to protect democracy in South Africa

The relationship between religion and law is often complicated. It is even conflicting at times. At the heart of the problem is the tension between freedom of belief and association and protection against abuse.

For example, the state has a responsibility to intervene when the beliefs or practices of individuals or religious communities are harmful or illegal.

“State” in this case refers to the three branches of government: the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. “Church” refers to religious groupings in general (not just Christianity). A good functional relationship between the state and religious groups is important for democracy.

In South Africa, freedom of religion is protected by the constitution. But there are times when the judiciary must adjudicate on matters involving the Church and its members, and in disputes between religious communities and the state.

A good example is the 2013 lawsuit of Ecclesia de Lange against the Methodist Church. Reverend De Lange was fired by the church after marrying his same-sex partner.



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The South African constitution protects the rights and freedoms of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ+) people, as well as the right to associate with religious communities. Which right should be protected: those of the religious community, or those of the individual? The court ruled in favor of the church on procedural grounds.

There are other cases where courts have had to protect citizens from harm by religious leaders. For example, a pastor was convicted of assault after spraying congregants with insecticide, claiming it cured cancer and HIV.

Most religious communities operate as a voluntary common law association. Members submit to the rules upon joining. However, if they CONTESTATION how church rules are enforced, they often turn to secular courts to protect their constitutional rights.

It seems reasonable. So why would this cause tension, even conflict, between religious communities and the state?

I have spent years researching state-church relations in South Africa. I am also a member of a religious community and I am attached to democracy. I have seen how the State and the Church have abused their positions of trust and responsibility in the past, resulting in injustices.



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I think it is important for democracy and the common good that South Africa maintains a healthy and critical relationship between religious freedom and state accountability.

Church and State – yesterday and today

For many centuries, religion ruled nation states. This is because of its transnational reach. Religious movements and rulers played a role in the appointment (and removal) of kings and rulers.

Scholars suggest that political power was then given to religions because humans lived in an “enchanted” world, where it was believed that God had direct influence over human affairs. God was considered the ultimate authority in all walks of life.

As the world became increasingly secular and “disenchanted,” the state grew in power and independence from religious control. For a time, there was a sort of partnership between religion and the state. Indeed, many people in powerful secular positions – such as kings, political leaders, leading intellectuals – still believed in God.

Today, the state seems to have much more social power than religious communities. Part of the reason is that fewer people — politicians, judges — openly allow their faith to direct their public roles. It’s also because religion is widely seen as something private.

But there really is no “private” religion. All beliefs have public implications. They influence what some people believe to be right and good in society and their relationships with others.



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This can raise concerns about the restriction of religious freedoms, and even lead to a conflict between religion and the state. At the same time, religious beliefs and practices cannot operate unchecked, as they can harm individuals or society.

Maintaining a healthy tension between freedom of religion and legal protection against abuse by religious communities is important in South Africa.

First, it matters because South Africans are deeply religious. A Statistics South Africa survey showed that 92.3% of South Africans claimed to adhere to some form of religion, with 84.2% identifying as Christians.



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The 2014-2017 World Values ​​Survey showed that 74% of South Africans place more trust in religious leaders and religious communities than in the state or political leaders. They derive their moral direction from religious leaders and religious beliefs.

Second, religion plays an important role in South African democracy. Religious groups form an important and powerful constituency to hold powerful people and institutions to account. The South African Council of Churches, for example, has a long history of “speaking truth to power”.

Third, South Africa has a painful history of a state limiting freedom of expression and association to protect itself from protest and criticism during apartheid.

Many religious leaders – including Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Imam Haron – have been arrested for allegedly “planning a revolution” when they sided with the fight for freedom.

More recently, the government has tried to silence critics of religious leaders who have denounced corruption and political abuses.

Find the right balance

So what must be done to maintain the balance between allowing responsible religious freedom and the right of the state to protect its citizens from possible religious abuse and harm?

First, the rights contained in the constitution must be respected.

Second, South Africans should view both the state and religious communities with a critical eye. Neither is without flaws.

Third, both institutions must function responsibly within their mandates – the state as an impartial protector of citizens’ rights and the Church as a responsible servant of the common good.

Finally, religion should not be allowed to unduly influence laws to restrict common freedoms – such as reproductive rights, sexual freedoms and, of course, religious freedom.



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Likewise, the state must remain secular and not adopt theological positions, such as blasphemy laws, doctrinal positions, or narrow, religion-based moral positions.

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