Church not a politicians’ playground

2009-04-08 00:00

SOUTH African churches are no strangers to politics. They and some of their leaders have engaged in politics from many sides of the divide: for and against apartheid, inside and outside of parliament; inside and outside of the country. For the first time since 1994, religion — especially Christianity — is being invoked vigorously in this year’s national elections.

How are we to understand this phenomenon? It is clear that at the centre of the current appeal of and to religion lies an acute sense of national crisis. South African society is living through a heightened sense of desperation not experienced since the late 1980s. We find ourselves in a predicament that most South Africans can feel in their bones even though few can claim to grasp fully, let alone accurately name. The quagmire into which the country seems to be sinking has been called many names: corruption, crime, violence against women, moral degeneration, HIV/ Aids, poverty, Jacob Zuma, Thabo Mbeki etc.

Whether or not one agrees that the country is in crisis and whether one agrees with a particular naming of the crisis, what is unmistakable is that politicians and citizens are appealing to religion for a “stimulus package” and a life-saving diagnosis. People often invoke religion when the usual questions and answers no longer suffice. Have we reached that stage as a nation?

We need to understand the shape and form of such appeals. The invocations themselves can be neither “policed” nor stopped. Nor should we dismiss out of hand the feeling of disenchantment that South Africans feel.

We have seen some politicians abduct church events, employ church resources and deploy church symbols as part of electioneering. As Easter approaches, I am afraid we are about to see more of these.

The axis around which most appeals to churches have been made is morality. In general, morality tends to be understood in relation to four major themes: the problem of corruption; legislation perceived to be against Christian principles; the problem of rampant and violent crime; and the crisis of integrity and leadership.

No one can deny that these are important issues, not only in the run-up to elections, but beyond. Part of the problem is that these challenges cannot be met solely on religious or moral grounds.

It is not realistic to think that, in and of itself, the relegation, confinement or referral of these matters to religion, priests and the churches will produce radically different or improved results.

What we need is a new partnership that will bring churches, people of faiths, other civil organisations and politicians around the table. The churches will definitely bring a unique and helpful contribution, but not one that is either self-sufficient or foolproof.

The direct but mostly indirect endorsement of certain political parties and political personalities by some churches and church leaders is worrying. Not long ago, we saw at least one politician being ordained as an “honorary priest” — a rather novel title. Although each church is free to ordain priests as per its practices, the act of ordination is itself not the property of one denomination.

Therefore, individual denominations are, strictly speaking, not free to do as they please with it. There are minimum criteria and standards that churches expect one another to uphold. The ordination of a politician into priesthood may therefore be deemed by other churches to be an extravagant and dangerous form of goodwill gesture to a politician. Similarly, politicians should be welcome into churches for worship, but nobody (not even God) says they must be handed the microphone as well — especially during elections.

The increased nomination of priests and former church leaders for party political leadership positions, while understandable if viewed against the national sense of disenchantment, is worrisome. It is as if political parties believe that the presence of priests and church leaders among their ranks will automatically accord a moral standing to the party; and that the moral stature that comes with priesthood will become a magnet for votes. I am not convinced that this is a defensible use of priesthood. When church leaders and priests decide to move fully into politics, in my opinion they relinquish their voice as spokespersons of civil society, opting to speak only for that section in civil society that belongs to their party.

Our history suggests that priests and church leaders have achieved more in extra-parliamentary politics. When priests become politicians, they join other politicians in pursuing the main objective of politicians: to gain a parliamentary majority for their party, to install their man or woman as president, to form a cabinet and to govern. Christian parties and/or parties led by or with a preponderance of priests have no agenda that is separate from that of gaining and exercising power.

At least four political parties pronounce themselves religion-based: the United Christian Democratic Party, the Freedom Front Plus, the African Christian Democratic Party and the African Muslim Party. While admirable and legitimate, religion-based political parties can be divisive. Not all Christians would see themselves in the policies of a particular Christian party.

For example, some of the parties may take positions on HIV/Aids, race relations and capital punishment over which the vast spectrum of Christian churches and organisations hold no united or single position. At the end of the day, a Christian political party is first and foremost a political party.

The church is not a no-go area for politics. But it should not become a playground for politicians and politics, especially during elections. Otherwise, the church runs the risk of suffering three types of losses at least: losing its right to speak to and for all without fear or favour; losing its prophetic right to speak for the poor and marginalised; and losing its status as spiritual home for all, regardless of political and other affiliations.

•Professor Tinyiko Sam Maluleke is executive director for research at Unisa and president of the South African Council of Churches.

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