A meeting of church and state

2014-06-09 10:00

Two years ago, Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng addressed a gathering of the SA National Editors’ Forum barely a year since he had been subjected to the first public grilling of a candidate for South Africa’s top judicial position.

He began his speech by thanking the editors for the rather torrid treatment he had received from the media when he was initially nominated for the job.

He spoke of how the questioning of his suitability for the job – given his past comments and relative junior status in the Constitutional Court – had enriched him.

“I would never wish for anybody to go through what I went through, but I must state that the experience made me a better chief justice,” was roughly what he said.

He was candid and forthright, and did not shy away from controversial subjects. By the time he was done, he had won over many sceptics in our ranks.

Personally, I was not fully won over and I am still not convinced that he was a superior choice to Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke. He just does not possess the gravitas, intellect and leadership qualities of Moseneke.

His elevation was intended as Zuma’s famous middle-finger salute to Moseneke.

Be that as it may, Mogoeng has been an okay chief justice. In football terms, he has not been at the Zinedine Zidane level, but he has been worthy of a place in the starting line-up.

But there are many in society who still wish to see him run out of town. His every utterance is scrutinised for evidence that he is a religious zealot whose views are not in keeping with the Constitution.

“We wuz right,” they want to say.

From time to time, he has provided his critics with bullets to fire into his torso.

He did so again last week when he suggested religion should have a place in law-making.

A speech he made in Stellenbosch provoked kneejerk reactions from some quarters. Lynch mobs accused Mogoeng of leading a march towards social conservatism.

This week, he felt the urge to defend himself. He called a press conference in which he just made things worse by speaking darkly about the dangers of “promiscuous fornication” and saying other things that made him sound like a nut.

I went back to the original speech and, quite frankly, found the crucifixion of Mogoeng very unjustified. It was a case of finding him guilty of all the things we feared he would become.

Below is the crux of what Mogoeng said: “I believe that we can only become a better people if religion could be allowed to influence the laws that govern our daily lives, starting with the Constitution of any country.”

He continued: “The levels of maladministration, crime and corruption; the extremely low levels to which morality has degenerated; the lackadaisical attitude of many government functionaries in the execution of their duties; the dishonesty; as well as injustices that have permeated all facets of society, price-fixing and fronting included, would in my view be effectively turned around significantly if religion were to be factored into the law-making process. More importantly, there is a strong correlation already between law and religion.”

It could be the former Catholic altar boy in me, but I quite frankly do not find anything controversial in this statement.

Most people in South Africa and indeed the rest of the world subscribe to some form of religion. Religion is largely a force for good. It teaches about right and wrong, and builds a basis for good behaviour.

Some who grow up believing in a deity choose to abandon their beliefs later in life, but continue to be guided by the moral codes their religious upbringing gave them.

The problem arises when zealots try to impose their dogma on others. But this is the case with all dogmas, be they Marxism, capitalism or any other ideology.

In South Africa, we have a Constitution that protects citizens from all forms of oppression and bigotry. As Mogoeng has pointed out, he took an oath of office that elevates the Constitution above his own beliefs. He did not say our laws must be based on religious texts.

The problem here is not Mogoeng and his beliefs. It is the anti-religion fundamentalism that is creeping into our society. This fundamentalism seeks to portray religion as something backward, superstitious and dangerous, akin to belief in witchcraft.

The adherents of this fundamentalism ignore the fact that the majority of South Africans practise some or other religion and spend at least an hour of their Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays in places of worship.

These South Africans tolerate each other’s faiths and appreciate the fact that there are many others who believe in nothing. They are actually much more tolerant than the anti-religion fundamentalists.

It is these anti-religion zealots who should concern us more than Mogoeng.

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