Our God-given right to hyperbole and stupidity

2011-02-12 00:00

SOUTH Africa is a surprisingly God-fearing society contained in a determinedly secular political system. This makes for occasional abrasion, with the religious taking umbrage at perceived slights, or the state interfering in faith issues that have nothing to do with it.

The political and religious firmaments shuddered at President Jacob Zuma's promise last weekend that those with African National Congress membership cards will go to heaven, while opposition support is a vote for the devil. All hell has been let loose, with opposition politicians predictably baying for blood.

The African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) was "shocked and disappointed" that Zuma chose to "mislead and deceive" voters. After all, from its very name one knows that Jesus actually backs the ACDP.

Freedom Front Plus glossed over 48 years of holy matrimony between God and its historical predecessor, the National Party, to warn sanctimoniously that no party should monopolise religion.

The Inkatha Freedom Party damned Zuma's remarks as "utterly distasteful, disgraceful and unacceptable … nothing more than outright manipulation and intimidation."

The usually secularly inclined Democratic Alliance said that Zuma's words were "offensive and unacceptable … incendiary and dangerous … shameless political and religious blackmail … political skulduggery." The DA is always quick to realise that if there is bandwagon, there must be a need for a brass section.

The generally measured South African Council of Churches harrumphed that while it dismissed as a "slip of the tongue" Zuma's previous claim of ANC rule "until Jesus comes", it now has asked to meet Zuma and urge him to "withdraw his comments and apologise". Even Ray McCauley, the president's happy-clappy personal pastor, is perturbed and wants "clarification".

It is obvious that in a heterogeneous society, religion can be used to sow division and conflict. To pretend, however, that Zuma's remarks are some kind of potentially dangerous religious clarion call is rubbish.

His words were benign, although silly, hyperbole. This is trademark Zuma showmanship: loud, colourful and devoid of intellectual content, but devoid also of malicious intent. Zuma is not launching a crusade, proposing a pogrom, or declaring a jihad.

The pompous response also insultingly underestimates people's common sense. The ANC is stridently secular, with many openly atheistic leaders. Given that some 85% of South Africans are religious, yet the ANC garners 66% of the vote, it is clear that the ANC is supported despite its secular nature, not because gullible voters believe it is a path to Jesus.

Politicians and governments habitually think people are stupid, which is why they interfere at every opportunity. Another case in point is the Advertising Standards Authority's (ASA) ban on the Christ Embassy Church from airing claims of faith healing.

It follows a complaint from the Treatment Action Campaign, the HIV/Aids rights organisation, arguing that the church's claim that faith can cure cancer and HIV is a dangerous deceit. At issue in the church's appeal is whether the claims were made in an advertisement (ASA has jurisdiction) or in sponsored programming (no ASA jurisdiction).

ASA has stepped into a constitutional minefield. Since there is a right to personal belief and religious freedom, it is difficult to see how a state agency can forbid a church from proclaiming that faith, the very essence of all religions, can achieve miracles.

That miracles are demonstrably not widespread — hence the many faithful who succumb to Aids, cancer and other ills that are best tackled with medicine — is neither here nor there. Those who choose belief, whether it be in Jesus or a fistful of herbs, have the right to do so, even if it is apparent to the rest of us that they are mistaken and will consequently die.

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