The role of religion in elections

2009-03-29 00:00

The interaction between politics and religion in the build-up to the April elections has stirred a lot of emotion.

Jacob Zuma’s visit to Rhema Church, the choice of Bishop Mvume Dandala as the presidential candidate for Cope, and political leaders addressing a religious gathering of the Zionist Church, has intensified this debate.

A recent Human Sciences Research Council survey showed that 72% of South Africans disapprove of religious leaders trying to sway voters and 75% reject religious influence in government decisions. Does this survey indicate that South Africans are becoming suspicious of how sectors of the religious community and political leaders interact? Could it be that the historical tendency of states and political institutions to use religion for their own ends makes people uncomfortable?

Debating the role that religion should play in the public sphere could help clarify this relationship.

Churches and faith formations are part of civil society and therefore act in their own right in the public sphere. This was evident during the struggle against apartheid during which the church was motivated by values such as respect for the person, and a need to shape our social, political and economic realities. The church cannot now retreat but must continue to advance these values.

Faith does not provide us with precise political programmes or ready-made public policies, but it does provide value statements that guide us in constructing political programmes or public policy.

Some of these values are outlined.

Human dignity: Every person is created in the image of God and has the right to a life lived in dignity. This applies equally to an immigrant, an unemployed person or even a prisoner. The acid test of respect for human dignity is not the way we treat those we are close to, but whether we are prepared to advance the right to dignity of a stranger and the poor or most vulnerable members of society.

Solidarity: It is impossible for us to live fully human lives in isolation from others. The common good is that which is “good” for the society as a whole rather than individuals or special interest groups and is captured well in the concept of ubuntu — the recognition that we find our humanity through our interaction with others. Do I ask whether my children have enough to eat or whether all people have enough to eat? Do my children receive quality education or does the education system provide quality education for all?

Over the past year media headlines have been dominated by cases of corruption. The Competitions Board has revealed price fixing in the price of bread and milk by business cartels.

This has had a devastating impact on the poorest South Africans. We have also read of tax evasion which deprives the state of resources to be used in poverty alleviation. In the public sectors we have seen cases of officials receiving kick-backs and manipulating tender processes to enrich individuals at the expense of delivery. Corruption has a habit of becoming entrenched in a society and acts against the common good.

Economic justice: The Christian tradition insists that economic decisions and institutions be assessed on whether they advance or undermine the dignity of the human.We need to question whether economic policies that entrench the rich and powerful, tolerate large-scale poverty and unemployment and produce a growing gap between rich and poor best serve our common interest.

Common sense dictates that such a situation cannot prevail for long without resulting in serious social instability, to the detriment of all.

Caring for the Earth: The Christian tradition teaches that the Earth is entrusted to us by God and that our use of it must be directed by God’s plan for creation. In the name of development and job creation we can easily embark on projects that are destructive to the environment or dislocate communities that lived in harmony with the Earth for decades. Companies continue to pollute the environment; fishing stock around our coastline is being wiped out to the detriment of subsistence fisher communities. As a nation we need to discuss what we mean by development. Is it merely wealth creation, or is it about our authentic human values? Who decides what development is and who benefits?

Leading with integrity: Many people are cynical about politics or have lost faith in the ability of politicians to bring about changes that will make a difference to their lives. In order to be effective, government needs to be seen to be serving the common good and have the confidence of citizens. This confidence in turn is based on the levels of integrity displayed in the political process and the leadership. As we talk about our vision for South Africa we must consider what kind of leadership we need to make that vision a reality.

Elections are important moments in a democracy. They afford citizens the space to debate the kind of society we want and the values, policies, institutions and leadership that we need to achieve it. Human dignity, the common good, an economy at the service of its entire people — especially the poor — caring for the Earth and leading with integrity can guide us in the moral choice of which political party to support.

• Merwyn Abrahams is programme manager: economic justice and participatory democracy, Pacsa. This is an edited version of a Pacsa statement presented at a recent breakfast briefing.

Copies of “Engaging from a faith perspective in the 2009 elections” are available from the Pacsa office on telephone 033-3420052 or

• Pacsa will be hosting a public forum with political parties on Wednesday in the City Hall from 6 to 8.30 pm. All are welcome.

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