Over the last month or so, political parties have been traversing the length and breadth of the country presenting their manifestos to the electorate. While some manifestos appeal more than others on many aspects, to this day I am yet to find one that neatly and with intent and understanding, establishes a relationship between politics and religion. Could that mean the two are incompatible?
While politics largely relates to the public sphere where decisions are collectively taken for the benefit of a larger group or community, religion on the other hand has to do with the private sphere over-arched by spirituality. However, there is an oversight on the fact that both are spheres of existence for individuals, groups and societies. The common denominator is an individual to whom the two phenomena appeal.
A common response to the question stated above is that there is no space for religion in politics. This is despite the fact that some pre-modern societies conflated the two to serve the purpose of both governance and morality. In other words, it was normal for religious values to inform policies and people’s conduct. Overtime, a gulf between the two developed and continues to widen to this day as societies modernise. This is attributable to various reasons and the major one being the proliferation of numerous religions with divergent and at times irreconcilable doctrines. The religious terrain became contested with highly charged emotions.
Similarly, the political terrain is highly contested yet they both seek to embrace membership from each side of the divide. This situation is inherently conflictual as it stands, hence the thinking that the two be kept separate for the sake of peace. In fear of being accused of escalating one religious organisation and its doctrine over others, a situation that would create tension, some political organisations give platform to all religious affiliations in their mass gatherings. Nonetheless, this is only a symbolic gesture of unity in diversity without much substance where the two are concerned.
Therefore, the downside of separating religion and politics has been the inability of religion to influence political leadership and policies leading to the moral morass that affects individuals in their public and private spheres. Surely, a reconsideration of the relationship of the two could be necessary at this stage. This could mean a different approach to obviate challenges that led to their separation. The approach could mean replacing religion with spirituality to establish its relationship with politics. In this case, spirituality is a call for heightened concern with human spirit or soul over material things. Although people may differ in how they relate to spirituality, it is a justifiable premise in politics given a general convergence of views regarding its existence.
Presently, policies and legislation are developed through many perspectives i.e. political, economically, legally, socially among others but never through the perspective of spirituality. Could it be due to lack of willingness to use this perspective or a dearth of knowledge on what it entails? I am inclined to believe the latter in light of the magnitude of repercussions that plague communities unabated emanating from policies that bear no regard for human spirits or souls. In practical terms, what does this mean?
Let us take for instance, legislation on issues of sexual intercourse among the youth, certain contraceptives, abortion and in certain countries the death penalty. Through the spirituality perspective, legislators would ask questions on the impact of sex, abortion, certain contraceptives, smoking and alcohol among others on the human soul and their domino effects on other systems that encompass human life such as their physical health, health care system, social system and the fiscal.
In the same way that economic issues require economists to guide the government, the spiritual impact of any policy or legislation would require those who are well versed in spirituality to guide. In that way, political and spiritual leaders can be effective partners in policy development and implementation to contend with some of the societal afflictions to which politics alone has not been of any help.
Mpumelelo Ncube is a lecturer at the University of Johannesburg.