Christianity and politics: Has the South African Church negated its responsibility?

What is it that explains the continued support of a political party that steered into South Africa's presidential office a figure described as a “constitutional delinquent” in a country with a supposedly Christian majority, asks Craig Bailie.

In a 2016 edition of Providence: A Journal of Christianity and American Foreign Policy, Terry Tastard concludes that South Africans, “are living in a spiritual crisis”. The author considers the role of South Africa’s Christian Church in the midst of the moral decline of the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

What Tastard does not give attention to in his explanation of this spiritual crisis is the tension reflected in the majority support for the ANC in a country where, according to StatsSA’s 2013 General Household Survey, 84.2% of the population adheres to the Christian faith.

South Africa’s African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) is currently campaigning on a similar figure, asking South Africans to “Make the obvious choice”. Judging by South Africa’s recent electoral and political history, it would seem the choice is not as obvious as the ACDP campaign slogan makes it out to be.

ACDP election poster

The tension between a majority Christian population and majority support for the ANC becomes especially apparent in view of the support for the ANC’s former president, Jacob Zuma, during South Africa’s national elections in 2009 and 2014.

Although South Africans cast their ballots in favour of their preferred political party during a national election, they do so presumably with knowledge of who the party leader is and that the same individual would become president of the country should the party win a majority of the votes.

To quote South Africa’s Constitutional Law expert, Pierre De Vos, “This is… why voters who claim to vote for a party and not its leader are talking a lot of twaddle – they are voting for the leader of the party, whether they like it or not.” Over the last two national elections a vote for the ANC was therefore also a vote for Jacob Zuma.

Zuma’s compromised leadership character was already evident prior to him occupying South Africa’s highest political office. Under his political leadership, and that of the wider ANC, the South African experience came to epitomise what we read in Proverbs 29v2: “When the righteous increase the people rejoice, but when the wicked rule, the people groan.”

Zuma’s tainted leadership character, whether defined in accordance with biblical principles, in terms of South Africa’s Constitution, or the constitution of the ANC itself, became increasingly evident during his tenure as president of the country. During this time, he faced several motions of no confidence in the South African Parliament. Attempts at removing him from office proved unsuccessful, thanks to the loyalty he enjoyed from his fellow ANC parliamentarians.

It is against this backdrop that the ANC deployed Zuma on its campaign trail for South Africa’s national elections scheduled to take place in May. Zuma was also included on the ANC’s preliminary electoral list, further reaffirming the undying support he enjoys within the party and among its supporters.

What is it that explains the electoral success and continued support of a political party that steered into South Africa’s presidential office a figure described by one political analyst as a “constitutional delinquent” in a democratic country with a supposedly Christian majority?

The disjuncture suggests a failure on the part of professing Christians to exercise their faith accordingly when it comes to matters of politics, not to mention other areas of social life. Below, I offer a few speculative, mutually reinforcing and overlapping reasons for why this may be so.

The ANC first, to hell with the rest: Zuma and the ANC’s messiah complex

A big part of what explains ongoing loyalty towards the ANC, even in the midst of the destructive character that is Zuma, is the dominant narrative that the ANC is responsible for ending apartheid. The result, writes journalist Pontsho Pilane, is that many South Africans continue to view the ANC as, “their saviour,” and continue to “look to the ANC to rescue them from dire poverty”. Zuma and other members of the ANC have encouraged the same perception through their political rhetoric.

How many professing Christians view the ANC as paramount and place it first in all things, irrespective of its leadership or whether its policies embody Christian values and principles?

The extent to which struggle credentials and improved living conditions motivate Christians to support the ANC and a rudderless leader like Zuma is an indication of the failure to make God’s word primary in political decision-making. Under these conditions politics trumps faith and Christian voters who throw their weight behind the ANC for the reasons noted above commit the same kind of idolatry that characterised the support of South Africa’s Dutch Reformed Church for the white supremacist ideology institutionalised by the apartheid regime.

Jacob Zuma

A ‘divine connection’

With its levels of extreme violence and an unemployment rate that is amongst the highest in the world, South Africa is a country of emotionally and economically vulnerable people. Tastard explains how, Exploitative pastors and cult personalities often find more willing followers” among such people. This is because the former, by definition, claim to have a connection with God. As has been the case with Zuma and a number of his comrades, they portray themselves as best suited and placed to serve as God’s conduit to the needy.

In a clearly religious society, the ANC’s historical link to Christianity and, more recently, Zuma’s political theology, serve to cement further the connections that Zuma and other members of the ANC have made between the party and God. Zuma, described by a fellow struggle veteran as “sly, tricky, cunning, deceitful and manipulative,” is astute in his misappropriation of the Christian faith. He has done so in a manner that casts the ANC as the divine intervention that many South Africans so desperately seek.

Church capture

During an international gathering of Christian ministry leaders in 2017, American Christian leader, TD Jakes, lamented that the American churches have become “prostitutes to politics”. A similar tendency, not unique to the post-1994 dispensation, exists in South Africa. The public support given to Zuma and the ANC by religious leaders presiding over large congregations undoubtedly serves to encourage the perception that the religious claims made by Zuma and other members of his party carry credibility.   

Prominent religious figures who have persisted in showing Zuma the kind of support that extends well beyond pastoral care, include Bishop Vusi Dube, who played a key role in the “Hands off Zuma” protest action, and Bishop Timothy Ngcobo, who has likened Zuma to “the biblical shepherd on earth”.

Absence of a biblical worldview

In simple terms, adopting a biblical worldview involves believing the Bible is entirely true and allowing it to be the foundation of everything you believe, say and do. Is it the case that Jacob Zuma and the ruling ANC have enjoyed the support that they have in a predominantly Christian population because many who claim to be Christian fail to imbibe a fully biblical worldview that extends into the political?  

If so, one possible reason for this failure is a lack of will or capacity on the part of local church congregations to engage ‘the political’. There is a difference here between inviting ‘the political’ or politicians into church gatherings for campaigning and building political capital, and engaging politics through a biblical lens to distinguish righteousness. The former involves blind accommodation and compromise – the kind of “prostitution” noted earlier. The latter involves debate, constructive criticism and education that ultimately aims to create a national culture characterized by freedom and respect for human dignity.

Has the South African Church negated its responsibility?

If we define responsibility in the current writing as the duty of the Church to engage ‘the political’ and educate itself on matters of political concern, then I lean towards an answer in the affirmative.

Whatever the reasons may be for the failure of South Africa’s churches to engage ‘the political’, the result is a damaging disparity between the extent of the claim to the Christian faith among South Africa’s population and the degree of support enjoyed by political leaders and parties whose values contradict those embodied in a biblical worldview. The same failure sustains and breeds ignorance and an accompanying inability on the part of believers to influence a realm of social life that has far-reaching consequences for every South African, each created in the image of God.

The need for greater engagement

The failure to educate on politics is something that the ANC itself recognises as significantly consequential. What then of the Church? If Christians in South Africa hope to see change in the country’s morally contested political landscape, we will have to learn how to engage the realm of politics from the vantage of biblical values. I believe there exists, therefore, a need for a Christ-centered engagement with ‘the political’ and that the necessary equipping mechanism for such an engagement is a faith-driven civic education.

To motivate for an education of this kind is not to advocate for the politicisation of the Church. Similarly, to argue that any one of South Africa’s many local congregations should be politically engaged is not to say that that congregation must become, an extension of a political party. Instead, the intention must be to equip in a manner whereby individual believers and whole congregations are better able to engage political affairs through a biblical lens. Such an education, given effectively and truthfully, will serve to narrow the gap between what the majority of South Africans claim to believe and what we actually act out.

- Craig Bailie identifies himself first as a follower of Christ. Through teaching, writing and community engagement, he hopes to contribute towards the development of an engaged South African citizenry that is sensitive to the norms and ideals characteristic of democratic government and principled leadership.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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