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Please, no God: not in our courts, not in Parliament, not in government

One of the great ironies of organised religions is that their adherents can only live in peace within a secular state.

Those states that embrace a faith are usually at war with themselves or at war with others.

Where governments adopt religion, they tend to corrupt and pervert that religion until it becomes something almost unrecognisable. The Islamic Republic of Iran is one of many such moral failures in religious experiments.

The current crisis in Nigeria, the never-ending wars in Somalia and Afghanistan and countless others, were created by fundamentalists seeking to establish religious states (The Lord’s Resistance Army had the same idea for Uganda).

In Israel (which is theocentric, not theocratic, since paradoxically orthodox believers don’t believe in the state) many liberals feel under threat from incremental encroachment by the ultra-religious on secular territory which now threatens basic democratic freedoms; not to mention the rising “holy warrior” phenomenon in the Israeli army.

In the US, Republican debates have unleashed an Old Testament onslaught on the rights of women under the guise of religious morality.

Candidate Rick Santorum said JFK’s 1960 speech – “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute” – made him want to vomit.

God, it turns out, is an extremely bad law maker. Wherever laws are based on God, as opposed to the human project, someone is made to suffer unnecessarily.

Hence Justice Moseneke’s question to Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng (during his interview with the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) for the position of chief justice), seeking clarity on how Mogoeng viewed religion.

Censure the chief justice

Many pundits are concerned that the metaphysical beliefs of lay preacher Mogoeng of the Winners Chapel International Church (the name says it all) will in future and may have in the past prejudiced his judgements.

How will Mogoeng who believes “there is God and God does speak” act in a case brought before the Constitutional Court that is based on Christian doctrine?

(For example the Concourt case Christian Education South Africa v Minister of Education: the applicants asserted that beating their children was their religious right and recommended by the Bible. The court agreed the secular state was infringing on their religious freedom, but said it was a limitation justified.)

Criticisms were so sharp that Mogoeng felt it necessary to declare in an emotional defence of himself that he had “fully embraced the Christian faith”, but that he did so “mindful of the fact that our Constitution was not meant to benefit Christians to the exclusion of all other people”.

The fact that when Mogoeng speaks in public his pitched intonation is often more pulpit than bench doesn’t help perceptions.

Given this background, it exhibited extremely poor judgment on the part of a green Chief Justice to promote a rampantly commercial, American evangelical Christian jamboree to the heads of courts by email for their “urgent attention”.

They were “hereby requested to be available”, and the email ended: “It will be appreciated if confirmations for attendance can be submitted to the secretariat by end of business on 07 March 2012.” That sounds like an order to me.

Mogoeng told Business Day that journalists have sensationalised his “invitation”.

The heads of court have done as they should: ignored the email (apparently Mogoeng didn’t go to the Jesus camp either), and then rallied to the dignity of the office by declaring that they had “not felt compelled” to attend.

One more thing still needs to be done. A formal complaint should be laid with the JSC.

I respect the chief justice and his right to his beliefs, but I am disappointed by his blunder. He is one of the key figures we are relying on to protect the fundamental values of our Constitution at a time when the very role of the judiciary is under attack. He may also have breached the judicial code of ethics.

Church and state

The further religion is kept away from the state (and most certainly the law courts) the better for both.

(For instance, once a religious holiday is made national, it actually loses its meaning. Christmas and Easter should be abolished as public holidays, but the faithful allowed to observe them as with Muslim and Jewish holidays. Such an arrangement might restore some significance to Christmas and Easter.)

Separating church and state is not irreligious. After all, the principle goes back to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” (Matthew 22:21).

And it was the devout puritan Roger Williams (founder of the Baptist Church of America) who established on Rhode Island in 1637 the first state to hold constitutionally that there be a wall between church and state (scintillatingly told in John M. Barry’s book just out, Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul).

Ironically, in February, a 16-year-old girl on Rhode Island who objected to a prayer hanging in her gym class received death threats and was labelled “evil” by elected officials.

There are many closely argued polemics (Dawkins, Hitchens) which contend that religion must be kept out of public life because it is inherently harmful.

I don’t see how a balance sheet can be drawn up to establish if religion did more good than bad; it seems to me to be a nonsensical project. On the one hand, we had the missionaries and the part Christianity played in spearheading the destruction of African civilisation, culminating in the biblical justifications of the apartheid state’s racist laws.

On the other hand, we had English Christian abolitionists ending slavery, missionaries opposing indentured labour, right up to anti-apartheid liberation theology inspired by revolutionary South America. Then there was the strongly religious dimension to the TRC.

Today in South Africa, the church does social work that puts many humanists and government to shame.

God in our politics

Whereas the SA Council of Churches plays mostly in the open field, the influence of the consumers-for-Christ Rhema Church and showbizznessman Ray McCauley on our politics is less open. Initially, President Zuma seemed unsettlingly close to Rhema. Later Rhema largesse came to light for its former employee Carl Niehaus, the disgraced ANC spin doctor.

Late last year, there was the establishment of the National Interfaith Council of South Africa, of which McCauley is the interim co-chair (its God squad precursor, the ANC-aligned National Interfaith Leadership Council, called for revisiting various progressive laws underwritten by the Constitution).

The IEC currently has nine registered political parties with Christian in their name; thankfully all very unsuccessful; a further four have been deregistered.

In election years, our male politicians (women politicians are excluded) make the Easter trek to Moria to pay homage to the ballot power of the Zionist Christian Church.

One accepts that religion is part of the social fabric and cannot be ignored by government and politicians, but the extent to which irrational beliefs based in superstitions are allowed to influence the national agenda, policy, and our democracy bears monitoring.

Is God sick?

In the 1960s and 70s, as expressed by the Time magazine 1962 cover “Is God Dead?”, many were convinced that religion would fade as people became more educated and scientific knowledge progressed.

Yet religion is so stubbornly persistent among human beings, it must be partly genetic, like homosexuality.

Although Christian fundamentalists have been given a new impetus in the world through Islamophobia and “the war on terror”, changes on the ground are under reported; a second reformation of sorts appears to be underway.

In Christianity After Religion, church historian Diana Butler Bass chronicles the religious recession in North America, a massive erosion of conventional church-going. Following scandalous cover-ups of child molestation, the Roman Catholic Church has experienced an exodus. But all formal churches are shedding members; even the Southern Baptist Convention has lost 2.2 million souls in the past decade.

But whereas South Africa is still in the evangelical mode, the United States is taking a turn towards ‘spirituality’. Prayer and church meetings are a celebration of this and not about going to be preached at. Variations from “Christian yoga” and “sacred science” stretch all the way to Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists.

Also ignored, since the Religious Right (of the GOP, now dubbed “Gods Own Party”) get the media attention just as arch Islamic clerics get the limelight while most moderate Muslims and dissenting clerics are disregarded, there is a lively and fast-growing number of bright-eyed, young North American evangelicals who are deeply concerned about environmental issues and climate change, and quite opposed to right wing bigotry on a host of issues, even abortion.

But organised religion is far from ailing and continues to have geopolitical consequences.

China was for decades xenophobic and anti-Christian. Ironically, persecution by atheist communism has created a clean slate for Christian entry. With 70 million believers, (mostly rural) China is already one of the largest Christian nations in the world.

The Chinese authorities have realised that state-controlled religion can be a mechanism for social stability; essentially to counter the maelstrom of burgeoning capitalism. The Party supresses any sects, such as the Falun Gong or the devotees of the Dalai Lama, but sanctions Christian marriage courses to deal with the country’s high divorce rate and even co-operates with the Vatican on the appointment of bishops.

In China at least, organised religion, the opium of the masses, has resumed its oldest purpose – to keep the status quo.

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  • Brent Meersman is a writer based in Cape Town. He is co-editor of and a columnist for This is Africa. His most recent novel is Five Lives at Noon (2013), and his previous novels are Primary Coloured (Human & Rouseau, 2007) and Reports Before Daybreak (Umuzi-Random House, 2011). He has been writing for the Mail & Guardian since 2003. Follow him on Twitter or visit