Very different from the mode of civil religion that I discussed in my previous post are the experiences of religious communities in South Africa. Anticipating the emergence of a constitutional state, religious communities, under the auspices of the South African chapter of the inter-religious group called the World Conference on Religion and Peace (WCRP), began to position themselves for the emerging new political order. On November 22-24, 1992 the WCRP held a landmark national inter-faith conference. It was by all accounts the most inclusive religious gathering of its kind in South Africa to-date. The meeting adopted a pre-circulated draft called the “Declaration on Religious Rights and Responsibility,” which comprised ten principles aimed at regulating the relations among religious communities, as well as relations with the future state.

A crucial assumption made by the Declaration was that its ten “principles will function within the framework of a Bill of Rights,” and the conference thus proposed a clause for such a Bill of Rights. The proposed clause stated:

1. All persons are entitled:

1.1 to freedom of conscience
1.2 to profess, practice and, propagate any religion or no religion
1.3 to change their religious allegiance

2. Every religious community and/or member thereof shall enjoy the right:

2.1 to establish, maintain and manage religious institutions;
2.2 to have their particular system of family law recognized by the state:
2.3 to criticize and challenge all social and political structures and policies in terms of the teachings of their religion.

The “Declaration” also defined a “religious community” as “a group of people who follow a particular system of belief, morality and worship, either in recognition of a divine being, or in pursuit of spiritual development, or in the expression of a sense of belonging through social custom or ritual.” In the Declaration, the signatories acknowledged that under apartheid religion was “used to justify injustice, sow conflict and contribute to the oppression, exploitation and suffering of people.” At the same time, the signatories also recognized that religion also upheld human dignity and justice in the face of oppression. For this reason, the representatives of the various religions gathered at Pretoria in 1992 undertook to redress past injustices and committed themselves to the construction of a just society.

Careful observation of the way the religious sector itself defined religion, and of how that notion was grafted onto the 1996 Constitution, will help to illuminate the discussion. “Religion” was defined in the Declaration as “belief, morality and worship” in the recognition of a divine being, and/or in pursuit of spiritual development, and/or as a sense of expressing one’s belonging. In the pursuit of all of these rights and responsibilities, the religious communities bound themselves to an “expression of religion [that] shall not violate the legal rights of others.” In so doing, religious communities thus affirmed a form of religious freedom that was subject to the surveillance of the law. Religious rights were to be circumscribed by an authority outside of religion. This extra-religious authority, or referee, was assumed to be the state and its legal apparatus. In the same breath, however, the Declaration asserted that religious communities, singly or collectively, “shall have the right to address the state and enter into dialogue on matters important to them.” Any conflict between religion and state was thus to be resolved through “dialogue.” What the parameters of this dialogue should be and how it was to be organized remained unstated, unless one were to infer a commonsense understanding of the term. The Declaration also stated that the religious sector would “critically evaluate social, economic and political structures and their activities.” In a bid to prevent the state from co-opting the religious community, the Declaration appealed to the religious leadership to “follow the dictates of their consciences to avoid conspiring or colluding to violate the public good or the legal rights of others.”

Religion, as articulated in the Declaration, saw its future role in the public square in two senses: a passive, private role and an active, public role. The passive role was to ensure that the rule of law be enforced and that all public activities take place within the framework of legitimacy set by the state. The activist role was limited to the extent that the religious sector would, at its discretion, invite the state to an undefined mode of dialogue about social and political issues.

In terms of this self-understanding of the role of religion in post-apartheid South Africa, it remained unclear whether civil disobedience on the part of the religious sector, for instance, was an option in the event that dialogue failed. In fact, the action of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Mpilo Tutu and other religious activists have since shown that protest was part of the duty of the religious sector.

Yet one cannot ignore the fact that in claiming to be a corrective force and a moral voice of society, the religious sector inevitably envisaged a political role for itself. While there was a resemblance between the ethical imperative of the South African religious community and Bellah’s ethical narrative of civil religion, the modalities of operation were envisaged differently. The authors of the Declaration viewed the correction of society to take place via politics and the law. Bellah’s ethical capital was invested in the symbolic and mythic nature of American civil religion.

Whatever the religious sector expected in 1992 regarding matters of religion, it turned out to be very different when the Bill of Rights was adopted in the 1996 Constitution. According to the latter, the only power that religion could lay claim to was an appeal to the power of morality. In the Declaration, one should recall, the religious sector, in some instances, proposed itself as an alternative to the political authority vested in the state. There could be several explanations for this gap between expectation and fulfillment. It appears that the religious sector in South Africa either overestimated its own future role or that the incumbent political powers in South Africa were unwilling to concede unregulated moral authority to an unelected constituency like religious groups. In fact, South Africa’s religious sector may have lacked the foresight to prefigure what the possible role of religion would be in a modern state with a liberal, secular, and human rights-friendly Constitution. Public expressions of religious beliefs were thus constitutionally subordinated to the state and the principles of morality were to be theorized separately from the domain of politics.

Some Conclusions

The upshot of the South African experience is that religion is not disengaged from the public sphere and there is no Jeffersonian wall of separation between religion and state. If and when religion does engage in public policy, it is subject to regulation and must conform to constitutional tests of equality, justice, and freedom. If one were to test Bellah’s civil religion thesis in South Africa, then I would say that the tolerance that he seeks is promoted primarily by the South African Constitution. Constitutionally protected “civil religion” in post-apartheid South Africa affords religious communities multiple opportunities to bring religion into the public domain, provided, of course, that religious practices do not discriminate against other religious communities or the values of the general citizenry. In fact, at a meta-level, South Africa’s version of “civil religion” is constituted by the secular values of human dignity, equality and freedom. But unlike Bellah’s model, South African “civil religion” is driven by a secular constitutional order: sacred, but non-theistic.

Apart from enabling a range of transformative practices, the South African version of civil religion recognizes a form of legal and religious pluralism. Thus, customary and religiously-based family law practices, as well as religion-based educational services, are recognized in South Africa, but under the watchful eyes of a vigilant legal community and the adjudication of the Constitutional Court, which serves in a guardianship role with respect to religious communities.

A key feature of the South African version of “civil religion” is that it fosters dialogical engagement between the various players in South African politics. This includes the state, the judiciary and organs of civil society. In other words, it is about a future based on rational dialogue, rather than a mythical and messianic future.

Bellah implicitly acknowledges that a particular kind of theology-lite underwrites American civil religion. In South Africa there is no such theology; rather, it is the specificity of the rule of law that binds all citizens to a rational project, in which national privilege is avoided. A number of recent constitutional court judgments have mandated that far-reaching, socially transformative practices be put into effect: from mandatory medication for HIV patients to the right to housing for all citizens and social welfare payments for documented immigrants to the country.

If one contrasts the South African experience with its version of “civil religion” to the American experience with Bellah’s civil religion, then one counterpoint strikes most forcefully. In South Africa the category of “religion” in the formulation “civil religion” resonates much strongly with activist politics and critique. The Bellah-inspired notion of civil religion could profit from an interrogation of the category of ”religion” and an exploration of the possibilities that such a critique of “religion” might offer, in order to make the thesis of American civil religion a more robust and meaningful one.