Should religion influence the law in South Africa?
In a recent speech by Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng his answer was yes, religion should influence law. In response, Chris Roper wrote a piece titled "Christianity is the enemy of Christianity" for the Mail and Guardian religion should not influence law.
In this post I consider some of the issues that Roper raises. My conclusion is that his argument against religion influencing law is simplistic and misses the mark. I advocate a more balanced approach.
Which Christianity is going to turn up?
Ah, Christianity. The religion that helped bring you, inter alia, slavery, colonialism, apartheid, Rwandan genocide, Ugandan homophobia, and fellating choirboys. To be fair, it’s also the religion that helped bring you the end of slavery, the downfall of apartheid, the ongoing battle against colonialism, priests dying bravely while fighting injustice, countless humanitarian interventions in disaster areas…”
As a basis for his argument that Christianity is an enemy of democracy, Roper asserts that historically,Christianity has been used as a justification for unjust political systems, violence and hatred. He highlights the fact that Christianity has had a positive influence on history too. His point is that history teaches us the benefits of religion and warns us of the dangers. Essentially, his point here is that the problem with allowing religion to influence South African law is that we cannot accurately answer the question “which Christianity is going to turn up?”
He makes a powerful point but asks the wrong question. The question we should be asking here is, “Which Christian will turn up?” Christian beliefs or Christian morality are not the problem, history tells of the positive influence Christ’s teachings have had. The problem is their misapplication by evil people and erring Christians. It is the problem that every belief system faces – the corrupt nature of human beings. We can never know which Christian will show up- the abolitionist that was William Wilberforce or the slave owning “Christians” who would claim Christ’s name but bear no resemblance to him.
Whose morality system will win out?
“If the chief justice has doubts about the equivalence of the morality of various religions, we already have the seeds of conflict in his convergence of religion and law. Whose morality system will win out?”
In his speech, the chief justice states that laws that are influenced by a dominant faith can sometimes result in “the extinction of smaller religions.” The point that Roper makes is that in a country like South Africa where there are different religions with distinct ideas about morality, any law which is influenced by one religion’s idea or morality is in danger of conflicting with another. In that situation, he asks the question: which one will win out?
My answer to that question is: the right morality should win out. By “right” I’m not talking about the ideas of morality that appeal to people of a particular political persuasion. What I refer to is morality that transcends legislation or rules of society.
We cannot avoid a conflict between different ideas of morality. Disagreements about what is morally good abound, even amongst those who consider themselves non-religious. In spite of this, we must pursue a standard of morality, even the Constitution acknowledges this. Equality is to be desired over inequality; dignity over indignity; and freedom over slavery.
It is no mistake that the moral philosophy upon which the constitutional principles of equality, dignity and freedom find their origin in Christian thought. Starting with Genesis, embodied in the Middle Eastern Christ, taking root in the minds of Western thinkers and then us.
Missing the mark
“When Chief Justice Mogoeng presided over Jacob Zuma’s inauguration last Saturday, did he look at his “What Would Jacob Do?” bracelet and wonder at all how the moral compass of Zuma’s avowed Christianity led us to the excesses of Nkandla?…All I can think of is Mark 12:17, “Render to Zuma the things that are Zuma’s and to the Gupta’s the things that are the Guptas.”
Roper’s argument is that the true nature of all religions is that they “always eventually devolve into their worst possible manifestations”.
Religion, like any other political system (Marxism, fascism, etc.) springs up at first and eventually degenerates into a corrupt, murderous and self-serving monster. He argues that “secularism is designed to protect religious freedom, whereas religion is designed to oppress other religions” and admits later that these are "gross oversimplifications".
Naturally, he could not be expected to bring every fact and detail surrounding the subject of the role of religion in law-making. The problem with Roper’s article is that it results in a distorted conclusion.
Firstly, he fails to identify the real problem or, in his words, “the enemy” – the enemy here is fallen or corrupt people, not religion.
Secondly, and linked to this, his argument breaks one of the three laws of logic –the law of non-contradiction . Here’s what I mean:
The basis of Roper’s argument is the statement “Christianity is the enemy”. If it is true, it cannot be false also.
Christianity cannot be the enemy and the friend at the same time; this is what the law of non-contradiction says. At the beginning of the article, he provides historical evidence for his argument – slavery, colonialism, and apartheid- all of these proof of enemy that is Christianity. In the same breath, he says the opposite – the end of slavery, colonialism and apartheid – proof of the friend that is Christianity. It is illogical – surely both cannot be true?
Roper’s statement fails this test of logic because it is a “gross oversimplification”. He can learn a thing or two from Christ’s words in Mark 12:17 which he quotes tongue-in-cheek. Timothy Keller in his talk “Arguing about Politics” discusses Christ’s answer to a question about whether it was religiously lawful to obey the laws of the state regarding taxes:
“He doesn’t do what they ask him to do, which is to give a nice, simple answer… When He’s asked a question about [a Christian’s] relationship to the state, when He’s asked a question about our relationship to politics, he doesn’t give a simple yes or no answer… It’s a balanced answer, it’s a nuanced answer."
Oversimplifying the relationship between religion and law is a big mistake. This is how Roper misses the mark. Like Christ did, we need to take a balanced approach to this question. Christianity is not the enemy. The enemy is sin which lives in people, enemy that was vanquished by Christ’s death on the cross.
Should religion influence law? What do you think?
Thanks for reading.
You can read the original article by Chris Roper "Christianity is the enemy of Christianity."
I wrote this article with the help of people of some very smart people:
T Keller, “Arguing About Politics” available at http://sermons2.redeemer.com/sermons/arguing-about-politics
JP Moreland “What Are the Three Laws of Logic?” Apologetics Study Bible at 1854.
RD Moore “What Does the Bible Say about Human Beings?” Apologetics Study Bible at 795.
AJ Schmidt “Has Christianity Had a Bad Influence on History?” Apologetics Study Bible at 274