The enemy is back. In truth, he never went away. He was lurking in Jacob Zuma’s proud boast that the ANC will rule until Jesus comes. He was gleefully skulking in the shadows of Zuma’s mischievous assertion that people who don’t vote for the ANC are destined to spend eternity in hell. And he was triumphantly parading his smug entitlement when Mogoeng Mogoeng told the Judicial Service Commission that God wanted him to be appointed chief justice.
The enemy is religion, all religions, and in the case of Mogoeng Mogoeng, the specific enemy is Christianity. In his speech to delegates at the Law and Religion conference on May 27, Mogoeng said, “I believe that we can only become a better people if religion could be allowed to influence the laws that govern our daily lives starting with the Constitution of any country.”
Mogoeng would have us believe (and I use that word advisedly) that “the levels of maladministration, crime and corruption, the extremely low levels to which morality has degenerated, the lackadaisical attitude of many government functionaries in the execution of their duties, the dishonesty as well as injustices that have permeated all facets of society, price-fixing and fronting included, would in my view be effectively turned-around significantly, if religion were to be factored into the law-making process.”
He also tells us that “theft is the semen that breeds fraud and corruption”, which perhaps gives us uncomfortable insight into how his Christianity would conflate issues of sexuality, morality and the law.
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, and, well, choirboys. But this is the problem with Mogoeng’s desire to have religion inform our legal system: which Christianity is going to turn up? Which Islam is going to turn up, the Islam of Boko Haram, or the Islam of Malala Yousafzai? Which Judaism is going to turn up, that of the West Bank Wall, or that of Hannah Arendt?
This is the fundamental problem with trying to infuse the laws of a secular state with the prescriptive moralities of religion: secularism is designed to protect religious freedom, whereas religion is designed to oppress other religions. The worst enemy of Christianity is Christianity, in the same way that Islam’s biggest threat is Islam. These are gross oversimplifications, of course – the great and powerful goodness of religions is that they are designed to always produce the seeds of their own rebirth – but they hold an inherent truth. History, recent and ancient, has shown us again and again that religions always eventually devolve into their worst possible manifestations. In this, they operate almost exactly like other political systems.
As the chief justice said in his speech: “The law influenced by a dominant faith has at times been adulterated to serve as the tool for the extinction of smaller religions.” He also said, when making his case to have Christianity influence the law (with specific reference, oddly enough, to revenue collection): “I want to believe that other religions also espouse equivalent principles in this and other respects discussed elsewhere in this paper.” The “I want to believe” is, I fear, a warning. If the chief justice has doubts about the equivalence of the morality of various religions, we already have the seeds for conflict in his convergence of religion and law. Whose morality system will win out?
To paraphrase the usual Christian apologia for homophobia, St Augustine’s much-mangled “Love the sinner but hate the sin”: love the Christian, hate the religion. As a belief system, religion is of course as viable as any other. But if we were to allow religious people to mess with our country’s secular Constitution, we will encourage human rights abuses, corruption, and ultimately the intolerance of religious freedom. Mogoeng would have us believe that, although “the resistance for allowing the legal content to be constantly fertilised by religion is understandable … many could justifiably argue that it is based on a misapprehension of the true nature of religion.” I would argue that it is based on an entirely accurate understanding of the true nature of religion.
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? In his conference speech, Mogoeng quoted the book of Romans: “Render to all men their dues, pay taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due and honour to whom honour is due.” All I can think of is Mark 12:17, “Render to Zuma the things that are Zuma’s, and to the Guptas the things that are the Guptas’s.”
The enemy is back, the enemy of democracy and the enemy of religions. To his credit, Mogoeng has not, to our knowledge, allowed his Christianity to interfere with any of the judgments of the Constitutional Court. This could be because he is a man of high moral fibre, a morality derived in part from the religion he loves. But can he guarantee that all religious people will be as professional if they are freed to impose their belief system on the law? Not even Jesus could guarantee that his own disciples wouldn’t betray him, and one assumes that he had a more encompassing grasp of reality than even our chief justice.