/ 16 November 2023

Religion is seen as a threat to elections. But is this so?

Religious Distrust
(Graphic: John McCann/M&G)

A nightmare haunts our democracy — a politician at a church pulpit addressing churchgoers in packed pews who listen raptly and then shuffle off to vote for the anointed political party. This anxiety, often surfacing when a politician speaks in a church, assumes that congregants are especially susceptible to political influence endorsed by religious leaders. 

But to what extent is this true? 

An often-quoted statistic from Afrobarometer is that South Africans trust religious leaders more than politicians. Since most South Africans are religious, religious leaders who invite politicians to their churches — or politicians who use religious rhetoric — threaten our democracy

Or so the argument goes.

Yet this view misses important context. While South Africans might trust religious leaders more than politicians, we have very little trust in either. 

According to the Afrobarometer survey, only 24% of South Africans trust religious leaders “a lot” — one of the lowest in Africa. Most South Africans (52%) trust these leaders “just a little” or “not at all”.

Similarly, South Africans are remarkably distrustful of party politics and politicians — more than 69% have little or zero trust in local councils, opposition parties, the ruling party or parliament. 

We might trust religious leaders more than politicians but this reflects our disdain of politics much more than our trust in churches. In fact, South Africans have the most trust for institutions that are both apolitical and not religious, such as the media and the department of health. 

Some of us might occasionally fall for religious charlatans but, when it comes to political and religious leaders, most South Africans are deeply sceptical. 

So, how do we make sense of South Africans both being very religious and yet distrusting religious leaders? In my doctoral research, many South Africans distinguish between religion (which is transcendent) and churches (which can be unappealing or dishonest). Many people I have interviewed have changed churches multiple times, often without fuss or drama. 

Congregants also seem to police the antics of politicians who use the pulpit for party politics. 

Over Easter, ANC leaders navigated a delicate balance as they addressed congregants. While most senior ANC leaders attended services, these leaders generally avoided talking about politics. Rather, their messages endorsed the work of the church and reiterated the ANC’s historical relationship with Christianity.

There are penalties for getting this wrong; when one leader made the mistake of arguing for ANC’s political successes, they were heckled by the congregation. 

Similarly South Africans seem to have little desire for a religious government. Political parties that explicitly identify with religious policies enjoy little support from the electorate. For example, in the 2019 elections, the African Christian Democratic Party, Al Jama-ah and the African Transformation Movement together won only 1.46% of the vote. 

The most popular political parties — the ANC, the Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters — all support a secular state

While some South Africans say they support the Bible being the official law of the land, estimates of how many people share this view vary — the most recent study finds only a minority feels this way. 

My research also suggests that many people who offer this opinion are thinking about moral values to fight corruption, rather than the strictures of Leviticus. 

In short, South Africans’ views of religion and politics are more nuanced than often credited. Religious leaders might be cautious about inviting politicians to address their churches for many reasons (such as dividing the congregation) but doing so is unlikely to threaten our democracy. 

On the contrary, South Africans seem to favour politicians who combine secular and socially liberal policies with religious rhetoric that is inclusive of all faiths. Rather than being a threat, religious rhetoric of this nature might strengthen our democracy, if it invites religious people to feel at home in a secular state. 

David Jeffery-Schwikkard is a PhD candidate at King’s College London. His research explores how the ANC navigates a secular state with a religious electorate in South Africa.