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Churches should welcome politicians as members and guests, but not as speakers of influence

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Craig Bailie holds a Master’s degree in International Studies from Rhodes University and a certificate in Thought Leadership for Africa’s Renewal from the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute. He is the founding director of Bailie Leadership Consultancy.

As long as South Africa remains a highly religious society, politicians will continue to deploy religious rhetoric and seek opportunities to address church congregations, especially in the run-up to the 2024 elections. 

South Africa’s General Household Survey of 2013 found that close to 86% of South Africans identify as Christian. In 2018, the Pew Research Center (PRC) published its findings about where the world’s most Committed Christians live — these being persons who “pray more frequently, attend religious services more regularly and consider religion more important in their lives”.

According to Pew’s findings, 79% of those who identified as Christian in South Africa over the survey period said “religion is very important in their lives”. Moreover, more than 60% of Christians in South Africa said, “they attend church at least weekly”.

Religion as a source of political power

Many will agree that belief in a God who instructs people in how they should live is a powerful source of motivation for human behaviour. In South Africa, therefore, religion broadly, and the Christian church congregation more specifically, is a significant platform for accumulating and exercising power within and beyond the church building walls, with consequences for Christian and non-Christian South Africans alike.

South Africa’s more astute and, in some cases, manipulative politicians, will be aware of the power that accompanies the use of religion and access to church congregations.

The benefits that accompany access to church congregations become more lucrative in a country where, according to Afrobarometer research findings published in 2021, citizens are more trusting of religious leaders than they are of the president, Parliament, provincial premiers, the ruling political party, opposition political parties, and municipal councils.

Religious rhetoric and speaking from ‘the pulpit’

This is why several politicians have in the past, more recently, and, as long as South Africa remains a highly religious society, will continue to deploy religious rhetoric and seek opportunities to address church congregations, especially in the run-up to elections. 

Zuma, Ramaphosa and the ANC

In the lead-up to South Africa’s last national election in 2019, Ferial Haffajee wrote in Daily Maverick that “political leaders will swoop on churches this Easter weekend as an endorsement from religious leaders is manna from heaven.”

On the weekend in question, President Cyril Ramaphosa was scheduled to visit three churches. His deputy at the time, David Mabuza, was scheduled to attend the Easter Sunday Pilgrimage at Moria, Limpopo.

It isn’t clear whether Ramaphosa and Mabuza addressed congregants during their respective church visits, but it is difficult to imagine they would have passed up such an opportunity.

In 2022, The Witness reported that “with over a million members, the Shembe Church [also known as the Nazareth Baptist Church] has become an important launch pad for ANC leaders seeking election to a higher office.”

President Ramaphosa (South Africa’s deputy president at the time) and ANC RET factionalist, Lindiwe Sisulu, visited the church in KZN in 2017 and 2022 respectively, as part of their internal ANC election campaigns.

Jacob Zuma — ordained as an honorary pastor of the Full Gospel Community Church in 2007 — has spoken at several churches before, during, and after his tenure as South Africa’s president, including the Rhema Bible Church in 2009, the Universal Church in 2014, the Alleluia Ministries International church in 2016, and at the Covenant Fellowship Church International in 2018.

This year, News 24 reported how on Easter Weekend, with the 2024 election looming, ANC politicians “engaged with leaders at church services in various parts of the country in search of support”. At the same time, David Jeffery-Schwikkard penned a piece titled, “Ruling ANC rides the religious wave”. 

Speaking at the Grace Bible Church at Orlando Stadium in Soweto, Deputy President Paul Mashatile, the subject of an investigative project that sheds light on his opulent lifestyle and links to individuals involved with State Capture, told the congregation how “the church has been integral in shaping him and other leaders throughout the country since its establishment”. 

It isn’t only ANC politicians who seek speaking opportunities in churches.

Malema and the EFF

EFF leader, Julius Malema, has a history of speaking to church congregations, dating at least as far back as 2012, following his suspension as the ANC Youth League President.

Since then, Malema (with EFF comrades in tow) has spoken at the Christian Revival Church (CRC) in Bloemfontein in 2016, Faith Gospel Church in Khutsong in 2018, and at the Apostolic Faith Mission River of Life in Soshanguve in 2019.

Maimane and the DA

In 2018, Mmusi Maimane accepted an invitation to preach at the Buffalo Flats Church in Buffalo City (East London). According to a report in the Daily Dispatch, Maimane, accompanied by the DA provincial leader, Members of Parliament, and some Buffalo City Metro councillors, also used the opportunity for political messaging.

In 2018 and 2019, Maimane addressed congregants gathered at the Christian Revival Church (CRC) in Chatsworth. Also in 2019, while still leader of the DA, he spoke at the Christ the King Anglican Church in Buffalo City.

Not all churches are open

Not all church leaders in South Africa, however, are open to having politicians address their congregations, especially while on the campaign trail. Pastor At Boshoff of CRC Pretoria and Reverend Siphiwe Mathebula of Hope Restoration Ministries in Johannesburg are two examples.

In the lead-up to South Africa’s national election in 2019, and three years after allowing Julius Malema to speak at his Bloemfontein congregation in the run-up to that year’s municipal elections, Boshoff said to his congregation in Pretoria, “we are not going to allow our platform to be a staging for any political party… I’m definitely not gonna have the church yellow and green on one Sunday and the next Sunday blue and the next Sunday red. It’s not happening.”  

Speaking at the Downtown Christian Centre (DTCC) in Buffalo City earlier this year, Rev Mathebula shared with his audience how he had received requests from politicians to speak at his church. Having described how, when visiting parliamentary sessions in Cape Town, visitors are restricted to silence in the auditorium gallery, Mathebula said that politicians visiting churches should similarly be restricted from speaking.

This analysis is not a call for the policing of relations between church and state or between churches and politicians more broadly. However, there are several reasons why church leaders need to consider carefully how to navigate this political terrain and when hosting politicians as speakers is appropriate, if at all.

This consideration is especially important for two reasons. Firstly, South Africa is preparing for next year’s national election. Secondly, several new political parties with noteworthy religious affiliations or origins have recently been founded — some not without controversy.

Among these are the African Transformation Movement (ATM), the All African Alliance Movement (AAAM) and the Afrika Unite Congress. These political parties will likely want to campaign before church congregations in the build-up to next year’s election, assuming they haven’t begun to do so already

Following are some related questions for church leaders to consider concerning the hosting of politician speakers. Is it good for democracy? Does it blur the separation of church and state? And finally, does it build the church and encourage its witness? 

Is it good for democracy?

Citing the ANC as the subject of his inquiry on how political parties in South Africa make strategic use of religion, David Jeffery-Schwikkard writes, “rather than being a threat to secular democracy, religious rhetoric may be important for ensuring a largely religious electorate feels politically at home in a secular state”.

However, when politicians in a democracy, aspiring democracy, or declining democracy use religious rhetoric to communicate to supporters and potential supporters within church congregations in a highly religious society such as South Africa, their support of virtue or moral excellence, and simultaneously or following their election, fail to live, lead and govern virtuously, it is precisely then that democracy — a governance system dependent on the virtues of honesty, transparency, and trust — is threatened.

Interestingly, in addition to pursuing his Ph.D. in Theology and Religious Studies at King’s College London, Jeffery-Schwikkard is also a member of the ANC.

Does it blur the separation between church and state?

Church-state separation is a contested and often misunderstood concept. It does not mean that church and state should avoid interacting or engaging with one another, or that state officials or politicians should steer clear of religion and religious actors must stay out of politics.

Therefore, when Jacob Zuma conveniently called for the church to stay out of politics in late 2016, the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, Thabo Makgoba, was correct to respond that the church would ignore the call.

Instead of involving disengagement, separation between church and state has to do with how the Bible establishes and defines the authority and responsibility of two separate actors, each with its own designated sphere of influence, and each with a responsibility towards the other and society more broadly. 

Before church leaders call on or accept requests from elected state officials or politicians more broadly to speak to their congregations, these leaders must consider whether such an engagement risks confusing the authority, roles and responsibilities of church and state or whether it risks having church and state move too close to one another.

Does it build the church and encourage its witness?

By “build” I mean that which increases the church’s capacity to fulfil its purpose, which is, broadly speaking, to serve as a witness, through word and deed, to its faith in Christ. 

When the church or a church allows itself to be used for political purposes, it allows itself to be deconstructed, to be emptied of its purpose. Consequently, its ability to share and transfer its faith in Christ is jeopardised.

The church is the custodian and steward of God’s word. It is responsible, therefore, for guarding against opportunistic religious rhetoric and ensuring that scripture is not used for political ends or any other purposes contrary to God’s word and character.

Church leaders are custodians and stewards of God’s people. They are responsible for guarding their congregations against being leveraged for the accumulation and/or exercise of political power.

Recognising the ill effects of the church and church leaders failing in these responsibilities, theologian James Stamoolis issued this cautionary note in the final years of apartheid:

Political figures who invoke the name and sometimes the authority of God, even if their lives and actions seem to contradict the working of God’s grace in their lives, can have their persuasive power multiplied among Christians who accept their words at face value.”

If this effect is possible when politicians deploy religious rhetoric outside church walls, how much more so when they speak religiously within, among and near congregational members while under supervision or with the endorsement of church leaders?  

If it is true that the church is the salt of the Earth and the light of the world, having church leaders carefully consider these risks will benefit not only their respective churches but the South African nation at large. DM

For those logged in to LinkedIn, an extended version of this article is available here.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • jcdville stormers says:

    Agree,they should only attend church to atone(for a lot!!!)

  • Louise Louise says:

    Thank you for a detailed and intelligent article Craig, I really enjoyed reading it. The hypocrisy of the politicians knows no bounds. Most of them are card-carrying Communists and have no commitment whatsoever to either democracy or to God/church. Communists are atheists by their very definition so to use the churches for political gain is the height of duplicity and deceit.

    • Dennis Bailey says:

      Where do you get that intel? I know many religious communists including several clergy/pastors

    • Dennis Bailey says:

      Surely being salt and light means the church and church leaders should be thoroughly engaged in both church and state. This separation is unbiblical and unhelpful and disempowering. Look at the impact of Desmond Tutu –

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