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Since Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, the prospects for peaceful change in South Africa have seemingly improved. Whether those prospects are realized, and whether South Africa will join the family of democratic nations, will depend in important ways on a factor almost always overlooked by media and academic pundits: namely, religion.

Throughout South Africa’s three centuries of modern history, religion has played a major role in shaping the contours of all areas of South African life. During the formative years of Dutch influence in the late seventeenth century, the religion of the Reformed Church was given special protection as the vehicle through which the Afrikaner identity was forged. Nearly 150 years later, the Boer Voortrekkers attributed their survival against the Zulu to the direct intervention of God. In the eyes of the Afrikaners, their 1838 vow at Blood River established an immutable covenant between God and the chosen Boer race.

By 1881, the Afrikaner national identity was again threatened, this time by the imperialistic—British—culture of “liquor, lucre, and redcoats.” In response, the defense of the Afrikaner way of life found sustenance in the theological teachings of the Dutch neo-Calvinist, Abraham Kuyper. Kuyper’s theology of “sphere sovereignty” provided a ready-made biblical doctrine providing sanction for an Afrikaner nation. When Boer nationalism finally emerged victorious in the election of 1948, the Dutch Reformed Church was the inseparable companion of the ruling National Party. Its political role was unambiguous: to provide theological justification for apartheid.

It was not only Afrikaner nationalism, however, that found sustenance in religion. In the last decade of the nineteenth century, a black religious movement known as Ethiopianism, with roots in the American-founded African Methodist Episcopal Church, represented one of the first organized expressions of black South African nationalism. And, after the white South African government enacted the 1913 Natives Land Act establishing the principle of territorial segregation based on race, indigenous black independent churches rose up in often violent protest.

Clearly, the history of South Africa is the story of the considerable influence of religion. But what about today, and more importantly, tomorrow? On the eve of what will most certainly be a “new,” multiracial South Africa, religion remains a pervasive and powerful social influence. Today, 80 percent of South Africans identify themselves as Christians. In a country with arguably no common national symbols, Christianity is one of the few commitments nearly all South Africans share. Moreover, churches and parachurch organizations continue to grow at a spectacular rate, especially independent evangelical and black African indigenous churches. In a phenomenon mimicking recent trends in the United States, the “mainline” churches associated with the South African Council of Churches (SACC)—such as the Anglican, Methodist, and Dutch Reformed—have experienced stagnation and even decline.

On the other hand, pentecostally oriented evangelical churches, such as the Johannesburg-based Rhema Church movement, as well as the African indigenous churches, such as the Zion Christian Church (whose worldview is an amalgam of Christian teaching and traditional African religious expression), have experienced an explosion of membership.

The numbers are impressive. It is estimated that nearly 50 percent of all black South Africans and 25 percent of white South Africans now identify with either evangelical or indigenous church groups, and their membership rolls continue to grow. Among the evangelical independent churches (sometimes referred to as New Independent Churches or NICs), it is not unusual to find congregations numbering in the thousands. The African indigenous church gatherings tend to be smaller, but the total number of different African independent church groups has multiplied well beyond 3,000, representing millions of blacks.

In 1990, it is not difficult to locate the religious action in South Africa. While the political activities of the SACC-related churches get most of the media attention—as a result of highly visible, well-traveled clergy—South Africa’s independent churches, evangelical and indigenous, are quietly but profoundly altering that country’s religious and social landscape.

In contrast to South Africa’s vocal patrons of liberation theology (who are largely confined to the intellectual class), most evangelical independent and African indigenous churches eschew radical politics and the transformation of the Christian message into a political agenda. Among the African indigenous churches, this orientation arises from an apolitical predisposition; among the evangelical independents, it is a direct product of their theology. Derek Morphew, for example, an evangelical theologian and director of Cape Fellowship Ministries, equates “black theology” (i.e., liberation theology) with the Afrikaner theology used to defend apartheid. Both, says Morphew, “begin with the historical context and reinterpret Scripture accordingly”; therefore, he concludes, both are heretical.

Uncomfortable with a politicized gospel, South Africa’s independent evangelical churches are currently struggling to come to grips with what it means to be “in the world, but not of the world.” The pietistic, don’t-get-involved-in-politics attitude found among evangelicals and fundamentalists elsewhere in the world can certainly be found among South African Christians. Nevertheless, what distinguishes South Africa’s new independent evangelical churches is their dual mission of evangelism and racial reconciliation.

Accurately described as theologically conservative, the new independent evangelical churches are racially liberal: they are opposed to apartheid, while advocating and practicing racial harmony. In fact, they are conspicuous in South Africa for their interracial character. A large segment of Rhema’s congregation, for example, lives in the black townships of Soweto and Alexandra. And the Rhema church—again, to cite but one example—works in close alliance with several Sowetan evangelical ministries.

The new independent evangelical churches are also conspicuous for their commitment to economic empowerment. Rejecting the revolutionary strategies of liberation theology, these churches see entrepreneurial business activity as an important mechanism for creating a new, post-apartheid South Africa. Their ministries, therefore, directly support a wide range of non-white business activities from T-shirts to rock music.

From a strictly sociological perspective, the growth of South Africa’s new evangelical churches is striking; their theological belief system and concomitant social endeavors, fascinating. Beyond this narrow academic interest, however, intellectuals and policy-makers generally dismiss the phenomenon as marginal to the major currents of political change in South Africa. This attitude is derived from the mistaken notion that evangelicalism is uniformly pietistic and otherworldly. That this is not the case is evidenced by the number and intensity of attacks that the religious left has directed against South Africa’s evangelicals. Obviously, if the theology and activities of South African evangelicalism were irrelevant, there would be little reason for this extreme hostility.

In 1985, the Kairos Document—the now well-known creed of revolutionary orthodoxy—attacked what it called “Church Theology” for its emphasis on social change through the pursuit of nonviolent strategies of reconciliation. Though stridently militant in its condemnation of those who would wish to reconcile “with sin and the devil,” the Kairos Document did not specifically single out evangelicals for criticism. In 1988, however, South Africa’s religious left (often indistinguishable from the SACC mainline) commenced a systematic onslaught against “the real enemy” of South African liberation—“right wing Christian groups,” or “RWCGs.”

This assault has been conducted in books (e.g., Paul Gifford’s The Religious Right in Southern Africa), newsletters (e.g., Crisis News), on the pages of prestigious academic journals (e.g., Journal of Theology for Southern Africa), and through the putative research of mainline religious organizations such as the Institute for Contextual Theology.

Not all the salvos, however, have originated within the mainline religious network. In 1986, a group identifying themselves as “Concerned Evangelicals” produced a Kairos-inspired “critique of (South African) evangelical theology and practice” entitled Evangelical Witness in South Africa. The thesis of the “Concerned Evangelicals” is generally indistinguishable from the “Church Theology” argument of the Kairos Document, the major difference being that the “Concerned Evangelicals” explicitly identify the enemy as South African evangelicalism.

With the release of yet another document, The Road to Damascus, in Johannesburg last year, South Africa’s religious left joined together with other “Third World Christians” to inaugurate a new all-out offensive against right-wing Christianity. “Right-wing Christianity under whatever name,” the document states, “is a way of believing that rejects . . . God’s revelation . . . in order to support the ideology of the national security state.” Consequently, “we (the document’s signatories) denounce all forms of right-wing Christianity as heretical.”

Just what has South Africa’s religious guardians of political orthodoxy all worked up is revealed in The Road to Damascus’ charge that “right-wing Christians” are guilty of “vicious attacks against liberation theology.” Indeed, here is the crux of the matter. Certainly some evangelical groupsthe Signpost Research Centre, for example—have engaged the political debate in South Africa in such a way as advertently or inadvertently to lend support to the morally odious system of apartheid. Other church groups, both within the evangelical movement and outside it (the African indigenous churches come to mind), are simply apolitical. For the remainder, such as most of the new independent evangelical churches, their distaste for liberation theology and their understanding of the church’s proper role in the public arena derive not from “an ideology of the national security state” but from sincerely held beliefs about theology, politics, and economics.

South Africa’s religious left lumps all three groups together. Organizations like the Signpost Research Centre and the Gospel Defense League are targeted along with groups like Rhema and World Vision. In reality, these groups are very different, and denouncing them as if they were all cut out of the same racist cloth does nothing more than render transparent the actual agenda of South Africa’s religious left. What the left finds distasteful and dangerous about evangelicalism is not just its conservative biblical hermeneutic, but more importantly, its anti-Communism, opposition to socialism, and—conversely—its free market and pro-business orientation. Moreover, some evangelical groups have the audacity, in the words of the religious left’s Crisis News, to criticize “prophetic church leaders such as Desmond Tutu, Allan Boesak, and Frank Chikane, as well as the World Council of Churches.” (Emphasis added.) In short, the peril of evangelicalism resides in its failure to jump on the left’s bandwagon and embrace its radical political and economic agenda.

The attitude of the religious left toward South Africa’s “right-wing religious groups”—meaning the overwhelming majority of evangelicals—would matter little if the stakes involved nothing more than disputations over arcane issues of theological doctrine. But much more is at stake.

A stable, democratic, and prosperous South Africa will not simply be wished into existence, regardless of the good intentions of the political players. Failed experiments in democracy litter the African continent and beyond. Democracy is much desired, but extremely difficult to possess. Institutional arrangements such as fair elections, a representative legislature, and an independent judiciary are a necessary precondition of democratic government. However, the political institutions of democracy are not sufficient by themselves. Ultimately, the success or failure of the democratic enterprise depends on the values, beliefs, and habits of a nation’s people. The empirical evidence of the past thirty years, drawn from countries as geographically diverse as Lebanon, Cyprus, Uganda, and Uruguay, is unambiguous in its lesson that democratic institutions, no matter how carefully designed and implemented, cannot ensure that democracy, once planted, will survive.

The bedrock of viable, stable democracy is a shared understanding of what constitutes the public good; a common language of moral—and, therefore, political—discourse. Without it, democratic government is untenable. In this sense, religion and religious values act as social glue: informing society’s understanding of the public good, providing the vocabulary of common moral discourse, and, consequently, restraining and bonding the centrifugal forces of national life.

Herein lies both the danger and promise of religion in South Africa. Religion is inherently a powerful social reality; it is especially so in a country like South Africa where religious beliefs command the allegiance of the vast majority of the population. It is religion’s unique quality, as Peter Berger has perceptively noted, to relativize, unmask, and debunk “the pretensions of human power.” However, when used in the service of a partisan political agenda, religion often succumbs to the deceit of human power, becoming just another political player and, at worst, part of the problem of human tyranny.

This is precisely what happened when earlier Afrikaner political leaders used racial theology to champion apartheid ideology. And this precisely is what is happening today, albeit by other leaders and in the service of a very different ideology. The political manipulation of Christianity was the design behind the declaration of the National Party’s first prime minister, D. F. Malan, that the church’s “special calling” was to “guard the [Afrikaner] national interest,” and it is the design behind the recent call of South African Communist Party leader Joe Slovo for “every good believer to become a witness for liberation.”

The dangers of politicized religion pervade the annals of South African history. Today, religion is being exploited again; and once again, in the service of tyranny. Especially ominous is the intimidation of black evangelicals by the left. In the townships, black evangelicals are under enormous pressure to dissociate themselves from the independent evangelical movement. This tactic is part of the broader strategy of South Africa’s left-wing radicals to eliminate by whatever means—including gruesome physical violence—those who do not see things their way. In the parlance of the streets, South Africa’s population is divided into two camps: the “liberators” and the “collaborators.” In the latter camp are all those who do not accept the left’s agenda and its self-proclaimed leadership, a category into which the overwhelming majority of South Africa’s evangelicals fit.

At this historic juncture in South Africa’s life, it is unlikely that the growing numbers of evangelicals—white and non-white—will steal the headlines from the major political players of the moment: the de Klerks, the Mandelas, the Buthelezis. And yet, after all the talking, negotiating, constitution-building, and voting has taken place, the survival of democracy in a “new” post-apartheid South Africa will arguably depend on those invisible things cultivated and nurtured in the general population by religious faith; those values, beliefs, and habits that represent the soul and lifeblood of a democratic government.

Dean C. Curry, who has recently traveled in South Africa, is the author of A World Without Tyranny: Christian Faith and International Politics. He has just completed a year as an Olin Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Economic Culture at Boston University.