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Dr Rudi Buys

What does it say of a country, which is considered a secular state, when a president starts a lockdown by calling for a national day of prayer?

Prior to the day, President Cyril Ramaphosa called on all South Africans to dedicate March 26, the day set for the lockdown to start, to prayer.

“There are many amongst us who are fearful, uncertain and vulnerable. I call on our people to offer a prayer and a thought for the protection and healing of our land and its people from this disease,” said the president.

A secular state can be defined as one that officially remains neutral in matters of religion – a definition often assigned to our constitution when reading the Bill of Rights.

When Ramaphosa issued his call for prayer, it represented more than an expression of his constitutional right as a citizen to freedom of religion.

This is what a secular constitution and state would require it to be when a president makes such a call.

Arguably, even if in the preamble of its constitution, as ours does, a nation calls on God to protect its people, it does not necessarily mean that such a country wants to return to a past where the intimate association between state and church generated deep legacies of injustice.

Or does it?

One way to consider this question is to reflect on the place and role of secularism in democratic societies, and its interface with the social realities of faith communities.

“Secularism” is a political doctrine that specifically takes a stance to religion in society, and does so with a motive to strengthen democratic action in public spaces of state activity, and in shared spaces of citizen action.

It is not a good in itself, but a tool to achieve other political goods, such as equality of religions and of democratic participation of diverse faith communities.

It is a tool to counter what we consider unjust and unconstitutional, such as state-sanctioned dominance of one religion or faith community over others.

As a political tool, secularism then does not refer to the social-cultural and societal processes and lived realities of different faith communities that find their place in a society such as ours.

Its motives are to achieve constitutional freedom to worship, the equality of different faiths and their collaboration to realise constitutional commitments to human dignity and social justice.

However, these motives of secularism resonate with different doctrines of diverse faith communities who call on the same commitments as their mission when they join in democratic processes of state and society.

Secularism then is not the only or even most useful framework to make sense of how democracy and religion interrelate in a society that seeks dignity and justice.

A different approach seems to emerge for when we interpret and enact our constitutional commitments to freedom of religion when the president calls for a national day of prayer.

To embrace faith in the public spaces and performances of states and citizens during the global pandemic reveals a novel and truly South African approach to political action, namely the notion of a “faith-embracing” nation.

This means that more than a political strategy to reach a majority of constituencies, the president’s call to prayer represented and demonstrated a deep sense of a nation that finds its roots in faith.

May God protect our people; Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika; Morena boloka setjhaba sa heso; God seën Suid-Afrika. God bless South Africa; Mudzimu fhatutshedza Afurika; Hosi katekisa Afrika.

A secular state can be defined as one that officially remains neutral in matters of religion

  • Rudi Buys is the executive dean and dean of humanities of the private and not for-profit higher education institution, Cornerstone Institute.
  • Originally published in the Cape Argus on Thursday, 9 April 2020.
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