Instead of being behind the times, Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, is a few steps ahead. Calling for a calm debate on religion and law is revolutionary. From the furore he’s caused, it seems South Africa may not be ready for it.
Exercising his constitutional right to freedom of opinion, Mogoeng recommended that religions should influence the lawmaking process. For example, he reasoned, if laws discouraged adultery, there would be less murders flowing from adultery. Mogoeng also suggested that religion has a role to play in restraining lawlessness. Religions develop social systems and habits that could help eradicate fraud and corruption.
Mogoeng made it clear that he was simply raising these issues. He is in no position to change laws. On the contrary, he is bound, as a Christian, to fulfill his role as Chief Justice and to act in accordance with the constitution. In the past, where the constitution has not agreed with his religious views, he has upheld the constitution.
At the same time, Mogoeng is bound as a Christian to influence society for good. And this is what he wants to debate. He wants all religions to influence the lawmaking process so that good can be promoted in our land. Although religions differ, in the area of moral and social good they often agree. Laws that promote family, or that alleviate poverty are consistent with most religions. So Mogoeng’s call is not exclusive.
Also, the majority of South Africans do claim a religion, so why should they be governed by laws which have not been influenced by religion? This is equivalent to telling people to believe their religion in their homes, but not in the public square. A humanist would want to influence the laws that govern him, why should a religious person not be allowed to want this also? Is that not oppression of religion?
South Africa is a secular state. Some assume this to mean there’s no place for religion, but this is not true. A secular state is neutral in matters of religion, and treats all its citizens equally regardless of religion. So, if the constitution allows us the right to freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief and opinion, then why should we not have the right to voice our opinions, based on our religions, about the laws that govern us?
Just because laws have been informed by religion, doesn’t mean laws will be discriminatory. Mogoeng spends half of his speech assuring his listeners of this, at one point saying, “Truly the ‘hallmark of an open and democratic society is its capacity to accommodate and manage differences of intensely-held world views and life styles in a reasonable and fair manner’.”
It could be argued that because of Mogoeng’s influential position he should have kept quiet about his faith. Just letting people know that he is a Christian will make them suspicious of his judgements. This is a fair comment. In fact, his keynote speech at the Conference on Religion and Law is overloaded with Biblical quotes. Enough to make any person of another religion, or non-religion, nervous. But this still doesn’t ruin his main point. Mogoeng believes religion can influence law for the common good in a pluralistic society. Should we dismiss him with some name calling? Or can we, in the true spirit of the constitution and our secular society, enter into some calm