Wednesday, April 22, 2009

ACDP Chief Whip on special voting day in London

ACDP Chief Whip and MP Cheryllyn Dudley was in London on Wednesday 15th April 2009 to observe the special voting day. She talks about the state of the opposition in South Africa, and faith-based politics in the country. She also examines the efficacy of the institution of parliament. If you can't view the video below click here.

I was quite impressed by Ms. Dudley as she was thoughtful and friendly. However, one problem I had with what she said was with her definition of secularism. She claims that "South Africa is not technically a secular state."

It is worth noting what the constitution says about religion at this point. Chapter 2, Section 15 concerning freedom of religion, belief and opinion says that:
  1. Everyone has the right to freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief and opinion.

  2. Religious observances may be conducted at state or state-aided institutions, provided that ­
    1. those observances follow rules made by the appropriate public authorities;
    2. they are conducted on an equitable basis; and
    3. attendance at them is free and voluntary.

    1. This section does not prevent legislation recognising ­
      1. marriages concluded under any tradition, or a system of religious, personal or family law; or
      2. systems of personal and family law under any tradition, or adhered to by persons professing a particular religion.
    2. Recognition in terms of paragraph (a) must be consistent with this section and the other provisions of the Constitution. well as Chapter 2, section 31, concerning cultural, religious and linguistic communities:
  1. Persons belonging to a cultural, religious or linguistic community may not be denied the right, with other members of that community ­
    1. to enjoy their culture, practise their religion and use their language; and
    2. to form, join and maintain cultural, religious and linguistic associations and other organs of civil society.

  2. The rights in subsection (1) may not be exercised in a manner inconsistent with any provision of the Bill of Rights.

Here the constitutional order makes generous provisions for the protection of religion but that is altogether different from saying that the country is guided by religious doctrine. This is not total. For instance, the reason we don't sell alcohol on Sundays reflects a sentiment that drinking on the holy day is wrong. Or the fact that Christmas is a public holiday while Ramadan isn't shows the dominance of the Christian tradition. So there is a spectrum, but we are still on the secular end of that spectrum, because religious considerations for the most part do not guide governmental decisions.

Secularism requires that principles of a particular faith should not be the foundation of the institutional or legal apparatus. But it still allows for freedom of religion and association. For example, many Christians feel strongly against abortion, yet it is legal in our society. They might prohibit the practice among their followers but they cannot will that prohibition to be universal merely by referencing scripture. The nature of secular democracy is that you have to balance competing needs and in this case the rights of women to adequate reproductive health outweighs the moral indignation that many people of faith may have against aborting unborn babies.

If, as Dudley says, 80% of South Africans are Christians it also means 20% are not, so a significant minority would choose a different set of spiritual convictions or none whatsoever. Thankfully she does emphasise that the separation of church and state not only protects the state from the church, but also the church from the state (ditto for the mosque and the synagogue).

Dudley says: "...for us it is very important that the institution of the state and the institution of the church are kept separate in that they have very different roles and different functions." She goes on to say that they want to be free to practice their religion without government imposing their own restrictions and rules. Sounds like a ringing endorsement of secularism to me.

Watch the video to see the full context of her statements and judge for yourself.

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