Faith Communities and Civil Society

From a theological perspective, the church can never be regarded as simply another NGO within civil society. Nonetheless, the church - along with other faith communities - is a significant institution within civil society. Especially in twentieth-century democratic transitions, the church has played a key role in a variety of contexts, whether in eastern Europe (Poland and the former East Germany), or Latin America (Nicaragua is a good example), or South Africa. In South Africa the ecumenical church was deeply involved both in the struggle against apartheid and in the processes which led to the transition to democracy. This happened in a variety of ways, both at the national level and in many local contexts. For example, the ecumenical peace monitoring task force established by the South African Council of Churches with the help of overseas ecumenical partners was of considerable importance in enabling free and fair elections to take place in 1994. Indeed, the church had its own unique and specific contribution to make because of its direct connection to grassroots communities and their leadership. Likewise, as in the civil rights struggle in the United States, where voter registration was such a key issue, the church has often played a vital role in voter education.

At a local level, the role of the churches has to do with the building of communities in which participatory democracy is practiced. Of course, churches are often very hierarchical, patriarchal, and undemocratic, a matter to which we will shortly return. But there are many examples of congregations in which community lay leadership is encouraged, along with the development of the necessary values and skills. Many of the leaders in political organizations, labor unions, NGOs, civic associations, and the like have had their initial training in local churches. This was certainly true in Britain in the nineteenth century and it has been true more recently in South Africa and elsewhere.

Just as the church is often undemocratic, so it is often ethnically captive. But there are also many instances where the church, at both a wider and a local level, represents a diversity of culture and political ideology. As such, it has the potential to build that new ethos of understanding and tolerance among people of different ethnic communities without which democracy is impossible. Again South Africa serves as an example: apartheid in the church was widely practiced, but it is also true that many people of different racial backgrounds had more meaningful contact with each other through the churches than was generally the case elsewhere.

This raises a further issue of fundamental importance, namely the need for Christians to cooperate with people of other faiths in building a democratic culture. In the struggle against apartheid people of different faiths discovered not only that they could work together for justice, but also that they shared similar values and concerns in doing so. Even though believers disagree on many things of importance, all the great religious traditions affirm the dignity of human beings, the need for justice, equity, and compassion in society. These values (and there are others) are of considerable importance in shaping a truly democratic and civil society. In fact, such a society cannot come into being or exist without them.

Most religious traditions, for example, stress the importance of the individual and of the community, and seek to maintain the value of both without allowing the former to degenerate into a selfish individualism, or the latter into a depersonalized collectivism. For this reason, some religious traditions are critical of the way in which liberal democracy too often exalts human freedom above social responsibility, especially in the economic sphere; or the way in which totalitarian communism has denied human freedom in the interests of maintaining central control over all aspects of life. Many of the major religious traditions stress the need for community-building in which individual needs and rights are inseparable from a commitment to the common good. While this may be contested by many advocates of liberal democracy, from a Christian theological perspective it is the essence of democracy (Barth 1960; Niebuhr 1960; Maritain 1986; Dorrien 1990).

It is not surprising that political and religious radicalism and fundamentalism flourish in situations of political uncertainty and transition. But a major test of a truly free and democratic society is the extent to which it permits and protects religious freedom - not just the freedom of worship, but also the freedom of witness and social critique. Religious commitment often leads to intolerance toward others, reinforcing social and political divisions, and providing what believers regard as divine sanction for conflicting positions, as is the case in Northern Ireland, the Middle East, India, and elsewhere. Religious conflict in South Africa has been largely among Christians, who have been radically divided with regard to apartheid and the political role of the church. Fortunately there has been very little conflict between the adherents of different faith communities, though the potential for such conflict is undoubtedly there.

Disagreement among people of different faiths and even of the same tradition is inevitable, as is political disagreement within a nation; it is also healthy if a society is to develop and change for the better. Indeed, the interaction of conflicting views is of the essence of democracy, which is why some religious traditions that stress the importance of conscientious dissent have played an important historical role in shaping democratic societies. But all of this requires the development of a culture of tolerance, respect, and mutual understanding within the churches and other faith communities. In adopting such a stance, religious believers will not only learn how to relate to one another, they will also be making a major contribution to the development of a democratic culture.

This broadening of ecumenical vision does not mean a lack of concern for the truth claims of the Christian Gospel, nor does dialogue imply an end to witness. Tolerance does not indicate a lack of concern for the truth, but an ability to speak the truth in such a way that it helps to build rather than break down community. It encourages a very different attitude and approach toward other religions, and a sharing together with them in ensuring justice in society, in dealing with the environmental crisis, and in enabling humane values to flourish. Churches and other religious communities can help their adherents to change their own attitudes and perspectives, learn how to forgive those who have wronged them, and help those who are guilty of oppressing others to see the need to make restitution and reparation. Churches should enable people to handle difference and change, to live through crises, and to participate more fully and creatively in the processes of social transformation. In many places, churches have the potential to create and sustain a vast network of people who do care, who do have a sense of justice, and who, through the resources of their faith and mutual support, can cope with social transformation. Moreover, many churches, especially those which stress lay participation and responsibility, provide a training ground for developing interpersonal skills that are of vital importance in community-building and, where necessary, in helping to resolve conflict in a creative way.

A democratic order implies that there will be a genuine separation of "church and state." In many countries in Europe, this is complicated by the existence of established churches, part of the legacy of Christendom. For some of them disestablishment might not be a realistic option, nor would it necessarily make them more effective in serving the common good. But even so, a democracy requires that all faith communities should be respected and treated fairly by those in authority. This has important implications for issues such as religious education in schools, as well as for the broader role which religion might play in public life more generally. Certainly, the separation of "church and state" need not mean that prayer is excluded from public events, or that a national anthem does not refer to God (after all, "Nkosi Sikele' iAfrika," the South African national anthem, was originally composed as a hymn). But it does mean that people of all faiths, as well as people who are secular in outlook, should be able to identify with the symbols of the nation and regard them as their own.

The separation of church and state also means that religious communities should have the necessary freedom to worship and live out their faith in daily life. Part of what this means is that religious communities have a responsibility to the broader public. Religion is not simply something of the private sphere. Hence religious freedom is necessary not only for the purpose of worship, but also in order to exercise the prophetic task to which I have referred. From a theological perspective, the freedom of the church is not contingent upon democracy; it is rather a freedom that is derived from faithfulness to the witness of the church. And it is through exercising this freedom, and especially its prophetic witness to justice and equity, that the church best serves the democratic vision.

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