A code of faith for all
Commission invites religious leaders to have say on how religion and the law interact
AT THE HEART of South Africa’s democratic liberty lies freedom of thought, belief and practice. This, to those of us in the religious or faith sector, is of paramount importance.
Citizens must enjoy the freedom to express their deepest convictions in whatever way they feel appropriate. This should also apply to religious leaders, who feel compelled to lead their communities in line with the core tenets of their faith.
However, with this freedom comes great responsibility. Faith leaders should not take advantage of the freedoms of our democratic dispensation to manipulate, misuse or prey on innocent and unsuspecting followers, as has too often been the case.
When the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL) initially instituted action to investigate the behaviour of rogue faith leaders, it raised some consternation.
What were the boundaries of the CRL’s mandate? Were the lines between the state and religion being crossed? Was the law, an important but often blunt instrument in matters of beliefs and faith, going to be used to subjugate the faithful and curtail the freedoms we hold so dear? These were important questions and caused the conscientious among the faith communities to push back against a potential overreach by the Chapter 9 institution.
This past week the CRL invited church and religious leaders to develop the instruments required to ensure appropriate self-regulation within the confines of the law.
I will be leading that process. This, we feel, should take the form of a code of practice, a shared and co-created benchmark for self-regulation across the array of communities that make up the religious landscape. The CRL took the vital step of recognising the autonomy and independence of the faith community. Yes, the faith community must participate in the national context within the confines of the constitution, but it must be afforded the room to express itself in the manner unique to its diverse and peculiar nature.
Religious freedom must be tempered with lawfulness and faithfulness to the core values of the constitution, such as the dignity of the human person, respect for the rights of others and peaceful cohabitation across the lines of our social and cultural diversity.
Though we are diverse and don’t share a single set of beliefs, we do share core values such as integrity, respect, dignity and fairness. South Africa’s faith leaders, and the faithful individually, should all agree that we should do no harm to one another or others as we live out our beliefs.
Though we are diverse, we can be united in the mission of protecting the most vulnerable in our communities from exploitation or manipulation.
This will be the aim of a sectoral code of good conduct, ethics and governance facilitating a means by which the sector can have recourse to hold one another to account and to call out those who would use their liberty as a licence to harm or manipulate others.
In such an arrangement, the faith community will have recourse to the law, the police and the courts at any time the rights of anyone is impinged upon. However, it will provide a means by which the appropriate norms peculiar to the faith community can be respected, without the state becoming overbearing or arbitrary in its dealing with the faithful.
It is in this spirit that I thank the CRL for reminding the faithful to reflect about our conduct and to hold one another to account. After all, if the faith community are to provide moral leadership to our broader society, it is imperative that we keep our own house in order, and support each other along the high road of morality, as is becoming of our shared humanity, irrespective of our faith.
But in calling for self-regulation within the sector, one is by no means implying that this should replace the application of the law. We have had instances where men of the cloth have been accused of breaking the law. These include allegations of rape, child abuse and fraud, among others. In such cases the law must simply take its course. Self-regulation should not be a cover for impunity.
Developing a code of practice for the religious sector is not going to be easy. Indeed, it will be a contested process, but the challenges should not deter us from starting the process.
I am encouraging fellow religious leaders to embrace this process and enrich it through their views and perspectives.
Though we are diverse, we can be united in the mission of protecting the most vulnerable in our communities from exploitation.