Constitutional Hill

The law vs. religion: Let’s try that again

The debate sparked by Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng after he stated in a speech in Stellenbosch that it would be a good thing if religion influenced “the laws that govern our daily lives starting with the Constitution”, has been both frustrating and misinformed. Instead of focusing on the veracity and desirability of the arguments advanced by Justice Mogoeng, most commentators focused on the irrelevant question of whether a Chief Justice should express his religious views in public at all.

Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng was admirably honest and transparent about his personal convictions when he stated – quoting that great freedom fighter and anti-colonialist, Lord Denning – that he believed “without religion there can be no morality; and without morality there can be no law”.

Judges are not empty vessels, lacking any personal beliefs, values and opinions. Instead, the different life experiences of judges (often focused on their differences in sex, gender, sexual orientation, race, class, religious or non-religious beliefs and other circumstances) may well influence how they view the world and the legal problems they are confronted with and, to some degree, how they will interpret the often open ended provisions of the Constitution in order to solve those legal problems.

Similarly whether a judge is a Pentecostal Christian, an atheist, a cultural Anglican, a Rastafarian, an agnostic, a devout member of the Dutch Reformed Church or a member of the File Sharing Religion may well have some influence on the way in which that judge sees the world and how he or she will resolve the legal problems he or she is called upon to adjudicate on.

Of course, judges need to be impartial. But this does not and – conceptually – cannot mean that a judge is required to have no beliefs or value system on which he or she will inevitably draw to decide complicated constitutional questions raised before him or her.

It only means that a judge must not pre-judge a case and must hear all the arguments before him or her and must consider both the applicable legal text and the relevant binding case law before making a ruling on a specific matter.

I would think it is far better and more honest for a judge to admit to these personal beliefs and to declare them upfront, as the Chief Justice did in his speech. Where judges declare their views openly, it is far easier to engage with the judgments written by that judge and to construct an argument either in support of or critical of the approach taken by a specific judge.

For this reason I have come to the realisation (modifying my previous position) that I have no problem with Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng stating his views on the desired role of religion in law-making and constitutional interpretation in public.

However, I do believe that judges are not beyond criticism and that citizens are entitled to engage critically with the stated beliefs and values of judges.

The far more productive debate about the speech delivered by the Chief Justice would confront the substance of his speech and would construct arguments either in defence of his views or critical of them.

I propose to do the latter. It would enhance democratic debate if others who disagree with me took the time to construct counter arguments.

In this regard I believe the views expressed by Chief Justice Mogoeng on the role of religion in law-making and constitutional interpretation are intellectually incoherent and shallow, nonsensical and (to the extent that one can make any sense out of them) socially and politically reactionary and hence in direct opposition to my own value system and the norms embedded in the Constitution.

It is of course highly controversial to argue – as the Chief Justice did – that religion can be the only source of morality in any society. This claim ignores (or is ignorant of) developments in both traditional African philosophy and Western philosophy of the past 150 years.

For example, for some of us, humanism is an attractive non-religious source of morality, given its emphasis on the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively, and its focus on the value of critical thinking and evidence over established doctrine or faith.

Given the fact that the value of human dignity is one of the founding values of our Constitution and given, further, that dignity is closely associated with the moral agency of humans, it is easy to square humanism with South African constitutionalism.

However, it is conceptually difficult if not impossible to square the views of the Chief Justice about morality (as prohibiting human beings from engaging in forms of sexual behaviour outside of state recognised marriage – even when this does not harm others) with the demands of the constitution to protect the infinite human dignity of every human being.

If laws were put in place (as the Chief Justice suggest they should) to curtail the freedom of individuals to decide for themselves how they wish to live their lives and how they want to arrange their intimate affairs, such laws would curtail the inherent human dignity of everyone. This would be in direct conflict with one of the founding values of our Constitution, a value, which our Constitutional Court has said, runs like a golden thread throughout the Constitution.

Moreover, anyone familiar with Immanuel Kant’s attempts to formulate rules on how to determine right from wrong through the categorical imperative (the idea that actions can only be considered moral if they could be imitated by anyone else and produce good results) would also be hard-pressed to agree with the Chief Justice that religion is the only possible source of morality in society.

You might not agree with Kant, but at the very least his philosophy – which former Constitutional Court Justice Laurie Ackermann has argued forms the intellectual basis for any understanding of the Constitutional Court’s dignity jurisprudence – posits an alternative source of morality not associated with any religious doctrine.

Of course, this idea that religion is the only source of morality for a society is especially common among those who associate morality with sexual behaviour.

Although it is difficult to tell exactly what the Chief Justice means by “religion” (there are many different religious traditions and many conflicting moral beliefs even within the Christian tradition, a tradition which the Chief Justice claimed to source his views from) his speech does suggest that he associates religious values with a strand of Pentecostal Christianity that focuses on sex as the root of all evil in the world.

Thus Justice Mogoeng stated in his speech that:

a legal framework that frowns upon adultery, fornication, separation and divorce, subject to appropriate modification, would, idealistic as this may appear to be, help us curb the murders that flow from adultery, help us reduce the number of broken families and the consequential lost and bitter generation that seems to be on the rise, which in turn cause untold harm to society.

At a press conference called to “clarify” his views, he reiterated that he saw a clear link between “morality” (as he understands it) and sexual behaviour, stating that:

Concerns that cannot be left unattended relate to the effect of religious principles on the right to secure a divorce, the freedom to indulge in adultery and promiscuous fornication.

I am sure many South Africans will claim to agree with this view of morality as espoused by the Chief Justice (even as they fail to live their lives according to it). But in a pluralistic society the moral views of the majority cannot be used to infringe on the rights of others and to rob those who do not wish to adhere to the majority view of their dignity and freedom.

Be that as it may, personally I find the views of the Chief Justice on “promiscuous fornication” and the need for laws to force people to remain married even if they wish to divorce, deeply conservative and objectionable.

This is because religious rules relating to how and with whom we are allowed to have sex function to control and discipline citizens (especially their bodies) and rob them of the freedom to decide for themselves how they wish to live their lives. It imposes the view of some about how we are allowed to use our bodies for pleasure on all of us and robs people of their right to live according to their own beliefs about how to arrange their intimate affairs.

Suggesting that the law should ideally regulate consensual sexual activity and the freedom to enter into and terminate relationships that have little or no bearing on the material wellbeing of people is disrespectful of the freedom of those who do not share your very narrow religious view of morality. It has the potential to interfere with the private choices of individuals and requires the church or the state to have a decisive say over our bodies.

This is potentially devastatingly invasive of the right of everyone to bodily and psychological integrity, which includes the right to make decisions concerning reproduction and to security in and control over their body guaranteed by section 12(2) of the Constitution.

It is therefore difficult to see how the views of the Chief Justice can be accommodated within the current constitutional regime.

Moreover, the morality espoused by the Chief Justice, does not seem to focus on the need to respect the inherent human dignity of every person and the idea that each human possesses moral agency to decide for him or herself how to live their life – as long as this does not harm others.

Instead, it seems to lean towards the view that the law as well as the power and authority of the state should be deployed to inculcate a specific religiously inspired morality in citizens.

In this regard the argument put forward by the Chief Justice that principles sourced from all religions could be infused into a “national moral code that could be taught at home and school from a tender age all the way up to adulthood” is particularly worrying. It is also intellectually incoherent as it directly contradicts other statements made by the Chief Justice in his speech.

In Stellenbosch the Chief Justice referred to the fact that the Constitutional Court has embraced the notion of South Africa as a pluralistic society. He even quoted the Court’s judgment in Prince where it stated that: “The protection of diversity is the hallmark of a free and open society.”

But once you recognise that our Constitution demands protection of this diversity – including diversity related to religious and other beliefs such as the belief not to believe in any God – it is intellectually incoherent to then argue that a very narrow conception of religious morality should influence laws that regulate the private and intimate lives of citizens. It is also incoherent to argue that certain religious values should be infused in a national moral code, which should be used to indoctrinate vulnerable children.

A society that respects diversity cannot enforce or propagate a narrow religiously inspired moral code on society as a whole. Instead, a society that respects diversity will celebrate difference – also different attitudes about morality.

For example, for some a “moral” society will be a society which censors and regulates the sexual activities of citizens and emphasises the moral superiority of monogamous marriage between one man and one women (and maybe two and a half children and a dog) till death do them part.

For others a “moral” society may be a society in which individuals are free to decide for themselves (without interference from the state) how to arrange their consensual, private, intimate affairs and in which we all fight to eradicate social injustice and economic inequality.

Because of these vastly different conceptions of what is good and moral, a society in which diversity is respected cannot enforce or promote a uniform moral code as the Chief Justice suggested.

Moreover, the view that religious values should influence laws and the interpretation of the Constitution is also in direct conflict with the precedent developed by the Constitutional Court.

In the Fourie judgment (ironically, perhaps, dealing with the need to recognise same-sex marriage), the Constitutional Court in no uncertain terms rejected the argument that religious beliefs should form the basis of legal regulation, stating as follows:

It is one thing for the Court to acknowledge the important role that religion plays in our public life. It is quite another to use religious doctrine as a source for interpreting the Constitution. It would be out of order to employ the religious sentiments of some as a guide to the constitutional rights of others. Between and within religions there are vastly different and at times highly disputed views on how to respond to the fact that members of their congregations and clergy are themselves homosexual. Judges would be placed in an intolerable situation if they were called upon to construe religious texts and take sides on issues which have caused deep schisms within religious bodies.

It is exactly because there is no universally accepted set of moral norms – religious or otherwise – on which any court can rely that the South African Constitution (not any set of religious beliefs) serves as the source of our constitutional morality.

We have a choice: either we amend the Constitution in order to ensure that the religious beliefs of some become the moral loadstar for legislation and constitutional interpretation – thus rejecting any accommodation of diversity – or we stick with the constitutional values which celebrate religious and other forms of diversity and respect for human dignity and prohibit the law from enforcing the narrow religious morally inspired beliefs of some on the whole of society.

If you favour the first route, the Chief Justice is your man. If you favour the second, well, then his speech will make you extremely nervous.

  • Henri Benade

    The “may well have some” in this passage is to my mind too cautious: “Similarly whether a judge is a Pentecostal Christian, an atheist, a cultural Anglican, a Rastafarian, an agnostic, a devout member of the Dutch Reformed Church or a member of the File Sharing Religion may well have some influence on the way in which that judge sees the world and how he or she will resolve the legal problems he or she is called upon to adjudicate on.”

    To the contrary, it profoundly influences a judges worldview. Actually any persons worldview.

    [That's why Zuma is slowly repacking the Concourt. To get rid of the overload of progressives there.]

  • Pierre de Vos

    You “may well” be right, but I could not possibly comment (as the main character in the original “House of Cards” used to say).

  • Adriaan Mostert

    Fantastic response! “If you favour the second, well, then his speech will make you extremely nervous.” – I am nervous.

  • Robard

    Ironic that you would be citing Kant, since Nietzsche pretty much demolished his attempts to establish a humanist morality, pointing out that the former did away with the need for God only to smuggle him in via the back door again. But I guess Nietzsche was also just too superficial a thinker to be taken seriously in these rarefied circles.