The issue we are to consider is the question of what cultural and religious resources there may be for the construction of civil society, assuming that civil society is necessary to the transformation of society as a whole. I shall draw out some of the parameters which I believe must shape our consideration of a civil culture by focusing on the narrower notion of religion, taking it for granted at the moment that religion is a subset of the concept of culture.1 The South African experience, partially unique but also generalizable in many important respects, will guide my analysis.

The first section focuses on the ambiguity of the notions of religion—in its plural, contested nature—and civil society. The discussion is contextualized in South Africa to enable us concretely to locate the idea of civil society in relation to religion.

Section two extends the argument by unpacking relevant theories of civil society and relating them to the characteristic political product of colonialism in Africa: a bifurcated state and a divided society.

The third section considers some frameworks for the operationalization of civil society—the strategies which may guide religious and cultural institutions and movements to strengthen civil society over and against the forces of markets and bureaucracies.

Finally, we will explore some general, and generalizable, notions about religion and civil society, arising from our theoretical reflection on the South African case.




Ambiguous Terms, Ambiguous Reality


Perhaps inevitably, our experience of religion in society is ambiguous. In South Africa this ambiguity was expressed most clearly in the recent past in the contrast between two kinds of Christianity. Though we are likely to discover similar ambiguities in other religious traditions, the case of Christianity is particularly illuminating.

Christian thought and tradition was used by the apartheid government morally to justify its policies and defend its integrity. Yet against this same government, we saw a Christian denunciation of its policies and practices, and a corresponding theological defence of liberation struggles against its regime. The case for both positions, of course, was established on the basis of the same collection of scriptural texts and general tradition. The contradictions entailed in this particular conflict are not merely theoretical, as is most powerfully and poignantly stated in the now famous Kairos Document: "There we sit in the same Church while outside Christian policemen and soldiers are beating up and killing Christian children or torturing Christian prisoners to death while yet other Christians stand by and weakly plead for peace."

This division within one religious tradition is paradigmatic. The point is particularly pertinent for Christianity in South Africa, linked as it was to white domination through colonization and apartheid, but in less obvious forms it pertains to other religious traditions as well.

It is a kind of reality that is still with us in South Africa. Indeed, to some extent even the facade of moral justification for the practices of apartheid still remains, as in the submissions by the National Party, of the previous government, to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.3 It made apologies for "honest mistakes." It argued that the apartheid was "well-intentioned," designed as a positive program for the social good, and that it was carried out by people with integrity and faith. The architects of apartheid defended their work through a "discourse of innocence" about the massive gross violations of the human rights of people caused by their policies and agents, violations which they regarded as unfortunate errors or the result of actions by misguided underlings. Other than that, the National Party felt there was nothing by which to apologize, and its leaders by and large saw no need to take direct responsibility for the horrors of the past. Though this kind of response was not overtly couched in religious language, it drew on the Christian nationalist tradition from which most apartheid leaders emerged.

Equally, past opponents of the apartheid regime also continue to appeal to the theological foundations they developed in the struggle against apartheid as they seek to find new relevance in a transformed political landscape. With the easily definable target of the apartheid system gone, however, their focus has become a lot more diffuse, with lessened general impact. The fact that a common enemy no longer exists does not mean key matters are all resolved, of course; one thinks in particular of the way in which racism and economic inequality continue to bedevil the society. Thus the sentiments of the anti-apartheid liberation struggle and the theology which supported it continues, even as it representatives battle to give it new form and content.

But the ambiguity of religion in society and the contradictions of religious discourse lie beyond a simple contrast of positions between historic opponents in a political and economic struggle. It lies too in claims about life which are regarded as valid. An obvious current example in the Christian milieu in South Africa may be found in the positions of the Roman Catholic Church and the South African Council of Churches on the recently passed Bill on the Termination of Pregnancy. These two bodies were bosom companions during the nineteen eighties in opposing apartheid. On the issue of abortion they represented to the relevant Parliamentary Committee positions which were diametrically opposed.

At an even deeper level the ambiguity of religion lies in differing understandings of the nature of religious experience, its proper location, and its modality. These understandings, in turn, do not arrive de novo, but out of historical, cultural and personal experiences which are both synchronic and diachronic, and themselves filled with conflictual dynamics. Thus we must expect to find what Paul Ricoeur calls a "conflict of interpretations" even where the underlying text or overtly proclaimed world-view or tradition is held strongly in common.

Similar comments may be made about the concept of "civil society." Deep ambiguities exist here too. For some, the term is synonymous with the project of modern liberalism in the Enlightenment tradition. Then it appears to be merely another expression of the ideology of individualism and the privatization of lifeworld interests; a concept which describes those forms of life which are adjunct to the political economy, denoting the realm of the intimate or, at most, a sphere of voluntary action through which the pain and suffering caused by the political economy might be ameliorated. For others, it describes a plural mix of institutions and practices which attempt to hold off the invasive forces of state and economy and to claim some counter-balance to them, whether this be in a market or a centrally planned economy. A third view, strong in the African context, sees civil society as a project of colonization and of the "civilizing" mission of the representatives of the imperial powers.

Other ambiguities, such as the way in which society is shaped according to particular historical and cultural gender constructs, point to cross-cutting categories of experience and ontology. These, in turn, produce alternative epistemologies which would affect how we might understand the rise of the concept of civil society or its contemporary profile.

Consider the issue of gender. Even where there may be a relatively high level of political agreement on one thing (for example, in South Africa, a joint struggle against apartheid), one finds deep-rooted differences between men and women about the conception of liberation. These differences are expressed in the way in which oppression is analyzed, in the foci of action, and in the kind of alliances that may be formed. So, for example, many women speak of the triple oppression they suffer in South Africa: as black, as poor, and as women. Here they point to patriarchal structures and practices they endure as part of the general problem of oppression, and in doing so, they may well come up against men, with whom they otherwise struggle against apartheid, who wish to reassert patriarchy by appeal to cultural traditions. In short, "civil society" is contested not only theoretically, but also practically, in relation to contrasting understandings of the real.

To return to the example of religion, which I take to be a sub-category of civil society under modern conditions such as those that pertain in contemporary South Africa,6 we see there too that the ambiguities in religious experience produce contrasting understandings of the real. One of these contrasts is that between the faith of "ordinary" believers and the formal (theological) orthodoxies which they are assumed to accept and honor. There are good grounds to believe, however, that such orthodoxies are brought into question by "ordinary" believers in their daily living.7 They are often seen as representative of a particular epistemé, and of its structures and dynamics of power, which is experienced by "ordinary" believers as restrictive or even oppressive.

A male theologian is thus likely to challenge a political order such as apartheid on the basis of classical orthodox theology (e.g. Calvinism) without questioning the epistemological and ontological foundations of that orthodoxy. Precisely at this point, a feminist or African woman’s theology may well deconstruct fundamental presumptions about those same epistemological and ontological foundations.8 These kinds of boundaries, fluid or rigid, also map the space of religion in civil society. They mark out places that people occupy, from which they challenge others or defend themselves.

Again, the ambiguity of religion is exposed and—this is the wider point—so should the notion of civil society be exposed. What we emphasize here is one vital point: That any consideration of religion and/or civil society is only as adequate as its contextual grounding in the mapping of actual spaces, places and people.


A Hermeneutic of Suspicion


Both the terms of our investigation—religion and civil society—are thus contested concepts. When one refines this point still further and asks not about religion in general, but about a specific religion, then one must add to our judgement a deeper hermeneutic of suspicion. Once again the example of Christianity in South Africa helps to unpack what this might mean.

The formal title given to educational policy under the apartheid government was "Christian National Education." It points to the overarching ideology of the state at the time. Resistance to this policy and ideology fed the black youth revolt of 1976, generally known as the "Soweto uprising," beginning with an angry response to the attempt by the state to impose the "oppressor’s language" of Afrikaans on students in black schools as a medium of instruction.9 Leaders of this generation of young black people are now in government. One should not be surprised, therefore, that many well placed people today are highly suspicious of the role of Christianity, and perhaps of religion in general, in a modern, open, democratic South Africa.10 Add to this the negative aspects of the longer history of the churches in southern Africa, particularly as regards the place of missions in conquest and colonization, and the suspicion turns, in some cases, into a determined rejection of Christianity in public life.

Thus a recent analysis of the representation of Christianity in parliament has shown that those who appeal overtly to their Christian faith in the political debates of the house, particularly those from conservative traditions who did not resist apartheid, are often the subject of mockery or barely disguised contempt.11 Christianity, perhaps even religion in general, is perceived by many as having little constructive contribution to make to political debate. When it does enter into the debate, it often appears either as naïve, narrow or ignorant—or all three of these things simultaneously—with the result that many judge it best to ignore it entirely if one wants to make intelligent policy.

A good example lies perhaps in the strongly conservative African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP), whose members have struggled to be taken seriously as they speak, respond and interject in debate with a variety of Christian claims, texts and aphorisms.12 The use of particular confessional language may contribute to this, appearing archaic or unintelligible to others. At least equally problematic for others, however, is the ideological narrowness of the religious position presented, a narrowness that appears retrogressive and reactionary where a liberal, pluralist constitution has been put in place, as in South Africa. It is for this reason, for example, that President Thabo Mbeki, in his reply to his inaugural presidential debate, launched a strong attack on the ACDP. Exclusivist, sectarian and intellectually bigoted, in his view, the ACDP represents a position, and a theology Mbeki sees as inimical to the task of reconstruction.13 

The problem of a fit between religious language and the language of the public square is not confined to conservative positions. Those Christians who stood, in "prophetic" mode, against the apartheid state have also had difficulty finding solid purchase with the new governing leadership, or making an impact on public policy. The issue here is rather that of well-worn clichés which had great pertinence as slogans in the struggle against apartheid which are still retained as if, for all practical purposes, little has changed in South Africa. These clichés, such as the central notion of prophecy as a fundamental critique of the state,14 either appear as largely anachronistic, or have not been given any adequate new content. Thus a basic hostility to the state—any state—continues within the prophetic paradigm, to the extent that old comrades in the struggle against apartheid who have accepted the tasks of new post-apartheid state as part of their commitment to help reconstruct society, are readily vilified as "sell-outs."

A good example would be Reverend Frank Chikane, once director of the Institute for Contextual Theology and secretary-general of the South African Council of Churches, both "prophetically" aligned against apartheid, and now Director General of the President’s Office and Secretary to Cabinet. Among the most prominent religious leaders of the past, he finds himself now regarded by many previous compatriots as having betrayed all he stood for then by involving himself so closely with government, because this government has not yet brought about a transformation of all the ills inherited from colonialism and apartheid.

Chikane’s own reply to this accusation is instructive. He argues that "it was important to me that the collective who worked together to end Apartheid , would work together to reconstruct South Africa" but that "many religious communities backed off at this point, and in so doing missed the opportunity to be part of the remodelling of society." He notes that religious vision always transcends political vision, and that this produces a prophetic capacity which remains vital. But he adds that he believes this government, within its many constraints and limits, "wants to deal with the realities in which we live," and that the challenge to the churches is to find a strategic relationship to the state defined by "the context of the struggle to reconstruct the kind of society we want."15 

Neither of these expressions of religion—reactionary or prophetic—demonstrates any comprehensive power to inspire the remaking of polity and society in contemporary South Africa. Together they illustrate the ongoing ambiguities of religion in society, particularly where that society is pluralist and not constrained by the authority of one particular tradition or sub-tradition (as in some contemporary theocracies such as Iran).16 These ambiguities are highlighted in a constitutional democracy, such as South Africa now is, where freedom of religion also means that no particular religion may govern the public sphere.


Patterns of Privatization


The clear constitutional separation of religion (or church) and state reinforces the existing critique of Christianity, by displacing its impact through the now familiar process of separating out the spheres of public action around politics and economics. Religion, in the main, must now bow out of political and economic life, or accept, at the least, that it is secondary. Religion is reduced to but one source of values among many others, restricted to a rather narrow location of action within a much broader range of civil society institutions and movements. Politics is then defined primarily in terms of state power, exercised through bureaucracies; economics is defined largely in terms of the regulation of markets, themselves usually defined as "private."

Thus, notwithstanding the honored participation of many Christians in resistance to apartheid, the general perception among decision makers in polity and economy in South Africa grows that religion should play no key role in public policy. Some exception—and it is a significant exception to which we will return—is made when it comes to the task of regenerating the values and virtues among citizens without which neither polity nor economy can function well. In this particular sense, the trend is toward the privatization of religion at the level of public discourse. The roots of political and economic life in civil society are attenuated in the process, one may argue. This is because political and economic life, philosophically speaking, is imbued with the historical effects of the religious consciousness of the societies out of which they arise.17 

One might imagine that the presence of clerics or committed religious members on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, headed by the irrepressible Archbishop Desmond Tutu, may suggest something else. But in fact there has been a significant number of influential voices expressing displeasure, even deep distrust, of the modus operandi of the TRC. Its legal and juridical meaning, it is argued, was too often replaced by a religious discourse drawn to a large extent from the vocabulary of the Christian tradition. This discourse, critics feel, has undercut the capacity of victims to seek redress or reparation, while it privileged (through religious notions of confession and forgiveness) those who bear greatest responsibility for the grave injustices and violations of apartheid, namely, perpetrators and major beneficiaries. Moreover, the language and idiom of the TRC carries with it the danger of re-establishing a particular theology—that of Christianity—as hegemonic in public life,18 and thus may threaten precisely that plurality upon which a vigorous civil society depends.


Amorphous Publicity


The emerging pattern in public life of a separation of the secular and the religious may also be seen in our new policy making forums. Where prayers are said—which happens surprisingly frequently even in the National Assembly—these are now usually stripped of any confessional or traditional religious character (the Speaker of the House will ask for silence and "meditation" rather than prayer), or carried out as integrated acts of multi-faith contributions. Thus, for example, a traditional imbongi or praise singer was joined with a Jewish rabbi, a Hindu leader, a Catholic priest, and a Muslim Imam to lead the Presidential inauguration ceremony in 1999.

In this, of course, South Africa merely follows a pattern established in liberal democracies elsewhere in the world. The pattern suggests that religion, from the point of view of the state and the economic leaders, will be understood primarily as a private affair, that is, as proper to the public realm only when the particular practices or beliefs of a particular religion conflict with or are threatened by public law and public interest. Even if it plays a ceremonial role in public life, as in South Africa, this role is limited to a political desire to acknowledge the plurality of ostensibly private interests and constituencies that make up religious or faith communities within society. The political interest lies in the aim of incorporating in public rituals the sacred spaces of all people of faith, and those of none, in the national pantheon.

This is in fact pertinent to the rise, and importance, of the recent debate on civil society. Let us take sport as a very different example to make the point clear. Sport, in the form of clubs and associations, like religion is also usually understood to be part of civil society. It may be regulated by the state in certain respects, for example, as in South Africa, where sporting clubs and associations cannot offend the constitutional requirement that racial discrimination is illegal. Still, sport is generally understood as a private affair, even when it becomes a major business.19 This is true even when one speaks colloquially of sport as a "national religion," as many would describe rugby for white South Africans or soccer for black South Africans. As a ritual of national significance, however, the state does take a direct interest in the nature of the ritual, both drawing on the popularity of sport to get its own messages across in suitable ways,20 and pushing for a clear commitment to representivity in fully integrated teams in sports whose codes were previously dominated by whites.21 

What this tells us is that civil society, broadly understood, is continually impacted by the interests and forces of both the state and the market. The logic of the relation, moreover, is governed less by the self-understanding of organizations and movements within civil society, than it is by the largely instrumental imperatives of governance and profitability.

Simultaneously, the need for a strong, healthy and "independent’ civil society has also become apparent, even to many political and economic leaders. As we know, the renewed interest in civil society is occasioned partly because of challenges presented by the collapse of centralized government and economic management in Eastern Europe, partly because of the rise of critical movements against oppressive regimes in various parts of the two-thirds world, and partly because of the collapse of a center of values in established capitalist countries such as France and the USA.

In each case, along with a renewed interest in civil society has come a revitalized interest in the significance of popular religious experience at the local level. Whatever the reasons, policy specialists, sociologists and political scientists over a surprisingly wide spectrum, both in the North and the South, have begun to reconsider their understanding of civil society.


Disclaimers On Secularization


We shall come back to this. But first let us return to the South African case from another angle. Many people argue that Africa generally, South Africa included, does not face a crisis of religion or a mood of secularization. On the contrary, it is argued that religion is deeply rooted and largely holistic, certainly among such groupings as the African Initiated Churches22 but also among those who practice African traditional religion.23 Further, Islamic understandings of the sacred and the secular prevent any dualism between them, and the Islamic perspective has significant political presence in South Africa. The same may be said of Judaism and Hinduism, the other major religious groupings in the country.

In all these cases there can be no separation in principle of religion and civil life, nor indeed between religion and political society or religion and economic society.24 From such perspectives, one may even say that civil society is religious society. This claim, however, means that concept of civil society really disappears, because what counts then is not being a civilian or citizen, but a faithful member of a traditional community.

One is forced to ask, therefore, whether the question of a link between religion and civil society is a fruitful one to pursue in the light of two major modalities of religion in civil society. In the one modality, the link between religion and civil society is broken either by a suspect history or a privatized theology, both alternatives being characteristic of forms of Christianity in South Africa. Where this happens, it would be insufficient simply to seek to regenerate civil society on the assumption that the suspect history or truncated theology may be ignored. This would be to leave religion, at least, in civil society, without any critical impulse directed at itself or its social milieu. Rather, it is a critique of society as a whole that is needed. If we like, we may say that it is the dominant epistemé which is viewed as the problem, not the lack or weakness of civil society. A radical politics and a univocal view of history—a return to, or reinvention of, grand historical schemes which seek to reconstruct all of society simultaneously—are the necessary implications of such a position. Such a vision would anticipate the disappearance of religion and an incorporation of civil society into a political economic project.

In the other modality, the question of a link between religion and civil society—implying as it does a dualist rather than a holistic view of society—does not make sense. Here we are speaking of a view of religion and society in general in which all of reality is assumed a priori to be one. Religion is viewed not as a sector or separate sphere of society, but in terms of a sacred reality which permeates all of society. Then distinctions between political, economic and civil life are simply inappropriate, misplaced. Usually, such a religious position finds concrete expression only in another kind of univocal history, this time on the side of the conservation of a particular tradition as dominant, and of the subjugation (whether flexibly or harshly) of other traditions. A theocracy would be the ultimate ideal of such a vision, requiring no civil society.

All of this depends to some extent, however, on how one understands civil society. One need not conceive of civil society only in terms of modern bourgeois society or its notion of civilization, where it is usually understood to be a privatized sphere alongside, but subservient to the institutions of state and economy. Neither, for that matter, are the alternatives of an assimilated civil society, as happened in the Soviet Union, for example, or an absent civil society, as happens in full-scale theocracies, necessary.

One needs to ask, therefore, "which version of civil society and which account of citizenship" provides us with the necessary insight and tools to rethink the place of religion in public life.25 There are good grounds for believing that the notion of civil society may be a fruitful one for re-imagining the place of religion in our context without the burdens of a particular philosophy carried by Western individualism or Marxian communism, just as there are grounds for questioning standard assumptions about secularization or the possibilities of traditional world-views.

One may note, as one example, that there are no a priori reasons why the churches in South Africa, or other religious groupings for that matter, cannot transform the role they played in the past in resisting apartheid, into one that builds democracy. There may well be reasons why it is difficult to affect a transformation from a culture of resistance, where it existed, to a practice of democratic engagement. Equally, there are sound sociological grounds for seeing religious institutions as intrinsically conservative even when they break that habit—temporarily—in a time of crisis. Not least among the factors that would constrain a move from resistance to social construction, is an institutional desire to focus on sharpening and reinforcing particular religious identities, such as happens with denominational confessionalism, to protect them against the invasion of a non-religious secular order.26 

Nevertheless, a reconceptualization of religious institutions in the broadest sense27 as an expression of civil society should enable us to think through alternative ways of engagement. It should also, for the same reasons, be possible to find concrete expressions of a positive engagement by religious institutions in the task of democratization. In order to make the shift, one would have to take seriously the task of deprivatizing religion where it is privatized, the context of a plurality of religions, the contested nature of religion (even within one religious tradition), and the centrality of civil society as an independent location of public life apart from, but engaged in, the affairs of state and economy in an open democracy.


Disestablished Religion, Plural Contexts


As long ago as 1970 Archbishop Hurley, a leading anti-apartheid cleric of the Roman Catholic Church, in an address to the South African Institute for Race Relations, noted that any sense of an "established" church could no longer be sustained.28 "Christianity," therefore, "will no longer seek to influence society directly through its political institutions, nor even perhaps through cultural and educational institutions. It will address its message to the conscience of people."29 Hurley here expresses what has become standard practice in a secular society. As he notes, it is also the case that there can no longer be a religion that may be regarded as "established" in South Africa, as perhaps was once the case with either the Dutch Reformed Church or the Anglican Church in South African history.

Is it adequate, however, to assume that the Church disestablished may only carry out the function of conscientization, as Hurley seems to suggest here? We may also ask whether his view that religion should not be directly involved in major public institutions will easily be heard by religious authorities. To accept this would mean, especially in an overtly plural context, giving up any ideas of religious imperialism, religious privilege and religious hegemony in public discourse. While this may be the position maintained by the national constitution, it may not reflect the desires of particular religious communities or institutions.

Hurley’s sense of religion in public life under conditions of democracy and pluralism may not be easy to translate into practice. It assumes some universal core of values underlying the public conscience to which particular traditions may appeal. What would it mean, however, to address oneself to the conscience of the people in the face of plural sets of values propagated by the agents of multiple organs and institutions of the state, the economy and civil society, including religions? If it is to mean more than preaching to one’s own, what language and what institutional frameworks will allow this to happen with effect? What necessary and possible interpretative activity will stand the tests of plurality, democracy and deprivatization while proving itself able to contribute insightfully and with effect to the shaping and developing of public life? Similar questions pertain to cultural traditions. In either case, the represent new challenges.

These are the kinds of issues we face in considering what cultural and religious roots there may be for the construction of civil society. As indicated, the notion of civil society is problematized along with our view on religion and religious experience. We should note, too, that both the nature and place of religion and of civil society are contested, not only in intellectual debate but also in political struggle, whether around the question of the allocation of resources, the making and application of laws and regulations, the status and role of associations and movements, the right to particular practices and traditions which may conflict with constitutional norms, the right to public facilities and platforms, the development of policy, and so on.




Contesting the Concept of Civil Society


The idea of civil society is not new. The notion of a koinonia politika, a community of the city, goes back at least as far as Aristotle. As one would expect, Aristotle’s notion is teleological, that is, it assumes that one engages as a citizen in the life of the polis for a particular end, namely, the common good. The common good, in turn, is not an abstract idea but a practical project. Civil society, therefore, must be understood as a sphere of free and responsible action. As George McLean30 puts it, civil society expresses "what is characteristically human as an exercise of freedom by individuals and groups in originating responsible action."

Cohen and Arato, in their seminal study of Civil Society and Political Theory,31 also wish to recover this normative dimension to civil society, against what they regard to be the destructive tendencies of administrative bureaucratization and market mechanisms in an advanced capitalist environment.32 They do so in order to rescue those notions and practices which will undergird the politics of social solidarity and social justice. In turn, they believe that this will strengthen autonomy in the face of the administrative power of the modern state and the faceless machinations of corporations and syndicates in the market economies of the world.

In their language, they are interested in finding a practical foundation and concrete historical locus for "patterns of normative integration and open-ended communication characteristic of civil society" which may challenge the stregic and instrumental criteria of bureaucracies and markets, for the sake of democracy. They go further, to claim that political society and economic society must be rooted in civil society if they are to be democratic spheres of existence. In this model, "political society" refers to the mediating framework of interactions between government and all other social actors, where state represents the formal, over-arching institution of governance. "Economic society" similarly refers to the equivalent mediating framework of interactions between all potential actors in society and economic institutions, where markets are the most common institutions of exchange. In this view, "civil society" then includes "structures of socialization, association, and organized forms of communication of the lifeworld to the extent that these are institutionalized or are in the process of being institutionalized."33

Two aspects of this definition bear emphasis. First, civil society, Cohen and Arato argue, must have a material basis in structures, organizations and institutions—including social movements—if it is to play any significant role in mediating normative aspects of democratic life to the institutions of state and economy. Second, civil society is integrally linked to the notion of the lifeworld, and it is here that we may locate cultural and religious traditions.


System, Lifeworld and Civil Society


"Lifeworlds" refer to the taken-for-granted substratum of ideas and practices which are held in, developed through, and communicated by culture, religion, education and the like. Lifeworlds are thus linguistically mediated (in written and spoken language, myths, legends, images, symbols, ritual drama and so on). Their primary social processes are communicative, and their goal generally is communicative competence (in a tradition, a community, a society, etc.).

The notion of lifeworld upon which I depend here derives from the critical theory of modern society developed by Jürgen Habermas, as does Cohen and Arato’s rethinking of civil society. It includes as recognition that we are enveloped in an ongoing, shifting dynamic in which lifeworlds are either seeking to contest or harmonize with system (economic and state) imperatives.

Over and against lifeworld interests stand "system imperatives." They express the human need to control, transform, and organize, our relationship to nature, and our relationships with each other, in producing and distributing the goods necessary for life. They are rooted under modern conditions in the state and in markets. The system imperatives, therefore, are expressed through the steering media of power and money, respectively.

These imperatives have a logic of their own, primarily strategic and instrumental in their nature. This kind of logic tends to exclude, if it does not appear hostile to, lifeworld concerns, which are normative and emancipatory rather than instrumental and strategic. To that extent, system imperatives intrude on lifeworlds, shape lifeworlds in their own image. In Habermas’s language, system imperatives, expressed primarily through state bureaucracies and markets, increasingly "colonize" the spheres of the lifeworld. A good example may be seen in the way in which religion, and in fact anything in the lifeworld, becomes a marketable commodity in itself, a part of the economic system.

Paradoxically, political and economic systems, even as they might confront, alter and even destroy lifeworlds, rest precisely upon lifeworld interests, and rise and fall in accordance with their capacity to draw upon, or locate themselves in relation to, lifeworld interests. Four examples of what this may mean may be offered.

First, the political economic system which apartheid represented in South Africa is easily understood as linked to the lifeworld interests of a particular, racially defined (white) oligarchy. It suppressed, subjugated and ultimately seriously damaged the interests of black South Africans in multiple ways. The "Soweto 1976" revolt of black youth began as a direct challenge to the cultural (lifeworld) imposition of Afrikaans in schools. It grew rapidly, panicking the state, as all kinds of symbols, images, myths, narratives and ideologies of the white oligarchy were challenged and then simply set aside, fuelling a situation in which the system imperatives governed by apartheid could no longer be sustained. In the process, a new language of symbols, images, myths and so on gained ascendancy. Ironically, the language Habermas uses to describe the imperatives or power and money is echoed in the way the black students of that time spontaneously described the apartheid state and economy: "the system." The "system" was their enemy.

The challenge to the "system" remains part of the discourse of post-apartheid politics of reconstruction. It is still a lifeworld of one kind or another that often drives this challenge. A second example, therefore, and a key challenge in establishing a society which incorporates all legitimate claims to conserve and represent particular lifeworlds, is the current battle to find a way to meet the interests of traditional African chiefs who organized along hereditary and patronage lines, in the context of a democratic constitution which is organized according to citizenship rights. Linked to this example is the question of patriarchy, itself deeply embedded in cultural and religious traditions of the lifeworld. The gendered structure of the state, of the market and of key institutions in civil society is thus also a potent field of struggle and contestation, driven in this case by the counter-hegemonic ideas and actions which arise from the lifeworld experiences of women.

A third, more general example, of the complex relation between system imperatives and lifeworld interests may be found in the shift, over the second half of the twentieth century, in development theory. From a highly instrumental view of development after World War II, based on direct aid from government to government (a purely macro-economic perspective), we have arrived at a more particular, local, "people-centered" or "human capabilities" view of development.34 This shift occurred in part because it became increasingly clear to development practitioners and other interested parties that policies which ignore or do not take seriously local lifeworld interests and institutions among those these policies are meant to serve, do not work very well and may even be counter-productive.35 

A great deal more respect has to be given to what one might call "local knowledges" or "local wisdom," which incorporate technical, practical and normative concerns, than was assumed in earlier understandings of development.36 Again, the issue of gender comes to the fore as more and more development practitioners discover that women may be the key to any successful development strategy, and that this means taking seriously their lifeworld and the constraints placed upon it by inhibiting, if not destructive, forces of political and economic society.

It is thus vital to pay attention to the nature of the mediation that takes place between system imperatives and lifeworld interests. At a formal level, this mediation takes the form of regulating processes between system and lifeworld which give rise to constitutions, judicial processes, contracts, bargaining forums and the like—that is, to law. Such mediation may be relatively successful, in which case we have a relatively stable society. They may be relatively disjunctive, in which case significant conflictual relationships predominate and society is relatively unstable. One may therefore make this generalization: The capacity of civil society to represent the interests of lifeworlds in a democratic society is crucial to the health of that society.

In turn, whether we speak of civil, political or economic society, the task of mediating system imperatives and lifeworld interests requires a good measure of communicative competence if we are to establish a stable, open and democratic society.37 Thus an adequate concept of civil society would have to include two key characteristics.

First, civil society must refer primarily to the lifeworlds of people, in particular, to the way in which representatives of specific lifeworld interests express their interests in public. Here the taken-for-granted substratum of behavior, thought and action by which people identify and direct themselves as persons moves from the background into the foreground, into the public sphere. If this happens in such a way as to keep open respect for the lifeworld interests of others, one’s own lifeworld is necessarily modified or altered in interaction with the lifeworld interests of other.38 Such concrete forms of interaction might range from the sphere of the family to the sphere of broad social movements. They are the foundation upon which people produce a variety of social institutions which make up civil society. In this sense, civil society arises from the activity of particular persons engaging with other persons, who then formalize their interaction by establishing a club, a group, a congregation, a task team, a movement, and so on. These, in turn, enter either directly or indirectly into the public sphere, as social entities. In sum, Cohen and Arato note, "both independent action and institutionalization are necessary for the reproduction of civil society."39 

Second, civil society must engage with those agents who represent the imperatives of power and money, through discourses or communicative practices which produce or contribute to the production of appropriate regulatory mechanisms in society. This second characteristic forces us to accept a notion of civil society which sees its associational, organizational or institutional embodiments as directly implicated in politics and economics. Here civil society works by entering into the negotiation of adequate regulatory patterns for society which establish the limits and the responsibilities of those who embody the system imperatives governed by money and power, primarily business and the state.

A weak civil society will obviously be unable to carry out this function well. A strong civil society will likely find itself in a permanently ambiguous position vis-a-vis the state and business. This is because it will have to confront and challenge interests governed more by the logic of profitability and efficiency on the one hand, or bureaucracy and control on the other hand, than by the needs of the lifeworld. At the same time, as noted previously, there are good reasons to believe that both politics and economics benefit from a strong civil society under democratic conditions.

If this framework is a persuasive, practically possible view of civil society, it suggests that the normative claims associated with lifeworld interests must enter into the discursive practices by which society is regulated. The projection of particular, tradition-rich norms is always likely to produce tension, if not conflict, with the strategic and instrumental values which drive the interests of power and money. In this tension, or conflict, because of the relative weight of resources behind the interests of power and money, it is not difficult for lifeworld interests to be minimized or marginalized in decisions made about power and money. This is true even if such decisions affect lifeworld interests deeply. This marginalization will inevitably include ideological discourses which justify it. It will also inevitably produce a reaction, in the form of a wide variety of "arts of resistance," some overt, some coded, some hidden.40 

The obvious, one may even say paradigmatic justification of the marginalization of religion from political and economic life, is found in a popular colloquialism: "Keep religion out of politics and politics out of religion." This is an apt expression of the ideology which modern "secular" representatives of power and money are likely to adopt. In fact, it is another way of saying that religion should be privatized, excluded from the public realm, to become the separate, and separated, business of those particular institutions whose lifeworld interests involve the preservation of religious traditions they espouse. By definition, such institutions should refrain from engagement in or with those who represent the steering imperatives of power and money. If, however, religious organizations are a paradigmatic case of an institution of civil society,41 then civil society as a whole should follow the same logic. It too is privatized, according to this logic. Whence comes this logic, and is it necessary?


The Privatization of Civil Society


McLean42 traces the development of the notion of civil society as a privatized sphere to the sources that one might expect in the rise of modernity, namely, the 17th and 18th century epistemologies of Locke and Hume. It is not necessary to traverse the history of this concept in detail, but certain claims and trajectories are worth recalling.

Locke believed a common foundation of knowledge was necessary in order to extend political decision making beyond the aristocracy to a broader citizenry. This knowledge would have to be inscribed in the mind through sensible reflection. Hume argued further that matters of fact alone should count in making decisions in the public sphere, adjudicated through formal argument. In short, fact rather than tradition, formal argument rather than normative claims, have precedence. Persons, in this view, should be treated as another kind of fact, not as embodying particular histories or communally determined values and virtues. Persons here are understood as individuals who function on the basis of external utilitarian relations founded on self-interest. They are "single entities wrapped in self-interests."43 Society, accordingly, would be regulated along instrumental lines through a "system of rights and of justice to protect each one’s field of self-interested choices." Citizens in this perspective appear as atomized entities with no histories or traditions, only minds and sensible experiences upon which their minds reflect. Whatever normative claims or values they might entertain, these should be "absent from the construction of the public order." By implication, religion should be absent from the public sphere.

What then becomes of civil society? It is no more than a private, interior sphere as a matter not of reason, but of feeling, affectivity and emotion. At most, therefore, civil society would have the function of attending to the hurts, pains and feelings of those negatively affected by political and economic decisions. It would be a safety net. This is exactly how Adam Smith saw it. Markets, to him, were the key to the good life, supported by a benign state. Yet they did have the potential to hurt people. Still, neither markets nor the state should take responsibility for the damage done to people by market forces, or the dislocation and unemployment which these forces generated. This is to be the task of civil society.

From Locke to Smith, it becomes clear that civil society is "privatized." It is split off from political and economic society to act behind the scenes, so to speak, in order to rescue people. The political economy itself would not come under question. One may see how many churches and other religious bodies might adapt to this model, finding a role in the "first aid" and "nursing" of the emotionally, psychologically and physically wounded of society.44 Here too one might ground a critique of religious bodies who accept this definition of their role in a modern society. It would become a critique of Christian philanthropy and pastoral care which takes the private sphere or the sphere of welfare to be its prime focus—a sadly reduced, perhaps even abdicated, responsibility for lifeworlds in the first place, and the health of the body politic in the second.45 

Contra such theories, Habermas’s critical theory of society would suggest that a subservient or privatized civil society is a long-term, perhaps even medium-term, recipe for social instability. It enhances the tendencies of the interests of money and power to colonize lifeworlds. In the process, it is likely to degrade democratic culture. Oligarchs, plutocrats and other kinds of elites may not be disturbed by this, but others should be.

As indicated previously, Cohen and Arato, informed by Habermas, believe that an adequate notion of civil society links it, indirectly, to the spheres of the state and of business. It is less an independent sphere than a base for engaging in matters of state and business on behalf of lifeworld interests. Civil society would thus participate in political society: Parliamentary committees are a good example; campaigns by religious bodies another. It would also engage with economic society: NEDLAC46 is an example, a forum in which unions and business associations, themselves organs of civil society, engage on matters of state and economy.

Civil society, on this understanding, is anything but privatized. Religious institutions and agencies are a part of civil society, expressing particular lifeworld interests. On this model, they should not be relegated to the private sphere any more than other sectors of civil society should. That religious groups might take up their interests in ways which separate them from the wider society, or which attempt to impose upon the wider society their own norms and values, as is characteristic of many fundamentalist, exclusivist or imperialist forms of religion, is not the point. Under modern conditions, they would at some point have to be publicly accountable, at least in the sense of being able to give good and defensible reasons for the position they take in the face of counter-claims or challenges.47 In short, religious bodies would need to be both ready to persuade, the easiest part of the equation, and, in principle, to be persuaded, perhaps the more difficult part.


Individual versus Communal: Problematizing the Antipathy


This leads us to a final point regarding the critique of the modernist paradigm of privatization. It concerns claims for universally definable guarantors of value, as expressed in particular in the writings of John Rawls.48 

Rawls suggests that particular sets of values, as captured in an all-encompassing religious vision of life, for example, should not enter into the public domain directly. A pluralist public domain must be established on the basis of a minimum set of rules to which all could assent. This could not be tied to the norms or claims of any particular tradition. Instead, an undifferentiated field of tolerance must override all differences which constitute the Other. Were we to accept such a proposal, McLean suggests, then we would have a situation in which "The denizens of this domain, having deposited their basically identifying sense of meaning and commitment behind a veil of ignorance, remain denatured clones whose age, religion, race and sex must not be considered in the public domain."49 

In this sense Rawls represents a wholly decontextualised ethic based on some assumed individual rationality located in a context-free ego. In passing, we may note that the idea of human rights as inhering in the individual belongs to this paradigm as well. It may be contrasted with African philosophies which emphasize the rights of communities or communal entities to which individual rights may be related. It may also be contrasted with the way in which many religious communities emphasize responsibilities as much as they do rights. In each case, the status of contemporary rights discourse is brought into question.50 

In the Rawlsian view, the other must in principle be treated the same as oneself, a universal essence. It thus displaces or hides the manifold concrete ways in which the other is actually experienced as alien and alienated in oneself.51 Moreover, it jettisons any anthropology which may take otherness as in fact constitutive of the self.52 The net effect of Rawls’s anthropology is that the other is seen as an extension of the self (a European, Northern, affluent self?), and its practical implication is that the self which, through conquest and domination, comes to dominate the other is also understood to be definitive of the other.

The universal ethic Rawls champions then, because it decontextualizes any particular self, removes from ethical consideration all material differences in power. Such an ethic inevitably hides particular interests. It sets out to establish a abstract, rule-governed basis upon which all are equal. But it thereby ends up denying the real differences that divide us, particularly in respect of race, class and gender.

Contra Rawls, we need to recognize the importance of understanding and grasping differentiation as constitutive of our social life. This applies to civil society as much as anything else. Without such an understanding, we miss the way in which our location in communal entities, from the family onwards, not only defines the self as self. We also miss the potential our particular identities, differentiated from others, has to offer positive resources which may be harnessed to develop and reconstitute a common life.


Some Implications for Civil Society and Religion


The above considerations suggest, first, that civil society is wrongly understood if conceptualized as part of the private realm. Indeed, the distinction between the public and the private which such a view implies is itself suspect, rooted as it is in a typical Cartesian dualism of the interior and exterior life. Second, a revised view of public discourse accepts that normative ethical considerations should enter into the public exercise of decision-making. Third, such normative discourses strengthen the freedom offered by the public sphere when they happen as reasoned arguments based on the experience and shared traditions of particular peoples.

What would this mean for religious bodies? First, I would suggest, particular religious bodies would engage in the public realm in one of three ways: Through the associational forms of organization they already represent or might construct, through participation in social movements (coalition building, for example), and through public communication. Second, religious bodies do so on the strength of, and through a strong presentation of, their particular identities, to which their norms are usually linked. They would make normative claims to defend lifeworlds against that which threatens their freedom, and to contribute to defining the kinds of freedom this implies. Third, if the discourse ethics argued for above are taken as given, then the way in which religious bodies might enter with effect into public discourse is by giving good reasons for their arguments,53 such good reasons including those drawn from experience and from the wisdom of the traditions they represent.54 

One may adopt a communicative rationality which allows and encourages normative claims in public discourse, but still demand that they meet the criteria of procedural rights which Rawls outlines. This would be to claim again that all normative perspectives allowed into civil social discourse be mediated by a minimum set of rules to which all would assent. This remains a minimal basis for a discourse ethic, however, because it really only requires that one hear out the normative claims of the other in order to maximize the free participation of everyone, but nothing more. The basic idea would still be to find a minimal consensus through controlled procedures. It would weaken, not strengthen, civil society, because a reliance on procedures alone to make decisions (e.g. a vote or consensus mechanism) works against mutual explorations of the possible range of normative bases for collaborative, coalitional or other associational action in society.

A minimum agreement is better than none, and perhaps more "realistic" pragmatically in many situations. But if the health of the body politic is a key consideration for the long run, or even the medium term, then a richer discourse ethic may be worth aiming at. It would at least develop democracy more deeply, and enhance the capacities of citizenship which are necessary to it.

Moreover, without those "mutual explorations of the possible range of normative bases for collaborative, coalitional or other associational action in society," there can be no broad basis for challenging the instrumental and strategic interests which guide public life under the influence of the imperatives of power and money. There would also be few resources to provide the moral foundations of society.




If this observation is valid, as I believe it is in respect of the ascendancy of the "forces of globalization,"55 it needs to be explained how civil society could effectively inject normative claims into public discourse, particularly in relation to political and economic society. Again, I take religion as a paradigmatic instance, upon which we may construct a more general claim. Religion is also a limit case, because it represents a strong form of identity, belonging and programmatic activity in civil society. The question is: How might a religious body, committed to a particular identity and vision of reality which might well stand against the guiding values of existing political and economic society, intervene in political and economic society with credibility and potency?


Frameworks for the Operalization of Civil Society


John Coleman,56 in his study on the successful practices of six major religiously based groups in civil society in the USA, makes the provocative suggestion that the process of deprivatizing faith nurtures and feeds into revitalized citizenship. In all six cases he shows that the faith-based engagement in society of these groups engenders skills and qualities, both personal and communicative, that also lie at the base of good citizenship. Addressing power, as such, is not the key to their effectiveness. None of the groups, some of them large and with international impact,57 address "power," that is, the state, or "money," that is, business, directly. They address an independent public.

This independent public, the prime constituency of religious leaders and groups, is the locus of their defense of lifeworlds. It is the base from which they articulate normative possibilities for society and confront the negative impact of strategic and instrumental reason. As Vaclav Havel apparently once noted, nothing instructs the authorities better than pressure from below.

Civil society, then, is where the "pressure from below" originates. This pressure may grow in a number of ways, some through overt political action, some through ordinary beliefs and practices. On the one hand, the South African experience suggests that the role of activists is vital to a strong civil society. On the other hand, activists often function as a relatively small avant-garde elite who do not necessarily represent the way in which most people live their lives, nor find ready anchorage in the daily rituals of belonging, identity, habit and action of "ordinary people."

That such anchorage is equally vital may be best illustrated by referring to a much publicized, and to some extent successful, campaign launched in the late nineteen eighties by church leaders against the martial law crackdown of the state and the implementation of its "National Security Management System" (NSMS).58 This was the "Standing for the Truth" Campaign. High profile national meetings were held, and powerful statements were made by major church leaders, some of international repute, people such as Archbishop Tutu, Allan Boesak of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and Frank Chikane of the South African Council of Churches. Regional action groups were initiated, though with mixed success. Pamphlets, posters and other forms of publicity and publication were produced and disseminated. Denominational synods, assemblies and the like took notice in resolutions and statements. And the government certainly paid close attention to these developments, at least initially.

Yet the campaign, full of discursive force at the level of public media, nevertheless almost wholly failed to take root at the level of congregations, in the lives of ordinary parishioners and congregants. Once this became clear to the state, it too appeared less concerned, even if the effects that individuals such as Tutu were having on international perceptions of its policies and practices were worrisome.

We may suggest, therefore, that the mobilization of civil society that such a campaign represents, even under conditions where the majority of the population are likely to acknowledge it as in their interests, does not have the force it might have if it is not directly connected to the mundane lifeworld interests of ordinary people. The activist strengths of such a campaign cannot be underestimated: They are not insignificant. But they would in all likelihood be far greater were they to be embedded in the symbolic, interpretative and ritual richness of what I have called "ordinary" concerns.

Another example that might demonstrate this best by way of contrast, is that of the testimony given to the TRC by the Zion Christian Church, the largest of the AICs. This is a church that was seen by anti-apartheid activists as, at best, passive in the face of oppression, at worst, party to the undermining of the kind of consciousness required for resistance to oppression. Yet the ZCC’s own understanding of their long, relative "silence" in the face of oppression is different.

They claim to have put in place an institution capable of retaining, in the face of colonial and settler conquest and of the suppression of African identity and aspirations, those memories and practices, and that dignity and moral leadership, which may now be made available to the rest of society—in particular to other Africans. Their claim is underscored by the widespread awareness among contemporary leaders, including President Mbeki, of the degradation or even destruction of the moral fibre of the nation so necessary to the building of a healthy citizenry and a functioning democracy.

The ZCC represents, in the light of more recent interpretations of domination, a kind of cultural and historical resistance to the imperatives of the state and the market. It is not overtly political, nor is it a zone of pure freedom. An organization such as the ZCC is not without its contradictions of all kinds either. Yet it does represent something more than mere accommodation to the dominant system and hegemonic epistemé of colonization and apartheid, more than mere assimilation into the ‘ruling ideas of the ruling class.’ Its modus operandi may have been categorized as apolitical and thus basically reactionary, but its current self-assessment, and a more nuanced view among social scientists of the way in which terrains of domination and resistance are constructed suggests that such a view is inadequate. Equally important for my argument, the ZCC is surprisingly successful, in and through its religious claims, at capturing the significance of the pain and the hopes of ordinary people, in ways which do indeed create space and retain dignity in the midst of oppression. It signals something of the capacity of religious communities, through normative claims embedded in traditions, to shape civil society in ways yet to be fully appreciated.

It underscores the ways in which ordinary people may be seen less as victims and more as agents of their situation, however constrained, of alternative ways of negotiating space and time which might support their being.59 Perhaps survival is the only teleological goal of many people who join such movements. But survival is already more than victimhood. In this, and many other myriad ways, the forces of domination are seen to be less absolute than might be claimed in certain theories of oppression and domination. In this, and many other myriad ways, the religious and cultural roots of identity and belonging, of coping with suffering and of anticipating that for which one hopes, may enter into civil society more strongly than we might suspect.

This is not to romanticize the local, the partial, the constrained, the ambiguous force of such phenomena, for the imperatives of the systems of money and power are strong and penetrate deeply into daily life. It is, however, to question an over-determined view of such imperatives, and to challenge any underestimation of the capacities of human being and human becoming which rest in ordinary people.

There is one critical lacuna in this argument still requiring attention. This is the question of how activist engagements in civil society might articulate with the less obvious ways of being present in society represented by the case of the ZCC. The evidence, in South Africa at least, suggests that such articulation is difficult to achieve, and seldom evident.

Contrasting evidence may be given once again, this time in regard to the current role of evangelical and Pentecostal Christians who were largely absent from the apartheid struggle, if they were not public supporters of the apartheid regime. They are now using their rhetorical and charismatic strengths, drawing on the basic biblical texts upon which most Christian depend, to mobilize large numbers of ordinary people behind local engagements in social reconstruction activities. This is not seen by them as political activity in any strict sense. It is seen as a necessary missionary and evangelical response to the healing of people and of society. But they do appear to be aware that such activity builds that personal virtue and commitment that is needed to drive civil society organs and movements.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, one church at the forefront of this thrust, the Rhema Church and its leader, Ray McAuley, finds great resonance for their local activities among government leadership, including both Presidents Mandela and Mbeki. Why?

Whatever other reasons there might be, two seem obvious, both given substance in challenges to religious bodies that have been made by Mandela and Mbeki, among others. The first may be stated thus: "Put your money where your mouth is"; that is, let us see that your good words are matched by a capacity to mobilize significant community support on the ground. The second may be stated in the form of the question: "Whom do you represent?"; that is, is there a significant constituency of South Africans that place their trust directly in you?

On both counts, the evangelical and Pentecostal churches show signs of easily outdoing the ecumenical churches who stood against apartheid. Perhaps this is because they are more flexible as institutions, move more quickly, and appeal more directly to those less learned in biblical and theological scholarship and doctrine. Perhaps it is because they are better equipped to deal with the interests of "ordinary" people interests in terms they understand, and thus more effective in representing their lifeworlds.60 

The point is well expressed by Coleman in his analysis. Citizenship, he argues, must be theorized in terms of "everyday and tangibly accessible life" in which "values such as trust, openness, responsibility, love and solidarity … replace the cynicism of the narrow ideals of a manipulative or passive citizenship sponsored by the state or elite experts."

To this judgement must be added a qualifier, already signalled in the first part of this essay, and which may be summarized as follows. Religion is most often, if not always, expressed in competing, even conflictual forms, within the same general tradition, and in the same measure that political contexts are conflictual and governed by a struggle over resources—and values. This condition, by now fairly widely accepted as a sociological judgement on religion in society, must be taken as a pre-condition for any theory of religion in civil society. It cautions us against too simplistic an resolution of what is a complex, finally irresolvable aporia: The tensions between conservation and innovation, between the dynamics of preservation and of change, between tradition and criticism, between the constraints of actuality and the lure of new possibility.

An effective engagement from within civil society with political and economic society begins with an acceptance of this aporia, and the working out of strategic combinations of each pole, according to the conditions of a particular time and place. Just as resistance may be seen in a range of "arts," so too might we say that engagement in social transformation requires a range of "arts."

If this is true, then there is no blueprint for religious engagement in society, by any standard. There are no foundational rules or guaranteed processes. There is no fixed, systematic set of strategies or tactics to employ which guarantees desired results. There are many concrete social boundaries, some flexible, some rigid, between the poles of the aporia of tradition and criticism, or conservation and innovation. At the same time—and this is a very important simultaneity—there are many frameworks of experience and understanding, whereby we may determine which practices and what processes are more likely to enable one to enter and intervene effectively in the public realm, to build civil society, and to shape political and economic society. Some of these have been pointed out in the course of this essay, and others may be found in many of the references it makes to other works.

In the end, whether or not religion, or religious institutions and movements, offer the best or even a good base for the construction of civil society and the reconstruction of society remains an ambiguous question. The question is capable of being answered only in practice, in relation to particular contexts, and in accordance with the conditions of particular locations and times.




1. My notion of culture here is a broad one, encompassing religious, aesthetic, political and economic arrangements, practices and behaviors which may describe the particularity of a specific group of people. A culture may be permeated by religious symbols, ideas and practices, but it will be broader than those.

2. The Kairos Document: Challenge to the Church (Johannesburg: Institute for Contextual Theology, 1986, [Revised 2nd edition]), 2. The document arose at the time of the integration of political and military means of control in South Africa in defense of apartheid, commonly known as the "National Security Management System," and after a state of emergency had been declared in many part of the country as resistance to apartheid grew.

3. The National Party was the ruling party of the apartheid state. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was an organ of the new constitution which met from 1997-1999 to hear submissions about the years of apartheid from 1960 onwards, as part of an attempt to create the framework for a new society.

4. Thus, at one stage of the South African transition to an open, democratic society, a strong possibility existed that the National Party would change its name to something like the Christian Democratic Party (primarily in order to avoid the image problems raised by its past). In fact, it decided instead to take the name "New National Party." This in itself indicates a conviction that the past could be regarded positively, that apartheid really was not that bad and had its own benefits. Among other things, what makes such an ideology possible is the belief that past policies and practices were legitimate responses to attacks on the state by "terrorists" and "communists."

5. A recent study that raises pertinent questions in respect of an African experience of "civil society" in the "civilization" of Africa is Mahmood Mamdani, Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Colonialism (London: James Currey, 1996).

6. The assumption lying behind this use of the term "modern" is that political society is dominated by the state, economic society by market forces and agencies, and that both are by and large immune from religious control. This is usually overtly acknowledged in a constitutional separation of church and state, or more generally, religion and state.

7. My own research into four years of bible study discourses recorded by a group who lived in an informal shack settlement points to the complex range of issues which surround this claim, and provides evidence to support it; see Cochrane, Circles of Dignity: Community Wisdom and Theological Reflection (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999).

8. Feminist and African women’s theological critiques of patriarchy, for example, touch at the heart of some of the conceptual schemes and linguistic frameworks which shape so much of the history of theology—its creeds, its doctrines, its proclamations, its symbols, and so on—and the cultures in which this theology is embedded.

9. Afrikaans is a uniquely South African language developed out of the Dutch spoken by early settlers, which was both simplified grammatically and enriched by many other indigenous and slave languages. It was formalized only in the early part of the twentieth century. It was seen as the language of apartheid, the term itself being Afrikaans in origin.

10. Two articles analyzing this kind of suspicion, by M. Prozesky, "Methodological Issues Arising from the Experience of Religion as Oppressive," and J. Moulder, "Why Feminist Theology Encourages Unbelief," may be found in J. Mouton, A. G. van Aarde, and W. S. Vorster (eds.), Paradigms and Progress in Theology (Pretoria: Human Sciences Research Council, 1988).

11. The study covered recent speeches of representatives of the conservative African Christian Democratic Party—the one party claiming overt Christian sanction for its politics, of the majority African National Congress, and of one or two other parties. See Representing Christianity in the South African Parliament, 1997, at

12. The African Christian Democratic Party, for instance, is the only elected body in parliament to have refused to sign the new Constitution of South Africa on the grounds that it does not presume the sovereignty of the Christian God. At the same time, one must add, the actual practice of politics means that the ACDP does engage pragmatically in ordinary political work within parliament, notwithstanding its rejection of the founding document.

13. In fact, Mbeki referred to ACDP thinking as a "theology of death," because of their support for capital punishment, their exclusivist Christianity, their intolerance of others in many cases, and narrow moralisms which frequently exhibit a vindictive rather than a forgiving faith in his view. See Mbeki’s reply to the debate on his inaugural Presidential speech at

14. The Hebrew Bible tradition of prophecy is invoked in this instance, particularly those strands which emphasize that the leaders of the people have betrayed the covenant with God, and because their regime does not represent God’s project in the world. This made great sense in respect of apartheid, and while it retains pertinence in respect of the issue of poverty, for example, in our contemporary society, simply to continue to condemn the new state in principle seems misplaced.

15. This reply is contained in an address made to the Multi-Event 1999 on Religion and Public Life, Cape Town, February 1999, which may be found at

16. Even in Iran, however, one could easily make a good case for the ambiguity of religion, in this case of Islam. There is not doubt that the debates between liberal and conservative ("fundamentalist") Muslims in Iran are by no means over, even if the conservatives for the moment hold power.

17. Max Weber’s famous thesis about the Calvinist impulses that fire the "spirit of capitalism," despite the much debated difficulties in his thesis, is but one pointer to this claim. But even without that, one need only think of the religious roots of the Scottish rationalists (Adam Smith and John Locke being among the most obvious) who are so important to western liberalism in its political and economic forms to take the point.

18. There were numerous voices critical of the particular Christian theology which dominated much of the ritual of the TRC; see James Cochrane, John de Gruchy, and Stephen Martin (eds), Facing the Truth: South African Faith Communities and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (Athens Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1999), 67—section 5.1.2 of the TRC Faith Communities Report.

19. As we know, the shift towards "professionalism" in sports across the world in the latter half of the twentieth century has been rapid and widespread, and with it has come the penetration of the market, and of market rationality, into the "noble" codes of amateurism that previously held sway. Attempts to retain some sense of this nobility remain strongly present, perhaps signaling the contradiction that sport now represents between market and lifeworld (communal pride, belonging, etc.) interests.

20. A good example is the decision by Nelson Mandela, then president, to attend the Rugby World Cup final between South African and New Zealand, held in South Africa, wearing a rugby shirt with the number of the white (Afrikaner) captain of an almost all white team, as a message of reconciliation.

21. This push has led to proposals for state-imposed quotas at representative level, that is, provincial and national teams. The proposals function merely to pressure sporting codes at this moment, but they may be invoked if the pressure does not produce results.

22. More commonly known as "African Independent Churches," I prefer the term "African Initiated Churches," because it stresses African agency rather than identification in opposition to the colonial Other. The terms "African Initiated Churches" and "African Indigenous Churches" have also been used by scholars, all with their particular ideological justifications. The acronym, in each case, however, remains "AICs."

23. African traditional religion (ATR) is by definition holistic in that it takes for granted that traditional cultural rituals and symbolic life, always part of social and political life in African communities, is the religion.

24. At this point we will bracket a secondary discussion on whether such holistic views are rooted in an anachronistic model of society which must collapse under modern conditions.

25. John A. Coleman, "Civil Society, Citizenship and Religion," Chapter 3 of unpublished typescript, 1997.

26. The notion of the "freedom of religion" embodied in South Africa’s new constitution worries many religious communities. This may be because they tend toward a fundamentalist or, in some cases, a theocratic model of the determination of society by religious tenets. It may also be because the concept of the "freedom of religion" cannot be de-linked from other human rights clauses in the constitution which may be problematic for particular religious groups. The issue of capital punishment, outlawed by the constitution, is one example; as are clauses on gender rights which support the termination of pregnancy bill. The issue of legitimate discrimination also arises; it remains possible, some argue, to challenge churches who do not ordain women via gender rights legislation, though this has not happened to date.

27. By this I mean to include not only formal organizational structures of religion, such as denominations, the Muslim Judicial Council, the Jewish Board of Deputies, and the like, but also all those associations which have been "instituted," formally or informally, to represent and act on behalf of any group of believers.

28. It should be noted that the meaning of "established" in this context derives from a British context, in which the Church of England is "established by law" as the religious guarantor of the state. Thus the monarch of the United Kingdom is also the head of the Church of England, as has been the case from Henry VIII on.

29. Denis E. Hurley, Facing the Crisis: Selected Texts of Archbishop Denis E. Hurley (Pietermaritzburg: Cluster Publications, 1997), p. 107.

30. George F. McLean, "Philosophy and Civil Society: Its Nature, Its Past and Its Future," in George F. McLean (ed.) Civil Society and Social Reconstruction (Washington D.C.: Council for Research in Values and Philosophy, 1997), p. 13.

31. Jean Cohen and Andrew Arato, Civil Society and Political Theory (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1994).

32. One might argue that a theory designed for "advanced capitalist" society has little relevance to a "developing" nation, as South Africa, for example, would be defined by the World Bank. One has to be careful here, but I would suggest that the forces of "globalization" as they impact on South Africa and other developing countries, carry with them some of the deep dynamics that characterize advanced capitalism, including the distinctions that arise between political, economic and civil society. Cohen and Arato’s analysis is particularly suited to such a view, given their definition of civil society (which follows in the text).

33. Cohen and Arato, op. cit., x.

34. David Korten’s description of some of the major changes in development theory over several decades is useful; see Getting to the 21st Century : Voluntary Action and the Global Agenda (West Hartford, Conn.: Kumarian Press, 1990).

35. For similar reasons, more recent development theory has come to recognize that the gendered structure of social relations where development policies are meant to be implemented is a key part of the equation. This, in turn, has a great deal to do with lifeworld issues—especially in the way cultural/religious traditions shape gender understandings and gendered practices.

36. My own work in relation to a local community in a shack settlement near Durban, South Africa, explores some of the elements of knowledge, power, tradition, identity and location which are implicit in "people-centered development"—see Cochrane, Circles of Dignity, op. cit.

37. Following Habermas, "communicative competence" here refers to the capacity of persons, in a relatively unconstrained context of discourse, to represent themselves and their interests and to persuade others of their validity claims by offering good reasons for their position. Lest Habermas be misunderstood, let me add that "good reasons" and "rationality" in this context are concepts he has broadened beyond the classic Enlightenment framework of technical or instrumental logic. A rational position, in his view, would include being able to describe why a particular normative claim or prejudice—in the Gadamerian sense of an historically efficacious tradition or residue of experience and wisdom—is both meaningful and coherent, as well as defensible in the face of other normative claims.

38. The first condition, defense of a lifeworld, is self-evident. The second, modification or alteration of a lifeworld, is not. The latter becomes self-evident only when read in the context of the necessity of communicative competence for a stable society under democratic conditions. Otherwise one will simply have alienated, isolated, subjugated or warring representatives of particular lifeworlds. One is not then talking of civil society in any meaningful sense.

39. Cohen and Arato, op. cit., p. 9.

40. An excellent view of the range of such "arts of resistance" is provided by James Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1990).

41. Many religious bodies, particularly including some Christian churches, I suspect, have not yet grasped the notion that they are expressions of civil society, with the consequence that they often continue to act in naïve and isolated fashion, usually in some conviction about the mysterious automatic efficacy of their proclamations of belief for society.

42. George F. McLean, "Philosophy and Civil Society," op. cit.

43. Ibid., 26.

44. This dilemma, or contradiction, is penetratingly dealt with in Bertoldt Brecht’s St Joan of the Stockyards.

45. One would have to take into account here, as a contradiction, the tendency of religious institutions to exclusive, imperial or fundamentalist assumptions by which the communicative activity of a healthy society may also be undermined.

46. National Economic Development and Labor Council, a new body in South Africa which embodies the tripartite relationship between the state, business and labour in an attempt to work out policy positions acceptable to all. It is meant to provide a platform for labour in particular.

47. The only logical exceptions to this rule would occur when a religious group does not attempt in any way to represent itself in public life (preferring offstage activities, so to speak), or when it wholly denies all conditions of modern public life, in particular those of plurality and of the separation of spheres of authority (in which case, it would tend to a millenarian, an anti-social, or a demagogic position).

48. George F. McLean, "Philosophy and Civil Society," op. cit., 30ff.

49. Ibid., 31.

50. Unfortunately, many religious communities are not entirely persuasive at this level when their claims are accompanied by a clear denial of the rights of others to autonomy and independent judgement.

51. On this issue, see Julia Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves (NY: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991).

52. In my view, the most important statement in philosophical ethics of this relation is found in Paul Ricoeur, Oneself as Another (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

53. Once again in the sense of Habermas (see footnote 37 above).

54. Any religious body or person which took a different approach, say that of an exclusive claim to truth or the interpretation of truth, or one which rejects rational argument in principle in favor of a revelation which may not be criticized, will not match these criteria. Such bodies or persons, whom we may call "fundamentalist" or "sectarian," are likely to enter public discourse monologically, refusing any interrogation of their claims. This would, of course, no longer be a discourse ethic.

55. By the "forces of globalization" I mean here the mix of economic, political and cultural factors driven by industrialization, the rise of market economies, and the shift from industrial production to information and service economies characteristic of our time. With the demise of apartheid, and the collapse of artificial barriers set up, for example, by the sanctions campaign, by self-determined isolationist policies, and by trade barriers which created something of a South African version of the "iron curtain"—a "white laager"— South Africa has had to face these forces in new ways, very rapidly, and with a very uneven capacity to control them. Market rationality increasingly pervades all sectors of South African society as a result, including universities and even churches.

56. John A. Coleman, op. cit.

57. Habitat for Humanity is one, for example.

58. The NSMS was a policy framework instituted by the Botha regime, under the influence of the military in particular, who adopted the "low intensity conflict" (LIC) analysis and strategies developed by theorists at the US Military Academy, in Britain, and in France. Respectively, military theorists here were aiming at learning how to deal with insurgent groups in civil struggles against oppressive regimes on the basis of retrospective studies of the Vietnam, Malaysian and Algerian wars of independence. In South Africa this was called the "total national strategy." The fundamental assumption of LIC theory was that insurgent or guerrilla groups could be permanently contained if society was controlled at all levels by command structures under the authority of the military but including the state and other law enforcement agencies, if sufficient leadership among the oppressed groups could be bought out either directly or by patronage systems, and if the populace at large convinced that this had to be done to counter some enemy who was engaged in "total struggle" against the society as such. It did not succeed in South Africa because of a lack of finance in the case of the second condition, and too broad a base of resistance along racially defined lines in the case of the third condition. The first condition was met as fully as it has been anywhere.

59. For a persuasive interpretation along these lines, see Robin Petersen, "The AICs and the TRC: Resistance Redefined," in Cochrane et al, Facing the Truth, pp. 114-125.

60. This analysis does not gainsay the reactionary dangers in populism and "common sense" readings of public events, processes and practices, but that is not my point here.