There are limits to what politicians can do

Jack Bloom says Jacques Rousseau has misrepresented his views on politics and religion

I appreciate the relatively civil tone in Jacques Rousseau's comments on my article on prayer, but he misrepresents me. I am not outsourcing my job to God, but acknowledging that there are limits to what politicians can do in improving society.

Religious faith can play a major role where government cannot. The historical examples I gave showed how religious revivals have inculcated civic virtue and curbed social ills like drunkenness.

I refer Rousseau to Paul Johnson's "A History of the American People" for an assessment of the role played by the "Great Awakenings" in American history. According to Johnson: "The (American) Revolution could not have taken place without this religious background."

The great genius of the American separation of church and state is that it allowed freedom for religion, not freedom from religion. There is a lot of literature on the decisive influence of the Bible on America's founders as they wrote "God-given" rights into the Constitution. The French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville remarked on how Americans "have succeeded in combining admirably the spirit of religion and the spirit of liberty."

Sociologists since Max Weber wrote his famous work "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism" have written how Judeo-Christian values like thrift and deferred gratification have assisted economic growth.

A striking assessment has been made by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences after it was requested to discover how the West, having lagged behind China for centuries, came to a position of world pre-eminence. As described by Nial Ferguson in his book Civilisation, the scholar said that at first we thought it was because you had more powerful guns. Then we concluded it was because you had the best political system. Then we realised it was your economic system. "But in the past 20 years, we have realised that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West has been so powerful. The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don't have any doubt about this."

Certain very secular societies do indeed score well today on moral indices, but they live off an accumulated moral capital built on a Judeo-Christian foundation. It remains to be seen how sustainable this is in the longer term, especially since demographic disaster looms as birth rates plummet.

I am opposed in principle to religious parties as it is arrogance in the extreme to claim that God is represented by any political party, and power inevitably corrupts religion. Faith-inspired people are to be found in all political parties. I recall an ANC public representative telling me that meetings of his SA Communist Party branch were always opened with a prayer.

While Rousseau acknowledges the high religiosity in South Africa, he ignores the huge social capital that this can represent in solving our social ills. This is particularly needed in rebuilding families and social institutions that suffered huge damage under apartheid.

The mocking of religion is typical of elite university culture around the world, and also amongst most journalists. So I am not surprised that Rousseau scoffs at the efficacy of prayer.

Prayer works at many levels, including self-improvement. People who work with drug and alcohol addicts will tell you that belief in a Higher Power is an essential step in recovery.

I cherish the free society that South Africa has become. It is difficult to find the answers to our deep-seated ills, but a dismissive secular arrogance is as counter-productive as arrogance in religion or in any other field.

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