UCSB Africa & the Middle East Workshop

Question 1: What is the role of religion in social change?

Laura Grillo

What transformative role have religious institutions played in civil society?


When considering the place and potential of religious organizations in civil society, what attention has been given to indigenous religious traditions and their practitioners? How are practitioners of African indigenous religions challenging the dominant view of “global civil society” in their own terms, and putting forward a vision of the world as it should be?  Can African indigenous traditions, for example, serve as possible sources of insight into the underlying causes of social strife?  Or are traditional beliefs and practices only seen as vestiges of a bygone era, and impediments to democratization and “modernity”?  Can appeal be made to the principles of African traditions to bring civility to situations of political turmoil and dignity to distressed economies, or would such discourse further fracture nations along ethnic lines?  Are African religions and indigenous cultural life a marginalized sector still actively vying for recognition by “globalizing” forces, even as it continues to shape social reality? How then can adherents of these radically divergent religious worlds, buttressing differing “civilizations,” be effective partners in shaping civil society? 


I will suggest that West African traditional religions point to the spiritual and moral order as the preconditions of both a legitimate state and a viable market, and moreover, that practitioners are actively asserting their power to forward these principles in society.  However, the most visible form of this empowerment is not found in NGOs or standard “religious organizations” working as complements to the forces of the market and the state but in ritual and in appeal to ritual rhetoric in public demonstrations of protest against the abuses of the state and the tyranny of the market.  My example will be women’s demonstrations in post-civil war Côte d’Ivoire.

Jeffrey Haynes

The relationship between religion and politics in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East is complex.  Most societies in these two regions are made up of a variety of religious and ethnic groups. These factors make it very problematic when seeking to assess the role of civil society in issues involving interaction  between different religious and ethnic groups. Sometimes, it can lead to conflict while on other occasions and in other contexts people from different religious traditions can draw on their faith to find solutions to apparently intractable political problems.

William Headley

What transformative role have religious institutions played in civil society?


The Economist recently and sheepishly apologized for labeling Africa “the hopeless continent” a decade ago. Today, the continent’s economic, political and humanitarian services’ profile is far more positive. Yet, this transformation is both uneven and tenuous.


If it has taken Africa a decade to begin its social turnaround, some argue that it is only over the last 40 years that religion has begun to escape its own doomsday epitaph: that it would shrivel away before the powerful engines of the modernity. In fact, Africa is a leader in that major portion of the world which is today called religious (64%). 

While one can draw generously on examples from many faiths, I will reflect most directly on how the Catholic Church which, led in the last century by Europe and North America, today finds two thirds of its membership living in the Global South. Africa holds a prominent place in this growth. Consequently, the heavy imprint of Africa will be on the future of the Catholic Church. The religious convictions of this new African Catholic Church play a transformative role on civil society across the continent. How effectively this Church – as well as other religious bodies -- does this and the form it takes will depend largely on its political theology.


Sources (optional use by editor):


----- “Africa Rising.” Economist 28, no. 8762 (December 3rd – 9th, 2011).

Allen, John. The Future Church. New York: Doubleday, 2009.

Toft, Monica Duffy, Daniel Philpott, and Timothy Shah. God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics. New York: W. W. Norton Company, 2011.


Dwight N. Hopkins

The role that religion plays in civil society depends, of course, on the country. Thus, culture and context impact the “religion-civil society” interaction. We can take a recent instance of South Africa.


From 1948 until the end of apartheid South Africa with democratic elections in 1994, the Christian religion justified the process of separating different races apart. Indeed, the white Dutch Reformed Church introduced its own internal practice of apartheid to the ruling Afrikaaner National Political Party. The National Party then implemented the apartheid policy for the whole of society. Here Christian theology becomes the comprehensive and normative religious practice in all of civil society. Christian biblical texts gave “sacred” scriptural rationale in the ongoing dynamic of deploying religion as agent of conservative, social transformation.


Due to the imprisonment of anti-apartheid political leaders, a huge void existed in the country in the early 1960s. No major organizations consistently advocated for democracy. As a result, the only institutions capable of maneuvering in such a confined public space were the various Christian churches. They used their interpretation of Christianity in a positive role to reconfigure the terms of debate in civil society.


They accomplished this task in several ways. First, they assumed the moral high ground by using the Christian language of love, freedom, justice, and reconciliation. Second, they kept alive the memory of those political leaders who were incarcerated. Third, they widened their religious movement by activating their international ties with global civil societies. Fourth, they effectively utilized Christianity to mobilize the majority of the South African populace, a population deeply defined by and accepting of notions of the supernatural as present in their daily lives. And fifth, they grounded their efforts in a reinterpretation of Jesus Christ in the Christian Bible. This figure broadened out beyond a personal “lord and savior” to one who dominated all of civil society.

Karel Zelenka

If CS means public spaces where voluntary associations including churches, NGOs, employers and employees’ organizations as well as individual citizens discuss and / or advocate important societal issues of the day and how to achieve their goal which is mostly development, i.e., having choices, being empowered and able to decide what people think is best for them and their society, then religious institutions in general and the Catholic Church in particular play a considerable transformative role. They do so by contributing to debates on issues of public policy and exert an influence for the common good in areas of political, economic and social concernsThe transformative role of religious institutions is fitting due to the fact that most public issues have moral dimensions and religious values may significantly affect their discussion and the resulting policies. Religious institutions’ positions in general and those of the Catholic Church in particular are coherent  and more “restrictive” than of CS at large, as they are  rooted in time-tested,  moral  values  while standpoints of others have usually broader views and may change over time.  This increases effectiveness of religious institutions in CS, since the usually very well-defined positions of the Catholic Church are supported by the Church worldwide and thus, giving them strength. The role of the Catholic Church in CS has been boosted by the October 2011 visit of the Pope to Benin and his post-synod exhortation “Africae  Munus” (Commitment to Africa) focusing  on reconciliation, justice & peace activities motivated by the Church’s growing sense of responsibility in the political and social areas.  Through this ministry, the Pope challenges the Church to become more involved in structural changes in societies by standing for “truth” including “naming and shaming” the wrongs, fighting corruption and calling for competent and capable leadership including women in leading roles.


The Catholic Church plays the transformative role in CS by forming conscience of people / CS participants, viz. defining what is right and wrong so people / CS can apply the correct moral choices when considering issues of societal concern.  In fact, no plans, strategies, or policies can make much difference if they do not touch the human heart. And, it is religious institutions’ role to touch the hearts, i.e., to go to the “core” of societies, to energize them around basic values and issues at hand, and outline what it takes to make the societies advance. The Church develops ethical values around critical societal issues and – in a way – holds the societies together by “cementing” the values.  The Church’s institutions enter CS as participants that bring moral values to bear on the societal dynamics by reminding the CS of the common values and effects that communal decisions have.  Catholic institutions act in CS mostly through education of its members using principles of Catholic Social Teaching (CST) and highlighting the need for moral dimensions of public policy. Most importantly, the Catholic Church encourages believers to be of service in the developmental and social fields (“witnessing”), since it is a source of credibility for the Church.


In terms of Africa, most of the continent is trying to build and / or strengthen democratic political systems for which a vibrant CS is indispensable. Of all political systems, democracy resonates most with the Catholic Church’s social values and as a result, the Church is looking for ways to deepen and sustain democracy by forming the consciences of people in public life including CS, and strengthening democratic institutions which is a great transformative role, hopefully leading to an integral human development for all in the spirit of CST. However, the Catholic Church has still some work to do in this area including strengthening of rather weak structures for engagement in some countries, involvement and participation in public policy development, as well as a lack of capacity and information sharing among the religious communities in certain states.

Democracy cannot function without fair and free elections, as they are a source of legitimacy through participation and consent of the governed. However, elections in Africa have rarely been “fair and free” - they have frequently been manipulated to satisfy personal or partisan interests at the expense of the common good resulting often in violence and destruction. Among the main reasons for violence are: lack of political will to implement reforms supporting democratic principles and practices, manipulation of ethnic identities and also ignorance, illiteracy and poverty. CS has a key role to play in preparing, during and after elections and religious institutions should be effectively engaged with political leaders and parties / movements for peace and development. In fact, religious institutions could be protagonists of electoral and thus democratic processes by playing their prophetic role in terms of good governance promotion, peaceful, fair and credible voting process through moral and civic education. It is happening and examples speak for themselves  – for instance the Southern African Bishop’s have been heavily involved in helping the Catholic Church and through her the CS in Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Swaziland among others, and most recently in DRC. This is perhaps the most important transformative role of religious institutions in CS and their greatest contribution to it.