The normative promise of religious organizations in global civil society .

Author:Warr, Kevin

Democracy and democratization have been the linchpins of political science since its modern inception in the 1950s.(1) While the discipline has produced a number of theoretical approaches to political behavior, underlying many of these approaches have been themes of self-determination, civil rights, freedom, and representative government. In other words, democracy has been a consistent theme for nearly forty years. However, the 1900s and 1970s saw almost every nascent democracy in newly independent Africa fall to dictatorship. A similar fate befell much of Latin America and Asia. With the fall of communism, however, democracies have begun to burgeon once again and with them, a renewed discourse on the requisites of long-term and successful democracy.

The complementary notions of civil society and social capital and their necessity in the establishment and maintenance of democracy have been at the forefront of this debate. Jean Cohen and Andrew Arato define civil society as "a sphere of social interaction between economy and state, composed above all of the intimate sphere (especially the family), the sphere of associations (especially voluntary associations), social movements, and forms of public communication."(2) The role of civil society in the political system is the creation of influence through the life of democratic associations and "unconstrained discussion in the cultural public sphere."(3)

Social capital refers to "features of social organization, such as trust, norms, and networks, that can improve efficiency of society by facilitating coordinated actions."(4) In other words, social capital is necessary for the smooth functioning of politics within a democratic polity. Social capital is generated, among other things, by civil society.(5)

Two questions arise from this premise. First, do all organs of civil society produce social capital of a type beneficial to democracy? Second, in an international system characterized by increasing globalization, can social capital be fostered across national and cultural boundaries? Particularly important for the purposes of this study is whether religious organizations within civil society (and global civil society) produce social capital of a type that benefits democracy and if so, whether they can transmit this social capital transnationally.

The key argument is that organizations within civil society (and global civil society) that are characterized by values of pluralism and where divergent viewpoints are respected and tolerated foster the type of social capital useful for transitions to, and maintenance of, democracy. Moreover, religious institutions are uniquely positioned within global civil society to foster social capital transnationally because of their special ability to shape peoples' realities based on a shared belief system.

Specifically, this study focuses on the role of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in the fall of the apartheid government in South Africa. It will show that the WCC, through its support of the liberation movements and the international sanctions campaign, has strengthened South African civil society by fostering mutual trust, imparting norms of ethical behavior, and encouraging social networks. In other words, it has generated social capital of a type that produces positive social products beneficial to democracy. The WCC, through its theological attack on the system of apartheid, has bolstered democracy in South Africa because it has changed peoples' reality.(6)


The World Council of Churches provides an enlightening example of how certain religious groups within the realm of global civil society can accentuate the normative promise of global civil society. The WCC has a long history of social activism. Founded in 1948, the WCC is an ecumenical association established to express greater unity among the many and diverse Protestant and Orthodox Christian denominations.(7) At its founding, it was composed of 152 denominations in 42 countries. Today, it has over 330 member churches in 100 countries, and represents more than 400 million Christians.(8)

Since its founding, the WCC has dealt with a host of social issues, including war and peace, liberation and revolution, poverty and hunger. All along, the WCC has taken a firm stance against racism and in 1970, it established its Program to Combat Racism (PCR). In that same year, a Special Fund was set up to aid indigenous organizations combating racism. Among the groups that received funds from the WCC in southern Africa was the African National Congress (ANC),(9) the Southwest African People's Organization (SWAPO),(10) the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC),(11) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU(12)).(13)

The establishment of the PCR caused a considerable amount of controversy among some of the more conservative member churches of the WCC. They were uneasy with the notion that their dues to the World Council could find their way to liberation movements whom many church people believed to be communist-backed, communist-influenced, and whose methods, more often than not, included violence. This was especially true in the case of South Africa. The PCR was very clear that any and all funds were donated for humanitarian purposes only, but this guarantee was not sufficient for many churches. Therefore, the Special Fund of the PCR was established to channel funds to these liberation movements. Regular World Council dues were not included in the Special Fund.

When the Special Fund was established, there was an understanding that, while the Special Fund was to be used for the liberation of all people, fully half of those funds each year would go to fighting apartheid in South Africa and southern Africa.(14) Given the PCR's concern with white racism as well as the institutional forms of racism, this appeared to be a logical choice.(15) Therefore, a good portion of the Special Fund went to organizations fighting for liberation in South Africa and southern Africa (See Table 1 below).


Churches, organizations and governments in some cases, could contribute money to the Special Fund for the express purpose of supporting the liberation movements. However, these funds were quite small in most cases and therefore, their purpose was largely symbolic (See Table 2). They were meant to be a concrete expression of the Church's solidarity with the cause of liberation from oppression.


This symbolic support was, from the very beginning, widely felt in South Africa, both in a positive sense and a negative sense. However, more than the actual money (which was negligible), the moral support that the WCC offered the people of South Africa was significant.

Peter Storey, former bishop of the Methodist Church in South Africa and former president of the South African Council of Churches, noted that the Special Fund provided a psychological boost for the liberation movements in that they were recognized by a world body that was not affiliated with any ideological camp:

It was probably the most radical step taken by any religious body in terms of--to use a hackneyed phrase--an option for the poor and oppressed.... [The WCC could have provided] moral support--even statements asking that the South African government negotiate--all that stuff would have been OK But to actually put money behind it--I think [that] gave it its significance.... It was the primary act that produced a real turmoil of debate here. And one of the spin-offs was that the churches, such as my own, who felt that that was perhaps going too far, were challenged for the first time by their black constituency to answer the question, "Well, what are you doing--not saying, but doing--about apartheid. If you think they may be implicitly supporting violence, what are you doing non-violently?" So it turned into a moral challenge of some significance.(16)

It was significant for Bishop Storey because, by his own account, the World Council was putting its money where its mouth was. It had become dissatisfied with mere words and statements and had decided to fight apartheid with the power of the purse. The fact that the WCC was willing to support the liberation movements financially may have had special resonance in South Africa since South Africans, especially white South Africans, enjoy the highest standard of living on the continent. Indeed, white South Africans' standard of living has traditionally been exponentially higher than the majority. What is interesting in this case is that when the WCC chose to involve itself in South Africa's affairs from a financial standpoint, South African elites, both religious and secular, took special notice.

Moreover, the fact that a world Christian body would donate money to the armed struggle gave black South Africans hope. It also gave them the courage to make their voices heard within their own churches. This was, evidently, something new and presented a distinct kind of challenge to the complacency of the white-governed churches. In the discourse of paradigm shifts, the WCC's action provided an anomaly for which some South Africans churches were unprepared and which caused them to rethink their own actions and beliefs.

Not only did the Special Fund call into question the action--or lack of action--on behalf of the white South African church leadership, it also posed a special kind of legitimacy problem for the South African government. Dr. John de Gruchy of the University of Cape Town noted that, given the South African regime's self-perception as a Christian government ruling a Christian nation, the PCR--as the organ of a world Christian body--loudly called into question the legitimacy of the apartheid regime:

That fund was in many ways a drop in the ocean in terms of what liberation movements actually needed for their work. But it provided, apart...

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