May 26, 2009, will be a day to reflect on the role played by organized religion in the making of public policy. It was on this date sixty-one years ago that the National Party swept to power in South Africa on a platform of strict apartheid between the black and white races—under the guiding spirit of the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) of South Africa every step of the way.
The first white settlers in South Africa were Dutch. Early in the nineteenth century, the British took control, first by force and then by treaty. By that point, Enlightenment-steeped Britain had soured on slavery and insisted on according some semblance of respect to the native peoples of the colonies under its control. This created no end of friction with the Dutch settlers, whom the Enlightenment had passed by: they wanted to keep their slaves and continue treating free blacks like dirt.
The tipping point came in 1833, when the British Parliament passed a law abolishing slavery throughout the Empire; 39,000 South African slaves were freed the following year. By 1837, the unhappy Dutch settlers, now calling themselves “Afrikaners,” decided to vote with their feet. They undertook the “Great Trek” to the north, outside the pale of British control, to establish a new state where they could treat blacks as they wished.
The Zulus were not enthralled with this idea. A pitched battle occurred at a place called Blood River, where three thousand Zulus were slaughtered without the loss of a single Afrikaner life. Some military experts think this was because the Afrikaners used firearms from behind barricades while the Zulus attacked in human waves using only spears. The Afrikaners, though, attributed their victory to a “Covenant” they made with God on the spot of the battle.
The idea of a covenant came straight out of Calvinist theology, drummed into the Afrikaners by the DRC since birth. Calvin taught that God simply liked some people better than others, for his own reasons, and there was nothing anyone could do about it: “Those whom God passes over, He condemns; and this He does for no other reason than that He wills to exclude them from the inheritance which He predestines for His own children. Not that God is unjust, for He is by definition righteous, but His righteousness is simply beyond our ken.” There was no doubt in the minds of the Afrikaners as to whom, between the blacks and themselves, God had chosen.
The separate Afrikaner state did not last long: once gold and diamonds were discovered, the British decided they really needed to control the whole territory. Britain won the vicious Boer War at the beginning of the twentieth century, cementing its control over all of today’s South Africa—but at the cost of bitter resentment among the Afrikaners who made up the majority of the white population. One of the biggest points of contention between the Afrikaners and the British continued to be British softness on the racial issue. It would be overgenerous to call the British South Africans of that era egalitarians, but they were far less rigid than the Afrikaners.
During the 1920s and 1930s, the DRC developed an elaborate theological justification for the program of strict separation that later became known as apartheid. God, said the learned theologians, had separated the races at the Tower of Babel. What God has put asunder, let no man join together. Moreover, just as the Calvinist God picked certain individuals whom he liked, he picked certain peoples whom he liked as well. Certainly he had done this with the Jews; at Blood River, he did it with the Afrikaners. DRC theologians were fond of referring to blacks as “Canaanites” after the biblical race that God had ordered the Jews to push out of the way. (At least they refrained from emphasizing what the Bible says Joshua did to the Canaanites: at Jericho, Hebron, Eglon, and many other places, he exterminated every man, woman, and child in the captured city.)
The Bible is ambiguous about some things, but it is quite explicit on the evil of miscegenation. When Ezra returned to Jerusalem from Babylon, he was enraged by the race-pollution he found: “For they have taken of their daughters for themselves, and for their sons: so that the holy seed have mingled themselves with the people of those lands: yea, the hand of the princes and rulers hath been chief in this trespass. And when I heard this thing, I rent my garment and my mantle, and plucked off the hair of my head and of my beard, and sat down astonished.” Ezra’s solution was simple: he annulled every mixed marriage at a single stroke. Much of the ultimate structure of apartheid was consciously designed to prevent the social interaction of races that can so easily result in nature taking its course in unbiblical directions. The DRC Congress of 1929 proclaimed that “The traditional Afrikaner fear of equality between Black and White originated in his aversion to the idea of racial intermarriage. The Church frankly declares itself to be against this kind of mixture and against anything which could promote it.”
Rev. J.G. Strydom put it: “The Afrikaners have accepted it that God, the Creator also of nations, had willed different colors. His first encounter with Coloreds [the Afrikaner term for mixed-race offspring] and the dismal results of mixing led to the insight that the ordinances of God with regard to the diversity of races had to be respected. In the light of his faith, he worked out his principle of respecting the boundaries ordained by God.” After becoming leader of the National Party in the Transvaal (a northern province), Rev. Strydom added that “Our Policy is that Whites have to stand firm and remain master in South Africa. If franchise is extended to the non-Whites, and if the non-Whites are being developed on the same basis as the Whites, how can the Whites remain masters?”
Afrikaner Nationalists were unable to defeat the coalition of British and moderate Afrikaners in elections throughout the 1920s and 1930s, but in 1938 a sea change occurred. The hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Blood River was observed amid an outpouring of patriotic and religious sentiment, following a recreation of the Great Trek complete with replica ox-drawn wagons. Tens of thousands participated, and the balance of South African power shifted permanently. Rev. Daniel F. Malan, a doctor of divinity in the DRC who had spent the Boer War years safely behind a pulpit before joining the political fray, seized the moment:
Here at Blood River you stand on holy ground. Here was made the great decision about the future of South Africa, about Christian civilization in our land, and about the continued existence and responsible power of the white race. . . . I scarcely need tell you that Afrikanerdom is on trek again. . . . It is not a trek away from the centers of civilization, as it was one hundred years ago, but a trek back—back from the country to the city. . . . In that new Blood River, black and white meet together in much closer contact and a much more binding struggle than when one hundred years ago the circle of white tented wagons protected the laager, and muzzleloader clashed with assegai. Today black and white jostle together in the same labor market.
Jostle they did, and the last thing the Afrikaners wanted was a level playing field. Former Prime Minister Hertzog had put it bluntly: “The European must keep to a standard of living which shall meet the demands of white civilization. Civilization and standards of living always go hand in hand. Thus a white cannot exist on a native wage-scale, because this means that he has to give up his own standard of living and take on the standard of living of the native. In short, the white man becomes a white nigger.”
During World War II, Hertzog and many othe
r Afrikaners openly sided with the Nazis, and some committed acts of sabotage against the South African war effort. The major effect of the war, though, was to accelerate further urbanization and industrialization, bringing blacks and whites into ever closer contact. More and more blacks streamed into the cities to help factories meet war production targets.
Fury erupted early in 1944, when whites working in a clothing factory discovered that several blacks had been hired to work in an isolated portion of the building. They immediately demanded a strike against this outrage; after the union leadership refused, workers went straight to the DRC. When fifteen DRC ministers were barred from a union meeting on the grounds that they were not members, a scuffle broke out, which escalated into a national cause célèbre. A committee was formed uniting all three branches of the DRC, which issued a resounding appeal urging
all ministers throughout the land to take leadership and, if need be, to establish powerful committees from all organizations and persons (1) who wish to save white civilization and pure Protestant Christendom; (2) who wish to help our mothers and daughters who are placed on an equal level with coloreds in their struggle to keep the color bar, and in their need since some of them have already been thrown onto the street; and (3) who wish to fight the outspoken principles and practices of the present Clothing Workers Union, which believes in equality between white and non-white (decidedly in conflict with the principles of the Church grounded in God’s Word).
The Church committee blanketed the country with pamphlets titled “White South Africa Save Yourself! Support the White Clothing Worker and the Three Afrikaans Churches in Their Struggle for the Maintenance of the Color Bar and Christendom.”
The battle for this group of white clothing workers was lost, but the war was won. South Africa’s Council of Churches in 1947 declared “that the policy of apartheid was not only born of circumstances but has its basis in Holy Scripture,” while in the same year the theologian J. H. Kritzinger assured readers that “Scripture teaches that God willed racial apartheid and we as Christians may not make light of it.” In the 1948 election campaign, Rev. Malan, now head of the National Party, repeated the themes that had worked so powerfully for him in 1938: “There is a power which is strong enough to lead us to our destination along that path of South Africa—the Power Above, which creates nations and fixes their lot… The power which can go out, and was intended to go out from that sixty percent of South Africa’s white population who are flesh and blood of the exhausted Trekker struggling in the city. Unite that power purposefully in a mighty salvation-deed, and then the future of Afrikanerdom will be assured and white civilization will be saved.” On May 26, 1948, Malan’s National Party swept into power on a “Christian Nationalist” platform of rigid apartheid between the races. (Ironically, the Nationalists were badly beaten in the popular vote but captured a majority in Parliament because of over-representation of thinly populated rural districts.)
Over one hundred statutes were enacted to enforce racial separation, including laws confiscating homes in designated white areas that black owners had bought and paid for. Not only were the miscegenation laws strengthened, but all sexual intercourse across races was criminalized. Bantustans were created with the idea that all blacks would be forcibly deported into their own “countries”; the white 15 percent of the population would retain 83 percent of the land, including all the gold and diamonds. When representatives questioned one particularly egregious measure, Prime Minister Malan asked “Why did the Creator make the mistake of creating countries, nations and languages? He should not have done so . . . and in addition the Creator also proceeded to create different colors. I say that [opposition to the measure] is a charge against Creation and the Creator.”
As international condemnation of apartheid grew, the DRC and its political allies held firm. At the Blood River celebrations of 1958, Prime Minister Verwoerd waxed eloquent:
Although we no longer trek, we say like the Voortrekker of yore, “We can still fight.” And we shall fight even though we might perish. We shall do battle for the survival of the white man at the southern tip of Africa and the religion which has been given him to propagate here. . . . Why should whites have been led to the southern tip of Africa three hundred years ago? Why was half of the country unoccupied, why could small numbers of people so increase and spread over the whole country? Why could they, in spite of their Moordkrans and Italeni [Afrikaner defeats], also gain their Blood River? How could they undergo their wars of independence and, win or lose, yet survive as a nation? Why was all that given to us if there was no purpose in it? And I believe this to be the purpose—that we should here be an anchor and a stay for western civilization and the Christian religion.
Not until 1986 did the DRC, under the most intense international pressure, finally reverse its position on apartheid. With the biblical foundation for such a counterintuitive system withdrawn, it could not stand; a short time later Nelson Mandela was released from prison and elected president.
There is a moral here. The moral is not that apartheid is evil; we knew that already. The moral is that religion poisons debate. Once God is for something, how can anyone be against it? Apartheid never made any sense; even aside from mere notions of morality, it was the product of pointy-headed bureaucrats distorting the workings of the free market, and the business community had little use for it. But when you are brainwashed from childhood that the man in the black robe speaks for God, it is awfully easy to suspend your own better judgment and just go along with him when he quotes at length from the book you are told is God’s word.
Today we witness the spectacle of individual preachers and whole denominations weighing in on the issue of climate change. We even see the Southern Baptist Convention reversing its position, to the applause of liberal commentators. If the twin threats of actual global warming and the quite possibly idiotic government responses to it were not so important to every human on the planet, this would be ludicrous. What does religion have to tell us about global warming? As much as it had to tell us about race mixing in South Africa, which is less than nothing. The sooner we close our ears to what the Southern Baptist Convention and every other God expert has to say on the subject and concentrate on what scientists and economists say instead, the better off we all will be.