Afrikanerdom and Its Lessons for Other Religious Nationalists
Is religion a blessing or a curse when it comes to political identities and their underpinning belief systems? The answer to this depends in part on whether your think religion should underpin your preferred political identity or not. That it does in many cases seems beyond dispute.
In 1967, the American sociologist Robert Bellah put forward the term “civil religion” as a descriptor of the national cult. In the case of the USA but also many other countries, national cults were the result of deep fusions among Christianity, secular institutions, and rituals of state. In South Africa, specifically in relation to the so-called Afrikaner “nation,” T. Dunbar Moodie’s adaptation of Bellah’s theory was published in 1975 as The Rise of Afrikanerdom: Power, Apartheid, and the Afrikaner Civil Religion.
This important book described the close ties between Afrikaner Protestant religious notions of divine election and political claims to racial superiority over South Africa’s majority population. It detailed among other things the intertwined relationship that existed between the organs of the state and the Afrikaner mainstream Dutch Reformed churches. One example is the apartheid-era annual and centenary celebrations of “Geloftedag” [Day of the Vow; see photo, South Africa, Pretoria, Church Square, Afrikaner monument] as a day of religious thanksgiving exclusive to Afrikaner churches and also a state instituted public holiday in memory of a 19th-century Afrikaner military victory over the Zulu.
There was, sure enough, a lot of opposition within South African Christian churches and religious organizations to apartheid and the culture that was driving it. Much of this originated from the ecumenical movement, which eventually became the South African Council of Churches. Within the ecumenical movement, the well-known Beyers Naudé was an example of an Afrikaner clergyman who turned against the normative ideals of his volk and instead became a harsh critic of the apartheid status quo and an activist for democracy. But by and large, religious opposition came from outside the fold of Afrikanerdom, from, for example, the so-called English speaking churches, some Lutherans, the Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu communities in South Africa, and also internationally via the World Council of Churches.
However, the fusion of religious and national or ethnic identity—like that of apartheid—can be a hard nut to crack from the outside. Such fusions are usually underpinned by internal discourses about societal worth and valor, making them quite resistant to outside penetration and criticism.
There are many examples of such discourses beyond the case of the Afrikaner during apartheid. One does not even have to go back to the classic examples of history, like German nationalism and the German Christians who supported the Nazis leading up to and during WWII. Think of the recent fusion among white nationalism, evangelicalism, and devotion to Trumpism. Think of the ongoing Russian Orthodox sanctioning and blessing of Putin’s ideal of recreating a Russian Empire. Such fused identities seem virtually inoculated against any threat from outside criticism. Attack them and the likelihood is that they will grow even stronger or at least develop thicker skins.
Fused identities like these are not invulnerable, however, and the real danger for them are internal threats. A nut may be difficult to crack but it can rot from within.
In my book, The Scots Afrikaners: Identity Politics and Intertwined Religious Cultures in Southern and Central Africa, I attempted to trace and reconstruct the narrative of what might have been an internal threat to the cohesion of Afrikanerdom. During the early to middle 1800s, several Scots Presbyterian pastors became ministers in the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) of South Africa. Originally recruited as part of a drive by the British colonial governor to anglicize the Dutch portion of colonial society, the Scots instead assimilated, more or less successfully, to what steadily became the Dutch-Afrikaner culture and language. For a variety of reasons, they became influential. The well-known evangelical writer and mission leader, Andrew Murray, was perhaps chiefly responsible for their prominence.
I argue in my book that their assimilation to Afrikanerdom was at least partially strategic. These Scots Afrikaners operated with a missionary mindset both with respect to the African indigenous population but also to some extent regarding the Boer or Afrikaner community that formed the bedrock of their church membership. Part of their intentional assimilation entailed a process whereby the Scots Afrikaners accommodated the institution of racially segregated worship services. They apparently agreed to this despite having theological reservations against the idea because they hoped such arrangements would soften Boer hearts when it came to missionary projects aimed at converting black Africans. Since black persons would now worship separately the perceived threat against whiteness would be negated.
The plan worked to the extent that the DRC became heavily invested in missionary enterprises with the expressed aim of converting souls but which also over time included networks of schools, hospitals, orphanages, and so on. At the same time, segregated worship—which in DRC founding documents was declared unbiblical and wrong but permissible due to “the weakness of some”—became enshrined as near sacrosanct not only within the DRC but also within Afrikanerdom at large. This became the founding model of apartheid as an eventual political policy.
On the surface of things, these Scots Afrikaners did not challenge the status quo within Afrikanerdom at all, and even contributed toward its strengthening. At a deeper level, though, their missionary focus in an era of worldwide missionary and ecumenical networking on various occasions served to introduce outside perspectives—leading to “internal rot,” if you will—regarding some basic Afrikaner assumptions.
That the Scots Afrikaners were seen as a threat is evinced by the fact that mainstream Afrikaner nationalist writers often railed against them in the twentieth century. Both their religious orthodoxy and nationalist loyalties were regularly questioned. And in truth, they did belong to wider networks. Some examples of international partnerships mentioned in my book include the Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary in Massachusetts, the parachurch Christian Endeavor Society originating from Maine, and Scottish missionary networks in Malawi.
Of course, Christianity as a world religion is always more diverse and more universal than some of its ethnocentric adherents would like. Sooner or later its free-flowing Spirit breaks loose. Consequently, Afrikanerdom, once a powerful socio-religious entity, was relegated to the dustbin of history.
Perhaps that is a cautionary tale for the advocates of more recent fusions around the world between ideals of nation and religion.
Retief Müller is a theologian and a church historian, focusing on Southern African religious history. He has published locally and internationally, including two academic monographs: African Pilgrimage: Ritual Travel in South Africa’s Christianity of Zion (Ashgate, 2011) and The Scots Afrikaners: Identity Politics and Intertwined Religious Cultures (Edinburgh University Press, 2021). He teaches at VID Specialized University in Stavanger, Norway where he also leads the RethinC research group on the intercultural history of Christianity. Formerly, he was director of the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and before that, he taught church history at Stellenbosch University.
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Photo credits: Afrikaner Monument by Lenny Flank