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Mark R. Amstutz

Failure and Hope

Church and state in South Africa.

Ever since devout Dutch Reformed migrants established a settlement in the Cape of Good Hope in the mid-seventeenth century, the Christian religion has played a profound role in shaping the social, political, economic, and cultural life of South Africa. Because nearly three-fourths of its people profess Christianity, some foreign observers have wondered how such a country could have developed and institutionalized apartheid—a brutal system of racial segregation. More particularly, how could the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC), the dominant religious institution in South Africa, have helped to establish and legitimate such a system? Why were Christian churches not more effective in dismantling racial segregation once it became clear that apartheid policies were fostering profound injustices? Why did some churches challenge the apartheid regime, while others failed to do so?

Richard Elphick and Rodney Davenport's Christianity in South Africa: A Political, Social, and Cultural History—a collection of 25 specialized essays—provides an invaluable overview. Although some of the essays examine the political role of churches, most are concerned with the institutional expression of Christianity in South Africa, focusing on such issues as the nature and role of missionary enterprise among indigenous people, the nature and organization of different church denominations, the impact of Christianity on distinct subcultural groups, and the role of Christianity in the creative arts. Collectively, these essays provide "a macro-narrative" of South African Christianity that not only illuminates the rise and evolution of Christianity in South Africa but also helps to explain the extraordinary impact of Christian beliefs and practices on the country's cultural, social, and political life.

Elphick makes clear that, although Christianity could have contributed to the development of a coherent, unified society, its integrative role has been "slight"—in great part because its ...

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