Dateline: Évora, Portugal

Earlier this week, I sat sipping a glass of cold water in the main square of this beautiful Portuguese city. It’s spring here, and already very warm. But not nearly as hot as it was for hundreds of heretics, condemned by the Portuguese Inquisition in the 16th Century and burned at the stake for their trouble, in the very same square. Similar burnings took place in Lisbon, Porto and Coimbra, as they did in many other parts of the Iberian peninsula and Europe.

Religion and power have gone hand-in-hand for centuries.

European monarchs used religion as a political weapon, backed by fearsome instruments like the Inquisition, which was something akin to a 20th Century secret police. Think of Hitler’s Gestapo to imagine the level of terror inspired by the Inquisition’s priests and their agents. South Africa had its variations on this theme: the Bureau for State Security and the CCB spring to mind, both quite deadly when they set their minds to it, albeit in a clumsy sort of way. Their religion was something called apartheid, sanctioned by the Dutch Reformed Church.

It should be no surprise then to understand the determination of more enlightened statesmen, particularly in France, to ensure the separation of church and state. This is something which remains a central tenet of the French state to this day: by all means believe in whatever you want, as fervently as you want, but make sure that it stays at home when you leave for work.

The separation of church and state is what lies behind the rows in recent years over the wearing of religious symbols in government institutions in France, including objects like crucifixes and the Muslim headscarf in schools.

America, of course, has moved in the other direction. A politician of whatever stripe who announced that he or she did not believe in God would be utterly unelectable. In the more conservative states, mere belief is insufficient; creationism linked to virulent homophobia and anti-abortionism are de rigueur. Oh – sorry – I should have added the word ‘Christian’ somewhere in this paragraph: in America, no Muslim or Jew or any other kind of believer will accede to the White House, at least in the next century or two.

I’ve been pondering these issues while on a short holiday to Portugal, which is, in its way, as Catholic and conservative as any other southern European nation. Churches dot the landscape, religious bookshops thrive and tens of thousands of pilgrims are about to undertake their annual trek to converge on the shrine of Our Lady of Fatima.

Not that my musings were prompted in any way by Portugal – at least not to begin with. Rather, it was the weekend election of Mmusi Maimane as head of the Democratic Alliance. Here is a man who is overtly religious and makes no secret of his weekend work as a pastor in the Liberty Church, where he goes by the name of Aloysias, or ‘Pastor Al’.

Yet we have no clear vision of where he stands on a number of critical issues related to religion and, ultimately, to power.

From what I can gather, Maimane’s is a church which is deeply conservative. It is – allegedly – anti-gay and also creationist. I tried to check via its website, but was informed that the site was ‘Under Reconstruction’. Ordinarily this wouldn’t matter, but suddenly this has, in my view, become extremely important.

Many parts of Africa are openly homophobic, as are many South Africans. This is despite crystal clear strictures to the opposite in our constitution. A number of gay South Africans have been murdered as a result of their sexual orientation so leadership on this issue needs to be crystal clear. Maimane has been quoted as saying that he himself has married a gay couple and hopes to bring his church to see his views. To say there’s a contradiction in that would be an understatement.

The same applies to creationism. Scientific evidence in favour of evolution is conclusive; to choose to believe otherwise is – again, in my opinion – a deliberate act of self-delusion and to cause creationism to be taught in schools is a criminal act.

Yet, as far as I have been able to ascertain, Mr Maimane has remained silent on this issue.

I am not for one moment suggesting that he would have heretics burnt at the stake, like the Portuguese or Spanish Inquisitions all those years ago. But there are plenty of contemporary South Africans who would do just that – or worse – to gay men and women. Radical creationists have similarly dispiriting views on abortion, although they call themselves ‘pro life’.

South Africa needs to know exactly where ‘Pastor Al’ stands, what he believes in and where all of this intersects with his Liberty Church.