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East/West: Analysis From Washington - The Use And Abuse Of Religion

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 7 August 1998 (RFE/RL) - Political leaders in post-communist countries increasingly are exploiting religion to build up their own authority and to legitimize new and more democratic political systems.

And consequently, their exploitation of religion reflects less a revival of the Caesaropapist tradition of Eastern Christendom in which there is no clear separation of church and state than part of the often difficult transition from the communist past to a more open and democratic future.

But this strategy is not without dangers. On the one hand, some politicians who exploit religion are interested in a return to the authoritarianism of the past. And on the other, even those with a democratic agenda are affected by the often less than democratic attitudes of church leaders.

All three of these points are made in a remarkable essay by Stephen Holmes in the current issue of the "East European Constitutional Review." In an introduction to a set of articles on the complicated relationships between church and state in that region, Holmes argues that many Western analysts have misunderstood what is going on.

When these analysts see officials with "no apparent religious feelings" -- such as Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov -- seeking to be "blessed" on television, they often rush to the conclusion that such leaders must be closet nationalists opposed to democracy and committed to a return to the authoritarianism of the past.

But such interpretations are certainly incomplete, Holmes argues, and may point in the wrong direction entirely. Instead, he suggests that outside observers should recognize that for many countries in this region democracy itself is "a cultural problem" precisely because many people there view it as something foreign without deep local roots.

And consequently, skillful politicians seek to use religion, something to which many in these countries have greater attachments, to "nationalize" or at least "nativize" democracy in the eyes of their own citizens.

"In such a setting," Holmes argues, the church, however "enfeebled in its own right can help fortify the standing of both politicians and the political system," both of which are often portrayed as "puppets of the IMF and other triumphant outsiders."

National churches particularly thus help to "define the limits of permissible Westernization," Holmes suggests, by sending a message that "foreigners can control our economy, but they cannot touch our souls."

For both individual leaders and the democratic system, such a message represents genuine "political gold" because Western culture and especially its Hollywood variant now threaten to overwhelm national cultures in many post-communist countries. And thus the exploitation of religion may form a key defense of "this last rampart of cultural protectionism."

But if the use of religion can play an unexpectedly positive role in developing democratic traditions in many of these countries, it can also have three very negative results.

First, the weakness of many churches in post-communist countries often has led their leaders to demand that the national governments exclude all outside competitors.

Such demands have led to laws in the Russian Federation and elsewhere that discriminate against faiths and their followers not deemed to be "truly national." And legislation of this type undermines the very possibility of building the kind of civil society on which a democracy must ultimately rest.

Second, the desire of politicians to exploit religion often means that political leaders will listen too closely to church leaders who are anything but progressive. Many of the church leaders recruited and promoted by communist regimes in the past are openly authoritarian, and even younger churchmen sometimes have an agenda at odds with the larger society.

Like any other group in society, religious organizations certainly have the right to seek to influence the decisions of the larger society, but some religious leaders in post-communist countries have made demands for an exclusive position, one that some political leaders in this region often do not feel able to resist.

And third, not all post-communist leaders who exploit religion are interested in advancing democracy and freedom. Some see the return of church hierarchies to a position of influence as a means of subverting democracy rather than supporting it.

Such leaders are only too happy to use religion -- or to use the use of it by others -- to build up state authority and to promote deference to themselves.

As a result, the ways in which political leaders in post-communist countries use and abuse religion are likely to require just as much attention in the future as the ways in which communist officials exploited religion in the past. Some of these ways clearly may be more positive than many have thought; but others could prove to be even more dangerous than many had feared.