The Russian Orthodox Social Concept and Religious Pluralism

Philip Walters

The Basic Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church, hereafter, the Social Concept (http://, adopted by the Russian Orthodox Church in 2000, affirms a desire to engage the world, but this is constantly questioned in the text. The Social Concept is in fact defensive in tone. Its predominant theme is that contemporary society is degraded as the result of the rise of irreligious individualism. The Social Concept does argue for the uniqueness and dignity of the individual, but this is subordinate to the main aim, which is the protection of traditional [collective] identity (variously and inconclusively defined), through resistance to globalization, liberalization, and secularization. The Social Concept criticizes the concept of “freedom of conscience,” which is seen as a symptom of “society’s loss of religious aims and values, of mass apostasy and defector indifference to the activity of the Church, and to victory over sin.” This kind of understanding of “freedom of conscience” must raise questions about the attitude of Russian Orthodoxy to a multi-confessional state.

A Preference for “Traditional” Religions

As regards religious pluralism, the Social Concept champions the rights of “traditional religions,” usually meaning Russian Orthodoxy, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism. Some clearly think of these “traditional religions” in terms of their association with a particular area (or areas) of “traditional compact settlement” of their adherents. One suspects, however, that this is not the main criterion, which would seem to be that so-called “traditional” religions are infect those that present no threat to each other. When we hear the word “traditional” we should in fact think “noncompetitive. “Russian Orthodoxy fears proselytizing or sheep-stealing, particularly by neo-Protestants and Roman Catholics. It is indicative that the denominations the Moscow Patriarchate feels happiest with are all non-Christian ones.

Orthodox Discomfort with Religious Pluralism

A prevalent Russian Orthodox assumption is that Russian history and culture have been shaped exclusively by Orthodoxy. The reality is rather more complex: One has only to recall the role of Lutherans and Lutheranism in Russian public life since the sixteenth century. What is indisputable, however, is that the Russian religious landscape today is increasingly pluralistic. To highlight just one development, in Siberia and the Far East Protestant denominations are proliferating.

The Social Concept contains no sections dealing with pluralism, civil society, or ecumenism. In my view, Russian Orthodoxy cannot deal coherently with these and similar issues because its implicit understanding of the nature of “the Church” makes this impossible. Throughout the Social Concept and Orthodox discourse in general, one is constantly aware of the presence of the “default “understanding that in Russia “the Church” means “the Russian Orthodox Church.” The Social Concept’s articulation of the Russian Orthodox Church’s position and role in society is to be welcomed. However, it seems to me that its major weakness is its failure to recognize the fact that the Russian Orthodox Church is just one element in an increasingly pluralizing society.

Edited excerpt reprinted with permission from Philip Walters, “The Orthodox Church Seeks to Place Itself in Russia Society” in Burden or Blessing? Russian Orthodoxyand the Construction of Civil Society and Democracy, ed. by Christopher Marsh. Boston: Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs, Boston University, 2004.


Philip Walters is research director, Keston Institute, Oxford, England, and editor of Religion, State and Society.