Russian Orthodox Attitudes on Church-State Issues

Christopher Marsh

Editor’s Note: The first portion of this article was published in the previous issue of the East-West Church and Ministry Report 17 (Fall 2009): 10-13.

Orientation toward Society

While the church might not be seen as having the answers to society’s problems, Orthodox Christians in Russia are not distanced from community life and the plight of those around them. (See Table 3.) Nearly 80 percent of devout Orthodox responded that they were concerned with the sick and disabled, with more than 50 percent responding that they were prepared to help in any way they could. Cultural Orthodox were not far behind, with nearly 70 percent and just below 50 percent feeling the same way. Finally, non-religious Russians were only a step behind the Orthodox, with nearly 60 percent expressing concern and 45 percent willing to help the sick.

When it comes to one’s neighbors, however, all groups are less concerned and prepared to help than they are for the sick and disabled. For example, only 31.4 percent of devout Orthodox were prepared to help their neighbors, while 26.8 percent of cultural Orthodox and 22.6 percent of non-religious Russians responded the same way. Quite interesting, however, is the fact that all three groups were more concerned with their fellow countrymen than with their neighbors. While 28.8 percent of devout Orthodox were concerned for their fellow countrymen, only

 21.8 percent were concerned for the living conditions of their neighbors, with similar disparities for the cultural Orthodox and non-religious respondents. One possible explanation may be the ethnic dimension of Russian life, since respondents may have had in mind their ethnic kin when being asked about fellow countrymen. In this regard, all Russians have a marked tendency, no matter what their religious behavior, to identify more with their “imagined” national community than their actual neighborhood community.1 To the extent that this is so, it raises serious and somewhat disturbing questions about the prospect of genuine democratization, given the world-historical experience of the vibrancy of national level democracy being contingent upon the vibrancy of local level civic engagement.2

Church-State Relations and Religion in the Public Square

Having examined a range of religious, civic, and political orientations, we can now turn to the issue of church-state relations in Russia, a topic that has rarely been examined with the use of survey data. As noted above, a significant disparity exists among devout Orthodox, cultural Orthodox, and non-religious Russians in terms of their belief that the church can provide answers to social problems, with more than 40 percent of devout Orthodox feeling so while less than 10 percent of non-religious respondents agreeing. These data suggest that the overwhelming majority of Russians simply do not view the Orthodox Church as a significant source of social improvement. They also imply that Russian public opinion is almost certain to be significantly divided regarding such issues as separation of church and state and the role of religion in the public square.

To begin with an objective question, devout Orthodox are significantly more likely to believe that the church influences national politics, irrespective of whether or not they feel that this is positive, with 43.8 percent of devout Orthodox and 39.6 percent of cultural Orthodox holding this opinion, as compared to only 31.4 percent of non-religious respondents. (See Table 4.) And whereas 67.5 percent of non-religious objected to religious leaders influencing government decisions, only 48.6 percent of devout thought similarly. Finally, all respondents were less open to religious leaders influencing the way people vote, again with non-religious Russians more opposed to this practice (79.2 percent) than the devout (63.6 percent).

When we look more directly at issues relating to the impact of religious belief, the disparities in opinion among the three groups become even clearer. While less than 10 percent of non-religious respondents felt that politicians who do not believe in God are unfit for public office, this number more than doubles for cultural Orthodox (26.1 percent) and reaches almost 50 percent for the devout. Similarly, only a quarter of non-religious Russians felt that society would be better if more people with religious beliefs held office, but 80 percent of the devout thought so, with 55.5 percent of cultural Orthodox agreeing.

What does all of this tell us about popular conceptions of church-state relations in Russia today? For one, only a thin wall of separation between church and state seems to exist. On the one hand, it is true that a majority of all Russians polled believed that religious leaders should not influence government decisions or how people vote (although the devout Orthodox as a group was less resolute on the topic of influencing government decisions than their fellow countrymen). In a country with no real history of separation of church and state, where politicians regularly try to enact policies favorable to the Orthodox Church, and the patriarch presides over the president’s inauguration ceremony, the existence of even this thin wall of separation may be surprising to some. On the other hand, as students of Russian history are acutely aware, the Russian (and Soviet) government’s overtures to the church have almost always resulted in the subordination of the latter, resulting in the curtailment of religious freedoms more than the enactment of religiously based policies.3

Although Russians appear to value a limited separation of church and state, we can probably also conclude that not many wish to see religion divorced from public life. Thus, their version of a modern “secular state,” to use the French term, may be more akin to the American or German models in which church and state are distinct but somewhat interactive, rather than the French or Mexican models, in which the secular state is demonstrably suspicious of institutionalized religion. For example, devout Orthodox clearly support the involvement of religious individuals in political affairs, with well over three-quarters thinking that believers could make a difference in society. Although devout Orthodox may be more focused on other-worldly issues, they feel that in this world religious believers can make a difference, an opinion with which even a quarter of non-religious Russians agree.

Religiosity, Civic Engagement, and Church-State Relations in Russia

The data analyzed above allow us to reach several tentative conclusions regarding religious, social, and civic life in Russia today. For one, Russian Orthodox Christians are considerably more religious than some have argued. While their regular church attendance might remain low by American standards, they are quite prayerful and religious people. Moreover, Russian Orthodox Christians tend to be more civic-minded and socially concerned than their non-Orthodox fellow citizens. The degree to which their interest in society and politics has thus far evolved into direct political participation, however, is still open to debate. While their membership in political organizations remains low, they are active in charitable activities and social programs. Quite interestingly, Stephen White and Ian McAllister have also shown that Russians who attend Orthodox churches frequently are more likely to participate in elections, a critical development in a country undergoing a democratic transition.4

With a thousand-year history of Orthodox Christianity, it is only natural for religious and cultural values to become fused—even to the point that some identify themselves as “Orthodox atheists,” such as Aleksandr Lukashenko, president of Belarus. More devout Orthodox tend to hold views distinct from their fellow countrymen. However, given their small numbers (perhaps somewhere in the area of 10 to15 percent of the population), their impact is likely to remain limited. When considering the much-touted divide between Western Christianity and Eastern Orthodoxy, therefore, the values of this group cannot be considered representative of anywhere near even a plurality of Russians, let alone a majority. Likewise, the use of a simple dichotomy between Orthodox and non-Orthodox is clearly no longer an adequate means of classifying religious believers in Russia today. When discussing political and social orientations of Russian Orthodox Christians, we must also bring into the equation varying degrees of religiosity.

The religious, civic, and political orientations of Russian Orthodox Christians have serious implications for Russia’s new political and social order. And while Orthodox believers appear to have a unique conception of the role of religion in political life, the data above make it abundantly clear that it is not one of the church taking over society. As Lawrence Uzzell phrased it in his investigation of this topic, the chances that Orthodox Christianity might replace “Marxism-Leninism as the compulsory state ideology” in Russia are not very high. As he concludes, state discrimination in favor of the Russian Orthodox Church may be common, but it is not based on any real theological concerns. Rather than paying such great attention to some of the rhetoric coming out of the Moscow Patriarchate, therefore, we should pay more attention to the opinions of Russians themselves, because official church pronouncements do not necessarily reflect actual popular opinion to any great degree. Indeed, declarations from the Moscow Patriarchate do not accurately reflect public opinion, but rather, are intended to shape it. Thus, it is critically important to avoid confusing and conflating official ex cathedra statements, including the Basic Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church, with actual beliefs among the population.

Based on the evidence presented here, if given the opportunity to make democratic choices, the Russian people are likely to support a cultural role for the Russian Orthodox Church. In addition, they would possibly support a system that gives preferential treatment to the majority confession. From the perspective of Western liberal democracy and the prospect of it taking root in Russia, the good news is that Russians themselves would prefer for such a preferential status to exist only within certain prescribed limits. F


1 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1991).

2 In the Russian case, this issue has been explored most robustly by James Warhola, “Is the Russian Federation Becoming More Democratic: Moscow-Regional Relations and the Development of the Post-Soviet Russian State,” Democratization 6 (1999): 42-69.

3 Dmitriy Pospielovsky, The Orthodox Church in the History of Russia (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998); Nikolas Gvosdev, An Examination of Church-State Relations in the Byzantine and Russian Empires with an Emphasis on Ideology and Models of Interaction (Lewiston, NY: Mellen Press, 2001).

4 “Orthodoxy and Political Behavior in Post-Communist Russia,” Review of Religious Research 41 (2000): 359-72.

Christopher Marsh is director of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies, Baylor University, Waco, Texas.

Edited excerpts reprinted with permission from Christopher Marsh, “Russian Orthodox Christians and Their Orientation toward Church and State” in Perspectives on Church-State Relations in Russia, ed. by Wallace L. Daniel, Peter L. Berger, and Christopher Marsh (Waco, TX: J. M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies, Baylor University, 2008).