Book Review

Daniel, Wallace L., Peter L. Berger, and Christopher Marsh, eds. Perspectives on Church-State Relations in Russia. Waco, TX: The J. M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies, 2008. Reviewed by Erich Lippman.

The all-encompassing appellation Perspectives on Church-State Relations in Russia might suggest that the book in question could seemingly incorporate any perspective available. However, in the case of this compilation of articles by many of the greatest contemporary luminaries on this topic, the title could hardly be more specific. Browsing through the table of contents could lead one to question if the title is even too specific, as discussion of Islamic difficulties in Central Asian republics does not really fall into the category of church-state relations in Russia. In the introduction, the authors point out that their goal was to amass “some of the best research on the topic,” even if those voices are “often contradictory” (p. 3). Certainly both quality and contradiction abound.

The editors recognize the problem of unifying these diverse strands, and the task of creating a thematic bond falls to the first two contributors. Eminent sociologist of religion Peter Berger introduces the volume with a short article entitled “Orthodoxy and Global Pluralism,” in which he sets the sociological stage for the rest of the volume—the problem that modernity poses to traditional religion. According to Berger, the assumption that modernity necessarily brings secularization has been “effectively falsified” (p. 8). However, the pluralism that accompanies modernity does challenge the dynamics of religious belief and practice (p. 10). The difficulty presented by this peaceful coexistence of diverse perspectives is a central pillar of this book. The task of introducing the second issue—the relationship of Orthodoxy to liberal democracy—belongs to James Billington, Librarian of Congress and one of the most respected Russian cultural historians. His sympathetic discussion of the centrality of Russia’s Orthodox heritage concludes with the division of Orthodox perspectives into four groups—ultranationalists, reformists, institutionalists, and pastoralists (pp. 23-24). Ultimately Billington refuses to predict the direction Russia will go in the future but is sure that Orthodoxy will play a central role in guiding it.

The subsequent articles, which form the bulk of the book, discuss more specific topics. Eminent historians and sociologists of religion address issues from the effect of laws on religious diversity to popular attitudes toward church-state relations and political parties, as well as the all-important issue of religious education in public schools. Methodologies and conclusions vary widely and occasionally contradict each other, but the tension between these interpretations only adds to the singular impression of the extreme complexity of contemporary Russia is moving away from a civil society. After all, a multiplicity of public voices is a hallmark of civil society. The final articles by Paul Froese and Sebastien Peyrouse might seem out of place on the surface, given that they primarily discuss problems of Islam and state in Central Asian republics. However, the themes of pluralism and democracy, introduced by Berger and Billington, certainly play into these concerns of the post-Soviet region.

Excepting the minor typographical errors that occur all too frequently, the project is quite successful. Exceptional research by eminent scholars from a variety of fields succeeds in painting a complex but nuanced picture of Russian religion, society, and politics while simultaneously underscoring that questions of pluralism and politics are dominant throughout. It is a much-needed antidote to the fear-driven and often simplistic assumptions of many about the state of Russian religion and politics today. F

Erich Lippman is assistant professor of history at Bethany College, Bethany, West Virginia.