East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 6, No. 4, Fall 1998, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe

Church-State Entanglements in the Post-Soviet Era

Stephen Holmes

The "separation" of church and state is sometimes emblazoned prominently in the new national charters of Eastern Europe (see, for instance, Article 60.3 of the Hungarian Constitution and Article 14.2 of the Russian Constitution), but whatever the constitutions announce in the abstract, the entanglement of religion and politics is always the case in practice. Communist-era constitutions, too, drew a sharp line between church and state (see the 1949 Hungarian Constitution, Art. 54.2; or the 1977 U.S.S.R. Constitution, Art. 52.2), although clergymen were not necessarily deterred thereby from informing on their flock to the secret police. Today, needless to say, everything has changed.

The shape of church-state entanglement in strong-church nations, such as Poland, differs sharply from what we find in weak-church nations, such as Romania or Hungary. For how can the Polish [Catholic] Church be consigned to the private sphere when its historical ties to Polish nationalism are so deep, and when the tradition of a national church is more continuous than the tradition of a national state? How can the Polish priesthood be depoliticized when its Church is the bearer of so many national memories, and when, before 1989, it was so intimately associated with the opposition to communism? (Among the national denominations in the region, only the Polish Church can draw popular legitimacy from its record of anticommunism.) After 1989, the Polish Church, having apparently decided that it was in a favorable position to call in its debts, launched an aggressive political campaign for the concordat with the Vatican, a ban on abortion, control over school curriculum, influence over the media, and so forth. Even though it was not uniformly successful in these endeavors, it did establish itself as a formidable player in the nation's political game.

Romania and Russia
In more thoroughly secularized societies, such as Romania and Russia, the rinsing of religion out of public life is also nearly impossible, but not for the same reasons, since the churches there are so weak.* Why do Russian officials, with no apparent religious feelings (Moscow's Mayor Yuri Luzhkov is a good example), still want to appear on national television being "blessed" by national religious leaders? An adequate answer to this question must begin with the insight that "democracy" itself is a cultural problem whenever and wherever it appears as a foreign implant with shallow national roots. In such a setting, not God, but a national church, however enfeebled in its own right, can help fortify the anemic legitimacy of national politicians, who are being mercilessly excoriated as puppets of the International Monetary Fund and other triumphant outsiders.

National churches, in other words, can help define the limits of permissible Westernization. Their message is: foreigners can control our economy, but they cannot touch our souls! This message is political gold. With 80 percent of television programming produced in the West and video piracy making it technically impossible to arrest Hollywood's unremitting onslaught, national politicians will eagerly mount this last rampart of cultural protectionism. The national churches in Romania and Russia, for their part, have scant recent experience in, or skill at, being socially or psychologically useful to their peoples. They are therefore naturally intimidated by Protestant missionaries who threaten to offer something ordinary citizens might actually want. This explains why competition-shy religious leaders will gladly bless any politician willing to erect "barriers to entry" that promise to extend the life span of apparently noncompetitive home industries. The church-state entanglements now appearing in the region definitely remain works in progress whose future developments are both important to monitor and impossible to predict.

*Article 3.3 of the 1991 Bulgarian Constitution can serenely declare Eastern Orthodox Christianity to be the country's traditional religion, for even if the Bulgarian Church has sufficient prestige to enhance the state's authority, it has insufficient clout to constitute a political threat.

Editor's note: Excerpt reprinted with permission from the East European Constitutional Review 7 (Spring 1998), 65-66. The entire theme issue devoted to "Church and State in Eastern Europe" may be downloaded from the EECR website: http://www.law.nyu.edu/eecr/. EECR is published in Russian as Konstitutsionnoe pravo: vostochnoevropieskoe obozrenie. Contact: Olga Sidorovich, Moscow Public Science Foundation, Box 245, 101000, Moscow, Russia; tel: 7-095-280-35-26; fax: 7-095-280-70-16; e-mail: post@mpsf.org; website: http://www.mpsf.org/.

Stephen Holmes is editor of the East European Constitutional Review.

Stephen Holmes, "Church-State Entanglements in the Post-Soviet Era," East-West Church & Ministry Report 6 (Fall 1998), 14-15.

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1998 East-West Church and Ministry Report
ISSN 1069-5664

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