Church and State in the Modern World, Part I

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This image is not a satire. It is the work of Br. Robert Lentz, OFM, a Byzantine Catholic monk. His icons celebrate the cultural norms of the postmodern world, most notably its emphasis on multiculturalism—he depicts Christ Pantokrator as an Apache Shaman and Christ Agia Sophia as an Indian woman holding the Venus of Willendorf— and new sexual norms—he depicts Ss Boris the passion bearer and his servant George, Sergius and Bacchus, and David and Jonathon as homosexuals.

Dramatic revolutions swept the globe in the past century. Just one hundred years ago, two rulers called themselves “Caesar” (the Tsar and the Kaiser), and the only acceptable form of sexual activity in the western world was securely within the context of heterosexual marriage. The sociopolitical landscape has radically changed, and the Church must learn to adapt both to these new political and social realities. In this first blog post, we will look at the current challenges that face the Church as it approaches the modern issues of free speech and the separation of Church and state. This is particularly pressing in the recent Pussy Riot case and the push for the recognition of gay marriage. Both Church and state are acting quite differently in Russia and in America.

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May 21, 2012—Two magazine covers, celebrating President Obama’s support for gay marriage.

February 21, 2012—Pussy Riot’s “punk prayer” in Christ the Saviour Cathedral, Moscow.

ImageFEMEN (Фемен) protesting the Pussy Riot trial in Kiev by attacking Patriarch Kirill and cutting down a cross.

The above events are not very distinct in many minds. One ultra-conservative Orthodox group called the Pchyolki both advocates violence to protect churches from further Pussy Riot-style protests, and calls for the return of the state of Alaska to Russia, due to Obama’s support for gay marriage. Their case did not see its day in court, due to technicalities when filing, and on the whole they are sure to be relegated to the back pages and the oddities sections of the news.[1] Yet this should not obscure the fact that a genuine and fundamental opposition exists between the spirit of the age and the mind of the Church. Further, the secular state in Russia and in the west (both Western Europe and America) have reacted in strikingly different ways, revealing deep rooted differences in their views of free speech and democracy itself.

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A recent opinion piece in the Moscow Times by Russian politician Sergei Markov provides trenchant analysis of this disparity in political outlook.[2] Aside from his specific comments on the bill banning homosexual propaganda, he makes two general observations. First, he notes that the West affirms a rather self-serving model of history. All social and political progress is linear, essentially deterministic, and has its fulfillment in a liberal democracy similar to America or Western Europe. On this view, Russia’s progress was retarded by its Communist interlude, but in the inexorable march of time, it will come to resemble the West more and more. This notion distorts western perceptions of Russian democracy. We see its perceived shortcomings as vestiges of a brutish past remaining in a transitional state, soon to be shed by this Slavic Archaeopteryx. We are thus blinded to the fundamental difference between western and Russian types of democracy. This is Markov’s second point. Russia sees a democracy as protecting the interests and values of the majority, whereas he claims a western liberal democracy seeks to protect the interests and values of minorities while attempting to forestall and ignore the interests of the majority, in the belief that eventually any majority will deteriorate into further subsets of minorities. In his analysis, Russia is not “backward,” as so many claim when they speak of recent developments vis-à-vis Pussy Riot, the gay propaganda bill, and adoption laws. They are merely being consistent with their concept of democracy.[3]

While this may serve the interests of the Church in Russia in this particular instance, since the sexual values of the majority are still consonant with the teachings of the Church, it is not the case in the West. Orthodox in this part of the world will have to find a different way of relating to, and relying on, the state. I will consider this, as well as the possible future of Church-state relations in the West, in my next blog post.


[3] It takes only a moment’s thought to recognize that Russia’s “backward” democracy is, in fact, far closer to the pure concept of a democracy. Yet democracy has become a mere term of approval for most moderns. C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape observed this wittily and chillingly in “Screwtape Proposes a Toast”: “”Democracy is the word with which you must lead them by the nose. The good work which our philological experts have already done in the corruption of human language makes it unnecessary to warn you that they should never be allowed to give this word a clear and definable meaning. They won’t. It will never occur to them that democracy is properly the name of a political system, even a system of voting, and that this has only the most remote and tenuous connection with what you are trying to sell them. Nor of course must they ever be allowed to raise Aristotle’s question: whether “democratic behaviour” means the behaviour that democracies like or the behaviour that will preserve a democracy. For if they did, it could hardly fail to occur to them that these need not be the same. You are to use the word purely as an incantation; if you like, purely for its selling power. It is a name they venerate.”

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