Why Religion Matters in Central and Eastern Europe

Why Religion Matters in Central and Eastern Europe

The level of religious liberty protections around the world is closely tied to not just democratic freedoms as a whole, but also to the stability of the international system, which is a vital American national interest.

Religion, and the interplay between religious and national identities, has played and continues to play a major role in shaping Central and Eastern Europe. The dominance of an atheistic political system and atheistic regimes for nearly half a century under communism was culturally alien to the region, and the role of faith has reasserted itself quite strongly since the implosion of the Soviet Union. In the past thirty years, we’ve seen a reversion to the historical norm that illustrates the staying power of deeply embedded cultural traits, including and especially religious identity. Its role in public life and national identity is felt more strongly in some countries than it is in others—it holds more influence in Poland, for example, than in the Czech Republic—but in most cases, religion plays a very significant role in each country’s sense of identity.

Western observers and policymakers would do well to pay attention to this reality. Given the central role played by faith communities in sustaining political and social cohesion, national identity, and strengthening the region in myriad ways, the United States now more than ever needs to embrace religious freedom in the region, as it needs to elsewhere.

The Centrality of Religion in Human Affairs

Many responsible for shaping foreign policy in Washington and Western Europe have a limited appreciation, at best, for the role of religion and religious freedom in the public lives of nations. As Thomas Farr has written, the U.S. State Department’s understanding of the Catholic Church and appreciation of its role in Cold War Poland was so poor that embassy officials were caught off guard by its contribution to the events that led to the end of the Cold War and that so heavily reshaped the region after the fall of the Soviet Union. They should not have been caught off guard—if nothing else, the sight of one million Poles in 1979 gathering for Mass under the then-new Polish pope, John Paul II, and chanting, in the face of their atheist oppressors, “We want God!” should have been an indication that the Roman Catholic faith remained a powerful influence in the everyday lives of Poles and in their sense of themselves as a people.

The role of religion in sustaining cultural and national identities has historically been, and continues to be, central to the human experience. Human beings have a natural desire to create communities of meaning with those with whom they share the deepest of bonds, values, and aims. Values and aims rooted in the transcendent—that is to say, religiously based values and aims—are the deepest foundations for a sense of common identity and a shared sense of meaning. In recent years that has been difficult to grasp for many political leaders in the West, which tend to be shaped by an aggressive form of secularism that looks askance at religious devotion, despite the fact that thriving faith communities, and in particular polities characterized by strong religious freedom protections, are consistently repositories of respect for other fundamental human freedoms.

While religion can be used to support authoritarian regimes, as we see today in Russia and elsewhere around the world, religious freedom undermines authoritarian forms of government and supports a panoply of other democratic freedoms. Religious freedom, partially because it causes us to realize that our ultimate loyalties lie not with a nation or state but to a higher reality, serves to undergird other democratic freedoms. As the late sociologist Peter Berger has observed, “Religion most emphatically proposes that there are limits to the legitimate power of the state.” Religious freedom and strong faith communities are critical to any political project based on limited government and strong civil societies and citizenship rights protections. Conversely, both because religious freedom implies distinct limits on the authority of the state, and because it is a foundational freedom that allows for the existence/emergence of other freedoms, authoritarian states seek to restrict it.

Religion in Central and Eastern Europe

The conflict in Ukraine, particularly since early 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and became militarily active in eastern Ukraine, highlights not only this trend, but also the importance of religion in this context, shaping the perceptions and loyalties of actors on both sides. While Vladimir Putin’s “Russian world” ideology may be a propaganda tool on the part of the Kremlin to justify Russian attempts to dominate its neighbors, most Russians nevertheless agree that being “Russian” is very closely intertwined with being “Russian Orthodox.” This is despite the fact that most Russians do not regularly attend service or otherwise follow behavior that would be recognized as observant. Likewise, many Russians agree that a Russian cultural sphere based upon a common Orthodox faith gives Russia a “natural” place as the culturally and geopolitically dominant actor in its neighborhood.

Moving west, religion is perceived throughout the Central and Eastern Europe region as being an important element of national belonging whether citizens are religiously observant or not. This is the case despite the fact that levels of religious observance in the region tend to be lower than those of the United States or Latin America. Pew studies have shown that the resurgence of citizens who say religion is important to them has been much larger in Orthodox countries such as Russia and Ukraine than it has been in Roman Catholic countries such as Hungary and Poland. This likely says less about the true vitality of faith in places such as Hungary and Poland than it does about the stubbornness with which faith continued to be an important part of people’s lives in those countries even during the communist era as well as in shaping their sense of national identity, despite the overlay of the culturally alien ideology of Soviet communism.

With regards to Poland, Joseph Stalin famously called Poles “radishes”—red on the outside and white on the inside, showing that he was convinced that true belief in Marxism had not really penetrated the Polish national consciousness or psyche. This may be due to the centrality of Catholicism in shaping that national consciousness, as well as to the legacy of religious freedom that for centuries caused Poland to be characterized by flourishing faith communities in general, which in reality also shaped in very positive ways Poland’s sense of self.

The Case for Supporting Religious Freedom

The essentiality of religion to not just human affairs, but also liberal democracy, is why the United States must support religious freedom globally. Fostering such around the world helps to ensure the protection of other fundamental human rights that together, studies show, tend to result in greater political stability, greater economic vitality, greater levels of social trust and cohesion, and less aggressive international behavior. The level of religious liberty protections around the world is thus closely tied to not just democratic freedoms as a whole, but also to the stability of the international system.

The importance of Europe as well as of the larger Eurasian landmass to American strategic interests dictate that Washington make religious liberty in both Europe and in Eurasia as a whole a key policy aim. We need to pay particular attention to this issue in Eurasia at this particular point in history, in which Russia and China are attempting to strengthen their influence in Eurasia at American expense. Both take seriously the early twentieth-century British geopolitical theorist Halford Macker, who argued that any power or alliance of powers who controlled the Eurasian Heartland had the potential for world domination. That is precisely what Russia and China and their allies are attempting. In the early twenty-first century, Eurasia is undergoing a historical reintegration—economically, politically, and strategically—at a time when both relative American power and American determination to lead is an open question. This dynamic accentuates the importance of allies, such as those in Central and Eastern Europe, whose strong traditions of faith and commitment to religious freedom make them vital partners at a time when America needs all the partners it can get.

Uncomfortable as it may be for those in Washington to recognize, the American-led international order is quickly becoming a thing of the past, and the future is looking increasingly murky and dark. One of the most important ways in which to pursue American interests in this period is to strengthen those alliances that are characterized by important shared values, such as those that we share culturally and politically with most of Central and Eastern Europe. To see Eurasia come under the total sway of an alliance of authoritarian, anti-American, and anti-democratic powers would see the diminution of human rights and a general darkening of the whole global system.

It is vital, therefore, that the United States reinforce its relationship with Europe and challenge the growth of authoritarian powers that hate religious freedom. Recognition of the value of thriving faith communities to the vitality of our Central and Eastern European allies will have to be a key part of American strategy if we are to set things aright and see the renewal of a global order in which the historical American values which once animated our international behavior do so once again.