Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Where God and Freedom Clash

The obvious collision between personal liberty and the mandate of God is everywhere. We can see the most obvious sacrifice of individual liberty in ISIS-held territory or in another parallel, although less pernicious, theocracy in Iran, where a body of religious leaders trump (I know, I know) elected representatives. Even in the severely conservative monarchy, Saudi Arabia, great deference is given to the decisions and opinions of the religious council, the Imam. Religious police in these states have great power, and the application of religious law imposes powerful restrictions on individual liberties. Bottom line, religious dictates can define both national leadership and even the entire legal system.
It is almost impossible to excise religious beliefs from legal systems; even not-particularly-religious Thomas Jefferson who wrote so many of the original documents that created the United States relied in part on Judeo-Christians teachings. The addition to the Constitution reflected in the Bill of Rights passed in 1789 (ratified in 1791, and extended to states under the 14th Amendment in 1868) contained a very significant departure from the notion of a state religion in the 1st Amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof
Notwithstanding that prohibition, religious groups within the United States have made declarations ranging from “the United States is a Christian nation” to lobbying hard to impose their interpretation of biblical passages as legal mandates for all Americans. Political lives rise and fall on a willingness to embrace political positions that clearly violate the above constitutional proscriptions. Notwithstanding the fact that these extreme religious positions hardly represent a majority perspective (unless you believe that only straight white Anglo-Saxon Protestants should pass laws), there are large swaths of this country where imposing strict Evangelical Christian “values” on all Americans is a basic prerequisite for any local politician to get elected. This is a very big part of the polarization of America.
On the other hand, we are seeing extreme efforts to push secularism all over Western Europe – such as bans on religious symbols, mostly Muslim-mandated headscarves and “burkinis” – just as there is a new religious pushback against secularism in modern Islamic nations like Turkey. The notion of “God in politics” – once thought of as a product of earlier, less evolved, political structures – seems to have revived with a vengeance all over the globe. But wait, there’s more from a very interesting part of the world that we do not associate with fundamental Christian values. Just as we tend to focus on local Evangelical politics or global efforts to Islamisize the earth, we tend to skip over the relevance of religion in modern Russia.
But the Russian Orthodox Church has been very much on the forefront of supporting Vladimir Putin’s agenda. The Church was staunchly behind Putin’s commitment to support the brutal Assad regime in Syria… as Bashir al-Assad pledged to protect minority Christians, many of them Orthodox. The Church has been far more deeply involved in a values “push-back” where conservative hierarchical respect for institutions and authority is proselytized against what is described as the failure of rise of liberalism in the West. Putin’s strongman values, his willingness to arrest protestors – like the band Pussy Riot for taking their issues into or against the Church or his prosecution of gays – and his intolerance of “disruptive” dissent have been lauded by most Russian Orthodox clerics. To many, the once-fine-line between church and state has blurred in modern Russia. The Church is now a powerful Russian political tool.
What is particularly disturbing to Western leaders, who are torn between wanting better relations with Russia and a strong revulsion at Putin’s violent and aggressive authoritarianism, is the possible expansion of Russian power into their countries under the guise of freedom of religion. The September 13th New York Times explains: “Thanks to a close alliance between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Kremlin, religion has proved a particularly powerful tool in former Soviet lands like Moldova, where senior priests loyal to the Moscow church hierarchy have campaigned tirelessly to block their country’s integration with the West. Priests in Montenegro, meanwhile have spearheaded efforts to derail their country’s plans to join NATO.
“But faith has also helped Mr. Putin amplify Russia’s voice farther west, with the church leading a push into resolutely secular members of the European Union like France… The most visible sign of this is the new Kremlin-financed spiritual center here near the Eiffel Tower, now so closely associated with Mr. Putin that France’s former culture minister, Frederic Mitterrand, suggested that it be called ‘St. Vladimir’s.’ [Almost completed and pictured above]
“But the Russian church’s push in Europe has taken an even more aggressive turn in Nice, on the French Riviera, where in February it tried to seize a private Orthodox cemetery, the latest episode in a long campaign to grab up church real estate controlled by rivals to Moscow’s religious hierarchy.
“‘They are advancing pawns here and everywhere; they want to show that there is only one Russia, the Russia of Putin,’ said Alexis Obolensky, vice president of the Association Culturelle Orthodoxe Russe de Nice, a group of French believers, many of them descendants of White Russians who fled Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. They want nothing to do with a Moscow-based church leadership headed by Kirill, patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, a close ally of the Russian president.”
The effort to seize “Church property” under the guise of a long-felt religious tradition was one of the justifications for Russian expansion into former CIS territories, from Georgia to the Ukraine. There are those in the French government who believe that the golden domes of the new Paris-built Orthodox “spiritual center” pictured above (dubbed “Moscow-sur-Seine”) will cover-up clandestine opportunities for espionage and anti-democracy activities. Putin’s power has only grown with his deeply-religious constituents, and the Church’s blessing of his actions has only reinforced his popularly with traditional conservatives.
There is fear in the air… everywhere around the world. Rising terrorism, new epidemics, extreme economic polarization and the very real consequences of global climate change are accelerated and exacerbated in a thick soup of growing third world populations facing dwindling resources. Governments trying to find harmonious balance against diverse constituencies are struggling. Look at the election landscape here in the United States. The greatest modern economic miracle – ironically in a nominally “Godless” state – is the People’s Republic of China, hardly the bastion of liberal democracy.
To a sizeable portion of this planet, existing governments, democracy and temporal solutions don’t work anymore. Relying on strongmen (yeah, men), asking for divine intervention, or a combination of both, seems to be an alternative path that might just succeed to an increasing number of people… because the other paths seem to have failed or are in the process of failing. And if you think that the American political model for democracy is going to attract new adherents in third world nations looking for a future, you should read the local descriptions of our current election and the depiction of Donald Trump as a representative spokesperson for a very large segment of the American population.
I’m Peter Dekom, and in a fearful and confusing world, people concerned about their future survival are capable of doing almost anything if they believe that they are operating under a sanction from God.

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