Nationalism and Religious Freedom

Anger at proselytising fuels nationalistic resistance to religious freedom. For many in Central and Eastern Europe, religion is inextricably related to culture and national heritage. This is very different than the Protestant concept of a gathered congregation of individual believers, a notion that has shaped the development of provisions protecting freedom of religion or belief under international law. Most Orthodox churches identify strongly with a particular ethnic and cultural history that is represented concretely by a nation. Thus an Orthodox church expects the state that governs "its" nation to represent and protect the interests of the church.

In Europe Serbian nationalist aspirations that were blessed by the Serbian Orthodox Church stimulated Croatian Catholic nationalism and reinforced new assertions of Bosnian Islamic identity. The tragic war and the tentative peace in the Balkans is a vivid reminder of how many peoples do not separate their religious and ethnic identities in the way that Americans believe they should. Religious support for human rights in the midst of the Bosnian war was relegated to statements of remorse for the suffering caused by the war. In an attempt to achieve a stable peace, however, religious leaders from the Serbian Orthodox, Croatian Catholic and Bosnian Islamic communities have been brought together through the World Conference on Religion and Peace in an interfaith initiative to heal the wounds of the society and to support democratic government. Not surprisingly, leaders from these three religious communities have drawn on the teachings of their traditions to justify their support for human rights and for peace with their recent enemies.

Nationalist movements in some of the newly independent political jurisdictions of Eastern Europe that were oppressed by Communist rule hope to use democratic government to recover indigenous religious traditions. For instance, this is the case in some of the Volga nations, which were annexed to Russia in the 16th and 17th centuries and are national autonomous republics within the Russian Federation. In Mordovia a synthesis of local pagan and Christian folklore is being crafted by leading intellectuals and offered as a national tradition. In Chuvash, efforts by the Orthodox Church to establish itself as the national religion are being resisted by the Chuvash National Congress, whose members promote a return to pagan roots.

In Mari El the foundations of an established paganism have been laid. Mari paganism was fully functional until the Communists took control of the country. The oral tradition survived persecution in mythology, prayers and chants, and now a written scripture has been created to promote Mari pagan practice. The Mari parliament has legislated protection of "religious cult zones" (sacred groves of trees) and reserved a plot of land for the construction of the republic's main temple. The situation in Mari El reminds us that Russian Orthodoxy is a minority tradition in some parts of the Russian Federation, where Russians are an ethnic minority.

It is perfectly understandable that those who were oppressed under colonial or Communist rule now seek to create laws that will assist the recovery of their religious tradition. They do so in the name of religious freedom even if this means that the laws they support do not envision equal treatment among religious groups. They will not easily be persuaded that a neutral state, which does nothing either to help or to hinder religious life, is a better alternative than a state that identifies with and promotes the dominant religious heritage.

For citizens of the United States, religious freedom means separation of church and state. Religious establishment and religious freedom are seen as contradictory. International law, however, does not require "dis-establishment." We need only think of England to see why, because there the Church of England is established by law and the sovereign is the head of the Church. The Church of England enjoys a status not afforded other religious communities in England and, in religious education classes required for every public school, the Church of England generally has a predominant place in the curriculum. Nonetheless, few would seriously argue that there is religious oppression or a lack of religious freedom in England today. Similarly, in many other Western European societies (Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, Greece, to name a few) state churches are established or churches receive favored treatment in some way. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights would never have been passed in 1948, if it had defined freedom of religion, as the United States does in the first amendment of its constitution, to require the separation of church and state.

International human rights law may well favor a "secular" state, as some religious critics claim, but it does not require it. Instead, international human rights law requires states to "prevent and eliminate discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief" and to "combat intolerance on the grounds of religion or other beliefs." International law names the evil as "discrimination" and "intolerance" rather than "establishment," allowing that some sort of "fair and tolerant establishment" of religion is possible. Put more precisely, it leaves open the question of special relationships between the state and one or more religious traditions to an evaluation of the effects of such relationships on religious freedom, rather than asserting in principle that any support for religion by a government will necessarily be discriminatory.

1998 © Robert Traer 2016