2009-11-16 13:41:00

Mass media review: "Christianity ended the cold war peacefully. Religion brought down communism and it is religion which will help us resist naked capitalism, too"

The Velvet Revolutions of 1989 are commonly associated with the uprising of secular liberal dissents against atheist Communist regimes. But the extraordinary events that brought down the Iron Curtain are perhaps best described in terms of the victory of religious resistance which foreshadowed the emergence of a post-secular Europe. As such, the resurgence of religion has more to do with 9/11/89 than 9/11/01.

Without Christianity the cold war would not have ended peacefully. Across the East, churches and religious organisations brought together workers, students and intellectuals. Under totalitarian rule, church services and religious festivals often provided the last bastion of freedom and resistance.

In Poland, the opposition frequently gathered during Catholic liturgies and celebrations. They were inspired by Pope John Paul II's rallying cry to all Christians in the Soviet bloc at Gniezo on 3 June 1979 - exactly 10 years and one day before Solidarnosc won semi-democratic elections that ended Communist rule in Warsaw.

Similarly, the famous Monday demonstrations (Montagsdemonstrationen) in the former GDR took place after prayers for peace at the Nikolai Church in Leipzig. Both dissidents and ordinary citizens enjoyed the crucial support of both Protestant and Catholic churches which, according to Markus Meckel, the GDR's foreign minister in 1990, were "the only free space for free communication and thinking".

Even in the Soviet Union, the Orthodox church - benefitting from Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika - constituted a core pole of resistance against the official state ideology of "scientific atheism". In 1988, the millennial anniversary of Russia's Christianisation saw an upsurge in popular celebrations of Christian traditions and the re-opening of ancient churches and monasteries. In turn, Patriarch Alexy II and the church were decisive in defeating the attempted putsch in August 1991 by KGB hardliners against Gorbachev.

Crucially, 1989 saw the triumph of civil society over totalitarian states. And behind civil society stood the churches and religious organisations which defended and promoted workers' associations, professional guilds, intermediary associations, educational establishments and communal welfare. As such, 1989 marked an unprecedented opportunity to overcome the bipolar order of the communist east and the capitalist west, building a genuine "third way" beyond centralised bureaucratic statism and unbridled free market capitalism.

We now know that the end of the Cold War was followed by a new unipolar world order based on essentially secular values of individual freedom, value-pluralism and liberal democratic capitalism, as Antony Lerman has remarked. Arguably, the parallel rise of religious fundamentalism is largely a reaction against the triumphalist arrogance of the secular west and the new ideology of militant atheism.

However, the post-1989 secular consensus is already unravelling. The ongoing economic crisis once again highlights that the primacy of individual freedom over communal justice is undesirable and unsustainable. Similarly, value-pluralism alone can neither secure the integration of religious minorities nor solve ethical questions like assisted suicide because it negates universal principles such as cultural cohesion around religion or the sanctity of life.

Finally, the spread of capitalism has produced regimes that are neither liberal nor democratic. In Central Europe and beyond, communism mutated into ethno-nationalism, supported by fundamentalist Christians and Muslims on the Balkans and elsewhere. In Russia (and China), global market democracy evolved into authoritarian state capitalism.

Even in the West, we have entered a post-democratic phase where democracy remains formally in place even after actual democratic practices like voting and party membership dramatically decline and power reverts from the masses to small elites and new classes. After thirty years of neo-liberal capitalism, nominal differences remain in place but real distinctions between the secular categories of state and market, "left" and "right" as well as democracy and authoritarianism have begun to dissolve. Indeed, we have seen the fusion of state and market at the expense of civil society autonomy, as virtually all civic institutions are subject to the administrative and symbolic order of the post-democratic, authoritarian market-state. That's why religious support for civil society is so crucial.

Yet at the same time, Europe has perhaps already moved in a post-secular direction. Whilst there is undoubtedly a decline of religious practice in both east and west, we are also seeing the beginnings of a religious revival, not just modernising creeds (including Pentecostalism in Central Europe) but also more traditional faiths like Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Islam. This is evinced by burgeoning religious organisations such as the Catholic lay fraternity Communion and Liberation which helps organise the annual meeting in Rimini attracting over 700,000 people and addressed by Tony Blair this year. There are also increasingly popular youth movements like the bi-annual Catholic World Youth Day or the Forum of European Muslim Youth and Student Organisations.

Nor should secular traditions fear this religious resurgence. Religion in general and Christianity in particular are key to a new political and socio-economic settlements, as churches and religious organisations defend the relational nature of persons within civil society against the secular collusion of individualism and collectivism. Support for the civic institutions and actors is not limited to the voluntary sector but extends to the economy and politics: mixed systems of ownership and government allow for greater political representation (including professions and religious traditions), more civic participation, the distribution of assets (not just incomes) and the introduction of fair prices and just wages into market economies.

Twenty years after the collapse of atheist communism, 2009 has seen the failure of secular capitalism. There is now a unique opportunity to enact a new socio-economic settlement centred on human relationships, families and communities rather than the binary, secular logic of the individual and the collective. Together with other faiths, Christianity in Europe will be a formidable intellectual, cultural and social force in arguing for alternatives to the post-1989 secular consensus.

Adrian PABST,
School of Politics and International Relations Rutherford College University of Kent
"The Guardian"
November 11, 2009