Religion and Public Politics

Ghia Nodia

The Georgian Orthodox Church lost another battle with the secular government when the latter recently adopted an antidiscrimination law. It does not matter that this law changes virtually nothing: the key issue here is that the Church, despite applying its authority and influence in an effort to block the law, failed to achieve its main aim – to cause the lawmakers to delete notions of sexual minorities and gender identity from the law.

This is at least the second such defeat experienced by the Church. The first came in the spring of 2011, when the parliamentary majority of the United National Movement adopted, against the will of the Orthodox Church, a legislative amendment enabling religious minorities in Georgia to register as legal persons in public law.

I firmly believe that people should not be discriminated against on the grounds of their religion or sexual orientation, but this is not the topic of my discussion here. The above mentioned episodes interest me in relation to an absolutely different issue: what place can or should the Church have in public politics?

My opinion on this issue significantly differs from that of many other people who, like me, are against any discrimination and, in general, are unhappy that the Georgian Orthodox Church has turned into an institution fanning anti-liberal and xenophobic sentiments.

Who has the right to interfere with the affairs of the state?

The key here is how we pose the question. A popular Georgian TV talk show (Reaction, hosted by Inga Grigolia) asked its viewers: "Should religion interfere with state affairs or not?" The results of the poll saw some 90 percent of viewers responding positively, thereby raising concerns among pro-European liberals.

I will, however, challenge the formulation of the question. Had I been asked this question, I would have found it difficult to answer because I do not understand what "interference with affairs" means.

A large segment of liberal society thinks that it understands the correct relationship between religion and public politics. I will call this view "naïve secularism." This vision deems any claims that the Church has to influence state affairs, and legislators in particular, to be unacceptable. During the sitting of the parliamentary commission to discuss the draft antidiscrimination law, some people found it very "depressing" to see the hall of parliament dominated by "black" – i.e. the attendance of many clerics clad in black religious robes. Tamar Kordzaia, one of the most liberal MPs from the Georgian Dream and formerly a civil society activist, even left the sitting in protest against the "violence undertaken against parliament" – as she viewed the activism of the religious servants.

The dominance of religious vestments in the hall of parliament was taken as a flagrant manifestation of the Church's "meddling" in state affairs. Aside from the clerics, the committee's meeting was also attended by representatives of non-governmental organizations who also criticized the draft law. However, the content of their criticism was the opposite of that of the clergy: they were demanding that the law provide more concrete and viable mechanisms to ensure the protection of minority rights.

Let me now raise some questions: does the Georgian Young Lawyers' Association, a non-governmental organization, have the right to interfere in state affairs? Could the persistent demands from this or other non-governmental organizations that laws comply with the criteria they deem correct also be qualified as a form of "violence against parliament?"

Many will accuse me of blasphemy by posing questions in such a way. They will argue that the role of civil society is to influence the state and that, in general, a democratic state differs from an authoritarian one by allowing others (including the international community) to regularly interfere in its affairs; they will say that this is an absolutely normal phenomenon.

But, if the Young Lawyers' Association has the right to interfere in state affairs, how justified is it to deprive the Orthodox Church of that same right?

The end of naïve secularism

According to the vision of naïve secularism, the Church must be totally isolated from political issues. It must care for the souls of humans and their eternal salvation, which has nothing to do with politics. Has it not been said: "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's?" Indeed, in the vernacular of sociology this is called the "privatization of religion."

But this has never been the case in practice. There was an illusion that development and education would gradually lead us towards this situation. In reality, however, that illusion rested on the assumption that people would become less religious with the spread of education. A prerequisite for the radical separation of the Church and the state is that the majority of people stop visiting church, thus causing the influence the Church has on people to abate. This is exactly what happened in Western Europe and, consequently, the political role of the Church there has diminished.

However, this has not happened in other parts of the world, including in the highly advanced United States where religion and the Church remain important for people. The Church and its congregation remains a social force. In this article we have neither the time nor the need to delve deeper into what that rests upon: whether people really feel the blessing of heavenly power and try to live in accordance with religious commandments, or whether the Church is a symbol of identity (for example, of being Georgian) and the basis of certain social conventions. The important thing to take into account is the reality that in Georgia the Church is a social force.

If this is true, then religion will influence politics. In any case, it is impossible to block the Church, even in incomplete democracies. Being a social force also means having the capacity to mobilize people. Groups rallying around the Church can apply legal democratic mechanisms to defend their demands: for example, to stage a protest or participate with other people in the process of considering a law in parliament. No one can prohibit the Church from doing so.

Over the past decade, serious scholars have thus rejected the thesis of naïve secularism: those countries in which the privatization of religion actually works are exceptions to the rule. The role of religion in public politics is increasing worldwide. The demand that "the Church must not interfere with politics" is both unrealistic and a bit outdated.

I have heard a thesis particularly out of touch with reality from several leftists in Georgia: we cannot prohibit the political activity of the Church because in many places, for example, in Latin America, there are many "progressive" priests who interfere with politics. However, those priests who are bad must definitely be isolated from state affairs. But how can we do that? If the Church is able and so desires to influence politics with legal methods, no one can prohibit it from doing so. It does not matter in the slightest whether the demands of the Church are acceptable for leftist or rightist liberals or not.

Dual separation and enlightened authoritarianism

That does not mean that we do not have any grounds for concern in this regard in Georgia. It merely means that we must raise the issue in a different way. Today, when speaking about secularism, one often hears reference to the formula of Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan about the "dual separation" of the state and the Church. Actually, that formula means double autonomy: the Church must be able to operate independently of the state, whilst the government must be able to take decisions independent of the Church. In recent times, the latter direction seems to have been difficult in Georgia.

A truly democratic and simultaneously liberal state is possible under the conditions of pluralism – i.e. of competition between various social forces. If, a priori, we consider the Church to be the only social force, then a democratic state will fail to stand up to its pressure and may turn into a theocracy. In such a case, we would need to have a different type of discussion – what is preferred: a secular tyranny or a democratic theocracy? This is a dilemma that, for example, Egyptian society faces to some extent. However, if the Church is just one social force, counterbalanced by other forces, then this is an absolutely normal situation in a democracy.

Is the Church the only, or at least the most significant, social force in Georgia? Maybe it is, but we are not one hundred percent sure about that. This is something that can be revealed by its activity, by its political actions. We cannot answer this question based solely on the astronomically high ratings of the Catholicos Patriarch or on the results of interactive talk-show polls.

That is why it is important to analyze those precedents that I started this article with. What did the political defeat of the Church in those instances mean? Did it mean that enlightened authoritarianism gained the upper hand over popular xenophobia? Or, did it mean that the state has established a balance between the demands of various social forces?

In my opinion, we cannot clearly claim that either of these things have occurred, though enlightened authoritarianism seems the more plausible. The government of the United National Movement admitted that the Church was an influential social force and tried not to anger it, especially when it was afraid of an alliance between the Church and the political opposition. However, by the spring of 2011, the political opposition was so weakened that the government dared to adopt the legislative amendment enabling religious minorities to register as legal persons in public law, i.e. to take a step that, despite being fair and necessary for the state, was unacceptable for the Church. Although everything was done in accordance with democratic procedures, it can be said that that step was made possible because of a shortage of democracy – namely, the extreme weakness of the political opposition. Under the conditions of a strong and active opposition in harmony with the Church, the United National Movement would not probably have dared to have done that. Back then, no one could have predicted that within several months a billionaire would appear, like a cherub from the sky for the opposition, who would radically upset the political balance and ultimately, in a close union with the Church, push the United National Movement from power.

In 2014, by appearance, the process looked more democratic. What we saw during the recent parliamentary committee sitting did not look like violence undertaken against parliament, but rather like a celebration of democracy. Two different cohorts of civil society sat next to each other in the hall of parliament – one representing religious traditionalism, the other the modern philosophy of human rights. The state, i.e. parliament in that particular case, tried to accommodate the opinions of both sides, albeit ultimately leaving both dissatisfied (though the Church to a greater extent). Dual separation worked.

That episode would deserve to be used as a case study in textbooks on democracy had it not been for one circumstance.

Virtually no one believes that the decision the parliamentary majority took was independent. Instead, it obeyed the instructions of a single person who has no constitutional powers. I do not know what the motive of Bidzina Ivanishvili was when he caused the majority to adopt the antidiscrimination law: perhaps he is a true liberal in terms of this issue; perhaps he is irritated about the Church trying to restrict his personal powers. But the reality is that the antidiscrimination law was adopted owing to the will of Ivanishvili alone: without this, the parliamentary majority might well have behaved differently.

The authoritative reality lies behind the veneer of democracy once again.

Conclusion: the political force of the Church

Still, how great is the power of the Church as a political actor? So far we can say only two things. Firstly, that the Church has learned how to use the methods of democratic politics to achieve its goals. It has noticed that governments take heed of social forces depending on the number of people they can rally to the streets. That is why we increasingly often hear political warnings from the Church: "do not make us too angry – if it comes to taking people to the streets, we are second to none in that;" and a threat specifically addressed to the current government: "we brought you to power and we will be able to see you off as well."

Secondly, the Church is not yet acting as a political party, but as a partner of political parties. During the rule of the United National Movement, it tried to observe a certain balance for quite a long time, but by the time of the parliamentary elections of October 2012, it openly sided with the political opposition. Now it is in confusion and cannot truly determine which political force to back. While it attempts to figure things out, the Church continues to demonstrate its power with events such as the 17 May rally.

As a political actor, the Church may not be as powerful as it threatens. The process is dangerous for it. As happened in other countries, open politicization may diminish its social influence because links with politics will make its aura of sanctity fade.

On the other hand, unless a clear dictatorship is installed, no one can tell the Church not to meddle in state affairs. The important thing is for the state to be autonomous of the Church in matters of principle, for example, in defending the equality of citizens, and to be able to stand up to its pressure. That precedents for this have now been set by two successive and otherwise opposing governments is an important development, but this alone provides no guarantees.


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