CAT | Church & State
Vladimir Putin’s attempt to blend social conservatism and Russian Orthodoxy into the mix that is (nominally: the reality is rather grubbier) the ideology of his regime continues. The Guardian has the details.
First, we have an unpleasant piece of anti-homosexual legislation (in wording, context and intent far broader—and far nastier than the “Section 28” that was, to say the least, one of the Thatcher era’s less glorious achievements):
The law in effect makes it illegal to equate straight and gay relationships, as well as the distribution of material on gay rights. It introduces fines for individuals and media groups found guilty of breaking the law, as well as special fines for foreigners.
And then we have this:
Minutes after passing the anti-gay legislation, the Duma also approved a new law allowing jail sentences of up to three years for “offending religious feelings”, an initiative launched in the wake of the trial against the anti-Kremlin punk band Pussy Riot.
There ought, of course, to be no ‘right’ not to be offended. What’s particularly interesting about the latter law, however, is the way that it borrows from western neo-blasphemy legislation. Back at the time of the Pussy Riot trial, I noted this:
An interesting angle to this whole case is that the women have been charged under Article 213 (2) of the Russian criminal code: “hooliganism” motivated by religious hatred or hostility. The language of western political correctness, not to speak of Islamic efforts to suppress free speech, have, it seems, found an echo in Moscow, the Third Rome.
The echo is even louder now.
And while I am on this topic, I ought to mention that there was a spot of bother over at the Corner over the unfortunate (let’s be kind) intervention of a GOP congressman into the Pussy Riot controversy. My contributions to the fracas are here and here.
Here’s Melvyn Bragg writing in the Daily Telegraph on the topic of William Tyndale (and Thomas More):
After almost 500 years, Tyndale continues to command our language and when we reach for the clinching phrase, we still reach out for him.
Tyndale was burned alive in a small town in Belgium in 1536. His crime was to have translated the Bible into English. He was effectively martyred after fighting against cruel and eventually overwhelming forces, which tried for more than a dozen years to prevent him from putting the Word of God into his native language. He succeeded but he was murdered before he could complete his self-set task of translating the whole of the Old Testament as he had translated the whole of the New Testament.
More than any other man he laid the foundation of our modern language which became by degrees a world language. “He was very frugal and spare of body”, according to a messenger of Thomas Cromwell, but with an unbreakable will. Tyndale, one of the greatest scholars of his age, had a gift for mastering languages, ancient and modern, and a genius for translation. His legacy matches that other pillar of our language – Shakespeare, whose genius was in imagination….
[Tyndale’s] story embraces an alliance with Anne Boleyn, an argument covering three quarters of a million words with Thomas More, who was so vile and excrementally vivid that it is difficult to read him even today. Tyndale was widely regarded as a man of great piety and equal courage and above all dedicated to, even obsessed with, the idea that the Bible, which for more than 1,000 years had reigned in Latin, should be accessible to the eyes and ears of his fellow countrymen in their own tongue. English was his holy grail….
And, almost as an accidental by-product, he loaded our speech with more everyday phrases than any other writer before or since. We still use them, or varieties of them, every day, 500 years on. …
As a young man he was told by a cleric that it would be better “to be without God’s laws than the Pope’s”.
Tyndale, outraged, replied that he defied the Pope and all his laws and added “If God spares me… I will cause the boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Bible than thou doest”.
The image of the ploughboy was brilliant – because the ploughboy was illiterate. Tyndale deliberately set out to write a Bible which would be accessible to everyone. To make this completely clear, he used monosyllables, frequently, and in such a dynamic way that they became the drumbeat of English prose. “The Word was with God and the Word was God”….
And when his English-language New Testament came out….
The Bishop of London bought up an entire edition of 6,000 copies and burned them on the steps of the old St Paul’s Cathedral. More went after Tyndale’s old friends and tortured them. Richard Byfield, a monk accused of reading Tyndale, was one who died a graphically horrible death as described in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. More stamped on his ashes and cursed him. And among others there was John Firth, a friend of Tyndale, who was burned so slowly that he was more roasted.
Fast forward half a millennium to a report in the New York Times lat year:
Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan on Friday helped kick off a national campaign opposing President Obama’s health care mandates and other government policies that Roman Catholic leaders say threaten their religious freedom…. The bishops timed the two-week campaign of prayer, fasting and letter-writing to begin on a feast day commemorating two 16th-century Catholic saints executed for their religious beliefs — SS. John Fisher and Thomas More. The campaign will conclude on the Fourth of July.
The problem, however (as I discussed here last August) is that More died not in the name of “religious freedom”, but in defense of the supremacy of his religious faith over those of others.
We should be careful before we judge a man of the sixteenth century by the standards of the twenty-first (or even the twentieth). More was no Dzerzhinsky, but he was a clear step down the road that led to men like that.
That ought to be food for more thought than is currently the case.
I can understand the argument that religion can be a handy bulwark against an over-mighty and over-intrusive state (it can, incidentally, also be an ally of just such a state), but there is a limit as to how far that argument can be pushed, and in this speech to CPAC Rick Santorum has just crashed through it (not for the first time in his case) into a twilight zone of demagoguery, hysteria and madly Manchicean either/or.
I’m no fan of Obama, to put it mildly, but to claim that he wants to create a “Godless” America is not only silly (in fact, if anything Obama would probably want to recruit God as some sort of assistant, a super-Biden upstairs, in his attempt to transform the country) but is language almost certainly guaranteed to alienate yet more of the voters that the GOP needs to be winning over.
Bad thinking. Bad Argument. Bad Tactics.
Thank you, Rick Santorum
The Moscow Times reports:
President Vladimir Putin said Friday that the Russian Orthodox Church should be given more say over family life, education and the armed forces in Russia, as he celebrated the leadership of its head Patriarch Kirill.
Faith runs deep in Russia after the fall of the officially atheist Soviet Union, and Putin has looked to the largest religion in the country for support since he began his third term as president after a wave of protests against his rule.
He has also tried to mix spirituality with his own brand of patriotism in order to unify the officially secular country where ethnic and political fault lines are beginning to show.
“At the heart of all Russia’s victories and achievements are patriotism, faith and strength of spirit,” Putin said in the Kremlin’s gold-encrusted Alexeyevsky hall, celebrating the fourth anniversary of Kirill’s accession as patriarch.
Putin’s relationship with the church has strengthened since band members of protest punk band Pussy Riot entered Russia’s Christ the Savior Church last year and sang a vulgarity-laced song, urging the Virgin Mary to “cast out Putin.”
Without giving specifics, Putin said a “vulgar” understanding of secularism must be swept away to give the church, and other religions, control over more aspects of Russian life.
“While preserving the secular nature of our state, and not allowing the over-involvement of the government in church life, we need to get away from the vulgar, primitive understanding of secularism,” he said.
“The Russian Orthodox Church and other traditional religions should get every opportunity to fully serve in such important fields as the support of family and motherhood, the upbringing and education of children, youth, social development, and to strengthen the patriotic spirit of the armed forces.”
Putin has praised the church’s spiritual values in their own right, but he has also turned to religious understanding to counteract ethnic tension in cities such as Moscow, which have large Muslim migrant populations from the Caucasus and Central Asia.
The church in turn has praised Putin’s leadership. Shortly before the Pussy Riot performance, Kirill likened Putin’s time in power to a “miracle of God.” Putin was then-prime minister and in the midst of a campaign for the March 4 presidential vote…
Russian Orthodoxy is a part of what makes Russia Russia, and that is something that can work for the good (in charitable, cultural and educational activities and the like), and as a social glue for a nation still fragmented by the disaster of the Soviet experiment. But the church’s seemingly instinctive support for authoritarianism and its willingness to work with an increasingly illiberal state in the marginalizing those who do not fit a certain notion of Russianness is, to say the least, disturbing.
As I’ve noted here before,”Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality” was an ideology developed under Nicholas I (reigned 1825-55). It reached some sort of zenith under the penultimate (and last tough-guy) Czar, Alexander III (reigned 1881-94).
It seems to be on the way back.
With so much talk of late of the supposed attack on religious freedom represented by Obamacare’s contraception mandate, this passage caught my eye:
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recently renewed their call for measures to address gun violence by echoing their 2000 statement, Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice. Bishops have called for “measures that control the sale and use of firearms” and “sensible regulations of handguns.” The Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, in a 1994 document, “The International Arms Trade,” urges political leaders “to impose a strict control on the sale of handguns and small arms” and states that “limiting the purchase of such arms would certainly not infringe on the rights of anyone.”
Well, it’s good to know where people stand.
Here’s a must-read in the FT that sheds yet more light on Putin’s relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church:
…Father Tikhon wields influence in the church far above his modest rank of Archimandrite, or abbot, due primarily to his contacts in the Kremlin. The story that travels with him, which he will neither confirm nor deny, is that he is the confessor to Vladimir Putin. The only details he gives is that Putin, sometime before he became president at the end of 1999 (most likely while he was head of Russia’s FSB security service from 1998 to 1999) appeared at the doors of the monastery one day. Since then, the two men have maintained a very public association, with Tikhon accompanying Putin on foreign and domestic trips, dealing with ecclesiastical problems. But according to persistent rumour, Tikhon ushered the former KGB colonel into the Orthodox faith and became his dukhovnik, or godfather.
Father Tikhon does appear to have a very intimate knowledge of Putin’s religious life: in 2001 he gave an intriguing interview to a Greek newspaper, saying Putin “really is an Orthodox Christian, and not just nominally, but a person who makes confession, takes communion and understands his responsibility before God for the high service entrusted to him and for his immortal soul”.
He also would appear to have influence – he has campaigned almost single-handedly for anti-alcohol legislation in Russia, and achieved surprising results: just before the New Year, Russia’s parliament banned alcohol sales after 11pm…
…A secular state according to its 1993 constitution, Russia recently flirted precariously with religious law in last year’s strange prosecution of punk band Pussy Riot, which transformed them into global martyrs after they were given two-year prison sentences (one has since been set free), guilty of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.
Prosecution documents state that the laws broken by the three defendants – who performed “Blessed Virgin, throw Putin Out!” wearing Day-Glo balaclavas in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour cathedral – were articles 62 and 75 of the Quinisext Council, held under the emperor Justinian in the seventh century. According to these articles, access to the solea and pulpit of Orthodox churches is reserved for clergy. While the final sentence by the judge in the case dropped references to the Quinisext Council, it did cite as expert opinion the fourth-century Council of Laodicea, according to which: “The solea and ambon have special religious significance for believers.”
…“The Russian church created Russia,” says Father Tikhon. “Russia can sometimes be an obedient child, and sometimes a child that revolts against its parents. But the church always has felt responsibility for Russia.”
No wonder Pussy Riot headed for the cathedral…
We’ve heard a lot from the Roman Catholic church of late about how its “religious liberty” is supposedly infringed by the Obamacare “contraception mandate”. It’s a dodgy and unconvincing argument for any number of reasons (and hypocritical too, given the church’s earlier support for universal healthcare), to which one can now add this (via the National Catholic Register):
BATON ROUGE, La. — Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has voiced his support for over-the-counter access to birth control, a position that Church representatives say goes against Catholic teaching on contraception.
“The Archdiocese of New Orleans disagrees with Governor Jindal’s stance on this issue, as the use of birth control and contraceptives are against Catholic Church teaching,” Sarah Comiskey McDonald, communications director for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, told EWTN News Dec. 14. Robert Tasman, associate director of the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops, also echoed the archdiocese’s statement.
Making the pill available OTC is a generally excellent idea, but Jindal is approaching it from the perspective of a (very) devout Roman Catholic. His cannily pragmatic argument is based on the idea that making the pill available OTC will remove much (all?) of the rationale for including it under the HHS rules, but even this still is not, apparently, good enough for the Archdiocese. Note that these clerics’ objection to Gov. Jindal’s proposal is based on religious, not medical grounds. That their opposition to contraception is not shared by many of their coreligionists, let alone by most Americans of other faiths—and none—is, apparently, an irrelevance. Their ideology must be imposed on everyone, and that’s it.
Remind me again why should we pay attention when this church starts talking about “religious liberty”. I must be missing something.
This is a complete red herring attack from defenders of the status quo who oppose giving parents the opportunity to make choices about their children’s education. They will probably not like the fact that the largest provider of opportunities for scholarship students has tended to be parochial schools. These schools are known to teach all sorts of scandalous things, for example concerning God raising a man from the dead and an important birthday coming up in a few weeks.
We’re competing in a global economy and that’s why we want our students to be exposed to the best science and the best critical thinking skills. We not only need to compete with students in Texas, but we need to compete with students in Japan.
In order to make sure our kids are able to compete with students around the country and the world in math and science, students in the scholarship program are taking the exact same tests as the students in public schools. Starting in 2014 with Louisiana’s move to the Common Core State Standards, those will be nationally standardized assessments. That means that a parent can choose the school with the curriculum and environment that’s right for their child, while still ensuring that they are receiving the baseline content they need to compete.
Furthermore, these results are going to be summarized and publicly available so parents and taxpayers can make comparisons. Schools whose scholarship students do not do well on the exams will not be allowed to continue participating in the program.
Parents are the ultimate accountability in education. Unlike traditional public systems where students are assigned to their school based on zip code, school choice gives parents the power to vote with their feet. That can be public school choice or it can be private school choice; we’ve done both in Louisiana. The parent knows the child better than a bureaucrat in Baton Rouge or Washington, D.C. Across the country, millions of parents don’t have this option and their child is stuck in a failing school unless they can move to another district.
If you look at the results of the students who started in the pilot program in New Orleans, they are outperforming their peers in Math and Science. For instance, the percentage of third graders in the Scholarship Program in New Orleans demonstrating proficiency in Math has increased by 23 points since 2008, compared to a 2 percentage point increase for all Louisiana third graders. Further, the percentage of third graders in the Scholarship Program demonstrating proficiency in Science has increased by 4 points since 2008, compared to a 1 percentage point increase for all Louisiana third graders. This mirrors national results, where no less than 10 gold standard research studies have found that when children choose their school–improving the child’s “match” with their school environment–they are more likely to graduate from high school and go to college.
That’s an encouraging response. It’s also good to read how well the pilot program appears to be working out. That makes it all the more important to ensure that the wider program delivers the sort of academic return the taxpayers who have been drafted into funding it have every right to expect. Success in this respect will be the program’s best defense against future political attack. Testing the schools that take part in this program (including, I note, of math and science) will obviously be a key part in this process, but so will a serious insistence on speedily removing accreditation from those schools that fail to make the grade. .
As to what is taught in these schools, that’ll be a topic to which I’ll revert (I wanted to post Mr. Plotkin’s reply as quickly as possible), I’ll leave the constitutional questions to the experts, but, as a matter of general principle it doesn’t worry me in the slightest that the education available under this program might include a religious element. The question, I suppose, is just how large that element should be, and what it might amount to. The thought that such questions might even be asked will be offensive to some, but taxpayer money never comes without strings, and rightly so. Democratic accountability matters.
Cross-posted on the Corner:
If there’s a policy that deserves to be a winner for the GOP (as well as being a thoroughly good thing in its own right), it is school choice and Bobby Jindal has done well to push it in Louisiana.
But having launched a flagship it’s important to ensure that it does not sink.
The Guardian reports:
[A] court case beginning Wednesday is set to shine light on a controversial policy in [Jindal’s] state which sees government funding given to schools that teach creationism….The case has been brought by a Louisiana teachers’ union and is aimed at a voucher scheme whereby some parents can take their children out of poor state schools and get vouchers to use at private schools.
One of the most controversial aspects of the programme is that some of the schools included on it are conservative Christian organisations that teach creationism in their science classes. When parents use the vouchers at such establishments they are effectively giving state money to teach children lessons that can include alternatives to the theory of evolution or questioning the widely accepted age of the Earth…
“This whole voucher plan was to give parents choices. But it is ignoring the quality of those choices,” said Mary-Patricia Wray, legislative and political director of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers.
Now, there’s quite a bit of humbug running through those two sentences (Louisiana’s education scores have historically not been the most impressive), but Jindal has handed his opponents a useful weapon. He needs to take it back.
Stick with the voucher program—expand it wherever possible—but be careful to make sure that the standards of the schools that benefit from it are higher on every measure than those of the traditional public schools they may be replacing. I’m not convinced that taxpayer funding of schools that teach that the Earth is six thousand years old really does the trick, even if such schools are the rare exception rather than the rule.
The governor must plug the hole in his flagship. It’s too important to be allowed to sink.
Cross-Posted on the Corner:
There are blasphemy laws in India too, and in this instance a case there comes with a possibly somewhat unexpected twist.
The Guardian reports:
When water started trickling down a statue of Jesus Christ at a Catholic church in Mumbai earlier this year, locals were quick to declare a miracle. Some began collecting the holy water and the Church of Our Lady of Velankanni began to promote it as a site of pilgrimage. So when Sanal Edamaruku arrived and established that this was not holy water so much as holey plumbing, the backlash was severe. The renowned rationalist was accused of blasphemy, charged with offences that carry a three-year prison sentence and eventually, after receiving death threats, had to seek exile in Finland….
… “The Catholic archbishop of Bombay, Oswald, Cardinal Gracias, has said that if I apologise for the ‘offence’ I have caused he will see to it that the charges are dropped. This shows that he has influence in the situation but he will not use it unless I apologise, which I will not do as I have done nothing wrong,” [Edamaruku] said….
Edamaruku makes a fair point. The cardinal should also ponder the tacit encouragement he is currently giving those elsewhere—far harsher than he appears to be— who use blasphemy laws as a weapon against free speech in general, and, I might add, Christians in particular.
To quote (yet again) what was written in Jyllands-Posten at the time of the Mohammed cartoon controversy: “free speech is free speech is free speech. No buts.”
That’s a pretty good principle.