Minority religions in the newly “democratic” Russia are holding their collective breaths right now, as the fallout begins from a new law which threatens to cut them off from expressing their religious beliefs. Here in the United States, it may seem that this law is of no relevance to us. But as John Donne so aptly pointed out, we are not alone on an island; what affects one affects us all. In other words, loss of religious liberty anywhere is a loss for religious liberty everywhere.
The law targets so-called cults and was pushed by the heavily entrenched Orthodox Church. Religions with less than a 15-year presence in Russia will see missionary activity restricted, in addition to facing strict controls on schools and seminaries and their right to distribute literature. Since the former Soviet Union was officially atheist and state-sanctioned religious activity was rare, many religious groups do not meet the 15-year requirement.
But this law really points to a larger struggle in the new Russia as well as in Eastern Europe as a whole. That is, the struggle to deal with fundamental questions about life and society that those of us in the West have been dealing with for several centuries.
The totalitarian impulse still runs strong beneath the surface of former Communist countries. Freedom isn’t a heritage, but a newly-arrived phenomenon which is viewed with suspicion in many sectors of Eastern European society. Non-conformity to the establishment is still considered dangerous.
Yet even more insiduous than this strong instinct to control expression through the state is the belief that maybe freedom as envisioned and implemented by the West is not for Russia or Eastern Europe. It’s the belief that Western liberties are dangerous; that these so-called freedoms contribute to a degenerate youth and a crime-ridden society. The Orthodox Church apparently played on these fears by pointing to the danger of cults. One thinks of those such as the Aum Supreme Truth in Japan which terrorized Tokyo subway passengers with poison gas. Russia responded to this fear of faceless “cults” by curtailing the rights of all minority religions, simply because of their minority status.
Russia and her peers in Eastern Europe must remember, however, that true freedom brings with it some initial chaos, in addition to every free society’s ongoing argument over the definitions of true freedom.
America did not come by her heritage of liberty for all easily. In fact, it is an ongoing struggle. Approximately 100 years after the Declaration of Independence, America fought another bitter revolution against an enemy within. The American Civil War threatened to rip the country apart. And it started because two large, powerful factions disagreed on the parameters of freedom. The struggle continues today, in what the American media has labeled the “Culture Wars.”
True freedom, then, often requires the blood, sweat and tears of those who would possess her. Russia and Eastern Europe must not give up on their democratic experiment. To use a biblical analogy, the road to totalitarianism may be broad, but in the end it leads to destruction. Narrow, however, is the way to freedom, and our prayer is that Russia and her fellow Eastern European countries be among the few that find it.
John W. Whitehead is president of The Rutherford Institute in Charlottesville, VA. Copyright c 1997 The Rutherford Institute, all rights reserved.