Most mornings, I take my dog for a walk in the park. It usually involves being pulled from tree to tree to investigate who's been where and what they've been doing. Because I'm not very interested in the things that fascinate my dog, his stop-start progress lets me look around and see what's happening in the world. One morning recently, the day of the Orthodox Theophany - the Epiphany, there was a lot of religion happening in the park.
Just for the record, it was also Timket, the feast of the epiphany in Ethiopia and the Sunni Muslim festival of Ashura, so the Americans were busy protecting religious freedom in Karbula. So far as I could tell, neither Timket nor Ashura were being actively observed around here.
Now I've noticed that there's often a lot of Religion happening in Serbia and it's not just that there are more festivals or feast days here than I'm used to. I'm from the UK, a country where organised religion no longer seems to be a major part of most people's lives, so when I came to live here it was a bit of a surprise to find out that their Church and their religious faith are apparently very important for many Serbs. I was surprised because I didn't know then about the intricate web of connections between Serbian history and religion and the national identity. I don't claim to know much more about these things now, but perhaps I'm a bit better informed than I was about some of the consequences, in particular some political consequences.
National or political disputes based to some extent on religious tradition are hardly unique to the Balkans. The troubled history of Ireland's relations with Britain is a tragic recent example of violent conflict between communities divided according to religious faith or dogma and there are too many more. A less openly aggressive but still worrying example is the influence on US politics of Christian fundamentalism. In its American incarnation, this fundamentalism has real potential to stimulate conflict, not just the violence of hate crimes against ‘perverts, abortionists and non-believers' but also conflict between intellect and ignorance, between progress and stagnation.
As a country de facto, if not de jure committed to the separation of Church and State, the practical influence of Christian conservatives on politics in the United States is for me deeply troubling. The First Amendment to their Constitution says that "...Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof". That's fine as far as it goes, but it's not stopped the Christian religious establishment getting deeply ‘established' in politics to the extent that in most states its practically impossible for a declared atheist to get elected to public office. Even though there are no laws or constitutional amendments which say that to get elected candidates must be God-fearing followers of the Judeo-Christian tradition who wear their faith on their sleeves, unfortunately this seems to be a basic qualification. Apparently The 2007 U.S. Congress is "...among the most religiously diverse in the history of the institution, including a Muslim, two Buddhists, and the highest-ranking Mormon to ever serve". Wow! I bet the 5 million American Muslims are really pleased about that. So what about all the other 531 Representatives and Senators?
Well, if you're interested - here's the breakdown: Catholic 155; Baptist 67; Methodist 61; Presbyterian 44; Jewish 43; Episcopal 37; Protestant nondenominational 26; Christian nondenominational 18; Lutheran 17; Mormon 15; United Church of Christ 7. Eastern Orthodox 5; Christian Science 5; Assemblies of God 4; Unitarian Universalist 2; African Methodist Episcopal 2; Buddhists 2; Evangelical 2; Seventh Day Adventists 2; Christian Reformed 2; Disciples of Christ 2; Church of Christ 2; Congregational Baptist 1; Anglican 1. Reorganized Mormon 1; Quaker 1; Church of God 1; Muslim 1; Evangelical Lutheran 1; Church of the Nazarene 1; Evangelical Methodist 1. No affiliation 6.
So, quite a God-fearing community then. And someone thinks that religious affiliation is sufficiently important to justify asking all members of Congress which faith they subscribe to! Apparently, only six members were brave enough to claim ‘no affiliation' but of these only Democratic representative Pete Stark has ‘come out' as a "Non-Theist". Good for him!
At the other extreme are the Christian supporters of the insidious and counter-intellectual doctrine of creationism. It's more than a little worrying to know that there are a great many of these in Congress and they can apparently call on the support of the ‘intellectual giant' George W Bush who made his Presidential feelings known in 2005 when he suggested that schoolchildren should be taught about ‘intelligent design'. Intelligent design is a pseudo-scientific view of creation that challenges established scientific thinking and promotes the idea that an unseen force is behind the development of humanity. It has almost nothing to do with facts, only with religious faith and conviction.
So what's all this got to do with Serbia?
During the war in 1995 the Serbian Orthodox Church was accused of "fervent Nationalism" and it was said that the church's high council of bishops was dominated by hard line nationalists who wielded significant power over the church's supreme leader, Patriarch Pavle. According to Mladan Zivotić, the church and the supporters of a ‘Greater Serbia' shared "...a common clerical-nationalist ideology, with a vision of a traditional, patriarchal society". He claimed, "This is a fundamentalist, anti-Western ideology,"
If this is true, why did these hard line nationalists of the church establishment feel qualified or entitled to engage in secular politics? Perhaps one reason is the Serbian orthodox story of the Serbs and Serbia, of the Nation and the people. Reading this story, its almost impossible to disentangle the threads of history and mythology; facts, half-truths and plain fiction skilfully woven over the years by the church and its supporters to create a picture of an oppressed people, valiantly surviving against all the odds. And of course in this picture, the church is the keeper and defender of the spirit and the values of the nation.
In the USA too, many Christian churches market themselves as upholders and defenders of what they and their millions of supporters believe to be America's unique contribution to enlightenment and freedom. One Nation Under God - as long as it's the right God. The right to self-determination for all - as long as it's not socialist, or liberal or heaven forbid, fundamentalist Muslim self-determination! Apparently its ok to insist that children are taught to believe in the co-existence of dinosaurs and humans but not it seems in the co-existence of opposing political philosophies. So despite the fact that politics in the USA should be a God-free zone, the fact is that the ‘religious right' exerts enormous influence on the business of government there.
In Serbia, there's also a constitutional separation of church and state. Article 11 of the 2006 Constitution says that "The Republic of Serbia is a secular state. Churches and religious communities shall be separated from the state. No religion may be established as state or mandatory religion." That's OK then. But unfortunately, it'll take more that a three line Article to change the convictions and voting habits of many Serbs. It appears to me that for many the values and traditions you must subscribe to if you're to call yourself a Serb are effectively the values and traditions of Serbian Christian orthodoxy. Serbian politicians who appeal to voters' sense of history and national identity appear to have a captive audience - and a big one at that. Those who prefer to keep church-inspired dogma, imagery and ritual in its proper place may have a hard time getting elected here. Not quite such a hard time as an atheist in the American bible belt perhaps, but it'll be tough!
Politicians know that few people actually vote for policies. Voters prefer aspirations and big rhetoric. They like the candidate who'll tell them what they want to hear, who says what they'd like to say. Even if they get the chance, very few will ask the difficult questions like. ...OK, that's a good idea but how will you make it happen, what will it cost and what will you do if it doesn't work? With genuinely independent mass media, in theory a candidate's or political party's manifesto can be scrutinised and tested and their record of achievement (or otherwise) can be examined. But even if you've the luxury of a free press (and my jury's still out on the Serbian media), it takes a special kind of voter to scrutinise and test all the words and hot air generated at election time.
I've heard it claimed (mostly by Americans) that the United States is the world's most sophisticated democracy. Yes, well... Is anyone else here following the Fox News coverage of the Republican and Democratic Caucus process? Ok, The Washington Post and The New York Times and some other ‘Long Words - Low Circulation' papers make an attempt to scrutinise the arguments and to be balanced and objective in their reporting but frankly, they're small islands of sanity in a sea of banality and prejudice. People like to hear what they already believe, they like the big headlines and easy answers offered by most of the mass media and many of them vote accordingly. Perhaps that's how George W Bush, the inarticulate and ‘intellectually challenged' leader of the Western World got elected - twice! Is Serbia much different? No, of course not, and nor are the UK and most other ‘mature' democracies.
So as a Serbian voter, how do you react when political parties say what you want to hear, when they use big headlines and easy answers to tell you they're the custodians of the ‘orthodox' national identity, the defenders of your most cherished values and traditions? What do you think when they tell you that you're an innocent victim, universally misunderstood and unfairly vilified despite your glorious history of resistance to oppression, your rich culture and your centuries-long struggle for self - determination? How do you feel if they tell you that Serbia can make it on its own, or perhaps with just a little help from that cradle of political integrity and parliamentary democracy, Russia? Do you really believe them when they say that Serbia has no need to sell it's soul to the new Europe? If you're someone who can see through hollow rhetoric based at best on a partial and highly selective church-sponsored view of history, and at worst on a cynical manipulation of some very vulnerable people then maybe you'll not be fooled into voting for unachievable aspirations and unworkable policies.
But if you are one of those vulnerable people, what do you do? If you're someone who struggles every day to get by, to pay all the bills and do all the shopping for the family on 250 Euros a month, don't you want to believe them when they promise you a more prosperous future, even though they've not told you how they'll actually make it happen? And if you're someone who's desperate to work but who's not young or attractive enough, or who hasn't got the right connections to get a decent job, isn't it tempting to put your faith in people who promise to create jobs for all despite the fact that many of the foreign investors needed to finance economic growth will beat a hasty retreat if these people actually get elected? And if you're someone who's sick or disabled or, God help you, an older person living on a tiny, fixed pension doesn't the prospect of a fair, universal social security system interest you, even though its not clear who'll pay for it? Or perhaps you're young and well educated and working in MacDonald's, and you can't help noticing that a few of your friends from school or university seem to be doing pretty well for themselves, even though they don't seem to be working very hard...
If Mladan Zivotić was right, that Serbian nationalism in the 1990's was a "clerical-nationalist ideology, with a vision of a traditional, patriarchal society" then considering what's been said by some ‘leading politicians' recently, you may be tempted to agree with me that even though the message has been updated, the fundamental political philosophy is probably still the same. If so, it's a discredited political philosophy but one that's still likely to appeal to vulnerable, disillusioned people who have very little except their sense of a national identity, their strong religious faith and their respect for their church and its teachings. Many people who live with disappointment don't have the time or energy or inclination to think about complex solutions to difficult problems, they're too busy simply surviving. There are a lot of them here. Perhaps they're thinking that if the political message echoes the teaching of the church, then maybe its safer and simpler to keep the faith?
Serbian nationalist politicians exploit these vulnerable people because to get power they offer simple, attractive solutions to complex problems. To discourage too much scrutiny. they sell their package of insubstantial policies wrapped in a veneer of history, ideas and imagery drawn from orthodox tradition. The fact is that history, including Serbian history demonstrates the frailty of fundamentalist, nationalist political philosophy in practice. It just doesn't translate into practical, sustainable policies to improve peoples' lives. Governments who've not learned this lesson tend to have a very short shelf-life.
Fundamentalism is pernicious and it comes in many forms. In the interests of "balance", fundamentalism inspires apparently intelligent American legislators to support the teaching of a Judeao/Christian creation myth in schools alongside hard science, but in fact all they do is perpetuate ignorance and prejudice. Fundamentalism inspires intolerance and discrimination. If you are a woman who's a victim of domestic violence in Serbia or Saudi Arabia, you'll understand what it means to live in a "..traditional patriarchal society" The difference is that in Serbia, you can drive yourself to hospital. It's illegal for a Saudi women to drive. And then of course, it can inspire horrific cruelty in the name of ‘the Cause'. Ultimately, fundamentalism inspires conflict, not just a conflict of ideas but real, blood in the sand conflict because fundamentalists can't accept the other person's right to disagree.
A fundamentalist, nationalist political philosophy is by definition, simplistic, dogmatic and inflexible. It doesn't just stimulate and support conflict, it inhibits progress and encourages stagnation. There can be few better examples of this process than the experience of Serbia during the 1990's. In that case, why do so many Serbs apparently accept the discredited, fundamentalist and nationalist philosophy of some politicians here who make promises they can never keep? You could equally ask why so many Americans were foolish enough to re-elect a president who had taken them into a disastrous ‘war on terror' against an ‘axis of evil' that existed if at all, only in his distorted imagination.
The answer probably has a lot to do with power, the power of the few over the many to do things they could otherwise not get away with. The power to exaggerate, to manipulate, to control and ultimately to convince voters where their ‘best interests' lie. In America, real power is exercised by an unholy alliance which includes the military-industrial complex and the oil companies, who'll use any means at their disposal including extraordinarily large amounts of money to ensure the election of an administration which will serve their interests. If that means supporting political representatives of the fundamentalist Christian far right, so be it. They'll put up with the fact that their children will believe Darwin was a heretic spawn of the devil, so long as the dollars keep rolling in.
And in Serbia too, if getting power (and maintaining your luxury lifestyle?) in a country plagued by disadvantage and disillusion means that you must exploit vulnerable people's genuine fears, if you must tell them that contrary to all the evidence, there really are simple solutions to complex problems, or if you must manipulate them by cynically appealing to their religious convictions, then for some that seems to be ok.
So the question is, will the people of Serbia let them get away with it? Will they choose insight or ignorance, progress or stagnation? As I write, it appears that more than 1.6 million people, around forty percent of those who voted in the first round of the presidential election have accepted the nationalist, fundamentalist message. The good news is that some sixty percent rejected it! It remains to be seen whether the next round will produce a similar result with just two candidates. To be honest, if it doesn't, I'm not sure that I'll want to live in a fundamentalist state where political policy is dictated by people whose imagination and insight is constrained by parochial self-interest and by their slavish commitment to distorted and misleading images of past glory. I'm here because I want to live in a country with a future. I don't believe that a fundamentalist, nationalist Serbia has a future.