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Out of the Soviet frying pan?

24 May 2012


Michael Bourdeaux considers states only recently in the EU

Church, State, and Democracy in Expanding
Lavinia Stan and Lucian Turcescu
Oxford University Press £40                                                                           
(978-0 19-533710-5)                                                                              
Church Times Bookshop £36        

THE first question is: for whom is this book written? It covers the ten “accession states” to the EU of the former Soviet bloc — those which joined in 2004 or 2007. It en­compasses a vast amount of research: no fewer than 66 pages, compared with 210 pages of main text, comprise footnotes and biblio­graphy, the latter listing some 800 titles. It is a resource for the soci-ologist and the political scientist, but will be of less use to anyone seeking the religious dynamic of the new Europe, and less still for anyone visiting those countries and wanting a stimulating religious orientation.

Here is a trial case: Hungary. This country was much in the news at the beginning of 2012, because it has just promulgated a new con­stitution, restricting civil liberties and much contested, in the face of demonstrations on the streets of Budapest. The text contains useful background to this, while, of course, having been written before the extent of the changes became known. The Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, was once a dissident, but has put on a more authoritarian mantle, looking back, as it were, to some of the controls over society which were universal in the communist period.

What is lacking, though, is enough information about the middle background to this retro­grade step, which includes multiple restrictions on religious liberty — those very sanctions that were overthrown in 1991. It is difficult to understand the nature of the debate without looking at some of the freedoms for which activists fought in earlier days. So it is that the heroism of such towering figures as Cardinal Mindszenty (who, by the way, is misplaced in the index through being incorrectly spelt) rate a bare mention in a single sentence.

Every one of these countries underwent religious persecution in the Soviet period, but the intensity varied. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithu­ania suffered worst, because they were part of the Soviet Union until 1991; the others were less affected in later years.

Lavinia Stan and Lucian Tur­cescu, who both hold academic posts at Canadian universities, are nothing if not systematic. They present the ten countries in alpha­betical order, devoting 16-18 pages to each. Might it not have been slightly more logical to group them geographically — for example, the three Baltic States and the Czech Republic and Slovakia together, thus facilitating comparisons between them?

Every chapter is shoehorned into an identical mould, with exactly the same sections: historical overview, legislative framework, religion and electoral politics, religious educa­tion in public (i.e. state) schools, and religion and sexuality. This flattens the contours: the vast dif­ferences between (say) Roman Catholic Poland and Orthodox Romania do not stand out suf­ficiently.

Nevertheless, they have estab­lished extensive groundwork for future research, and have contri­b-uted usefully to the scant literature on religion in the European Union.

Canon Michael Bourdeaux is the President of Keston Institute, Oxford.

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