Protestantism and Politics in Eastern Europe and Russia: The Communist and Post-Communist Eras

Protestantism and Politics in Eastern Europe and Russia: The Communist and Post-Communist Eras

by Sabrina P. Ramet

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Coming at a time of enormous transformations in the one-time Communist bloc, this volume provides a much-needed perspective on the significance of church-state relations in the renaissance of civil society in the region. The essays collected here accentuate the peculiarly political character of Protestantism within Communist systems. With few identifiable leaders, a multiplicity of denominations, and a tendency away from hierarchical structures, the Protestant churches presents a remarkably diverse pattern of church-state relations. Consequently, the longtime coexistence of Protestantism and Communism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union affords numerous examples of political accommodation and theological adaption that both reflect and foreshadow the dramatic changes of the 1990s.
Based on extensive field research, including interviews with notable figures in the Protestant churches in the region, the essays in this volume address broad topics such as the church's involvment in environmentalism, pacifism, and other dissident movements, as well as issues particular to Russia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, (1949–1989), Hungary, Yugoslavia (1945-1991), Bulgaria, and Romania. The final volume in the three-volume work "Christianity Under Stress," Protestantism and Politics in Eastern Europe and Russia will prove invaluable to anyone hoping to understand not only the workings of religion under Communism, but the historical and contemporary interactions of church and state in general.

Contributors. Paul Bock, Lawrence Klippenstein, Paul Mojzes, Earl A. Pope, Joseph Pungur, Sabrina Petra Ramet, Walter Sawatsky, N. Gerald Shenk, Gerd Stricker, Sape A. Zylstra

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822377740
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 10/01/2012
Series: Christianity under stress ; , #3
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 408
File size: 635 KB

About the Author

Sabrina P. Ramet is Professor of International Studies at the University of Washington. She is the author and editor of numerous books, including Nihil Obstat (Duke University Press).

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Protestantism and Politics in Eastern Europe and Russia

The Communist and Postcommunist Eras

By Sabrina Petra Ramet

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1992 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7774-0


Protestantism and Communism

Patterns of Interaction in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union

Sabrina Petra Ramet

True theology is not theoretical or speculative. Its aim is rather action, i.e., a godlike life.—Protestant reformer Martin Butzer

Theory becomes aimless if it is not connected with revolutionary practice, just as practice gropes in the dark if its path is not illumined by revolutionary theory ... for it, and it alone, can give the movement confidence, the power of orientation, and an understanding of the inherent connection between surrounding events.—Josef V. Stalin, The Foundations of Leninism

When social institutions subscribing to divergent programmatic theories (or theologies) come into contact, the result is apt to be some mixture of conflict and accommodation. And to the extent that one or more institutions have to accommodate their ideologies and behaviors in conditions of coexistence, those institutions are likely to modify and revise these theories in the light of prevailing conditions. To the extent that ideology can be described as a kind of secular theology, and thus subsumed under the rubric of theology, one may say that while theology is the starting point for an understanding of an institution's goals, resources, and optimal strategies, theologies may expand and contract and shift emphases as changing political realities impose strategic imperatives.

The coexistence of Protestantism and communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union provided unmistakable examples of political accommodation and theological adaptation. In the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the concept of a "Church in Socialism," first articulated in 1971, came in the wake of the creation of a separate Federation of Evangelical-Lutheran Churches in the GDR and signified the Evangelical Church's acceptance of the communist order. In Hungary, likewise, the now-defunct Theology of Diakonia owed its birth to the communist order's influence. This theology, which characterized both the Reformed Church and the Lutheran Church in Hungary, was defined by a leading Hungarian theologian as entailing "active cooperation with the Marxists and practical participation in the development of the socialist society." Its best-known advocate was Lutheran Bishop Zoltán Kaldy, who explained that in opting for a Theology of Diakonia (or service) the church was consciously adapting itself to the existing social order and embracing the goals of the state as its own.

But if some churches found it necessary to adapt to communism, so some communist regimes found it necessary to adapt to Christianity. In the GDR, for instance, authorities long allowed that the churches had a positive role to play at a given stage of development, while in the USSR under Mikhail Gorbachev there were repeated signs of a reexamination of religion and even of a new willingness to concede a positive role to religion. Indeed, in September 1990 Literaturnaia gazeta reported the opening of the first Sunday school in the USSR.

Patterns of adaptation are complex and heterogeneous—partly because of differences between countries and systems, and partly because of differences in the self-comprehension of different churches. In the postcommunist era, both the directions and the rates of change may vary, and even if there is already considerably greater freedom for religion, there also is the presence of continued (or perhaps even greater) heterogeneity in church-state relations across the region. In the eastern half of reunified Germany, for example, citizens became subject to the state-imposed church tax in January 1991—a burden unlikely to be imposed elsewhere in the region.

It is formidable enough to attempt to discern patterns of thought and behavior within the Orthodox Church or the Catholic Church, and it is similarly difficult to understand patterns in those churches' relations with communist states. Neither church is a monolith, and the diversity of currents within each of them was an important source of complexity in their dealings with communist regimes. Protestantism is altogether more complex, and for obvious reasons. To begin with, differences of opinion may exist as to just which churches should be counted as "Protestant" and which should not. And among those that are counted as Protestant, there may be considerable differences in theology, organization, and political orientation. In spite of these obstacles, one may at a minimum characterize Protestant churches as placing a greater emphasis on scripture than do the Orthodox and Catholic churches, and correspondingly placing less emphasis on dogma, law, tradition, hierarchy, sacrament, and monasticism.

In addition, there has been a tendency in Protestantism to emphasize the laity while deemphasizing the clergy. Seventeenth-century Harringtonian legal scholar William Sprigge, for example, rejected any distinction between clergy and laity, which is to say he did not see a need for any special clergy, while Baptist thinker Gerrard Winstanley (1609–76), known for his association with the Diggers movement, argued for the primacy of individual spiritual experience over church institutions and doctrines. The idea of the "priesthood of all believers" has evolved over time and in the twentieth century has come to signify not so much prerogative as a duty to others, not so much individual self-sufficiency as the indispensability of parish life.

Finally, despite Calvin's theocracy and Luther's belief that the state should serve divine ends, despite Puritan millennarianism and Butzer's argument that the civil magistrate should establish and promote "true religion," Protestantism sowed the seeds for the separation of church and state. Luther considered the idea of a Christian state impracticable and even allowed that a non-Christian could fulfill the role of magistrate just as well as a Christian, provided only that he be guided by the voice of reason. Adolf von Harnack (1851–89), a Lutheran theologian who lectured at the University of Berlin and enjoyed tremendous influence in his day, taught that it was erroneous to deduce maxims for the conduct or regulation of secular affairs from gospel and that the gospel should not be exported into law. As Wilhelm Pauck notes, "Harnack believed that the reformers had to renounce in some way the Roman Catholic ideal of building a visible Kingdom of God on earth and of penetrating the realm of nature with the power of grace and holiness." In this manner, Harnack completed the divorce of church from state begun by Luther.

Protestantism and Communism

From one perspective, Protestant churches were more "troublesome" for the communists than the Orthodox Church or Catholic Church. The communists traditionally preferred to settle their relations with churches through negotiations with their appropriate heads. But where certain religious bodies, such as the Christian Community or the Baptists, declined to appoint heads of their organizations or to give their leaders effective jurisdictional power, the communists had to face dealing with what, to them, seemed like amorphous and unpredictable (hence, perhaps, uncontrollable) "movements." For this reason, in part, the communists long preferred Orthodox, or even Lutheran, churches to Baptists or Mennonites or other "amorphous" denominations. Consistent with this strategy, the Soviets tried, beginning in 1944, to force as many Protestant groups as possible to merge into the All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians and Baptists, facilitating state supervision and control of them.

Yet, in the GDR, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, the smaller Protestant churches clearly benefited from the disestablishment of former "state churches" and from the communists' interest in redressing the balance by favoring the smaller churches in certain ways. In Poland, for instance, church buildings that had been lost to the Catholic Church in the interwar period were restored to the Protestants, while in Czechoslovakia the party's central committee issued secret instructions to cadres that the Czechoslovak (Hussite) Church and the Evangelical Church were to receive privileged treatment.

For some Protestant clergy, the advent of communism was even welcome. Czech theologian Josef Hromádka argued that the Christian nations had been responsible for the century's two world wars, that Christianity had therefore not been an effective brake against mass extermination and suffering, and hence this should be kept in mind before criticizing communism. For Hromádka, it was pointless to hope for the old order's return, and, accordingly, he believed that the clergy's opposition to socialism was not only perilous but wrong-headed. But Hromádka was in fact consciously sympathetic toward communism. In his memoirs, he recalled his first approach to socialism:

At the beginning of February 1948, just before our socialist revolution, we gathered at the Philosophy Department of Charles University and tried to understand and convince each other. I no longer remember all the details, but I still recall the basic theme because I have never abandoned it. It was: As a Christian theologian I have nothing against socialism. Even from a religious standpoint it is much closer to me than is bourgeois liberal democracy. I am ready to help in the construction of a socialist society. But I warned that the fundamental problems of socialist man would still weigh heavily upon us, even after our society has been politically, socially and economically rebuilt. The basic human problems remain, whatever the structure of society.

Nor was his an isolated viewpoint. In Hungary, Calvinist professor Elemér Kocsis told a scholarly symposium in October 1983 (commemorating the quincentenary of Martin Luther's birth) that Protestants and Marxists shared a common humanist heritage and that Protestants must "choose" socialism as the "most progressive" system available.

This volume focuses on the themes of dissent and pacifism, dialogue, and ecumenism. Dissent, as the Oxford English Dictionary reminds us, is merely the practice of holding a different opinion, whether this entails disagreement with a church, with the dominant opinions in society, or with the values and policies of a regime. Churches are political to begin with, since their moral codes and social values to retain meaning and potency cannot be divorced from the social and political contexts to which they relate. Under communism, the church's political character is accentuated insofar as it is the sole remaining independent institution in most countries ruled by communist parties, so that the church not only finds itself strategically "alone" in its confrontation with the communist party, but finds that the numerous interested groups that inevitably seek expression in any complex society tend to look to the churches for sympathy, advice, inspiration, assistance, or alliance. The church thus was drawn into pacifist, ecological, trade unionist, nationalist, and other concerns. This course entailed some risk since the communist party typically would arrogate the prerogative of exclusive adjudication in matters social, political, economic, and informational. Hence, the challenge for the church, as Lutheran Bishop Werner Krusche of Magdeburg put it so well, was to find "the narrow space between opposition and opportunism." Ultimately, the churches of Eastern Europe made an important contribution to the pressure that culminated in the "Great Transformation" of 1989.

The involvement of a church in dissent remained, clearly, a matter of choice (though numerous examples testify to the fact that congregations may exert pressure on their clergy to "radicalize"). Hence, as Michael Bourdeaux pointed out, "membership [in] a sect does not of itself in any way imply opposition to the [communist] state."

Christian-Marxist dialogue in communist Eastern Europe bloomed in the early 1960s on the initiative of the communists when and insofar as they felt it could be useful to them; the public meetings of Christian and Marxist philosophers and sociologists could create an impression of openness and liberality for Western audiences and create new opportunities in the church-state relationship. From the beginning, it was Catholics and Protestants who responded to the invitation to dialogue rather than Orthodox, Muslims, Jews, or other religious groups. In Hungary, Lutheran Bishop Kaldy gave dialogue theological status, identifying it as an organic part of the Theology of Diakonia. In the GDR, on the other hand, the Evangelical-Lutheran Church saw dialogue as a forum in which the church might carry on constructive criticism of the regime and articulate its specific views on issues of the day. In every case, dialogue was something distinct from either collaboration or confrontational debate, although the possibility always existed that dialogue could degenerate into one of these antipodes.

Christian-Marxist dialogue has had two possible forms: academic and practical-political. The former, especially characteristic of the 1960s but which continued—until the collapse of communism—in Hungary, Yugoslavia, and elsewhere, typically involved public forums in which distinguished specialists engaged in sophisticated discussions of abstract problems. In Hungary, for example, a long-range project involving Protestant theologians and Marxist researchers of Protestantism was launched with a colloquium in Debrecen on 25–26 September 1981. Such dialogue could win advocates on either side, but it had little chance of producing direct effects on policy since those participating on the Marxist side were usually academicians rather than policymakers. The latter form of dialogue, which characterized the Evangelical-Lutheran Church's relationship with the East German regime, for instance, was politically more to the point, even though it was a quieter, less glamorous process.

Ecumenism may be defined as dialogue and cooperation among churches, founded on mutual respect. Sometimes viewed as the aspiration for ecclesiastical unity, ecumenical forums have come to concentrate on pooling resources to address issues of mutual concern. The starting point for ecumenism is the willingness to grant that another religious body may have as much legitimacy as one's own and be engaged in work no less useful. This prerequisite accounts for the fact that some churches (for example, the Apostolic communities) have no interest in ecumenism; since they view other churches as the tools of Satan, they cannot conceive of any reason to launch ecumenical contacts. Churches such as the Methodists, the Mennonites, and the Free Christian congregations have been enthusiastically ecumenical, however. Ecumenism, of course, has fared differently in different lands. In Hungary the ecumenical spirit has been weak, and the small, ecumenical-minded Free Christian sect has been repeatedly attacked by the Reformed and Baptist churches despite its size. In Czechoslovakia, by contrast, ecumenical contacts have been lively, taking place chiefly within the context of the Ecumenical Council of Churches in Czechoslovakia and the Christian Peace Conference. Similarly, in the GDR organized institutional forums (the Association of Evangelical Free Churches, the Evangelical Alliance, and, above all, the Working Community of Christian Churches in the GDR) serve as the primary arenas for ecumenical contacts, although inter-church cooperation at the parish level also has been pursued.

Ecumenism is not new. Sixteenth-century Calvinist reformer Jan Laski aspired to unite all Protestant churches in Poland in a single Reformation church that would be recognized by the state, and he sought to achieve this goal through negotiation and compromise. Throughout the sixteenth century, contacts took place—between the Lutherans and the Czech Brethren in Poland, for example, in February 1570 when the latter took part in a Lutheran synod in Poznan. But it was only toward the end of 1942 that preliminary approaches were made in the direction of setting up the Polish Ecumenical Council; the body was finally established after the war's end in late 1946. In Hungary, a Working Community for Ecumenism among Hungarian Young People was created as early as 1936 within the framework of the Protestant Student Union. The Hungarian branch of the World Council of Churches held its first session on 25 June 1943 at the height of World War II. In 1954 this body renamed itself the Ecumenical Council of Churches in Hungary. Since then, ecumenical contacts in Hungary have been intense. Ecumenical bodies also exist in Czechoslovakia and in other countries of Eastern Europe. In addition, the Conference of European Churches and the Christian Peace Conference in Prague have served as arenas for contacts among East European churches. The Christian Peace Conference, although born within a communist womb, has survived the collapse of communism and has expressed a determination to adapt to new conditions and carve out a new role.

Protestantism and Culture

In his classic book, The Spirit of Protestantism, Robert McAfee Brown argues that Protestantism has been indifferent to culture (hence, by extension, to national heritage and nationalism). He charges that Protestants have been indifferent to the beauty of cathedrals and to achievements in art, literature, drama, sculpture, etc. The picture is overdrawn. In Eastern Europe, Protestantism, while not as closely identified with nationalism as either Catholicism or Orthodoxy, has nonetheless made its contribution to the development and defense of national culture.


Excerpted from Protestantism and Politics in Eastern Europe and Russia by Sabrina Petra Ramet. Copyright © 1992 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Protestantism and Communism: Patterns of Interaction in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union / Sabrina Petra Ramet 1

Protestantism: Theology and Politics / Sape A. Zylstra 11

Protestantism in East Germany, 1949-1989: A Summing Up / Sabrina Petra Ramet 40

Protestantism in Czechoslovakia and Poland / Paul Bock 73

Protestantism in Hungary: The Communist Era / Joseph Pungar 107

Protestantism in Romania / Earl A. Pope 157

Protestantism in Bulgaria and Yugoslavia Since 1945 / Paul Mojzes and N. Gerald Shenk 209

Protestantism in the USSR / Walter Sawatsky 237

Conscientious Objectors in Eastern Europe: The Quest for Free Choice and Alternative Service / Lawrence Klippenstein 276

The new Church-State Configuration in Eastern Europe / Sabrina Petra Ramet 310

Afterword / Gerd Stricker 330

Notes 353

Index 409

Contributors 439

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