This past July, the Center co-hosted a conference with LUMSA University in Rome, “Liberalism’s Limits: Religious Exemptions and Hate Speech.” The conference, which addressed the challenges that religious exemptions and hate-speech regulations pose for liberalism, was divided into three workshops, for which participants submitted short reflection papers. Professor Gayane Davidyan (Lomonosov) submitted the following paper for Workshop 2, on religious exemptions, which we are delighted to publish here:
Slightly expanding the problem of our discussion, I will go beyond the borders of the United States and Western Europe, and pose a general question: arising on a certain soil under favorable historical conditions, is liberalism a national phenomenon, inherent only in a particular type of society or state? People with liberal views and values live at all times and across the globe. Even in dark times, in conditions of slavery and serfdom, thinkers wrote about the values of freedom and law; historical figures like Spartak, Emelyan Pugachev fought for this freedom.
As you know, the foundations of modern European liberalism begin to take shape in the 16th-17th centuries. John Locke, in “Two Treatises on Government,” formulates the most important principles that formed the basis of the future political and social liberalism: economic freedom as the possession and use of property, and intellectual freedom, including freedom of conscience. The second principle, in his opinion, is the right to life, personal freedom, and private property. People fought for a long time to obtain and assert these rights and values and are still fighting every day. The most advanced ideas of liberalism had a great influence on Russian reality at the end of the 18th century. Empress Catherine the Great, studying the ideas of Montesquieu, Cesare Beccaria, and Voltaire, wrote an order to the deputies of a special legislative commission in order to change the concept of royal power in Russia. Liberal ideas developed further and led to fairly liberal reforms in the second half of the 19th century. However, the reception of Western European liberal ideas in Russia did not take place. And against the background of a strong absolute monarch, all these reforms seem to be “quasi-reforms.” Does this mean that liberalism as a system of organizing social and state life can form the basis only for some states that have a special specific path of development, a special culture, and other features? I would not agree with this, since the desire for freedom, dignity, and the preservation of life are the basic needs of a person with any worldview, and one can hardly speak here about the advantage of one civilization over another.
But liberalism is not only ideas; it is also necessary that a sufficient social environment exist for their perception. In Russia, it was clearly insufficient. And here, the problem was rooted. The limited social environment made it impossible to realize the liberal concept. This was the reason why ideas remained ideas.
The second problem is whether the level of development of liberal ideas affects the relationship between church and state. In Russian reality, oddly enough, these relations were built on the basis of harmony and mutual understanding. The state needed the church to justify the power of the monarch, the state supported the church and donated property. Even Peter I, who took away the independence of the Orthodox Church as an organization, put crimes against the church and faith in the first place in his criminal code.
It is surprising that more than 300 years have passed, and the crime of blasphemy has returned to Russian legislation. Of course, it is formulated differently; today it sounds like an insult to the feelings of believers, but it is not just an administrative violation, but a crime. Article 148 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation refers to “Public actions expressing clear disrespect for society and committed in order to offend the religious feelings of believers.” That is, the basis of this crime is action. However, sometimes this action is associated with words. The famous case of Pussy Riot, in which members of this group received prison terms for a punk prayer in the main church of the country, caused a lot of controversy among both politicians and lawyers. Can the actions of Pussy Riot be considered an insult, or were they just petty hooliganism, or an expression of the group’s artistic freedom? The Russian court concluded that this was hooliganism and should be punished. But the European Court of Human Rights found there to be a violation of freedom of speech here.
The picture becomes complete if we turn to the public speeches of the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, who has said, “historically, liberalism set itself the task of fighting tyrants, tyranny, which meant the monarchy and the Church.” The contradictions have deepened with the rise of postmodern liberalism. The patriarch considers the blurring of the concepts of good and evil to be a direct consequence of postmodern liberalism, and he sees signs of the apocalypse in the disappearance of distinctions between good and evil.
Another representative of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Deputy Head of the Synodal Department for Church Relations with Society and the Media, A. Shchipkov, said at a meeting of the World Russian People’s Council: “The liberal idea is alien to the Russian mentality and does not benefit the Russian people …. Russians do not benefit from liberalism …. The caste model of society and the ability of some to survive at the expense of others do not coincide with what is written in the Gospel. We need a value-based traditionalism that matches our identity.”
Recently, the Russian Orthodox Church expressed opposition to artificial insemination and surrogate motherhood.
It seems that this conservative position within the ROC is not the only such example across the globe. There are such appeals in a number of democratic states. This position becomes dangerous only when the position of the church and its power is reflected in legislation.