Christianity, Nationalism, and Mother Russia

27 May 2017

A couple weeks ago, the Pew Research Center published a major report about 18 countries in Central and Eastern Europe. The big trends are strong and clear. 

Most people in just about all Orthodox-majority countries (Moldova, Greece, Armenia, Georgia, Serbia, Romania, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Belarus, Russia) are in agreement that: (1) Orthodoxy is the essential protector of individual and national identity, even when only about 10% regularly attend religious services; (2) a strong Russia is necessary to balance the influence of the West; (3) Russia has an obligation to protect Orthodox Christians; and (4) the most important Orthodox religious leader in the world today, even for Greek Orthodox Christians, is the Patriarch of Moscow. 

Even in Belarus and Moldova, where most Orthodox Christians are not ethnic Russians, loyalty to the Patriarch of Moscow remains strongly important. 

What we see is the resuscitation of Mother Russia. No wonder the media shows President Putin attending church.

What we observe as well in countries with a majority of Roman Catholics (Poland, Croatia, Lithuania, and Hungary) is that Roman Catholicism is greatly valued as the giver of  identity. It is what enables people to be “truly Polish,” “truly Croatian,” etc. 

Unlike most Central and Eastern European countries, regular church attendance in Poland is about 45%. Here one sees the enduring influence of Pope John Paul II and a form of Roman Catholicism reminiscent of pre-Communist days. In Croatia, as well, one sees a strong pre-Communist and triumphant institutional Catholicism. The wealthiest owner of expensive real estate in Zagreb, for instance, is the Roman Catholic Church. Unlike Poland, however, church attendance in Croatia is far below 10% and ignorance of basic Roman Catholic beliefs is widespread. Here belonging is far more important than believing. 

Curiously, the Czech Republic does not share the above trends. It is one of the most secular countries in Europe. Nearly three-quarters of Czech adults (72%) describe their religion as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular.” 

When it comes to a kind of values clarification process among Orthodox and Roman Catholics in Central and Eastern Europe, three attitudinal trends stand out: (1) a woman’s place is in the home, having children, and being obedient to her husband; (2) there is less support for the new economic systems in comparison with the former Communist-era planned economies and growing sentiments that democracy may not be the best form of government; and (3) homosexuality is a sinful aberration. 

About 85% of adults in Russia (even young adults) say homosexuality is morally wrong. In Catholic Croatia, opposition to homosexuality remains strong; but in Catholic Poland only 48% consider homosexuality morally wrong. 

This is a very brief overview. There are indeed some fascinating values trends in post-Communist Europe. More about this in a future reflection. (This is of course the Memorial Day week end.) 

Having done my own on site research in Eastern Europe for several years, I tend to agree with an observation in the May 17th issue of the Economist: “Across ex-Communist Europe, religion is robust and patriotic, but sometimes skin-deep.”  Religion is not always about Faith….and that is true of course on both sides of the Atlantic. 


As I indicated last week, I will be away from Another Voice until the Fourth of July. The old fellow needs some R&R and a chance to work on a bigger writing project. More about that when it is completed. Many kind regards. – Jack

Bridges Not Walls

20 May 2017

As news reports about him and his close associates continue to flood the media, Donald Trump begins his first major foreign-diplomacy trip. Regardless how his trip goes, people wonder if he will still be president a few weeks from now.

I really don’t know how much longer Donald Trump will occupy the White House. I leave that kind of speculation to others.…..I do, however, have a big concern about what occupies much of contemporary America: POLARIZATION.

American polarization — extreme, sharp, and often bitter — is more extreme today than during the nineteenth century Civil War. Whether Trump remains president or not, polarization, I fear, will continue to threaten American identity and existence.

Like many of you, I suspect, I lived through the heated debates, demonstrations, and civil unrest of the 1960s and 1970s. I vividly remember the assassinations of John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X. What’s happening today, however, is more serious and more sinister than the unsettling events of the ‘60s and ‘70s, because it is more widespread and more deeply rooted. People are retreating behind strongly defended walls constructed on racism, ignorance, fundamentalism, and narcissistic economics. These polarization walls, stretching across the country, are far more threatening than any real or imagined wall between Mexico and the USA.

Republicans and Democrats, today, are more ideologically divided than at any point in the past twenty years; and American society is being pulled apart by strong ideological divisions along educational, generational, and religious lines. The issues are hardly limited to politics or battles between Fox News and NBC. Contemporary Christians are more divided by “fundamentalists” and “new earth creationists” battling “progressives” than they are by Catholics who can’t get along with Protestants or vice versa.

And all across the country, civility appears to be a lost virtue; and it is being replaced by proud partisan nastiness and demeaning rhetoric. “Unfriending” on Facebook is the new fad; and tweeting is a sure way to screw and destroy school classmates, annoying business associates, or the guy down the street, who just married his buddy.

The roots of our contemporary polarization are in our changing U.S. population, with its rapidly growing racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity. Some people cannot deal with reality as a developing life story. I don’t agree with them, but I can understand the anxieties of white supremacists. Thanks to large-scale immigration from Latin America and Asia, since the 1960s, as well as higher fertility rates among non-whites, the racial and ethnic makeup of the United States has undergone a major transformation. Non-whites now comprise a major share of the overall population; and non-Latino whites will make up less than half of the country’s population by 2044, if not before.

Today, for the first time in U.S. History, there are more students of color than white students in American public schools. White supremacist rhetoric is not going to change this reality.

The other part of the demographic trend that accelerates polarization in the United States is that African Americans and Latinos continue to experience significantly worse health conditions, poorer educational and job opportunities, inferior housing, higher unemployment, and lower incomes than white Americans. They also encounter more hostility and prejudice in their interactions with public officials and police officers.

The big questions confronting Americans today — the really big values clarification questions —- are not whether or not Donald Trump will be leaving the White House; but whether or not Americans have the will and understanding to build a more inclusive, and less deeply segregated country. In many parts of the country —urban, rural, and suburban—the status quo will have to radically change.

Americans will have to become bridge builders in a big way.

Building walls is easy, compared to building bridges. Building bridges (in a polarized society) is hard work: One pillar is built on “my” vision and values. The other pillar is built on “their” vision and values. The roadway connecting the two pillars, however, can only be built with OUR shared vision and values.

The process of bridge-building begins, first of all, with family sharing based on mutual love and respect. It then moves on to neighborhood conversations and dialogue and learning-discoveries in schools, social groups, and churches.

To build solid and long-lasting bridges, we need to establish channels for dialogue and we need to insure that our religious, educational, and civic institutions promote multi-cultural knowledge and understanding.

To build solid and long-lasting bridges, we need to practice genuine humility and to acknowledge that we may not have all the answers for today’s problems, that our vision, whether “progressive” or “fundamentalist,” may indeed be a very limited kind of barrel vision. No one has all the truth locked up in his or her own doctrinal formulation. We need to share visions and concerns and construct together.

Ultimately, we need to translate our new vision-gained-from-humility-and-respectful-dialogue into concrete and achievable mutual goals and actions.

With good bridges, we can walk together, live together, and flourish. If all we do is build more self-protective walls, we will lock ourselves in our own prisons, cut ourselves off from human water, light, and air; and we will die.


Next week, some reflections about Christianity in Eastern Europe. Then, as I did last summer, I will escape, until July, to work on a new book and get some R&R with my wonderful wife of forty-seven years.

Values Clarification

12 May 2017

My teaching career began in 1969. In those early years as a high school religion teacher, in Battle Creek, Michigan, and a philosophy instructor at the local community college, I put a big stress on “values clarification.” In many ways I guess I still do. I have to thank my own high school and university teachers, who encouraged me to ask “why?” about my beliefs, principles, and behavior.

“Values clarification” is something we greatly need today: for individuals, for groups, and for institutions and their institutional leaders. 

Some fundamental questions arise in values clarification exercises: What are a person’s basic beliefs, principles, and attitudes? What are they are based on? Are they good and healthy values? How does one know? If these are one’s values, is one’s behavior consistent with them? If institutions or institutional leaders do not have good values, is values education and transformation possible? Is it enough to inform the emperor that he has no clothes? Or maybe one needs a new emperor who has better sense?  

Today in church, business, and politics we could use some deeply probing values clarification exercises: holding up mirrors and helping people take a good look at their values, helping them evaluate the quality of their values; and for institutional leaders – whether ceos, bishops, or politicians – helping them examine whether or not their behavior is consistent with the institution’s stated principles and values. A citizen values clarification review board? 

Quite often, of course, the people who must courageously hold up the mirrors are the people who buy the products, the church members who gather for week end services, or the citizens who cast their votes. Quite often they see very clearly what is going on.  

It is difficult, for instance, to reconcile continued public lying, promoting racist stereotypes, mocking people with disabilities, and denigrating women and bragging about grabbing their genitalia with any sense of healthy Christian virtue. When 81 percent of white evangelicals and born-again Christians express their support for a man who does these kinds of things, one has to question the authenticity of their “Christian” belief; but it takes courage to say these kinds of things.  

In the 2016 U.S. presidential election, by way of example, many Catholics supported the candidate who was elected, because of his firmly-stated anti-abortion position. They agreed with Fr. Frank Pavone, National Director of Priests for Life, who endorsed the candidate and encouraged his faithful followers to do the same. This week in Boston, former president Obama was given the Profile in Courage Award, but the Catholic Action League of Massachusetts strongly criticized Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley for attending the award ceremony. Cardinal O’Malley is the former chairman of the Pro-Life Activities Committee of the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. C.J. Doyle, executive director of the Catholic Action League, said that O’Malley’s presence demonstrated an “appalling betrayal of the pro-life movement,” because Obama is “the most pro-abortion president” in U.S. history. Really? Well I think this is a good case study for some serious values clarification discussion about abortion and pro-life policies. Is the current occupant of the White House such a strong pro-life advocate? I simply ask the question. 

For the sake of values clarification while reflecting on the “pro-life” policies and actions of both U.S. presidents, I think the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ “Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities” deserves serious consideration. Therein we read:  
To focus on the evil of deliberate killing in abortion and euthanasia is not to ignore the many other urgent conditions that demean human dignity and threaten human rights. Opposing abortion and euthanasia does not excuse indifference to those who suffer from poverty, violence and injustice. Any politics of human life must work to resist the violence of war and the scandal of capital punishment. Any politics of human dignity must seriously address issues of racism, poverty, hunger, employment, education, housing, and health care….We pray that Catholics will be advocates for the weak and the marginalized in all these areas….the failure to protect and defend life in its most vulnerable stages renders suspect any claims to the ‘rightness’ of positions in other matters affecting the poorest and least powerful of the human community. 

While sharing my thoughts about values clarification with a good friend, he asked what I meant by “public morality.” A good question. Public morality is based on commonly agreed upon values that keep us from killing each other and maintain the common good of all citizens by protecting and guaranteeing, as we read in the Declaration of Independence, that all people are created equal and have absolute rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

In any values clarification exercise about public morality in the United Sates, one has to begin with fundamental values stated in the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights, and of course the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which the United States has endorsed since 1948. In these public morality foundational documents, one finds ample material for a very serious values clarification exercise about current U.S. domestic policy and foreign actions. (Is it surprising that libertarian billionaires, and friends of the current D.C. administration, Charles and David Koch are no now calling for and say they will fund a constitutional convention to re-write the U.S. Constitution?) 

In all programs for promoting healthy moral behavior, values clarification is a first step in a three-stage course of action.The first step is to make clear and objective observations about what is being said and done. Stage two calls for serious reflection about an appropriate course of action about what is being said and done…. In stage three, people strategize and then go into action to achieve the necessary goals.  

Values clarification is our challenge and our responsibility. In our country right now, the clock is ticking….. 

Not Knowing: Agnotology, a Deadly Contemporary Virus

6 May 2017


Agnotology comes from two neoclassical Greek words: agnosis for ignorance or “not knowing” and ontologia “ontology” which deals with the nature of being. Agnotology is the study of willful human action to spread ignorance, confusion and deceit, usually to sell a product or to win support for a cause. Agnotology is an old phenomenon but very much a contemporary virus. We see it in politics, religion, and business.

As an historian I would not say that history repeats itself; but rather that people do not learn from history, until it is often too late or just about too late.

Institutions and institutional leaders often promote ignorance as a way of exercising power over people or as a way of protecting the power of authoritarian leaders. Yes we can look at the White House for current examples. We can also look at other contemporary political leaders in places like Turkey, North Korea, and Russia. Maybe France? (I write this on the day before the final French presidential election.) I can think of university officials concealing professorial sexual abuse because top professors bring money and prestige to the university. And of course, I have seen it up close in the actions of some bishops and cardinals, who protect or conceal child abusive ordained ministers to maintain their own power base. The argument: to protect the good name of the church.  

When people abandon or reconfigure facts, agnotology rules life. As Yale University professor, Timothy Synder, wrote in his most recent little book On Tyranny: “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no none can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.” 

Down the slippery slope to deadly agnotology: 

(1) People begin to succumb to the disease when they renounce the difference between what they want to hear and what is really the case. “Conservatives” do it; but “liberals and progressives” do it as well. Progressives too can be arrogant narcissists, who adjust the truth, to promote their own power-base.

(2) We need to be aware of the seductive character of leaders who promote ignorance through an endless repetition of certain phrases that cloud and conceal reality or turn individual people into dangerous stereotypes. Continual refrains of anti-abortion rhetoric cloud and conceal the reality of anti-abortion politicians who are certainly not pro-life in any way. Some of the most vocal anti-gay ecclesiastics and politicians, by way of another example, are in fact very active closet gays.

(3) When people begin to base their big decisions on feelings more than reason, the disease has begun to metastasize. Feelings can be positive or negative but cannot replace the importance of critical reflection and rational argumentation. Shortly after Obama’s first presidential election, a fellow in Southern Michigan put up a big sign on his property (I saw it.): “We used to hang niggers and now we put them in the White House.” Today that fellow rejoices that we finally have: “a good WHITE man in the WHITE House.”

(4) The Romanian-French playwright, Eugène Ionesco, watched one friend after another slip into fascism in the 1930s. He described the phenomenon in his 1959 play “Rhinoceros.” Ionesco wrote: “University professors, students, intellectuals were turning Nazi, becoming Iron Guards, one after the other. At the beginning, certainly they were not Nazis. About fifteen of us would get together to talk and to try to find arguments opposing theirs. It was not easy….From time to time, one of our friends said ‘I don’t agree with them, to be sure, but on certain points, nevertheless, I must admit, for example, the Jews…’ etc. And this was a symptom. Three weeks later, this person would become a Nazi. He was caught in the mechanism, he accepted everything, he became a rhinoceros.”

(5) Infectious symptoms are when influential people begin to despise the accepted truths of daily existence; when clever slogans appeal to fearful feelings and resonate in popular rhetoric like a new religion; and when convenient myths replace facts, history, and critical journalism.

And Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” (John 14:6)