FREEDOM AND CONSCIENCE
by Vladimir Petrovich Semenko, Christian publicist, member of the political council of the Russian Christian Democratic Movement
Nezavisimaia gazeta, Military Review, 16 August 1997 [other articles by Semenko: "Freedom of Conscience and Personal Freedom" and "Criticism of patriarchate's cooperation with government"]

People in many countries lobby about law drafts. But the massive discussion criticizing one draft law began immediately after its rejection by the president (see, for example, Ivan Rodin and Maxim Shevchenko, "President's veto seems firmly argued," and Vladimir Riakovsky and Valery Borshchev, "New Law on Freedom of Conscience--for and against," in NG-Religion, 24 July 1997). This, I think, you will not find in a single country. Fact, however, remains fact: liberal critics of the draft of the law on freedom of conscience took courage only after the president issued his veto.

Meanwhile an objective observer of this mighty stream of liberal consciousness, who is acquainted with the essence of the affair, cannot possibly forget the main point: the newly emerged opponents of the law are uniformly silent about several obvious (and in principle generally known) facts.

First fact: The draft law was adopted by an overwhelming majority of both chambers of parliament, which in its turn had been elected in a legal democratic procedure by a majority of the people specifically for legislative activity as the supreme lawmaking authority. If one proceeds from generally accepted premises of democracy, one must conclude that any law adopted by the parliament to a certain degree reflects public opinion and if it does not then the parliament simply should be reelected. This coordinated "attack" on the law, obviously planned from a single center, reflects nevertheless a purely intellectual (more precisely, educated) disregard for public opinion when, despite all the claims about democracy, a "knot of professors" (to use Solzhenitsyn's words) consider that they have the right to rule the country in the name of the people, creating public opinion.

Second fact. All of the obedient "discussion" became possible purely because of the imperfect nature of the Russian constitution, because, according to normal constitutional logic, if the draft law was adopted by a qualified majority of both chambers, that is, actually able to override a veto, it automatically should go into effect and not have to go through a repeated procedure of adoption.

Third fact. The appeal of the law's opponents to foreign experience clearly is without basis. Thus, the Eastern Orthodox church is recognized as the "state church," for example, in Greece; a "special status" is recognized for the Roman Catholic chruch in Ireland; in Denmark the Evangelical Lutheran church is directly proclaimed the state church and is supported by the state; Islam is declared the state religion of such countries as Egypt or Jordan. Let's compare with this point 1 of article 4 of the proposed draft law, which unequivocally declared the Russian federation a secular state and states: "No religion can be established in the capacity of state religion. . . . Religious associations are separated from the state."

Some constitutions of European states have, it seems, even softer, more liberal wording than those others. The constitution of the Lithuanian republic states that "the state recognizes traditional churches and organizations in Lithuania, and others. . . in cases where they have support in society and their teachings and rites do not violate the law and morality." The German constitution recognizes religious teaching as obligatory in state schools, which means Lutheranism and certainly not the system of, say, "Living Ethics" or something like that, as is happening more frequently in Russia. In Spain the basic law about religious freedom declares "as the only restriction" on the principle of religious freedom "the defense of the rights of the others to the achievement of their freedoms and basic rights, as well as the defense of security, health, public morality, determining the bases of public order." The same law speaks of the possibility of special "agreements and contracts for cooperation of the Spanish state with the same churches and religious societies, which, judging from the sphere of their activity and number of believers, have established clear roots in Spain." Such examples could be multiplied and multiplied.

As we see, the current draft law is much more liberal than the legislations of the majority of European states, which in contrast to Russia have developed democracies. As a rule, the European legislative model for relations between state and religions provides for differentiated relationships toward various religions and confessions in accordance with the extent of their development and tradition in the given country and among the given nation. At the same time the attempt to create the same thing in Russia, even though weak and clumsy, immediately met sharp hostility.

In this regard it is impossible to be silent about a fourth fact, which pertains to the clear hypocrisy of those foreign leaders who put unprecedented pressure on Mr. Yeltsin with the goal of securing his veto. The same United States maintains extremely close and friendly relations, without a condescending tap on the shoulder, with such countries, for example, as Israel or Egypt, where Judaism and Islam respectively occupy a clear position of state religion (strengthened by legislation). The liberal western world, as a rule, swallows, alas, the traditional violation of rights of Catholics in China, etc. etc. It is clear that in these cases political and economic pragmatism and specifically state interests take precedence over human rights. Meanwhile the American model is forced upon Russia, based on a formal freedom of conscience, and it is understandable why. The genuine regeneration of Russian Orthodoxy (which can only be aided by a recognition of the unique role of our basic confession and a restriction on the activity of sects) is the chief impediment to the establishment of the atheistic "new world order."

Fifth fact. The critical situation in their countries has forced many developed democracies to take actions that formally restricted the human rights (for example, the prohibition on the activity of the communist party in many countries in the 1930s to 1950s), while in Russia, which is undergoing an extreme crisis, the activity of sects (which in their destructiveness are fully equivalent with the activity of communists under Lenin and Stalin and Nazis under Hitler) is not being prohibited, and only the possiblity for their legal registration is being restricted.

Sixth fact. During the election campaign of 1996 the president promised to struggle against totalitarian sects by all means available to him, as a result of which several Orthodox voters voted for him in the second round and not for the communist Ziuganov. Thus, now, when the president is expected simply not to interfere with the legislative initiative of the parliament, he is clearly violating his promise.

Seventh fact. The attraction of people into the orbit of totalitarian sects is harmful not simply for RPTs and other traditional confessions. It undermines the authority of the president himself. Because members of sects, as a rule, withdraw from the social sphere and, it turns out, evade any influence of the state and become absolutely obedient to the will of their leaders.

Eighth fact. The draft law was decisively supported by the basic traditional confessions of Russia, which uniformly recognized it as corresponding to their interests. The criticism of the draft law, thus, clearly does not come from them.

And finally, the ninth fact. It is obvious that even such a weak, liberal, and imperfect attempt to achieve a legislative distinction among traditional and nontraditional religions and confessions and to underscore a special role for Orthodoxy and Islam, and legally to complicate life for sects, is the path to the restoration of historical justice. If in the final analysis the role which the Russian Orthodox church, under whose spiritual leadership Russia itself was created, has played historically in Russia is restored, and if Christian values are established at the base of all life, then there will not remain even a trace of liberal ideology in our longsuffering country. Clearly it is not pleasant to recognize this. But the self-love of the intellectuals must be set aside and it must be understood that those who forced this discussion are holding their tongues. Because the Russian liberals are speaking for them quite well.

Russian text: Svoboda i sovest

(posted 18 August 1997)