Soviet atheism and American secularism

Introduction: thinking about the radical atheism of the Soviet Communists

The Soviet Communists were atheist totalitarians. They tried to create a system that would make both faith and the religious institutions that foster it seem silly and superfluous. Given the strength of Orthodoxy in the pre-revolutionary Russian Empire, they had to be very intentional about this. They combined an overt assault against the Church with more insidious long term strategies. These included trumped up charges against intransigent clergy, the creation of more progressive and supportive alternative religious institutions (e.g. the “Living Church”), and a whole series of administrative, educational, and legal measures that discriminated against believers and belief.

Their efforts never completely succeeded; both the public face of the Church and her underground arms outlived the government that persecuted her. But the communists still caused enormous damage that will take many years (and the work of the Holy Spirit) to repair. As a pastor, I wonder how many Soviets failed to develop a salvific relationship with Christ as a result of their government’s persecution of the Church. God will judge them according their own circumstances, but can there be any doubt that the Soviets would have been better off had the communists allowed for the free expression of religion?

Segue: what about the radical secularism popular here?

All this got me to thinking about what attacks against the traditional faith would look like here in the United States. Secularism and capitalism are insidious, and their hegemony is doing a better job than Communism ever did at making Orthodoxy seem like an old-fashioned waste of time. I have written elsewhere how our economic system makes selfish hedonism seem natural. But what about the government? What role is it playing? Marx was wrong about many things, but his observations (the implications of which were most ably worked out by Gramsci) about the role of the state are reasonable accurate: it does use its influence to reinforce the dominate cultural framework (aka “hegemony”). The list of blessings we enjoy here is very long. Near the top is our Constitution, and especially our Bill of Rights. It provides some protection of what I referred to last week as “private domains” (aka “civil society” in this context). But if Marx and Gramsci were correct, even the most entrenched set of protections will be removed, reinterpreted, or simply ignored if they go against the prevailing hegemony.

Some recent news items show that this process is well under way here. The fact that these attacks on religious liberty seem justified to most of our people (and especially our elite) may well be an indicator that the proverbial pot of frogs is already at a boil. Let me share a couple of items that will help make my point:

Item One: taxing of churches that get too political.
The old way of looking at the separation of church and state comes from a literal interpretation of First Amendment to the Constitution. It proclaimed that the state could make no law “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. Taxation (i.e. legal expropriation of funds) has long been recognized as the most useful tool the government has for affecting behavior, and religious institutions have been rightly protected from it by its tax-exempt status. But in 1954,
the government resorted to its favorite tool to keep preachers from endorsing candidates from the pulpit. Thenceforth, those that failed to censor their sermons according to the government’s desire would be subject to taxation.

Given how tight church budgets are, the imposition of taxes could force intransigent parishes to close their doors. Public opinion in support of this kind of unconstitutional tyranny suggests that the policy is having its desired effect. There is nothing in the Constitution suggesting that the non-interference of the state into religion – i.e. the so called “separation of church and state” – is supposed to be mutual; and everything in Christian theology to suggest otherwise. Salvation requires the opening up every aspect of the believer’s life to God’s influence. Now that politics have been effectively removed from formal moral consideration, it is only a matter of time until other things are similarly proscribed (e.g. laws against “hate speech” and a relativistic culture will make the traditional notion of “sin” increasingly problematic).

Item Two: enforcement of aggressive zoning codes.

Zoning Case One. Here in Rhode Island, a tragic fire at a night club led to large-scale changes in zoning requirements and enforcement. While the requirements for religious institutions are not as strict as those for night clubs (for instance, they do not require worship spaces to have sprinkler systems), compliance with the new regulations will be expensive and impose a large burden on many parishes. For example, our parish must install emergency lighting and exit signs in our sanctuary. This will cost us several thousand dollars that we simply do not have. There are many other communities in the same boat. I trust God will provide – but what that means about our continued use of our sanctuary, I cannot guess.

The irony is that the fire marshall himself (who, btw, is very professional and working with us as much as possible to minimize the impact of the changes) told me that injuries from church fires are extremely rare. Somehow churches have made it all these many thousands of years without emergency lighting and exit signs. Again, the fact that such regulations seem necessary and “fair” demonstrates the seriousness of the problem. I hope that you are charitable enough to realize that I am neither reckless nor against keeping my parishioners safe. I like having professional inspectors from our insurance company, fire extinguisher company, and fire marshall’s office come in regularly to help us identify, reduce, and manage risk. But do not doubt for a second that this kind of regulation will end up forcing churches to close their doors, and it will do so without making anyone noticeably safer.

Zoning Case Two. Churches that want to build new buildings or use existing buildings for worship often have to have their plans ratified by political zoning boards. This is about as arbitrary as it gets. Hostile, or even apathetic boards can make building and renovating church buildings neigh impossible. I got to see this first-hand in Charlottesville, Virginia and Cranston, Rhode Island. In both cases, it took a great deal of time and effort (from volunteers!) to find and negotiate all the regulatory hoops. Given the number of veto points, antagonistic bureaucrats and lobbyists can grind the approval process to a halt. This really takes its toll on faith communities. In both of the cases above, the parishes were able to adjust their plans enough to eventually get approval. While it wasn’t always pretty, nothing matched the hostility of this zoning board member in South Carolina or the aggressive secularism of this inspector in Pennsylvania.

In America everyone supports zoning just like everyone (reluctantly) supports taxes: they are part of the sacrifices we make in order to best maintain our “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness”. But we have to be wary that they are not also used to undermine our freedom of religion.

Conclusion: acquiring an Orthodox phronema
Whether the result of radical atheism in the USSR or aggressive secularism here in the United States; whether intentional or unintentional; we have to recognize the damage that government policies can do to us and the practice of our faith. It is true that persecution can be a blessing for the Church; but we do not embrace it until it is all but inevitable. We must fight to keep our Churches open and our worship free from government regulation. But first we must see the danger as it really is. This requires the development of “true sight”, and the gradual removal of the cataracts a lifetime of secular acculturation has caused. Barring that, we will join the Soviet Christians of the previous century in deciding whether to worship in a compromised “approved” church, to meet secretly in our homes, or to simply get used to the prevailing notion that it’s all a lot of useless nonsense anyway.