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Introduction to the special number with POSEC Digests

by Kristina Stoeckl

by Kristina Stoeckl. Professor of Sociology, University of Innsbruck. Coordinator of Postsecular Conflicts Research Project

In 1991, at the time of the fall of communism, less than thirty percent of Russians considered themselves believers. The awareness of Orthodox Christian teachings in the population was at a minimum and the Moscow Patriarchate, which had been held in a tight-jacket by the Soviet state for decades, had little to offer in terms of social teaching. However, with the end of the Soviet Union, among the many foreigners who poured into Russia were conservative Christian missionaries, especially from the United States of America. Their gospel of traditional Christian values and economic liberalism filled the ideological gap with a narrative that viewed contemporary society as the battleground for two social forces, one progressive and one conservative, which are in a bitter contest over the future and destiny of the people. They saw the conservative camp as rooted in Christian religion, a traditional way of life, and a strong sense of patriarchy and hierarchy, and the progressive camp as secular, liberal, egalitarian, democratic, and cosmopolitan. This culture war narrative originates in the West, more precisely in the United States of the 1960s and 70s, where it unfolded around topics such as family, gender, abortion, and education. In the shadow of the enthusiasm over the end of the Cold War, the culture war narrative became a powerful ideological frame for political and religious leaders to navigate the post-communist transition: Soviet communism had been bad, but liberalism – such was the message of the Western Christian Right – was no alternative. The results of the global diffusion of the culture wars are visible today: by 2021, Russia has earned itself the reputation of defender of traditional Christian values against gender-rights and liberalism. Many Christian conservatives in the West openly admire Vladimir Putin, and political leaders in Central and Eastern Europe, like Victor Orban in Hungary, follow in his footsteps. In 1991, the Cold War ended. Thirty years later, the global culture wars create new divisions.

In this special number of Confronti, we present original research on the role of Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church as a newcomer to the global culture wars. The Postsecular Conflicts Research Project explored the paradoxical ascent of Russia and Russian Orthodoxy to become a point of orientation in today’s global culture wars. The central conflicts between social conservatives and progressives today are over questions pertaining to sexuality and gender (homosexuality, gender-rights, feminism), family (definition of family, domestic violence), bioethics (abortion, surrogacy, euthanasia), education (religious subjects at school, sexual education, theory of evolution, homeschooling) and religious freedom (religious symbols in the public space, conscientious objection). In our first article, we answer the question “What are the Culture Wars” and explain how the political conflicts between social progressives and social conservatives, most commonly described in the context of the United States of America, have become a global phenomenon and affect societies with political histories and institutional architectures very different from the USA. 

One thing that we learned during our research is that, despite the fact that Russia criminalizes foreign-funded NGOs as “foreign agents”, the institutional and ideological ties between conservative Christian Right groups from the United States, Russia, Europe, and Latin America flourish unhindered. Conservative Christians cooperate across the denominational divide that separates Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Protestantism and Evangelicalism. In fact, the global culture wars are an opportunity for the Russian Orthodox Church to define its relationship with the Catholic Church. As long as traditionalist forces had the upper hand in the Vatican, the Russian Orthodox Church dreamt of a Holy Alliance with the Catholic Church. Under the new direction of Pope Francis, the Vatican is no longer a reliable partner for the Christian Right, and the Moscow Patriarchate stands ready to step in. 

The article “The Legacy of Pitirim Sorokin” gives a glimpse of the intellectual history of contemporary Russian conservatism and throws a spotlight on an almost forgotten mastermind of the culture wars. The Russian-born Sorokin, who emigrated to the United States in the 1920s and became a professor at the renowned Harvard University, can be considered a source of social conservatism both in the United States of America and in Russia, and the history of his “rediscovery” in Russia through a series of conferences, translations and publications throughout the 1990s exemplifies how Russian actors first learned about and then joined the global culture wars. 

The article “The Rise of the Russian Christian Right” summarizes a detailed case-study of how the conservative NGO World Congress of Families – well known in Italy since its controversial congress in Verona in March 2019 – has impacted lay milieus inside Russian Orthodoxy and has influenced the Russian Orthodox Church’s public agenda and social teaching. But Russian conservatives have not only borrowed themes and strategies from Western Christian sources and Western secular-religious dynamics, they also actively promote them in international politics. The case-study “Double Bind at the UN” of Russian diplomatic initiatives on traditional values and the family at the United Nations Human Rights Council exemplifies that for Russia, the global culture wars are an opportunity to play, once again, a strong and antagonistic role vis-à-vis the West. 

In the global culture wars, the meaning and application of human rights are at stake. Whereas liberals strive for an egalitarian application of individual human rights and support supranational human rights policies, conservatives want to limit international human rights and the power of institutions that defend them. The conservative agenda is a natural ally for all sovereigntist political forces, as can be seen in the case of the Lega, which – under Matteo Salvini – has developed into a Christian Right, pro-Russian and sovereigntist political force. The case-study “Reframing Human Rights” exemplifies how school and education can become battlefields for the global culture wars over the meaning of human rights.
Religions play a public role in contemporary societies. Even highly secularized Western liberal societies are confronted with conflicts around religion through migration and religious pluralization, and in many parts of the world religious actors and ideas occupy a salient place in politics. In this situation, the sociological study of religion is in front of new beginnings. The “classical” period during which secularization theories, on the one side, diagnosed the disappearance of religions in the modern world and functional analyses, on the other side, claimed the permanence of religions in different articulations, has exhausted its explanatory power. New religious phenomena have become salient in today’s world that are no longer adequately addressed in the keys of “return”, “demise” or “permanence”: populist political usages of religion, transnational and interdenominational coalitions between religious actors, fundamental debates over the direction of their religious tradition between progressive and conservative theologians… The questions that are most relevant today are not whether religions play a role in modern societies or not, but how, under which conditions, at the hands of which actors?

The Postsecular Conflicts Research Project, whose main findings we have gathered in this special edition of Confronti, stands for this new direction in the study of religion. The terminological choice to call this new direction “postsecular” is fraught with academic controversy. The chapter “What are Postsecular Conflicts” gathers all our arguments to support this terminological choice, but – on the whole – in the project we have avoided futile terminological sophisms. The contemporary situation is best described as “postsecular” not because “religion is back” (as if it had ever been gone), but because under the impact of postcolonial critique and epistemic self-reflexivity our mode of looking at and thinking about religion has changed.
The presence of religion in modern secular societies engenders conflicts, which sociologists and philosophers have variously considered as a threat – the threat of imminent culture wars (James Davison Hunter) – or as a chance – the chance for an inclusive democracy through postsecular dialogue (Jürgen Habermas). Postsecular Conflicts research moved precisely in the area of tension between religious-secular conflicts, on the one side, and religious-secular learning processes, on the other. It sought to define in greater detail the conditions under which conflicts emerge and the proper ways of framing them theoretically and sociologically. The results of our research flesh out the innovative potential of research that encompasses different levels of religious actors from religious civil society to ecclesiastical hierarchies, that focuses on transnational and interdenominational ties beyond confessional or national case-studies, and that systematically sets findings on one country or religious group in a global, comparative perspective.

Winning an ERC Starting Grant is a lifetime chance for any researcher who wants to tackle challenging and cutting-edge research in a team. The research presented here is the fruit of a collaborative effort of an international, multilingual group of young researchers from Austria, Russia, Ukraine, Italy, and the United States, at the level of post-doctoral researchers and doctoral and master students. We are immensely grateful to the European Research Council for the generous funding we received, and to the University of Innsbruck for its unfailing support as host institution. The journey of our research together started in 2016, making the last 6 years one of the most challenging, productive and instructive periods of our lives. I thank Confronti for the decision to become our partner for dissemination of project results in Italian and English and for encouraging us to “translate” our academic, specialized works into to an output that will, I hope, be attractive for a general audience.

Ph. World Congress Of Families XI, 2017. Budapest Congress Center  © Elekes Andor from Wikimedia Commons

Kristina Stoeckl

Kristina Stoeckl

Professor of Sociology, University of Innsbruck. Coordinator of Postsecular Conflicts Research Project

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