January in Eastern Europe: a return to religious extremism in European politics?5 min read
January editorial. From Law and Justice (PiS) in Poland, EKRE in Estonia, and Fidesz in Hungary, to Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party, recent months have seen the political right returning to an adherence to religious values. Initially this came in the form of opposition to ‘LGBT ideology’ and a promotion of conservative, or so-called traditional values. However, more recently this has taken a more overtly religious tone, with adherence to Christianity promoted over secularism, prompting the question: is this the beginning of a widespread de-secularisation of politics in modern Eastern Europe? Romania is the latest country to see this trend and has taken a step further.
In December, the Romanian Parliamentary elections delivered a number of shocks to the political system, with the ruling National Liberal Party (PNL) confined to second place and an historically low electoral turnout of 31.8%. However, the great success story of the election was the new ultra-nationalist Alliance for the Unity of Romanians (AUR). Led by co-founders Claudiu Târziu and George Simion, the AUR has attained over 9% of the vote, despite attracting little attention from political commentators, national and international media prior to the election.
The AUR’s rise has been meteoric, considering the party was only founded in 2019, and its triumph is a worrying addition to the troop of far-right success stories across Europe. Their policies have potentially large ramifications for the Romanian political landscape, actively calling for a unification with Moldova, illustrating open hostility to LGBT+ groups, rejecting Covid-19 policies—even going so far as to play to an anti-vaccination position. Furthermore, worryingly for ethnic stability, they have been accused of a Magyaraphobic (anti-Hungarian) agenda by the Romanian press and international media because of actions such as staging nationalist rallies at Hungarian military cemeteries.
Crucially, and the main focus of this piece, they are actively embracing the image of ‘defenders of the Church’, opposing secularism and promoting a religiously-led political agenda. Atheists have been singled out for attack in the Party’s statements. The Romanian Orthodox Church in return has been keen to offer its support for the Party’s aims.
This has echoes of the fusion of far-right nationalism and religion seen in Romanian politics in the 1930s in the form of Corneliu Zelea Codreanu’s Iron Guard, for whom Târziu has expressed admiration in the past. Then, as now, they represented themselves as a religious guard, protecting Romania’s Orthodox way of life, the Legionaries of St Michael. This, more often than not, amounted to violent attacks and oppression of groups who opposed both their political and religious objectives, justified by their faith. The AUR might not quite be on the same level as the Iron Guard—yet—but the similarities are both striking and deeply concerning.
Whilst it is important not to overstate the popular support for the AUR, given the low electoral turnout, their success despite, or perhaps because, of their radical religiously-charged agenda is troubling. Of course, one could argue that given that Romania is a religiously-observant country, why would it be problematic for a party to actively promote those values? A desire to express religious belief after years of oppression under communism is understandable. However, to combine religion and politics has dangerous precedent. Undoing the European-wide process of secularisation, ongoing since the Enlightenment, has worrying implications for all. This is not just those minorities who are first in line for persecution, namely the LGBT+ and non-Christian communities, but also for anyone whose beliefs, or lack thereof, oppose the ruling theology’s view.
Religion has a place in society–people can be proud of their faith and heritage–but for good reason it has been separated from the running of state. Just as some Islamist politicians distort and warp Islam to suit their own agendas, so too will Christian ultra-nationalists. Attacks on minorities and the infringement of rights are more easily pursued under the pretext of religion, as religion is a powerful motivator and religious leaders are not subject to the same scrutiny and rigour as secular governments. Blind faith replaces reason.
Religion is already being used to justify egregious infringements of human rights across Europe, from the recent attempts to severely curtail access to abortion in Poland to the ban on adoption for un-married (heterosexual) people in Hungary. Even in extensively atheist Estonia, the far-right EKRE feels justified in attempting to remove rights from their citizens because they oppose Christian values, an argument which has been pushed as part of their attempts to hold a referendum on constitutionally banning gay marriage. Fidesz, EKRE and the like are perhaps using religion as an excuse, rather than actual belief. What is concerning about the AUR is that it represents a new wave of parties taking a further step towards theology-led ultra-nationalism.
For those of us who have been lucky enough to grow up in an era of tolerance and reason, produced by an adherence to secular government, this is alarming. Balancing religious beliefs and rational governance is hard. Being tolerant of others’ beliefs, sexuality, nationality or politics can sometimes be uncomfortable, but it is a discomfort worth bearing. Parties such as AUR represent a return to a way of life that is deeply regressive, one that Europe had done well to put behind it. De-secularisation of politics in Europe is a growing trend. It is a trend that should be given greater focus for the threat it poses to our way of life, reminding us once again that events and outlooks do not only advance along a linear trajectory.