Complementing earlier statements that the Romanian president must be of Orthodox faith, current Romanian PM and future presidential candidate Victor Ponta (rumored to be in pole-position), just alloted a huge sum from the Governmental reserve for three monasteries that “impressed him” and for choir singers to be put under the state’s payroll. The joke is thickening as the Romanians put it. The intriguing question to ask is whether we are seeing a more general post-Lautsi 2 (2011) effect of re-emergence of religion on the agenda, or whether this is just old fashioned populism, with a Romanian flavor. As hinted in these condensed opening lines, this brief discussion will be structured as following: a short overview of the Lautsi case, a presentation of Church-State relationships in 90s-early-2000s Romania and finally an analysis of Orthodoxism and populism in the upcoming 2014 presidential race.
What’s so special about the Lautsi case?
In brief Lautsi vs. Italy, a case started in 2005, attacked the role of the state to display crucifixes in school (as an offense against secularism cum state-neutrality hence hampering the psychological development of non-Christian pupils) and obtained a 2006 ECHR victory, only to be returned in 2011. The court declared the crucifix as a passive national symbol first and foremost (Joppke), one that could not be infringed on the majority at the expense of the minority. Unlike the militant laicite that seemed to dominate the European impetus since the early 90s, the Lautsi case seems an intriguing reversal – secularism is demoted from its status as an overarching principle to a kind of primus inter pares, but with some rather strict boundaries (Joppke). While I would agree with Gorski and Altinordu‘s warning against a fully teleological view of secularization, it is important to note that for instance in the Dahlab and Ludin cases the ECHR decided on the influence of “powerful external symbols” and developmental role of teachers (Smith).
Are the effects really felt? Intriguingly, outside the already known discussions in and around islamophobia, a Christian radicalization is not that powerfully seen in Europe. Granted, faint echoes of religion cum conservatism have existed and continue to be present in discourses like that of Hungary’s Viktor Orban, but they can hardly be attributed to Lautsi.
Church-state relationships in Romania from the 90s
The violent reactions to Emil Moise’s 2006 case (which was virtually identical to Lautsi’s original form) showed that as far as one year before EU integration religious values are a top of the list preference in Romanian politics and Orthodoxy is seen as a key component of “Romanianness” (Rughinis, Rautu). A key coordinate of the historical church-state relationship in Romania has been a “symphonia” type model (Stan, Turcescu), but with a “benevolence” towards the Romanian Orthodox Church verging on a de facto monopoly. Probably the most mediatized case is the status of religious education, which is on paper “optional”, but in reality terribly difficult to bypass. The topic is obviously much too broad for this overview, hence I limit myself to strengthening the argument of a “benevolence” towards the ROC, with some topics that are useful for the upcoming main discussion on the presidential race – a continuous boom of state-mandated church construction (Andreescu), a powerful reticence towards recognizing new denominations (Andreescu), weak support for recognized smaller cults, considering religious education as a sine qua non nation-building process and etc.
Religion and the 2014 Presidential Race
Broadly speaking, the general topic of using the Church qua “keeper of the national values” to bridge a perceived legitimacy gap (Rughinis, Rautu) to bolster a candidate’s popular backing seems valid. Observers of Romanian politics are bound to remember the powerful moment in the 1996 campaign when Iliescu’s known stance as “free thinker” was challenged by Emil Constantinescu’s question on “belief in God”. Granted, it is far-fetched to label the moment as decisive, but it’s importance is clearly not to be underestimated. The current context is even more fascinating, as of the key candidates, Sibiu mayor Iohannis is “ethnically” not Romanian and non-Orthodox, which clearly explains Ponta’s leaning on Orthodoxism for an edge in a country where secularism is at best weak, and the Church the most trusted institution (albeit slipping in the last years).
That all candidates in all elections have, more or less, touched on the religious topic is again a feature of continuity in post-communist Romania (Stan, Turcescu). What we see in this case is a more unabashed commitment to populism – state-employment in non-taxable conditions in a context of deep economic recession (that the Ponta Government has failed at covering despite its “valiant” efforts) and a discursive re-merging of Orthodoxism with nationalism. This is however not an iteration of political business cycles-type of public hiring (Vanhuysse, Tepe), but more of a cultural-populist appeal. By contrast, the “unpopular” taxation of Church assets, that could otherwise greatly contribute to getting out of the economic recession, is barely discussed. That the Church has been and is continuously benefitting is obvious in just a couple examples – the megalomaniac “Cathedral for National Salvation” project is marching on towards its gold-plated towers; a staunch refusal to give back Greek-Catholic properties, and the lesser-known decision, legal by Romanian standards, not to award burial ceremonies (which are unofficially paid and hence non-taxable) to incinerated bodies (non-Christian by Church standards).
After these brief presentations, time to re-address the opening question: Is the Romanian case a post-Lautsi effect (perhaps the first of its kind)? On the whole, it would be hard to pinpoint a direct causal chain. On the other hand, a more plausible explanation follows the line of thinking that Lautsi 2011 has somewhat diluted the strength of militant secularism qua ideology, and hence loosened the pressure of the EU on less secularized countries such as Romania. This context, coupled with the previously presented pre-conditions, has elevated Orthodoxism as a very important component of the popularist doctrine espoused by some Romanian presidential candidates. Whether or not this will tip the scales remains to be seen.
Picture Source: Presalocala.com