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Plain Placidity

Published on August 24, 2009 by: in: Society

Nihil esse bello civili miserius (There is nothing worse than civil war)

Marcus Tullius Cicero


The Polish politicians treat the rule of separation of Church and State even less seriously than the Polish Catholics treat their religion.

DziwnySS

Undoubtedly, the lay character of the state guaranteed by the Polish constitution is not fully respected. The straightforward reason for this seems to be the conformism of the politicians who are afraid to antagonise the influential Church hierarchy or the well-organised and politically active group of voters, for whom religious issues are of fundamental meaning. However, a much more serious problem emerges from behind the political conformism.

To say that democracy coexists peacefully with religion is to lie. Or to disparage the former or the latter. All religious dictates have one thing in common – they are not negotiable (except for a few cases such as immediate life risk). Their origin is not natural – created by man – but supernatural -divine. The principal rule of democracy, however, is a compromise, which replaces violence that will inevitably occur when the compromise is lacking.

How can someone who thinks a compromise equals the eternal condemnation agree to the compromise?

How can they value any wordly laws above God’s will? Our mundane world is but a short stop on their way to the real life. For a religious, devout person it would be a sin, perhaps a mortal sin (in such issues as, for instance, accepting abortion).

The Praise of Religious Indifference

Then, how has it been possible to reconcile religion with democracy, especially in countries like Poland – countries where the former still plays a considerable role. The answer seems to be simple – in democratic countries religion is not treated absolutely seriously and consistently by the majority of followers any more. We have come a long way from the zeal of the first Christians who preferred to die on a Roman circus’s ring torn apart by wild beasts rather than renounce the faith in Christ.

Yet, that’s fine. If people still regarded religious dictates absolute, our life here on earth (which in common view might be the only life one can get and there won’t be any better) would be an endless and annihilating fight amongst the followers of different denominations, or between all believers and atheists. Some tactical alliances would most probably be contracted (even as extraordinary and exotic ones as the alliance between the Catholic France and pagan, sorry, Muslim Turkey during the Thirty Years War), but a long-standing ‘Pax Dei’ would be impossible – unless one group cuts down all the other ones to a man.

Therefore, every reasonable person must be glad that today we live in quite a secular community (the whole history of mankind taken into account) and disagreements – although heated – are nevertheless resolved peacefully, in the Parliament chamber.

In liberal democracy, the will of the majority expressed in general elections is restricted by the rights of the minority. These rights are reflected by the regulations of the lawful state and the constitution. When such safety measures are not taken into consideration, the minority has no interest in validating the unfair system. Then we have to deal with a civil war – either ‘hot’ like in many African countries or until recently in the Balkans, or ‘frozen’, whose elements one could notice even in Poland under PiS rule.

The Dictatorship of the Majority

In Poland people admitting membership in the Roman Catholic Church definitely prevail. According to the data gathered by GUS (the Main Statistical Office) in 2007 there were 33.9 million Roman Catholics in Poland (this is the number of the baptised). Even if one excludes those who religious weddings and baptism of their children dashed off only for the sake of peace, there still remains an absolute majority of those who have full rights to express their religious beliefs at the ballot box.

Why should they restrain from voting for the ban on divorces or practising pederasty (that is to say “homosexual intercourse”)? Why should they do so if they consider such rules to be moral and useful for the salvation of their human fellows’ souls as well as their own ones?

There are two possibilities. Firstly, we can acknowledge that the Catholic majority is actually entitled to such rights, which they don’t benefit from only because they are indeed unusually tolerant (in a traditional, Polish climate). But if they wish they can change their minds and then for the atheists and other pagans there’s no use counting on leniency. Alternatively, we can admit that it follows from the fundamental rule on which our contemporary democracy is based that no majority, not even 99% majority, can impose their religious rules upon the minority for the sake of a high ideal – that is the respect of individual rights – and for the sake of realism – that is the social order. As long as we treat liberal democracy with reverence we must opt for the latter alternative.

The question follows – what about the instantly noticeable privileges of the Catholic faith: religion lessons at school, crosses on the walls of public institutions, services with the participation of the Republic of Poland’s major civil servants held to celebrate bank holidays or laws inspired by the Church preaching?

‘Cool’ Secularity of the State

In Poland the rule concerning the separation of Church and State is treated even less seriously by our political class than the Catholic religion is treated by its followers. As the citizens baptise their children merely for the sake of peace of mind, similarly the politicians for the same reason consistently choose not to enforce the separation of Church and State. For the right-wing, predominating in Poland, this solution seems to be quite a convenient one.

Perhaps this painfully achieved ‘cool’ attitude towards secularity of the state is not any worse than the religious indifference mentioned before as we have managed to avoid a civil war since the year ’89. Who cares for crosses or religious education classes? That’s it. Even if nobody cares, somebody should. The secular character of the country is either binding or it is not. If not, then we are barely separated from the ban on divorces or trading condoms (which are against the Church doctrine). We are merely separated from such bans by someone’s political will. Would people for whom those dictates and bans were an outright encroachment upon their freedom agree to them? What would happen to our Polish democracy? I dare to say – it could vanish.

This is not completely unlikely. We have come close to such possibility of imposing fundamentalists’ opinions as obligatory laws. We need to point out – not the majority’s opinions, but opinions of a politically effective minority. A situation like this took place during the recent stormy debate over abortion that ended with Marek Jurek’s group’s departure from PiS. Let us imagine that such a group shapes Polish law according to their beliefs. In the line with the practically accepted today doctrine of turning a blind eye and ‘cool’ attitude towards the rule of lay state, such solution appears possible by all means. Fortunately, not during the present term of the Parliament, though.

Unless one draws a clear line beyond which any majority, be it religious, ethnic or political, can impose its will upon the minority, consequences must be considered. Where the door is left ajar, somebody might always put their foot in and set it wide open.

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About Leszek Jażdżewski

Politologist, publicist, regular political commentator in Polish media. Editor in chief of “Liberté!”, Polish liberal socio-political journal. Studied international relations in University of Lodz, Institute of Political Studies on Polish Academy of Sciences, Glamorgan University in UK and Tbilisi University in Georgia. Vice-president of Liberal Forum, member of the council of Projekt: Polska Foundation, secretary of the board of Transport Integration Society, vice-president of Industrial Foundation. Coauthor of books: “Liberal reflections on life chances and social mobility in Europe” and “Democracy in Europe. Of the People, by the People, for the People?”

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