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Home arrow Political science arrow A Quarter Century of Post-Communism Assessed


Authors have long recognized the centrality of religion in culture. Religion is not just about whether people attend services on Friday afternoon, Saturday evening, or Sunday morning; nor does religion influence only practicing adherents. Even in relatively secular societies, religious traditions suffuse the values, attitudes, and beliefs that make up the stuff of political culture.

Figures 1.5-1.7 show the scatter plots for proportion of the population made up of adherents of Western Christian traditions (meaning Catholicism and Protestantism together), Islam, and Orthodox Christianity, respectively. Religious composition of societies does not change markedly from year to year, so data for a single year (2012) are shown for the purpose of clarity.

What might appear to be peculiarities in the data arise from crossnational differences in the proportion of the population that declares adherence to no religion. In most countries even nominal adherents claim affiliation with the tradition of their ancestors. For example, even though most Romanians and Georgians are not practicing Orthodox Christians, the vast majority associate themselves with their country’s Orthodox Christian Church. In these countries, affiliation with the church

Proportion of the population adhering to Western Christianity and democracy, 2012

Fig. 1.5 Proportion of the population adhering to Western Christianity and democracy, 2012

Proportion of the population adhering to Islam and democracy, 2012

Fig. 1.6 Proportion of the population adhering to Islam and democracy, 2012

Proportion of the population adhering to Orthodox Christianity and democracy, 2012

Fig. 1.7 Proportion of the population adhering to Orthodox Christianity and democracy, 2012

is often considered a proper part of allegiance to the nation, whether or not one is theistic or lives by the tenants of the faith. In a handful of countries in the region, however, majorities or large pluralities tell researchers that they are affiliated with no religious tradition. Thus, while Estonians have traditionally identified as Lutherans and Czechs as Catholics, both countries have low scores on percentage Western Christian (as well as on identification with other religious traditions).

Figure 1.5 illustrates the relationship between the proportion of the population that identifies as Catholic or Protestant (both together called Western Christian here) and the democracy index. At 0.68, the correlation is high. Again we can make no inferences about causation from these descriptive statistics, but we may note that no country in which half or more of the population identifies as Catholic or Protestant scores below 0.75 on democracy. The lower right-hand portion of the figure is empty. The data provide a bit of evidence that countries in which Western Christian traditions predominate enjoy relatively propitious conditions for democratization.

The data countervail the once widely held notion that Catholicism is inconsistent with democracy. Here I add proportion Catholic and Protestant together, so the proportion Catholic alone is not evident, but the vast majority of Western Christians in the region are Catholics; only Estonia, Latvia, and Hungary have substantial Protestant minorities. Catholicism clearly does not prevent democratization in the postcommunist region.

In the early decades after World War II, some scholars claimed that Catholicism was antithetical to democracy. According to these arguments, the Catholic Church inculcated acceptance of rigid hierarchy and unquestioning acceptance of authority, leaving Catholics amenable to authoritarian rule (Lipset 1981, 1994; Huntington 1991). By the end of the previous century, that theory was largely discredited. Indeed, predominantly Catholic societies figured prominently in what is sometimes called the Third Wave of democratization that started in the mid-1970s in Spain, Portugal, and Greece and culminated in Mexico and Indonesia at the turn of the century. Predominantly Southern Europe, Latin America, the Philippines, and finally Eastern Europe accounted for the bulk of the successful cases of transition. The evidence adduced here adds another nail in a coffin that is already safely sealed.

While predominately Catholic countries do well on democratization in the region, the opposite is true for countries in which Islamic tradition predominates. As Fig. 1.6 shows, a higher proportion of Muslims is associated with worse performance on democratization. Proportion Muslim and the democracy index are correlated at -0.69. Among countries with Muslim-majority populations, Albania, Kyrgyzstan, and Kosovo are overachievers. Other countries with large Muslim populations do not fall far from the regression line, with the exception of Bosnia, which is an underachiever in democracy.

The post-communist evidence supports findings in the broader literature showing that Muslim societies may face special challenges in democratization. Studies based on global data have found a robust correlation between Islam and authoritarianism. A host of explanations has been adduced, including supposedly greater gender inequality among Muslims and Muslims’ purported tendency to reject the separation of the secular and the sacred.

The post-communist region provides potentially valuable terrain for investigating such ideas. The strong, negative correlation raises the possibility that there may be something about Islam that disfavors democracy in the region. Yet the region also is unusual in the extent to which politics was secularized and gender equality enforced by antecedent authoritarian regimes. In the 1930s and 1940s, the Soviet regime literally stripped Central Asian women of their burkas and hijabs, and regimes throughout the region banished the sacred from politics and established the world’s most aggressively secular political orders. Still, it is possible that even long decades of Sovietism did not eradicate the influence of religion on popular attitudes and social practices. Even if Muslims in the post-communist region are more liberal than their coreligionists in, say, the MENA, they might still hold more conservative attitudes on gender and be less amenable to purely secular politics than are non-Muslims in the region. Perhaps attitudes on gender and secularism have little to do with the link between Islam and authoritarianism in the region; it is possible that other factors are at work. Comparative within-region, cross-national research on the relationship between religion, on the one hand, and political attitudes and social practices, on the other, may provide some answers. It may enrich our understanding of the link - if there is in fact a link - between Islam and authoritarianism in the world more broadly.

Perhaps the most interesting correlation on religion and democracy that emerges from the analysis is found in the data on Orthodox Christianity, shown in the scatter plot in Fig. 1.7. The correlation, at -0.17, is not high, and countries with substantial Orthodox populations exhibit a wide range of scores on democracy. Among countries in which Orthodox traditions predominate, Russia and Belarus have moved from Soviet-type authoritarianism to a new, post-Soviet brand of autocracy. Armenia (whose Armenian-Rite Church is here classified as Orthodox) has also done poorly, albeit better than Russia or Belarus. Yet Bulgaria, Serbia, Georgia, Moldova, and Romania have made substantial strides toward democracy. In the middle of the Orthodox pack are Ukraine, Montenegro, and Macedonia.

At the time that Samuel Huntington penned his foundational works on democratization (1991) at the beginning of the 1990s and then the Clash of Civilizations (1996) shortly after that, Greece and predominantly Greek Cyprus were the only predominantly Christian Orthodox societies that had extensive experience with democracy. Romania, Bulgaria, and Serbia had some experience with open politics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and their Orthodox churches at times demonstrated bravery in resisting Communist Party regimes after World War II (Petrovic 2013). Still, Orthodoxy was regarded by some scholars, including Huntington, as an impediment to democratization. The national and statist character of most Orthodox churches meant that church and state were yoked together in Orthodox societies. Even if the sacred and the secular were not tightly joined in people’s mindsets, as some argue they are among Muslims, the state’s organizational dominion over the church meant that the creative tension between temporal and religious authorities evident in countries with Western Christian traditions could not emerge. Since Polish Catholics take their religious instructions from Rome and not Warsaw, and since Rome and not Warsaw presides over the appointment of the church’s Polish priests, the church could play a creative - and oppositional - role in Poland. One would not expect the predominant religious organization to play such an autonomous part in Orthodox Russia or Romania, where temporal authorities traditionally enjoy sway over matters affecting their national churches’ financing, doctrine, and personnel.

But the post-communist experience reveals that Christian Orthodoxy is not inconsistent with democracy. Romania and Bulgaria scored above 0.6 on democracy in every year of the two decades covered by the data. The Orthodox Church has not necessarily played a progressive role in either country since the demise of communism. But neither has it prevented democratization, and people whose religious allegiance is to Orthodox Christianity have proven inclined and able to forge open polities. The post-communist experience may relegate theories on the incompatibility of Orthodoxy with democracy to the same trash bin that contains such ideas about Catholicism and democracy (see Papanikolaou 2012).

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