The Rise of Religious Influence in Post-Communist states

By Berenika Gray-Lyons

Literature Review/Defining Nationalism and Religion

The underlying principles of this dissertation are those of the relationship between religion and nationalism, as well as the theory of secularisation. Both topics provide a vast and divergent amount of scholarly work including Peter van der Veer, Ernest Gellner, Adrian Hastings, Anthony Smith and Mark Juergensmeyer, some of which will be incorporated into this dissertation as a fundamental base for answering the primary question. To understand what religious nationalism is, it seems prudent to address them as separate entities, to distinguish their properties to form a coherent idea of what the combination of the two represents. Both terms do not come with fixed definitions and will therefore be approached from a variety of different sources to establish a definition that will fit the premise of this dissertation. The word ‘religion’ originates from the Latin word ‘religare’ – to bind or tie (Hoyt, 1912), as a means of binding oneself to God unequivocally which relates to Durkheim’s impression of religion as a wholly instructive body to “help us reach a better understanding of this aspect of our nature.” (Durkheim, Cosman and Cladis, 2001). The ‘aspect of our nature’ Durkheim refers to, could be understood as the integral complicity that humans hold towards, though are perhaps not limited to, religious institutions that command with a higher or supernatural power. Other definitions rely more on belief, especially in immortality as Kant stated in the ‘Critique of Pure Reason’, in which he implies that the existence of God and immortality of the soul are beliefs that transcend the set of socially constructed religious institutions (Kant & Meiklejohn, 2000), such as Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism. The concept of immortality cannot be limited to religion alone, nationalism exhibits a similar trait in the shape of the everlasting ‘nation’ that goes beyond the individual’s lifetime but remains constant through generations bred into the traditions, norms and society of the nation as Benedict Anderson demonstrates in his opening of ‘Cultural Roots’(Anderson, 1991).
Defining nationalism also has its limitations, for Ernest Gellner, nationalism is a political principle based on legitimacy “which requires that ethnic boundaries should not cut across political ones” (Gellner, 2006), indicating that all ethnicities may be part of one nation, but political entities cannot claim dominance over other national territories. Peter Alter, on the other hand, describes modern nationalism in conjunction with imperialism, to be used for “political, social, economic and cultural emancipation”, as well as oppression. However, he also proclaims that “nationalism exists wherever individuals feel they belong primarily to the nation and whenever affective attachment and loyalty to that nation override all other attachments and loyalties” (Alter, 1994). Yet, in terms of finding the right definition for this dissertation, we turn to Hastings’ idea of nationalism who understands it as only one aspect of an individual’s loyalty, where religion and family should also be recognised. He adds that a sense of nationalism is a fleeting idea that flares up in times of conflict or threat, (Hastings, 1997) which strongly correlates with Poland’s history of national uprisings and religiosity.
Theorists, such as Kedourie, claim that religion or faith have no place in the study of nationalism. In his modernist approach, religion is deemed a trait of ‘traditional society’ (Smith, 2003), which implies that nationalism is a modern phenomenon, or one that evolves over time where religion fails to do so. This provides a basis for one element of this dissertation, which is to dispute the theory of secularisation and to supplant it with the theory of religious nationalism, or de-secularisation in the following chapter. In contrast to Kedourie, Adrian Hastings’ idea of nationalism being in a state of flux combines the component of religion as being an “integral element to many cultures… [that] has produced the dominant character of some state-shaped nations and of some nationalisms.”, indicating the priority of individual communities that all together make up parts of a nation (Hastings, 1997). Millard supports Hastings’ idea where he has criticised works by John Breuilly and Ernest Gellner for being too restrictive in their definitions of nationalism. Instead he remarks on the symbols of nationhood that come in forms of anthems, flags and landmarks in which people can express their affinity with the nation they perceive as ‘theirs’, which does not necessarily imply that the commitment to the nation overrides all others (Millard, 2013).
In tandem to Hastings and Millard, Anthony D. Smith provides further insight into the foundations of nationalism based on community, territory, history and destiny, as well as incorporating the notion of freedom being intrinsically linked to belonging to a nation. These four traits of nationalism can be analysed individually, however it seems more appropriate to arrange them cyclically to demonstrate the reliance each one has on the other. For example, a collective body of people who find a place to live create their own history by remaining there to further build their community which will one day be looked back on, evoking memories “handed down from generations” to create a powerful unity with the past (Smith, 2003). Following this idea, constructing a nation based on religious beliefs contributes to the alignment of religious nationalism as a nation develops on the premise of history and traditions. Therefore, in managing the question, Hastings and Smith’s approach to religion and nationalism will be utilised to examine the ways in which Poland, and other former Communist countries, have developed as states over time and whether religion and nationalism continue to be dominant features of their cultures.

Myth of Secularisation

To gain a comprehensive understanding of the question, the theory of religious nationalism should be further considered by incorporating the theory of secularisation and the inadequacy of this theory in the context of the 21st Century. By promoting the scenario of a zero-sum game where the growth and expansion of modernisation causes the decline in religiosity, as Max Weber declared, secularisation theory is therefore limited as it fails to take into account the consequences of rapid modernisation (Cox, 2000). The last five decades have witnessed a surge in technology and increased human mobility. Nevertheless, in many parts of the world religion remains a source of more straightforward and generally unwavering doctrines that offer people sanctuary from the fast pace of their lives, though this is not to say that religious institutions have not adapted to their modern surroundings.
In opposition to the decline in secularisation is the overall importance of religion and its institutions. The argument Steve Bruce puts forward is that the institutions themselves have a lot less power and influence than they used to, which may seem contradictory to the argument that this dissertation wishes to assert, however, what Bruce focusses on are individual states or clusters of states, and not a universal standard that necessarily follow the secularisation paradigm (Bruce, 2002). Perhaps what secularisation theory overlooks is not the declining of religious importance but rather its fluctuations. In times of crisis, leading up to the fall of the Communist state, the Polish people sought help from the clergy to support them in their struggle, which they did. Yet, once the crisis ended the church was no longer the beacon of hope or a source of prosperity and though was not relegated to the margins of society, its importance gradually dwindled in the face of the collapse of the Communist system and that of modernisation. One further point he makes that fits neatly into the purpose of this dissertation is that of the irreversibility of fundamental institutions, whether they be religious or economic. Once a country like Poland has established Catholicism in place of something else, it is very unlikely to go back to what it was which is not to say that it cannot develop with differing degrees of variation (Bruce, 1992).
Furthermore, the end goal of secularisation is not atheism; a secular state or society does not imply inherent atheism, it is held to be the separation of religion from issues surrounding the state such as policies and legislation. Whereas, in terms of society the boundaries are less clear on how much influence can and should a religious institution exert on people’s sense of morality, spirituality and human behaviour in a secular society. This is a critical distinction in explaining the emerging disparity between the institutions of the Catholic Church and state and that of Polish society.
In essence, Bruce’s approach to secularism and the combination of Smith and Hastings’ theories of religious nationalism highlight that when both concepts are applied, they exhibit times of growth and decline. This is not to suggest that secularisation vanishes as a state forms closer relations to religion, on the contrary as will be examined, Poland has witnessed a recent resurgence of Church and state interaction, but not between the Church and society. Therefore, this dissertation is formed on the basis of the relationship between religion and nationalism as the two main components of finding an answer to the question.


Benedict Anderson’s ‘Imagined Communities’ presents that the interpretations of religious teachings are not homogenous among the countries where the institutions are established (Anderson 1991). For example, the Catholic doctrines in Brazil cannot be compared to that of Polish Catholicism, there are of course similar traits but both depend heavily on the culture and history of each individual region to represent the national society. In Poland, this year marked the anniversary of the baptism of King Mieszko I that has become widely known to be the genesis of the Polish state. The church celebrated this anniversary on par with the celebration of Easter and the resurrection of Jesus, symbolising the importance of Catholic heritage. This further highlights the distinction between the figurehead of Catholicism – the Vatican and the predominantly Catholic countries that appreciate the significance of the Pope and the central body. However, the maintenance of an autonomous church authority in one’s nation surpasses it to establish the connection of church and state with a religious-national identity (Friedland, 2001). Whereby, nations may replicate themselves in their religious imagery, where religious figures share certain features of a nation or culture to symbolise a spiritual connection between one nation’s people and God. This suggests that nations become gradually more dependent on national religious institutions rather than the wider international community. Following this idea, national religious institutions go to great lengths to instil themselves within the nation, yet the state is more often than not, less inclined to incorporate it into state affairs, unless it predominantly benefits them.
In discussing identity, it seems important to establish a connection between the nature of the identity and the identifier, or the person who situates themselves and acknowledges their place within a certain group. Therefore, it seemed prudent to incorporate this element into this dissertation as a bridge between the theory of Polish national identity and the reality. Conducting an interview with an individual is by no means indicative of the wider context in obtaining a clear sense of what it means to be Polish. But, with a long history going back to the Second World War, living throughout the Communist period and today, Ms. Maria Jarosz-Korzeniewska, a retired lawyer, is an ideal candidate to offer an insight into the changing Polish character but its continual devotion to the Catholic Church. The questions asked in the interview were based on the generally held term ‘Polak-Katolik’ (Pole-Catholic), but before discussing this relationship, it was deemed essential to first gain an understanding of what it means to be Polish. One thing that seemed to underpin this discussion was the ongoing influence and dominance of other nations in regards to the Polish state, though Poland is the fastest developing economy in the post-soviet bloc; it still trails behind its western neighbours. Ms. Korzeniewska describes Poland as a country of proud people but who continue to struggle to assert themselves in Europe and on the world stage. Scholars have put forward the notion of ‘the return to Europe’ based on the progressive and more liberal values of the members of the EU that Poland wished to be a part of, with great support from Germany (Byrnes, 1996). In essence, coming to a conclusion to what being Polish means was strenuous, however, Ms. Korzeniewska made it clear that the central aspect that keeps Poland united is the history of the pursuit of keeping it an independent and autonomous state for the Polish people. With regard to this answer, I asked where Catholicism and the idea of the ‘Pole-Catholic’ emerged and whether it is a true expression of Polish identity. The answer was surprising. It was a definite no; the integral presence of the Catholic Church could not be justifiably linked to the Polish consciousness. Ms. Korzeniewska couldn’t deny that Catholicism remains the largest religious institution yet proceeded to say that it wasn’t the church as such that provides this spirituality, rather it’s the individual’s faith that goes beyond the teachings of the church that matter most (Korzeniewska, 2016). This statement compared to the research carried out by the Public Opinion Research Centre differs, in 2014, 60% of Poles believed it was acceptable for the Church to make “pronouncements on moral and lifestyle issues” as well as 82% who believe religious education should be taught in schools which indicates that society deems the church to be a legitimate body that can make decisions on behalf of the people. However, the results for church relations with the state are not so well received, 55% people objected to the Church “taking positions on Sejm legislation” and a further 84% objected to priests “instructing people how to vote in elections” (CBOS Public Opinion Research Centre, 2013). Thus, without its Communist nemesis, the church has lost its unquestioned authority. From this data, as well as the interview with Ms. Korzeniewska, we can deduce that there is a growing disparity between the church and society, and though the Catholic faith remains a significant part of Polish history, there is rising animosity towards rising church influence over state affairs. This could not be more evident than with the recent 2015 general election.

2015 General Election

Since the fall of Communist rule, Poland’s elected governments have all encompassed multi-party coalitions formed of both left and right wing parties as a possible reaction to the one-party state system during the Communist system. In this transitional period, many parties formed as the Solidarity movement fragmented and many Poles became aware of their ideological preferences that varied enormously. In spite of this, in the last few years Poland has established two main political parties, ‘Civic Platform’ (PO) and ‘Law and Justice’ (PiS), which have also needed the support of coalitions, but 2015 saw the first majority government since the Communist period. This sudden break and the emergence of the Catholic Right wing party ‘Law and Justice’ has brought about varying reactions, nationally and internationally. In the short months since coming to power, PiS has already implemented a number of changes, replacing senior broadcast officials of state-run television and radio, as well as, speedily passing a law enforcing greater government control over state-run media (Cienski, 2015). EU bodies and the European Court have expressed concern over the recent changes and fear the undermining of the democratic process, especially in light of the recent protests on the 3rd April in which people walked out of churches to state their disapproval at church ruling on denying a woman the right to undergo legal abortion (Reych, 2016). A demonstration outside the Polish parliament also witnessed the opposition to the government’s plan on banning abortion, clearly indicative of afore mentioned myth of secularisation in which there is collaboration between church and state in opposition to society. These events have shed an important light on the continuous relationship between the Catholic Church and the Polish state, the new government takes a hard stance on issues of contraception and sexual education which the church overwhelmingly supports.
Yet, the initial quasi-ban on abortions emerged under the liberal ‘Democratic Union’ party in 1993 named the ‘Family Planning, Protection of Human Embryo and Conditions of Termination of Pregnancy Act’. Heinen and Portet see this policy as one surfacing from the power of the Catholic Church during the transitional period to establish good relations with Church and state when the Church was still being praised for its involvement in the Solidarity movement (Heinen & Portet, 2010). The Communist regime legalised abortion in 1956, women found it relatively easily to obtain an abortion on medical and social grounds until the fall of the Communist government. It is at this point in which society diverges from Church and state, society desiring rapid social and economic modernisation, where the former suppressed Church and political body, revert back to a pre-Communist era and traditional values. Firmly believing that they possessed a superior moral position, the Church successfully exerted its influence to prevent Poles from being able to decide on the legality of abortion, as was the case with religious education. In no less than a year since the fall of Communism, did the Church begin to campaign for the re-establishment of religious education in schools. According to Eberts, bishops took the rhetoric of the suppression of the former totalitarian regime which attempted to “eradicate the presence of God in the lives of Poles”, and was therefore necessary to reintroduce children to the Catholic faith (Eberts, 1998).
The authority of the Church is illustrated by the signature of a Concordat between the Holy See and the Republic of Poland which was ratified in 1998. “It provides the Church with a set of regulations aimed at protecting its position in society and above all among the young generation.” (Heinen & Portet, 2009). Therefore, even though the Church has a limited supply of legal power, it gains a level of political power on the basis that society is constructed and perceived as Catholic, by the electorate and politicians. Thus, the state and the Church remain fundamental institutions, not equal to one another in the hierarchy but not isolated from one another either, instead they can act as being mutually complementary (Mazurkiewicz, 1999). As for the general election, the government has already tested its power and is certainly not shy in upholding traditional Catholic values that deny policies for abortion, contraception, the LGBT community as well as migrants and refugees. This sudden culmination of religious power and emergence of a deeply conservative government leads into similar events occurring in other post-Communist countries.

Contested Theory

In developing the historical importance of the Catholic Church and nationalism, we can now turn our attention to the theories that have shaped the question of ‘to what extent do post-Communist countries exhibit a rise in religious influence over the state in the 21st Century?’ This segment will compare Hungary and Romania’s religious revival as well as the recent ascension of traditional/conservative right-wing political parties and their growing disparity between the European Union and the West. Following this, I propose a three dimensional theory that assesses the reasons why Poland and post-Communist countries are exhibiting religious resurgence based on socio-historical elements.


In discussing the historical elements of Poland’s relationship with Catholicism and the emergence of a majority right-wing government we can begin to analyse the similar effects of former Communist states and their approach to religion, identity and nationalism. Like Poland, Hungary joined NATO in 1999 and the EU in 2004 and experienced multiple unpopular government tenures. Christianity is the main religious body, mainly made up of Roman Catholics and other Christian denominations. However, unlike Poland, the overthrow of Communist rule and the entrance of democracy did not resound so loudly, instead after a number of talks between suddenly reform-minded ex-Communists, Hungarians woke up to find a democratic state, of sorts. Since then, democracy, or the lack there of, has been a continual concern in which “77% of Hungarians are dissatisfied with the way democracy is working, in line with the extremely negative public morale in Hungary, 91% thought that the country was on the wrong track” (Kreko & Mayer, 2015). Much of this was also to do with the financial mismanagement and rising in corruption throughout the eight years of left-wing rule which played into the hands of the far right party Fidesz, led by Viktor Orbán. This is similar to Poland’s transition from Communism, which began with popular left wing parties which gradually faced growing resentment that gave to rise to right-wing parties. With the introduction of a new Hungarian constitution in 2012, there was an opportunity to initiate social change within a country still struggling to accommodate modernisation, especially in relation to women’s rights and feminism. Nevertheless, there has been much criticism from Western neighbours as to the wording and the rapid rate as to which the Constitution was passed, which may threaten “both representative democracy and the rule of law” (Tartakoff, 2012). One of the main criticisms lies in the enshrining of Christian values in which Hungary recognises the role of ‘Christianity in preserving nationhood’, without consideration for other religious communities. This interchanging nature of religion and nationalism forms a traditional basis, indicating that Eastern European post-Communist states are diverging from their western neighbours, especially in relation to women’s rights and the feminist movement.

There is a history of feminism in Central and Eastern Europe interrupted by the presence of Communism, resulting in a delayed movement to acquiesce equal rights for women as well as acknowledging the existence of homosexuals. The constitution decrees that “Hungary shall protect the institution of marriage as the union of a man and a woman” which implies a traditional approach to relationships, one based on patriarchy and being both examples of a pre-secular (pre-modern) and post-secular society, between archaic and modern (Bodo, 2015). One piece of evidence that emphasises the importance of religion in the designing of new constitutions in former Communist countries in Eastern Europe is that many give religion, specifically Christianity, a place of prominence (Richardson, 2006). This insinuates that the establishment of a Christian state denotes one that does not desire multi-religious diversity, especially in light of historical events that witnessed the overthrow of the Holy Roman Empire in Hungary by Muslim Turks which continues to be an influence on Hungarian identity to this day.


Like Poland, Romania is almost a mono-religious state with the Orthodox Church commanding the loyalty of eighty-six percent of the population, which implies that it can hold significant sway on both local and national politics. However, unlike the constitutions of Poland and Hungary, Romania does not highlight the importance of any one religion; instead it stresses the need to uphold a discrimination-free state in which all religions and ethnicities are treated equally. Nevertheless, there is no explicit declaration of the separation between church and state (Andreescu, 2007). Issues surrounding topics of homosexuality, abortion and prostitution divided Romanian society after 1989 and “sparked heated public debates involving the political class, religious leaders, the local academic community, mass media and the public at large.” (Turcescu & Stan, 2005) In this regard, the Orthodox Church in Romania is often understood as an institution that preserves and propagates, by Western standards, an outdated way of social thinking, demonstrating antidemocratic and intolerant attitudes, yet at the same time supporting the Romanian dependence on membership of the European Union. This traditional approach shares features of the bygone Communist era, making scholars question whether there has been any radical transformation within the former Eastern bloc, into social modernisation (Romocea, 2011). Racism and homophobia still permeate through society; one explanation relies on the growing power and increase in wealth of the Romanian Orthodox Church. With a continuous and significant transfer of public assets, and the instruction over the young through control of religious education, there exists a partnership between the Romanian Orthodox Church and the state (Andreescu, 2015). Which means the Church can exert a lot of influence over the political class and hence public policy decisions. Therefore, Hungary, Romania and Poland are all displaying similar signs of deviating from their western European counterparts, the following chapters analyse the reasons for this fragmentation of Europe.

Supply-side Theory of Religion

By having first determined the emerging social factors of a number of post-Communist states, we can begin to analyse the relationship between religious nationalism and the social and physical institutions that have given rise to the separation of former Communist countries and Western Europe. Primarily, we can observe that countries that have one central religion at the root of the nation, such as Poland and Romania, are more likely to exhibit symptoms of religious influence over the state, due to the lack of competition. Conversely, supply-side theory of religion offers a differing assessment by assuming that the amount of religious activity rises when there is competition from other religious institutions. The theory assumes that the public’s demand for religion stays relatively constant, whereas religious activity fluctuates on the basis of supply and competition (Froese, 2001). A ‘religious economy’ consists of all the religious activity going on in any society. Religious economies resemble commercial economies in that they consist of a market of current and potential consumers, a set of companies seeking to serve their target market, and the religious goods offered by the differing companies. On this premise, it’s argued that when a religious economy is competitive and pluralistic, there is greater demand for religious participation, whereas a religious economy that is monopolised by one or two state-supported religious institutions, religious participation will tend to be lower. This may be true of some states, but is less applicable to Poland and Romania where church attendance remains relatively high and religion is considered an inherent aspect of the nation state.
If approached from another perspective, by looking at the competition between religion and Communism, the suppression of religious supply made demand flourish, as demonstrated by the Poznan uprising in 1956 that rang with chants of ‘God’ and ‘bread’. Yet, this theory does carry some weight, approval of church activities in Poland fell from 90% in 1989 to 38% in 1993 (Zubrzycki, 2006), which indicates that with no real competition, as the newly independent state was granting many church appeals, demand started to plummet as a result of church-state cooperation. In achieving this monopoly, the church can seek influence over various institutions in society, especially in the primary aspects of everyday life, from family to politics; which will be “suffused with religious symbols, rhetoric, and ritual.” (Stark & Iannaccone, 1994). To unfurl this theory into the social dimension of this dissertation and the disparity between the traditional and the modern, can a connection be made to mono-religious states and multi-religious states on the basis that the latter exhibits more progressive ideals in the post-Communist region? The problem with this question is that not many Eastern European post-Communist countries have a diverse amount of religions, only one fits somewhat uncomfortably within the parameters of a multi-religious country: Bosnia and Herzegovina. The war and genocide on the Muslim population brought about a re-emergence of religious affiliation in national identification, but not to the detriment of other religions, instead religious factions now live among each other in relative peace. However, recent plans to ban abortion and the suppression of LGBT rights suggest that religious diversity does not necessarily mean a more progressive state (Cady & Fessenden, 2013). Therefore, the current revival in religious activity is less dependent on the number of religions a state embodies, which further contradicts the supply-side theory of religion. Instead it seems more crucial to focus on how and why post-Communist countries are struggling to fit into western, liberal ideologies even though many now belong to the European Union, NATO and the global market.

The European Union

The first and most practical answer is that of the clear religious revival that many of the former Communist countries are witnessing, unlike their western counterparts that are experiencing either status quo or decline. This highlights a clear distinction between societal norms, one based on a distinct separation of church and state and another that is seeing the lines blur. The EU is doing little to accommodate these differences, especially in light of the recent refugee and migrant crisis that has seen the EU issue criticism over the lack of participation of most Eastern European countries. After the fall of Communism, many of the former Communist states were enthusiastic to join the EU as a replacement of the Soviet Union, suggesting that at first, due to the lengthy time under Communism, states struggled to function on their own and became dependent on a higher institution. Yet, the institution did not meet the needs of those nations as it failed to take into account the almost fifty year gap between what was a traditional society and its sudden progression to a modern society. Scholars may argue that the transition process is still continuing, yet in light of the recent ideological directions that countries such as Poland and Hungary have definitively moved to, it may now embody both elements of modern and traditional, in terms of free market economics but social conservatism.
Before Poland’s ascension to the European Union, former President Aleksander Kwaśniewski made a sharp statement with regards to the structure of EU governance, calling upon more tightly regulated measures of the EU bodies as well as rejecting the creation of a federal “superstate”. This intergovernmentalist approach that entails greater state sovereignty but the desire for further EU expansion is an idea still reverberating today, and not only in the post-Communist community. In this sense, the EU is built on the premise that one size fits all, in which once a state joins it becomes part of the homogenous European economic society. However, based on the creation of EU to create a strong European community as a result of the atrocities committed during the Second World War, similarly the Post-Communist expansion came as a response to fifty years of suppression under Communism. To this end, when the Poles finally liberated themselves from Soviet domination, their central motive for wanting to “return to Europe” was to guarantee that the Western powers would “stand up for them when and if they again faced the danger of foreign invasion.” (Poole, 2003) Not only this, but from out of the authoritarian regime, new member states introduced fresh memories of collectiveness into the European narrative, which encouraged existing members to negotiate the expanding European identity. Therefore the transition into Europe can be acknowledged as one driven not only by security and financial prosperity but also by an aspiration to change the dynamics of social and political life as a result of traumatic experiences in the not so distant past. This harks back to the idea of collective memory from Hastings and Smith, in which establishing the importance of historical events that provide for nationalistic sentiment, as well as the institutions that drive it, the political leaders, and in Poland’s case, the Catholic Church as well, who have the ability to influence the views of society by incorporating the past. So far, the EU has provided a platform for Poland and other post-Communist states to become integrated, however, recent events have left people speculating about the future of the EU and whether in a time of globalisation versus state sovereignty, nations will seek secession as Britain has. The increased independence of new and old members and the widening horizons of the Common Market have made the EU seem too tightly regulated and unable to reform. But more importantly as afore mentioned, many post-Communist states no longer seek to follow the EU’s ideological framework which has the potential of splintering Europe (Verovšek, 2014).
The issue of the EU provides a wider perspective on the concerns of globalisation versus nationalism and the idea of state sovereignty. The stimulation of technology and interconnectivity in the world has left countries with the need to retain a sense of national identity, one based on some traditional values and reinstating classical features of what is perceived to be that country’s cultural comparative advantage (Bayer, 1994). Poland’s rapid economic changes after Communism and the slower dynamics of social change may have resulted in the recent divergence of the capitalist market and the traditional social aspects of Polish Catholicism which emerged as an alternative to the fast-paced, amoral expanse of globalisation.

Socio-Historical Approach

The contemporary factors of religious revival remain an important part of this research, however, with regard to the question and the emphasis on post-Communist countries, the historical element of an inherent religion offers a strong reason as to why former Communist states are experiencing religious resurgence and why some are not. I would like to propose three dimensions that exist within this theory, one dependent on the political experiences of the immediate past, the structure of society to which individuals belong and the inherent cultural and denominational traditions of that society. The first dimension relies on a shared past and the ongoing narrative that form the basis of modern society, this is easily observed in the recurrent contempt for Poland’s Communist past and de-aligning itself from it as much as possible. Yet, at the same time remembering the solidarity of the nation which brought about independence and attempting to recreate it in the form of religious prosperity. This leads into the second dimension, in which Poland’s social structure extends the continuum of a pre-Communist traditional society and the fifty years of Communist influence. In that, traditional values did not simply dissolve at the appearance of Communism, instead it was a gradual but very challenging process that in the end failed to eradicate the traditionalist structure (Tomka, 2002). Although, whether Poland admits to it or not, the presence of Communism has shaped their modern society, resulting in a merger of both traditional values and the after-effects of Communism. By opposing everything that endangers the homogenous pattern of stability with regards to foreign influence and any new religious movements, Poland has become a paranoid state that fears a return to foreign totalitarianism, as a reaction to the past. Therefore, it could be stipulated that there exists a desire to rebuild society from before the Communist settlement, one based on traditional and religious values that develops under the sovereignty of the Polish state.
Following this idea, the third dimension depends on the inheritance of a culture that is maintained by generations of people to uphold the nation’s identity. Even in times of suppression, faith does not simply disappear in a nation with such a strong relationship with Catholicism like Poland. During his first visit to Poland as leader of the Roman Catholic faith, Pope John Paul II said “It is impossible without Christ to understand the history of the Polish nation” (Zubrzyski, 2006), which implies that the stronger the historical connection with religion, the more likely it is to endure, even in times of conflict. Yet, the same cannot be said of the Czech Kingdoms which witnessed Habsburg domination and the religiously charged conflicts between Protestants and Roman Catholics, in which the latter was victorious to the demise of Czech belief. To this day, Czechs hold the loss of their nation in 1620 in contempt, when its leaders were purged in a war justified in the name of religion. Therefore, it is perhaps not surprising that the Czech Republic has become one of the most secularised and non-religious countries within Eastern Europe. In its own way, this further demonstrates the role of religion in shaping the development of nations throughout Eastern Europe (Payton, 2001). This historical dimension of religious endurance in Eastern Europe was thoroughly tested under Communist occupation, but, especially in the consideration of Poland. The will of the people to be a free, independent state unified over one belief that has endured for centuries and may continue to do so in the face of any future efforts of oppression. The Polish Revolution showed how the moral, cultural, and religious foundations of a state can bring about great social upheaval, accompanied by the interpretation of how a religious tradition can have a crucial impact on the type of political action that takes place (Thomas, 2005). Because unlike the Czech Kingdoms in 1620, Poland was not overrun with an opposing religion, but with an ideology meant to suppress religion all together which usually brings about an opposing reaction. This further relates to Hastings and Bruce’s earlier approach in their theories of religious nationalism and the myth of secularisation, implying that there remains a powerful relationship between the Polish nation and religion, one that rises to the surface in times of conflict, but one that exists eternally.
There exist multiple facets that provide solid reasoning as to the recent surge in religious activity among the post-Communist community in Eastern Europe, dependent on both contemporary and historical factors that play off each other which helped to form and answer the primary question. On this basis, we can begin to collate the historical and contemporary features from the proposed theories, to assess the current relationship between the Church and state in Poland, as well as other post-Communist states, to create a general picture explaining the rise in religious activity.

First of all, the fresh and surprising ascension of right-wing parties wishing to instil more traditional measures, such as banning abortion in a number of former Communist states corresponds with the aspiration of returning to a pre-Communist state. This is demonstrated by the latest controversy in Poland that is witnessing the remoulding of its history that fits into the government’s nationalist perspective, in which the participation of Poles in the Holocaust is rejected, as well as the re-imagining of Lech Wałęsa who has been deemed as a Communist collaborator, instead of liberator (The Economist, 2016). The government in this way possesses a great deal of influence in shaping national consciousness, especially when the authority of the Catholic Church is upheld, that may allow for greater cooperation of church and state, in possible opposition to society. Yet, throughout this dissertation, the fluctuations between religious revival and nationalist sentiment in times of conflict have been emphasised, however, there has been little in comparison to past events to prompt the recent resurgence of religious nationalism. This makes Hastings and Bruce’s theory less legitimate, as it undermines the need for a specific event to occur to reignite religious and nationalist sentiments. Instead, it may be more accurate to observe nationalism and religion as entities that gradually re-enter state consciousness over time as a result of various incidents. For example, returning to the occurring divergence from the EU, the refugee and migrant crisis and issues of globalisation (or homogenisation), have seemingly given rise to the growing animosity of Eastern European states towards Western policies (Mokgthi & Mothlabi, 2001). Due to the limited number of words assigned, this project fails in part to encompass the entirety of Eastern European post-Communist countries which would have otherwise allowed for more in depth comparison and historical examination. Because of this, it is more difficult to come to a definitive conclusion on the nature of the relationship between post-Communist countries and their level of religiosity.


It cannot be denied that Catholicism is an integral part of Polish history and society. Though dependence on the Church has fluctuated in times of peace and conflict, it continues to persevere in uniting Poland’s history with the Catholic tradition. Returning to Adam Mickiewicz’s ‘The Books and Pilgrimage of the Polish Nation’, written in 1833 during the period of partitions, there is a culminating sense of destiny interwoven with the struggle for an independent nation that permeates through the death and resurrection of Christ. Poland has a fierce devotion to its history’s greatest minds, Mickiewicz’s words still resound today, creating a powerful connection with the past and the nation’s determination. Karol Wojtyła’s elevation to become the first Polish pope could not have come at a more essential time, once again the Catholic faith was there to support the nation in need, and by doing so, secured the bond between Polish nationalism and religion. The recent escalated collaboration between the Church and state, however, has been criticised by both Polish citizens and external bodies, for undermining the democratic process and the rule of law. This may indicate the uneasiness of the relationship between the Catholic faith and the Catholic Church, in which the former offers a union between God and the nation that creates solidarity, whereas, the latter, as Durkheim suggested, is there to instruct or guide people to what they should believe in. In this way, Poland isn’t unlike many countries that value religion as part of their national heritage; yet, it does not wish it to have influence over state affairs, due to its undemocratic nature that reminds them of a not so distant, totalitarian past. In line with this idea, we can assume that when talking about religious revival in the former Communist countries, it is not society that has suddenly become more religious, but religious institutions that have increased their activity by trying to exert more power over the state. This is further fuelled by the recent rise to power of many right-wing political parties that share similar principles to religious doctrine. Though in this case, it can be argued that the electorate had some inclination to what these parties stood for, but voted them in anyway. Conversely, the failure of more left-wing parties to solve issues of corruption, in Hungary for example, left people unsatisfied and in need of an alternative.

The fundamental aim of this research was to assess the reasons why many post-Communist countries are experiencing a perceived religious re-awakening; from the proposed theories, as well as the ongoing developments we can come to a conclusion. The historical importance of a united religious nationalism plays a crucial role in today’s former Communist countries as it helped many escape the oppressive regime. Nonetheless, countries that were not united under one main religion also emerged and have experienced little religious resurgence, thus not all post-Communist states can be compared on the basis of a religious and national alliance. That being said, many former Communist eastern European countries are still struggling to find a balance between upholding its national identity, by way of implementing more traditional values, and attempting to find a place within the Western, more liberal ideologies. Scholars have suggested that most of these nations are still in a state of transition, trying to find a way to maintain national and international harmony (Smith, 1992). In the words of Lech Wałęsa, “He who puts out his hand to stop the wheel of history will have his fingers crushed” (Wałęsa, 2012) as if to signify the eternal remembrance of a nation that persevered through times of suppression and non-existence which has fostered the country we see today.
Berenika Gray-Lyons
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