What a Russian punk band reveals about religious pluralism

A Moscow judge last Friday sentenced thee women from the Russian punk band Pussy Riot to two years in prison, a decision that has led to global debate over two intricately intertwined issues: religious freedom and freedom of speech.

The band had protested Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church with a “punk prayer,” which called on the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of Putin. The head of the church is a strong supporter of Putin and the band objects to the close connection between these two institutions. The dance and protest occurred last February in the Moscow Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Supporters of Putin say that the women are blasphemers who committed outrageous acts against the church. The women were found guilty of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.

Analysts have seen this trial as a test of Putin’s tolerance of dissent, pointing out that the timing of the trial comes in the context of a number of things Putin has done to make life difficult for those who oppose his regime. Most are outraged by the violation of free speech, but some have taken it a step further and interpreted it as a slippery slope toward the desire of the religious community – with the support of the state - to shut down those who disagree with them. On the same day that the verdict was handed down, Amanda Marcotte of Slate wrote a striking piece warning that what happened in Moscow could happen in the United States. 

Marcotte wrote, “The Pussy Riot travesty is the logical end result of giving special legal consideration and privileges to religion.” From her perspective, when the faith-based community wants to remove contraception from the list of preventive care covered with no co-pay, “fundamentalists are demanding that the government give special consideration to religion in order to attack the rights of young women.”

Marcotte's description isn’t fair. There is little connection between the Russian government’s control of dissent and the American religious community’s desire to express their worldview in the way they offer employment benefits.

However, Marcotte’s concern raises a point that Christians need to be more attentive to. Christian institutions in the United States, like churches and universities, are suing the federal government because they argue that the Affordable Care Act prevents them from shaping their institutions according to their faith without government penalty. They are asking for an institutional or structural pluralism in which government treats people and institutions of different worldviews in a similar manner. This is the same principle that rests behind movements to have faith-based schools receive public funding in the same way that state schools do, and asks that faith-based, social-service organizations be eligible for the same government funding that others are.

This kind of pluralism is attractive when groups are in the minority. Organizations like the Center for Public Justice also argue that this institutional and confessional pluralism is part of a Biblical understanding of what government ought to be in a broken but redeemed world. The challenge, of course, is maintaining the integrity of the argument when we are in the majority. When Marcotte suggests that religious groups want “special recognition,” she sounds exactly like Christians who say that the gay and lesbian community should not be asking for special protections in employment and marriage law. When I speak on this topic, I encounter this argument: Christians should ask for pluralism when we are in the minority, but when we are in the majority, God wants us to try and get away with putting as much Christianity in the law as possible. 

Here, then, is a question, an especially important one for the up-coming U.S. election, in which the presidential and vice-presidential candidates all profess faiths that shape their worldviews: does a Biblical understanding of the public square require that government work to treat people of all worldviews equally? Or, does a Biblical understanding mean that when it is possible, Christians should use the law to make others live according to our beliefs?

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When we are preoccupied with our differences rather than what we have in common, I think it is inevitable that we push for our own vision of what is good and evil when we have the strength to do so. How could we remain neutral and live with ourselves? And it seems we find so little in common in these days.
Pat Robertson was wise when he spoke about the reluctance of some to bear the burden of internationally adopted children: we should not insist others follow the law of love.

Excellent post. Thank you.

Fantastic piece Julia.

I was more than a little surprised that you can be put in prison in Russia for blasphemy. Yes, it sounds like Pussy Riot was blasphemous to the Russian Orthodox faith, but that should in no way be a crime. I personally find it very offensive to think of a government deciding what counted as blasphemy/orthodoxy and penalizing citizens in question, whatever the faith in question is my faith or someone else’s.

Aside from that, I think there is an important distinction between the PR trial and some acts justified in terms of religious freedom in the US. Turning blasphemy into a crime tries to force other people to follow a religion’s dictates whether they accept that religion or not. That’s very different from protecting the right of people to practice their freely-chosen religion.

The ACA contraception thing provides an interesting case study in this. Catholic/evangelical universities and hospitals are pushing to be exempted from it. Read one way, the ACA mandate is keeping them from following their religion since it forces them to pay for something they consider immoral. Read another, however, exempting a Catholic university means forcing its employees (Catholic or otherwise) to live according to Catholic teachings. It’s not that simple, of course, because the ACA only requires payment for contraception, not the actual use of it; and conversely, the lawsuits only would mean those institutions wouldn’t pay for their employees’ contraception, not that those employees couldn’t buy it on their own. But I think this is an interesting point to start from: does the ACA mandate ensure peoples’ religious freedom if their bosses have a different religion, or does it restrict it?

Even recognizing the question I think means we have to look at our “rights” a different way. Sometimes the better part of Christian love is recognizing our rights aren’t the only one we need to look at when figuring out what’s good.

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