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Nations under God: How Churches Use Moral Authority to Influence Policy

0 Comments 🕔17.Nov 2015

The focus of Anna Grzymala-Busse’s interesting and learned volume, Nations under God: How Churches Use Moral Authority to Influence Policy, has to do with the ways churches succeed or fail with respect to influencing public policy.  As the author indicates, her particular interest is to answer this question with respect to constitutional democracies. The work is organized as a series of comparative studies, each case dealing with two countries that share a certain commonality. Ireland and Italy form the first case, as states in which the Roman Catholic Church functions as a religious monopoly. The second case examines Poland and Croatia as   countries in which the the context for Roman Catholic authorities was set by challenges posed first by communist rule and second by the need to reconstruct political institutions following the end of the Cold War. In the third case, the United States and Canada are paired as examples of religiously diverse societies.

In each study, Grzymała-Busse draws on much social scientific literature related to these cases. Perhaps the most prominent feature of her approach is her attention to history, however. In so doing, she endorses the notion that, in matters of religion and national identity—and thus of the role of churches in political life—there is a background story which must be told. This gives her book a depth that should prove attractive to a wide audience of scholarly readers.

In connection with these comparative studies, Nations under God advances the following argument: where churches succeed in shaping policy outcomes, policy debates, or both, they do so based on a wide recognition of their role as bearers of a national identity, which translates into moral authority.  With respect to that authority, religious authorities are seen as impartial guardians of important values.  This leads, however, to the most interesting of Grzymała-Busse’s findings. Since, as her case studies demonstrate, moral authority can wax and wane, there is an important question of how churches may best spend the political capital associated with such prominence. By her count, the most common type of scholarly analysis of this matter, focused on the building of coalitions (as when churches become associated with political parties), turns out to be inaccurate. Success lies rather in gaining “institutional access,” whereby politicians allow representatives of religious groups to influence policy behind the scenes. Real influence, in other words, correlates with an ability to stand above the fray.

As an example, consider Grzymała-Busse’s comparison of Poland and Croatia. In each, the Roman Catholic Church has a long history, though the kind of fusion by which the Church became a unique bearer of national identity is a more recent phenomenon. In Poland, the moral authority of the Church owed much to members of the clergy whose articulation of a distinct understanding of Polish history and culture resonated with the notion that communist rule constituted a foreign imposition. At the same time, church leaders did not advocate the overthrow of the government. Over time, they came to play an important role as arbiters between political authorities and popular movements, with the struggles associated with the Polish trade union, Solidarity, providing a case in point. By 1989, the Church was well positioned to provide assistance in negotiations regarding the transition from communist rule to constitutional democracy. In the new setting, Church officials were able to influence policy in a variety of ways—sometimes, as in the case of the 1990 adoption of a law restricting abortion, convincing political leaders to adopt measures which did not enjoy public support.

In the decades since, the Polish church has struggled with the tension between partisan advocacy and the less direct, even covert form of influence represented by “institutional access.” In Grzymała-Busse’s account, the Church seems to have learned from past mistakes, as when the close ties between church officials and the leadership of Solidarity led to a loss of power when voters chose new leadership in the mid 1990’s. She goes on to argue that, since 2010, political leaders sense that they no longer need quite so much backing from the Church. In that sense, the influence of the clergy may be on the wane.

Nevertheless, the relative success of the Polish church stands in contrast with its role in Croatia.  In the aftermath of the Second World War, the attempt to build a Yugoslavian identity and institutions consonant with communist rule made good use of the wartime associations between fascism and the Catholic Church in order to move the latter away from the center of national life. With the emergence of clergy as promoters of a distinctively Croatian identity during the Croat Spring of 1967-71, however, this began to change, and by the late 1980s, the Croatian church the kind of standing associated with moral authority. With the collapse of communism and the Yugoslavian state in 1990-91, the church was in position to turn this capital into real influence.

However, it failed to do so, partly because of the way the transition from communism to democracy took place. The leadership of the Croatian Communist Party moved quickly to disassociate itself from the nationalism promoted by Serbian officials, presenting the party as an advocate of democratic socialism. While the elections of 1990 led to defeat for the new organization, this meant there was no period of negotiation parallel to the Polish case, and thus no mediating role for the Croatian clergy. Then, too, the new country was quickly involved in the fighting that dominated the region for much of the decade. Political leaders cited the church in support of policies deemed necessary for the survival of the state; they did not go to the clergy for advice on matters of policy. In effect, leaders of the Croatian Democratic Union succeeded in their attempt to promote the notion of an alliance with the church, so much so that the latter never achieved the image of impartiality necessary to influence policy.

Clearly written and well researched, Anna Grzymała-Busse’s Nations under God is a fine contribution to the literature dealing with religion and politics.

Reviewed by John Kelsay, Florida State University

Nations under God: How Churches Use Moral Authority to Influence Policy
by Anna Grzymała-Busse
Princeton University Press
Hardcover /440 pages / 2015
ISBN: 9780691164755

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