The United States is a nation heavily influenced by conservative Christianity, from its very start — this is a county colonised by people who fled Europe to practice their own brand of religion, who wrote ostensible Christian values into the Constitution while claiming a separation of church and state, who add ‘under g-d’ to its pledge of allegiance and print g-d’s name on currency. In recent years, conservative Christians have exerted a heavier and heavier influence over US policy, particularly on the domestic level, where they’re proving highly adroit at devastating reproductive rights, heavily modifying sexual education, and depriving people of other basic rights on the grounds that other people’s daily lives infringe upon religious values and rights. In essence, the Christian right is imposing its values on people across the United States regardless of their faith, and many see the nation as tipping ever closer to one in which people routinely encounter the heavyhanded influence of a warped interpretation of Christianity.
Some point to actual theocracies as evidence of where the United States could be headed, or try to prey on social anxieties by claiming that the United States will turn out like nations dominated by conservative Muslim attitudes, in which many classes of people experience severe restriction of civil liberties. There’s another model of religious domination, though, and it’s one that I have personal experience with — in Greece, while the Orthodox Church is not officially part of the decisionmaking arm of the government, it plays a pervasive role in every single aspect of life, becoming nearly unavoidable for every citizen and resident regardless of faith. And, of course, nearly 90 percent of Greeks are Orthodox Christians.
In Greece, while religious officials don’t occupy government roles, Greek Orthodox faith is the official state religion, which entitles it to a number of protections under the law that it would not otherwise receive, including wages for priests and upkeep on church properties paid out directly by the state. It also positions the church in a position of extreme privilege. It dominates not just social but also political life, playing a striking role in the lives of everyone who lives in the country, including that roughly 10 percent of the population that practices other faiths or identifies as atheist or agnostic. To be anything other than Eastern Orthodox in Greece is to occupy an extreme minority position, and one which, moreover, is highly stigmatised.
When I attended school in Greece, I, like other students, was required to receive religious instruction if I wanted to go to school, and I had to be baptised into the faith in addition to attending services. While exemptions are available in some parts of Greece, if both parents agree to request one, students who receive exemptions can be targeted for retribution by teachers and classmates — and that’s if they’re going to a school that honors such requests. Even when students are not receiving explicit religious instruction, the edicts of the church are wound throughout instruction and school policies, and while people are not allowed to push religious conversion or beliefs, that doesn’t hold true in the case of the Orthodox Church thanks to its protected status.
Outside the educational setting, the church is everywhere, and not just in ringing bells, parades for saints, and a never-ending tide of festivals and events. The church is the lifeblood of the community, often acting as a primary provider of social services and gatekeeper for those who want to access them. It dominates local politics — getting ahead in Greek politics is difficult if you are not devoutly Orthodox, and the church heavily influences national and regional laws, enshrining its religious values. For instance, in a nation often associated heavily with the birth of homosexuality in the West — a highly debatable assertion in the first place — many parts of Greece are actually extremely hostile to gay men, thanks to the positions of the church on the matter. Orthodox priests are aggressively conservative and while some social policy has been relaxed in response to pressure from the EU and leftist progressives, Greeks know that the church is always watching.
Living in this environment as a child, I missed many of the sinister undertones involved in the stranglehold the church had on Greece — to me, church was a stuffy, boring, incense-laden weekly experience to be tolerated in the interest of keeping the peace, and even now, the smell of candles and incense sparks a nearly Pavlovian response, triggering sense memories so dizzying that I have to sit down. I wasn’t aware of the regressive social policies sponsored, pushed, and maintained by the church, because they largely didn’t affect me, and I wasn’t aware of the stigma that surrounded many Greeks who went against the dictate of the church. To me, the church was a dull man in black robes, boring hours in school.
We were ‘the Americans,’ living with the knowledge that someday we would likely leave Greece, returning to the United States and comparative religious and social freedom. Religious instruction was an interesting cultural experience rather than indoctrination. The church might not have been directly setting law, nor were high-ranking church officials leading the government, but Greece was in many ways directly controlled by the arbiters of an ancient and extremely conservative religion. As I grew older, I came to a greater understanding of what I’d witnessed in childhood, and that sense was even more informed by Greeks I talked to about their own experiences. It is these things that I think of when I see the projection the US appears to be taking, the potential collision of religion, culture, and law. Already, the church is laying the groundwork for religious instruction in schools, for government support of its initiatives, for special treatment under the law — and I fear that the next generation of children will grow up in a climate like the one the children I left behind in Greece did, one where daring to be different came at a very high cost.
Image: Oia, Santorini, Terence Faircloth, Flickr