Keynote speech by Prof. Dr. Regina Elsner, University of Münster
Conference: “We believe in change: What can religious peace look like for queer people worldwide?”
7 September 2023 at the Kunsthalle Osnabrück
Human rights and Christianity – this is a very complex and charged relationship. Over the past centuries and decades, none of the Christian churches has found it easy to accept the idea that all people, namely each and every individual, enjoys the same rights and liberties as all others.
On a declarative level, most churches have found a way of addressing these human rights over the past decades, whether by legal necessity or theological appropriation. In many respects, the basic values of Christianity overlap with the norms arising from policies that advance human rights. These include the dignity of the individual, the right to life, preservation of natural resources, social justice, love of one’s neighbour, and love of one’s fellow human beings. It is no surprise, therefore, that Christian churches around the world have become major partners in international efforts to strengthen and uphold human rights – in struggles against hunger, for children’s rights and healthcare, against armed conflict and the exploitation of resources, and for dialogue on an equal footing. When we consider the commitment by Christian churches to the dignity of human life around the world, it hardly seems possible that these churches could actually fight against human rights.
However, this far-reaching consensus has been fracturing for many years now around the topic of “gender”. The reasons – which have been extensively studied and discussed – are found primarily in the Christian doctrine of natural law, which posits an ineluctable binarity and complementarity of two sexes as an expression of God’s will. Every weakening of this binarity and complementarity is said to contravene God’s will, and is therefore a sin and a challenge to the natural order of the world. The term “gender” has become a lightning rod for fear in religious discourse. It has become a populist rallying cry against an entire range of topics: alternatives to the traditional family, autonomy and reproductive rights especially for women, same-sex partnerships, legal action against domestic violence, sex education in schools, trans rights, and so on. Many of these topics have long been addressed in theological debates – as questions of morality and of ethical behaviour by individual believers. That changed, however, when gender justice became a strategic aim in national and transnational policy.
Legal advances in rights to self-determination and in measures to promote gender justice on national levels, but especially on international levels, have galvanized conservative agents around the globe. In 1991, James Hunter was already using the term “culture wars” to describe the increasingly polarized struggle between conservative and liberal forces over definitional and moral high ground on issues of public concern in the USA. The role of churches in these culture wars is unclear. Most align with conservative forces in their ideological approaches to gender and the secularization of public policy, yet as institutions they allow only a limited degree of instrumentalization by one side or the other. The front therefore runs straight through all denominations, which means it is also a struggle over the high ground on issues of concern to the churches themselves.
In the wake of the Cold War, the culture wars became global. Churches played a key role here, as Kristina Stoeckl and others have clearly shown in recent studies. More than a third of the world’s population identifies as Christian, and the Catholic Church represents the world’s largest non-governmental organization. Hardly any other institution is as well networked globally as the Catholic Church, but the Protestant and Orthodox Churches are also represented around the world. The ideas that churches contribute to our shared social life influence the entire world. As such, churches’ commitment to human rights is counteracted to a huge extent by their involvement in the global culture wars. They are affected in multiple ways by the fight against human rights pursued on national and international levels by agents of the Christian right.
• Shifts in discourse: No Christian church takes an official aggressive stand against human rights regarding sexual orientation and gender identity. All churches emphasize the centrality of human dignity, and also expressly reject physical violence in particular. However, when discourse is limited, that opens the doors to populism. Here I need only mention the statements by Pope Francis who is commonly praised for opening the Vatican to the recognition of same-sex ways of life. He calls “gender ideology” a type of “ideological colonialism” that eliminates the anthropological basis of the family and is an error of the human mind. No serious consideration is ever given to gender theories or the concepts that underlie the idea of gender in the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women, for example. Instead, an extremely truncated idea of dissolving arbitrary gender categories is always posed, and exaggerated for populist effect. This completely sidelines the ideal of justice which the Church could certainly uphold, and cedes ground to a fear-ridden form of populism. Over recent years, therefore, it has become increasingly difficult to hold sober discussions of gender justice and of what the idea of gender adds to discourse on human rights.
• Appropriation: Christian actors in the fight against gender justice rarely speak out against human rights per se. Instead, they appropriate precisely the rhetoric of human rights. A key part of this approach consists of setting different human rights in opposition to each other, especially the freedoms of religion and speech on the one hand against the rights to self-determination and non-discrimination on the other. Freedom of religion, for example, is equated with the right to spread homophobic content or to ban schoolbooks. Cases are regularly brought to the European Court of Human Rights, such as the recent complaint by a Greek Orthodox bishop whom a Greek court had found guilty of hate speech. In other words, they use the instruments of international human rights structures to fight against human rights. This mechanism has yet another effect. Freedom of religion has played a key role in prompting many churches to become active in human rights, yet at the same time, freedom of religion has been increasingly neglected by many civil society and policy actors – in part because of the tensions between it and other human rights. Given what are in fact massive levels of persecution against followers of religions in many parts of the world, conservative actors have been able to appropriate this human right in especially powerful ways.
• Networks: Over recent decades, ecumenical networks have become important platforms for human rights. They have considerably raised the visibility and impact of Christian work on issues like climate protection, economic justice, refugees, and migration. However, the Christian right has also been forming stable ecumenical networks. Many of these are linked to specific individuals. US-American and Russian collaboration in the World Congress of Families (WCF) / International Organization for the Family (IOF) – one of the leading international conservative right-wing networks – is supported by wealthy individuals who identify as Evangelical or Russian Orthodox. Although supported by individuals, these networks are superbly integrated into their respective churches. Agenda Europe, an extreme-right network within Europe, for example, and Ordo Iuris, a Polish jurists’ association that takes legal action against liberal legislation, do not consider themselves to be religious organizations but are closely linked with representatives of major churches, especially Catholic and Orthodox. This “ecumenism of hate” is an active countermovement to the official ecumenism represented by e.g. the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Conference of European Churches (CEC) – which are condemned as “liberal” and thereby weakened internally as institutions as well as internationally. Besides these right-wing networks, there are other configurations such as the “strategic alliance” maintained for years now by the Russian Orthodox Church and the Vatican against liberal currents in theology and secular society.
The fact that these movements are by no means marginal in the culture wars is clear from Russia’s actions over recent years, at least to those who observe the region and its Orthodox churches. Russia’s war against Ukraine is conducted also and especially in the name of traditional values, protecting religious freedom, and opposing gender ideology. As such, it is the first armed war to be fought explicitly against gender justice. This argumentation mobilizes the Russian population, which for decades now has been subjected to polarizing discourse against the decadent colonizing West. The heart of the hate for Western society is expressed in the term “Gayropa”.
This ideology of war also and especially inhibits direct criticism by other Christian churches, such as Catholicism as represented by the Vatican, and by many societies of the global South that oppose the supposed colonization of values by the West. Some churches – including the Catholic Church with its strategic alliance, and many Evangelical communities – are unable to explicitly condemn the war ideology’s content because they would thereby have to change their own official positions. For many other churches, such as the WCC, direct condemnation is not possible for that would put many of their global partners in a bind.
In addition to Ukraine, Russia has become a key agent of anti-gender policy in other parts of the world, albeit rarely so visibly as in the war. Since January 2022, the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) has been establishing an official church structure throughout Africa. This violates Orthodox church law, which says its churches may not found structures on the territories of other Orthodox churches. According to the ROC, however, when the Patriarchy of Alexandria recognized the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine it lost its status as a church and Africa therefore no longer has a valid Orthodox church. In fact, the ROC’s expansion in Africa had been launched earlier by Russian diplomatic missions. But now the ROC is independently and demonstratively buying its way into Africa, with congregations currently in 25 African countries.
This will change the religious landscape, because the Russian Church attracts people not only with its money – to build churches, pay priests, and fund humanitarian projects – but also with its narrative about Western colonization of values and its claim that it, unlike the West, is defending persecuted Christians. The first ordination performed by the ROC’s Patriarchal Exarchate of Africa was for a Ugandan – whose ceremony was also attended by the Catholic bishop of Rabat in Morocco. With Russia’s help, the ROC is also actively supporting the beleaguered Copts in Egypt and Ethiopia and thereby appropriating the idea of freedom of religion in targeted form. It is unclear to me how much church aid associations realize whom they will be dealing with in Africa in the future – and whether they have a strategy to address this.
The examples of Africa and Ukraine show how effective it is to go on the offensive with human rights – and how disastrous it is to confront these developments with ambivalence and indecision. Given their international networks and moral authority, churches have a responsibility. But in the case of Africa and Ukraine, they are shirking their responsibility to an ever greater degree. Conservative forces are not leaving this opportunity unexploited, nor will they do so in the future. On the contrary, they are building their strategy precisely on the ambivalence shown by other churches. A change of course – which I actually no longer believe will happen – is urgently needed.
Keynote speech by Prof. Dr. Regina Elsner*, University of Münster at the conference “We believe in change”
*Dr. Regina Elsner has been appointed Professor of Eastern Church Studies and Ecumenics at the University of Münster’s Faculty of Catholic Theology as of January 8, 2024.
Conference report (Deutsch)
Photos from the conference “We believe in change”
Video Message by Ecclesia de Lange, director of Inclusive and Affirming Ministries
Intervention by X., activist from Uganda: The role of certain christian churches
An event for the Hirschfeld Eddy Foundation project “We believe in change”: Human rights, freedom of religion or belief, and non-discrimination. All publications for the project can be found under the tag WBIC-2023 (some content in English).