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Thursday, January 15, 2004


Unorthodox Politics

The Most Religious Political Culture in Europe

On November 6, 2003, yet one more European Social Survey was published and it once again shook Greeks’ national self-image as a friendly, hospitable, and tolerant people. According to the survey, Greeks are the loneliest, most insecure, cynical, intolerant, and xenophobic people in Europe. The results came as a surprise to some, but not to those who have been studying Greek society over the past few years. Although the exact figures of the survey are publicly available on the Web, worth mentioning here are some of its most shocking statistics. (This comparative survey was conducted throughout the European Union, and a sample of 2,566 people was interviewed in Greece. The results can be found online at and For relevant articles, see Eleutherotypia and Kathimerini [both November 6, 2003].)

One out of four Greeks is homophobic and believes in some restrictions on how homosexuals lead their lives. Eight out of ten Greeks believe that no foreigners, or very few, should be allowed to live in Greece. And, among Europeans, Greeks trust their fellow citizens the least. Greece enjoys the fruits of Europeanization, with GDP growth twice the EU average, but feels threatened by Europe. Having the lowest crime rates in the EU, Greece is, theoretically, among the safest places to live on the continent; Greeks, however, feel insecure, blame foreigners for the lack of law and order, and mostly trust the police among all institutions. For the first time in its history, Greece has had a stable democracy for almost three decades, but its citizens are disillusioned with parliament and mistrust politicians. Finally, according to the survey, Greeks are, by far, the most religious people in Europe.

Before resorting to a theory of cultural schizophrenia, one should ask if there is a correlation between the last statistical revelation and the previous ones. My intention here is not to imply that Orthodoxy is to be blamed for all the ills of Greek society. Without a doubt, there are other important factors that contribute to an intolerant public culture (the Greek media, most obviously, which, for example, never miss a chance to point out the “criminal behavior” of Albanian immigrants). However, my main argument here will be that Orthodoxy in Greece is associated with a particular kind of cultural nationalism (Helleno-Christianism) that defies cultural and social pluralism.

Orthodoxy and public culture in Greece
Anywhere you look in Greece, the presence of Orthodoxy is remarkable. For instance, on Serifos (my home island in the Cyclades), which has a population of about 1,000 habitants, there are 117 churches! During religious celebrations on nearby islands, army units are deployed to honor holy icons. The Greek constitution derives its legitimacy from the “Holy and Consubstantial and Indivisible Trinity.” The president of the Greek republic and the country’s parliamentarians are inaugurated with a religious oath in the presence of Athens’s archbishop, who is also an honorary guest at all official government celebrations. A recent dispute between the Church of Greece and the ecumenical patriarchate over the ecclesiastical regime in parts of northern Greece became a major political issue, in which Greek political parties struggled to keep their neutrality. The construction of a mosque in Athens has been delayed for decades due to the interference of the Greek church. Greek children are catechised in Orthodox dogma after the age of eight in public school, and their diplomas state their religion. Until recently, even Greek identity cards stated the holder’s religion; and all who have an interest in modern Greece surely know what happened in 2001 when the Greek government decided that religion should not be included on citizens’ official identity cards. The Church is also inseparably linked with numerous Greek cultural activities (festivals to honor local saints), customs (religious fasts), and foods (the Paschal lamb). These are just some examples from an endless list that illustrate the penetration of Orthodox culture into Greek public life.

The last census on the religious attachments of Greeks was conducted in 1951. According to it, 96.7 percent of Greeks considered themselves members of the Greek Orthodox church (see Kallistos Ware’s “The Church: A Time for Transition,” in Richard Clogg, editor, Greece in the 1980s). In 1991, a Eurobarometer survey showed that 98.2 percent of Greeks declared themselves members of the Orthodox church (cited in Yannis Stavrakakis, “Religion and Populism: Reflections on the ‘Politicised’ Discourse of the Greek Orthodox Church,” Hellenic Observatory, Discussion Paper No. 7, European Institute, London School of Economics and Political Science). The 2002 CIA World Factbook places this figure at 98 percent. This trend does not appear to vary significantly when it comes to the younger generation, since a 2002 Eurobarometer survey showed that Greek youths (ages 15-24) are, after the Irish, the most religious in Europe (the survey was conducted throughout the 15 pre-enlargement EU countries; see ). The last European Social Survey shows that church attendance levels in Greece are on the rise and among the highest in Europe. Moreover, the level of those who do not attend church services at all has dropped in the last few years.

Furthermore, legally and politically, Orthodoxy is the established religion of Greece (Article 3 of the Greek constitution). This has been the case since independence, and even before. The Byzantine empire was an Orthodox empire. The members of the Greek community in the Ottoman empire were determined by their religion. And the patriarch in Constantinople, who was the ethnarch of the Romioi, was almost always Greek. Orthodoxy is generally connected in Greek consciousness with “past glories” such as Byzantium, while the Greek language occupies a central role in Orthodox liturgy. During Ottoman rule in the Balkans, the Church not only claimed the role of protector of Christians but that of savior of the Greek language during what is still popularly thought to be the 400 years of “slavery” of the Greek people. When the War of Independence broke out in 1821, the revolutionaries felt the need to define who would be considered Greek. In the first article of the first constitutional text of modern Greece, they did so: “all natives [autochthonous] who believe in Christ are Greeks.”

If one thinks that the identification of Greekness with Orthodoxy is strongest in Greece, however, then s/he has not studied Cyprus. When the first constitution for an independent Cyprus was drafted in the late 1950s, the British (and everyone else involved, including the local population, Greece, and Turkey) considered it natural to delineate membership in one of the two main ethnicities of the island according to religious criteria: that is, whoever was Orthodox was a Greek and whoever was Muslim was a Turk. Ethnicity, nationhood, citizenship, and religion were thus conflated, with disastrous consequences for the island. Later, the archbishop of the Church of Cyprus became president of the Cypriot republic, and was referred to as ethnarch.

The identification of Orthodoxy with Greekness did not wither away with time. Orthodoxy is still the established religion in Greece, in every sense of the word. In the words of former president Kônstantinos Karamanlês, in a speech given in 1981 while he was still in office: “The nation and Orthodoxy…have become in the Greek conscience virtually synonymous concepts, which together constitute our Helleno-Christian civilization” (cited in Kallistos Ware, op. cit.).

Explaining the identification of Greekness with Orthodoxy
It is evident, from the above, that the influence of Orthodoxy on Greek public culture has been profound. Given this historical reality, it is not surprising that being Orthodox is considered a necessary prerequisite to being Greek. This equivalence among religious, cultural, and national identities has been, to a great extent, enforced by the state, on purpose or not. When I use the term, state, here, by the way, I include the Byzantine and Ottoman empires as well as the modern Greek state. Indeed, at the time of its founding, the modern Greek state made considerable efforts to place ecclesiastical authority under the direct control of the newly founded Greek kingdom, and it declared the Church of Greece autocephalous from the ecumenical patriarchate of Constantinople in 1833.

Many authors have commented on the Bavarian regime’s attempt to organize the Church of Greece on a “Protestant model.” Be that as it may, I would argue that the legal arrangements of that period affected the subsequent political culture of the Greek church in a controversial manner and might, in part, explain why the Church remains a nationalist institution today. Despite the fact that the legal status of “semi-separation” has been widely perceived as a progressive measure that restricted theocratic aspirations on the part of Church officials and admirers, the recent confrontations between Church and state in Greece can be seen, at least partially, as the result of the Church’s legal status. The legal regime of 1833 in essence legitimized the intertwining of secular and ecclesiastical authorities. It also assigned the Church an “ethnarchic” role (this is particularly evident in the Greek educational curriculum). Because of its status as the established religion, the Orthodox church was also able to use state resources to secure its influence over the Greek people. Contemporary Church policy can be perceived as an attempt by the Church to protect the role assigned to it during the nation-building period, despite the fact that the Church’s original reactions to this role were negative (and suppressed, sometimes violently, by the Bavarian regime).

Furthermore, within a subsequent context of ineffective bureaucratic politics and problematic functioning of Western-type institutions, the Church remained one of the few reliable institutions with which the Greek people could identify. Besides, the Greek church is probably the only pre-modern institution in Greece to survive in the modern era. This fact is extremely important for the analysis of Greek nationalism. National identities might be modern phenomena, but they are constructed through the restructuring of preexisting, and pre-modern, cultural material (churches, religions, armies, states, customs, institutions, ideologies, etc.). In this respect, Orthodoxy has remained the primary cultural material from which Greek national identity is constructed. This explains the universal and cross-class appeal of the “Orthodox way of life” among Greeks. Even the Greek left has (almost) never been unequivocally hostile to the Greek church. EAM (the communist-controlled Greek resistance during the Second World War) advertised an Orthodox bishop as its spiritual leader. Furthermore, Greek intellectuals and artists who are generally considered as belonging to the left (Kôstas Zourarês, Dionysês Savopoulos) subscribe to the Helleno-Orthodox dogma.

In other words, the Church has acted throughout the course of modern Greek history as both a secular political institution and as an ideological mechanism, and these two elements have been gradually converted to the values of Greek nationalism as the Church itself has assumed the role of a national religion. Given that both agents and institutions hold relatively stable identities, the Church is finding it difficult to confine itself to a lesser political role. It has thus reacted immediately to secularizing measures, and successfully continues to manufacture nationalism today. When faced with secularizing attempts on the part of the Greek state, the Church portrays itself as a “betrayed wife” (to use Stavros Zoumboulakês’s metaphor in his book, O Theos stên Polê): the Church supported the state as long as it was needed but is then cast aside as soon as it is considered unnecessary.

These feelings of frustration and defensiveness have been expressed during the last five years by a charismatic personality. Despite the various structural reasons described above for Orthodox nationalism, the importance of personal charisma should not be underestimated. The archbishop of Athens and all Greece, His Beatitude Christodoulos, is a successful demagogue who has drawn the media’s attention and become very popular with the people. His nationalist political discourse, arguing for the uniqueness and superiority of the Greeks, has filled the gap on the extreme right that was created by New Democracy’s move closer to the center.

Christodoulos’s political discourse constructs an antagonistic climate between “the Greek people” and its enemies, which, according to him, are everywhere: Muslims, Jews, Americans, the Vatican, Turks, the EU, intellectuals, and even conscientious objectors (that is, Jehovah’s Witnesses). Within this hostile climate, in which Hellenism is depicted as an “endangered culture,” the Church portrays itself as the only political and spiritual agent able to carry out the messianic role of saving Greek tradition from assimilation into a global culture. Christodoulos’s political positions, as presented in his Apo chôma kai ourano (From Earth and Sky), can be summarized as two demands: first, in order to combat the ethical decay of modern Greek society, the social role of the Church should be protected and enhanced; second, in order to contain the “Muslim Axis” in the Balkans, Greece should pioneer the establishment of an “Orthodox Axis” in the region.

Indeed, the presumed ability of Orthodoxy to construct boundaries between Greeks and “barbarians” has been a central reason for its use as a nodal characteristic of Greek nationalism in the first place. “Helleno-Christianism” has been so successful because it has established an antagonistic relationship between Greek identity and its “constitutive outsides” — the Ottoman empire/Turkey, the surrounding Slavic and Balkan populations, and Europe — while other forms of nationalism that emphasized the religious element of Greek identity were unable to offer adequate grounding for a firm distinction between Greeks and the other Orthodox populations of the Ottoman empire. The Helleno-Christian thesis has managed to do so by emphasizing the Greek aspect of Orthodox identity. On the other hand, purely “Hellenized” conceptions of nationhood were unable to communicate with the masses that actually constituted the nascent (or developing) Greek nation. These masses were divided into ethnically and linguistically fragmented groups, very few of which could understand the language of Plato despite the fact that they were mostly using Greek dialects. Therefore, Orthodoxy was a cultural resource into which these groups could easily tap (at least more easily at that point than with ancient Greece).

In contemporary Greece, the attachment of Greeks to Orthodox dogma as well as to the person of Athens’s archbishop make Christodoulos’s views extremely popular at the same time that they foster a dangerous and intolerant social climate. The present populist political discourse of the Greek church signifies a structural change in Greek politics, whereby the Church has effectively emancipated itself from the political influence of the state and assumed the role of an autonomous political agent. Within this climate of antagonism between Church and state, a new series of competing nationalist doctrines have developed, and indeed provoked a debate, over the “renegotiation” of Greek national identity. However, religious nationalism remains the hegemonic form of nationalist ideology in Greek political culture and public discourse. Instead of a weakening of religious nationalism in Greece, we can empirically observe a revival of Helleno-Christian ideas (among political parties, intellectual elites, and the Church) in the face of liberal globalization.

The influence of Orthodoxy in Greek public culture — evidenced in the last European Social Survey — is problematic, as it has fostered, to some extent, intolerance of sexual, religious, and ethnic differences. The continuous waves of immigration from other southeastern European countries to Greece have created a social climate of cultural diversity; however, these new religious, ethnic, linguistic, and cultural minorities — which have been added to the existing ones in Greece — find it difficult to integrate into a resistant society of Greek Orthodox Christians. Moreover, the tension between the traditionalist discourse of the Church, the so-called neo-Orthodox theories of some intellectuals, and the pro-Western policies of the Sêmitês government have created cultural and political friction within Greek society. Outcomes of the present “identity conflict” (which, one can argue, has been a lasting feature of Greek politics since independence) will almost certainly affect the country’s future.

The tragic side-effects of Helleno-Christianism in Cyprus are, more or less, well-known. The failure to construct a Cypriot national identity to replace the existing “ethno-religious” ones toward the end of British rule played a crucial role in the outbreak of civil unrest, ethnic fragmentation, and the country’s subsequent division. Although the situation in Greece is much different, this does not change the fact that we Greeks should learn lessons from Cyprus and work to find ways to build a civic national identity in Greece, which will replace ethno-religious, xenophobic nationalism. The Damoclean sword of civil unrest and social fragmentation will hang over contemporary Greek society as long the equivalence among citizenship, nationhood, and Orthodoxy exists.

Nikos Chrysoloras ( is a doctoral researcher in the department of government and the Hellenic Observatory of the London School of Economics and Political Science who specializes in nationalism studies and political theory.
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