For decades, many social scientists had pretty much two things to say about Eastern Orthodox Christianity: 1) that like all religions, it was disappearing with the advance of modern civilization; 2) that it derived most of its support from the reactionary tides of authoritarianism and nationalism.
Those pronouncements are being proved wrong. Today, as in the parable of the prodigal son, throughout Eastern Europe people are returning to the Orthodox Church in droves, and the effect in the public sphere, contrary to most expectations, is quite benign.
Though historically viewed with suspicion by Catholic and Protestant Europe, Orthodox Christianity can actually help bridge the Russia-West gap.
At the heart of much of the miscommunication between Russia and Europe today lies the unacknowledged and untapped longing of Orthodox Christians to be recognized as part of a common European cultural family again. The latest effort to bridge this divide was Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II's remarks in France, where he spoke poignantly of how the Christian identity Europeans historically share should promote dialogue on issues like human rights and peace, even with atheists and members of other faiths.
The patriarch was pointing out that, while they may differ on specific political issues today, a profound religious bond actually underpins Western and Eastern European cultural and political values. Sadly, this common bond is rarely mentioned, in either Russia or the West. Today's Slavophile Russian nationalists seem uncomfortable recalling that, despite his uncompromising critique of Western secularism, their avatar Fyodor Dostoyevsky always regarded Europe as Russia's "mother" civilization.
In the West, this oversight has more to do with the fact that Catholic and Protestant Christianity have so often denied an equal voice to those who disagreed with them. In both instances, Orthodox Christianity is seen as part of the problem in East-West relations, instead of part of the solution, as it should be.
Western suspicion of Eastern Orthodoxy can be traced back to before the Great Schism that divided the Christian Church in 1054. One hundred and fifty years later, it fueled the Crusaders' zeal for the sacking of Constantinople. In the 18th century, it became a main theme of Edward Gibbon's influential interpretation of the Roman Empire, which was later echoed in the writings of Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee. And in modern times, Samuel Huntington, among others, has warned direly of the potential for clashes between "Slavic-Orthodox" civilization and the Catholic-Protestant West.
With the exception of Greece, this sad legacy has made Western Europeans notoriously slow to accept countries with large Orthodox populations into pan-European institutions. In the current expansion eastward, however, it is inevitable that the values and mores of European institutions and alliances will be shaped more and more by the traditionalist views of Orthodox Christian believers and less and less by the modern, secularized Protestant assumptions of Western European democracies. Orthodox believers already far outnumber Protestants across Europe, and by some estimates they may eventually even surpass Roman Catholics. If 21st-century Europe ever develops a religious complexion, it will be predominantly Eastern Orthodox.
In the long run, therefore, while the greatest challenge to Europe's cultural and political identity may come from the growth of Islam, its more immediate challenge is how to deal with some 40 million to 140 million Orthodox Christians who, when given a voice in European policymaking, will argue that churches should have a more prominent voice than heretofore in the shaping of social policy.
There are two ways of dealing with this challenge. One way is to stick to a narrow definition of "the West." Make modern-day secularism the gold standard of democracy and decry all challenges to secularism as examples of a "values gap" between East and West. This tried and true formula has the advantage of already being familiar, thanks to the cold war. Unfortunately, it is also a recipe for a conflict within European institutions. And, given the rapidly growing numbers, influence, and wealth of the Orthodox Churches of Eastern Europe, it is a conflict Western Europeans are likely to lose.
Another way is to expand the definition of what is "Western" through dialogue with Orthodox Christians. The goal of such a dialogue would be to stress the common roots that bind various religious traditions, to encourage models of tolerance that do not presume secularism, and the different ways to balance the disparate roles of church and state, while avoiding total estrangement of one from the other.
Such a dialogue would allow Europe to build a new foundation for East-West relations that is based on the common Greco-Roman and Christian heritages. Most important, it would promote a greater understanding in the West of the Orthodox churches' de facto role as the largest nongovernmental organization in Eastern Europe. In this capacity, they inspire the philanthropy, social welfare, and civic activism that help establish a healthy civil society.
It's time to rethink old assumptions about Orthodox believers and to tap the enormous contributions that they can make to the creation of a peaceful and prosperous continent.
Nicolai N. Petro is a professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island. This comment is based on the remarks he made to the fourth annual Valdai Discussion Club meeting in Kazan, Russia, on Sept. 11, 2007.