First Day of School
September 12, 2011
By Allan Stevo
As American kids celebrated Labor Day, Slovak kids went back to school. Because there is a centralized system of education, some guy sitting in a government office in Bratislava says when every grade school and high school – both state schools and church schools – goes back to school. This year that was on September 5.
In some communities in Slovakia, that also meant that hundreds of kids walked down the street that stretched from their public grade school’s doors to the local Roman Catholic Church, where they prayed for a good year ahead.
Separation of church and state isn’t all that significant an idea in Slovakia the way it is in the U.S.
In the U.S., the mere act of prayer in a public school is controversial. “It can be enough to trigger a court case,” I pointed out to a table of Slovak adults earlier this week.
“That’s how it was during communism,” one said “They wanted to stop you from worshiping.”
This comparison isn’t all that accurate, in my opinion, but the idea that the law be used to keep a person from worshiping freely is one that Slovaks can easily relate to communism, in a very general way. Both the American and former Czechoslovak governments appear to be an essentially atheist governments telling people when they will and will not worship. The U.S. Government is far from atheist – invoking God’s name wins politicians big points in the polls, so of course the government wouldn’t be atheist. Hopefully a more important issue in the equation is that the US has had a long history of trying to avoid oppression of minority religious groups. America has not always been successful at that, but it’s still worth noting the intent.
The idea that a minority religious group might not want to attend a Roman Catholic mass isn’t all that controversial of an idea in Slovakia, because hurt feelings aren’t enough to sway most Slovaks into a big political ‘to do.’ Some minority religious groups in Slovakia are:
Lutheran – www.ecav.sk,
Greek Catholic – www.kbs.sk,
Reformed – www.reformata.sk – website in Hungarian only,
Orthodox – www.orthodox.sk,
Baptist Brethren – www.baptist.sk,
Brethren – www.cb.sk,
Methodist – www.umc.sk,
Czechoslovak Husite (I was unable to find a website for this church – Update 17 Sept 2011 – thank you to D. Misina for sending this to me – http://ccsh.szm.com/),
Apostolic – www.acsr.sk,
Seventh Day Adventist – http://www.casd.sk,
Old Catholic – http://www.slovenski-katolici.sk/english/.
I can guarantee that many, many Slovaks, whether Roman Catholic or a member of another religious group, would just respond to a member of a minority religious group’s hurt feelings by saying “Just don’t go to church on September 5 then. What’s the big deal?” Simple, straightforward, “just get over yourself” is the Slovak solution to a lot of things that become headline news in the U.S.
In Slovakia, it even goes one step further than simply sending kids off to mass on the first day of school. Priests and pastors in Slovakia are state employees. In the year 2011 in Slovakia, pastors and priests have their salaries paid from tax coffers. Teachers in church schools also have their salaries paid by from state coffers.
While one may think this weak separation of church and state is good for religious institutions, I am of quite the opposite opinion. I think the Slovak government’s support of Slovak churches is harmful to the well-being of churches. Pastors and churches in Slovakia don’t have to hustle for money, because pastors are employed by the state and their salaries guaranteed.
Imagine how much harder you’d have to work as a pastor or priest if you knew that there was a very real chance that your church might go under in the next six months. If your church didn’t grow, if that offering plate didn’t continue to pay the bills, you’d be fired and shipped off to some hidden corner of Slovakia that you really wouldn’t want to be in. The risk of failure helps to build more robust churches. “Pressure makes diamonds,” said Patton.
The risk of failure can be motivational. The government guarantee that they won’t fail, leaves me with the feeling that the churches are not working toward their full potential. It’s contradictory to what you’d expect – state support of churches seems to harm churches. The same is true for other nonprofit organizations, in my experience. Those that can generate private funds are the most impressive. They have clearly expressed what they intend to do with funds raised, have convinced people of the worth of those projects and of the organization, and will likely be held accountable by those who gave them the funds.
I believe removing churches from that same process of voluntary contribution is harmful to churches. In fact, I see that it is harmful to them simply by comparing organizations and churches that take government funds – throughout the world – and those that don’t. Those that stand on their own are churches that have more energy.
I’m always impressed when I hear of the story of Dudince – a village that built its Lutheran church in the 1990’s without state funding – or Oravska Polhora – a village that built its Roman Catholic church DURING COMMUNISM against the will of the government and without state funding. The Brethren Church in Bratislava on Cukrova Street was built quietly in the same way. It doesn’t even look like a church from the outside. Examples like these show that the community is a cut above the others by being able to rally people around a cause and get them to open their pocketbooks. Privately funded institutions are a rare solution in Slovakia, where a common solution for charity is that the state be approached to fund the charity.
It’s sort of backwards, and an abuse of the authority to tax when the Parliament says “sure, we’ll fund your charity” instead of saying “if your charity’s so good, why don’t you go out and find donors on your own.” I’m not for a moment saying that I don’t believe that there are charities out there who do good work and are deserving of more money; I’m saying that the way a charity should be funded is through the voluntary gifts of donors who believe in that charity, rather than through taxpayer money (which is far from voluntary). Voluntarily giving is better for charities in the long run, because it forces charities to prove themselves, to really hustle, and to build relationships with donors who really believe in their cause (unlike most Slovak congregations).
I fear the U.S. is headed more in the direction of the state being expected to increasingly fund charities, when private funding of charities seems to create stronger charitable institutions. The U.S. can learn something from Slovakia on this one – once a dependency on state coffers is established, its hard for a charitable organization to return to a state of independence.
But by no means do I intend to say that Slovak churches are run in a bad way and American churches do everything right. The two countries have very different histories of religious freedom and oppression. Both ways seem to currently be working for churches in both places, or at least working well enough to not require that it be urgently changed. But to an American the idea that a pastor’s salary and the salaries of teachers at church schools be paid by the state is surely surprising. One should not throw stones from a glass house, however. There’s is a little something about American church-state relations that can make almost any Slovak uncomfortable.
It’s the fact that churches tend to be non-profit organizations and that the IRS (Internal Revenue Service – the government institution charged with implementing tax law in the U.S.) reserves the right to withdraw a church’s non-profit status depending on what is said in the pulpit. It hearkens back, for a Slovak, to a less comfortable era for believers. It was an era that George Orwell presciently wrote about in his book Animal Farm(click the title or the photo to find Animal Farm on Amazon).
Orwell based the character Moses the tame Raven on the seemingly contradictory relationships between atheist communist governments and Christian churches. Moses the Raven preached about the afterlife and morality, but fed from the hands of the dictator – calling into question where the raven’s true allegiance was. Moses the Raven represents churches like those in former Czechoslovakia that were funded by the atheist communist government. Today a system of funding church activity, similar to the communist system, is still in place in Slovakia.
During communism, pastors were paid by the government, churches financed by the government. This, you must remember, was an openly atheist government that made church going very difficult. It made baptisms hard, punished people and their children for church participation – even denying education to the children and relatives of ministers – and made the process of educating clergy difficult. The communist government was an openly atheist and virulently anti-religious government that actually funded the activities of the church. That seems so contradictory as to be ridiculous. However, as Orwell implies in the case of Moses the Tame – when the church feeds from the hands of the government, the government is able to exert great influence over the church.
As Warren Buffet’s buddy Charlie Munger says “Whose bread I eat, whose song I sing” (A translation of the Slavic saying “Čí chlieb ješ, toho pieseň spievaj”). By funding churches, the government was able to influence those churches. Churches are still funded by the Slovak government, but in all honesty, this doesn’t seem to be a problem for most people since Slovaks believe that their government is not capable enough to abuse that power the way communist governments were. At the same time, when something oppressive is done by the government, the idea “only in Slovakia” or “of course this can happen in Slovakia” is recited by many. It doesn’t seem all thatbothersome to people when its government reserves potentially oppressive powers for itself. Furthermore, one must remember – the idea that government “support” of churches is harmful to churches takes a little bit of digging around to finally understand. It seems obvious to many that government should be expected to fund churches because that is the only system that many in Slovakia remember. After so many years of government oppression of Christians, it seems fair to many that the government be asked to help in supporting Christian churches.
The American government (a seemingly more capable and possibly more decent government from the view of some Slovaks in sort of a “the grass is always greener” way) even claiming a power like that for itself (the power to censure the pulpit), however, can be bothersome to Slovaks. America’s the distant, unfamiliar beacon of freedom that they’ve long heard of. Many are surprised when they hear little tidbits of life in the United States that are less than ideal – often brought home by a travelling relative or neighbor – and are surprised to find out that the freest country on the planet has a few flaws of its own.
I’m ready for it. I’d love to hear an answer from you on the following: what are things that Slovaks get right (or any other country you’ve been to), but that you disagree with in your own country? What is something that Slovaks get wrong (or any other country you’ve been to) that you love about your own country?
Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com. He is from Chicago and spends most of his time travelling Europe and writing. You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com. If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email. You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.