Bulgaria was very Red. The Warsaw Pact armies usually held military exercises there because it was so secure. The architecture was pure Stalinism. The political slogans and posters in the street straight out of propaganda central. The ubiquitous "secret" police with their little dossier cases underscored that real malice lurked barely beneath the surface.
It was certainly an unfriendly environment for a Christian, or anyone determined to practice their faith. After all, Marx had declared religion to be the "opiate of the masses." Religion was deemed to be the crutch of the old and dying generation. The young were rapidly being trained to see a far different Socialist reality.
Part of my education in the ways of this part of the world was the discovery of just how the Godless state dealt with its archenemy of religion. At that time in the West we were given to understand that there was an ongoing, active persecution of Christians. Of course under Stalin that had been very much the case. But when I visited Bulgaria I found something far more sophisticated than pogrom or police crackdown.
I found that most religious persons were free to worship. Let me correct that: most religions were actually provided a place and a time to worship. The State showed a great interest in church organization, often recommending church officers and asking that it confirm church leadership decisions. Without irony a top official we met with proclaimed that this worker's paradise had full and absolute freedom—including freedom of religion. The Saturday we were in Sofia, the capital, we attended a Seventh-day Adventist church to test out his claim.
The church in the downtown area was well maintained and full of worshippers. The service was open, heartfelt, and long. The length, we discovered, was to make use of an approved time of open worship; because sharing one's faith outside the time and place of meeting carried a certain social liability. The heartfelt nature of the services appeared to reflect a deeply held faith, and the dynamic of living in that Communist state almost guaranteed that the worshippers had faith in God—churchgoers were not necessarily harassed, but they were subject to a social pariah status and the ticket to success—party membership—was not available to them.
After the service, George, the English-speaking translator, took us aside and began to unburden himself. With him was his teenage daughter. "She is a good girl," he explained. "She comes with us every Sabbath to worship. She believes in God." His daughter smiled along with his words, and it was obvious that she was a young person of some initiative, with a clear open face and talkative eyes.
"She is required to attend school on Saturdays," continued George in a sad voice. "But she comes to church." I still remember hearing the catch in his voice as he paused and then said, "The authorities are saying that if she does not attend school they will take her from us. Please pray for her that she will remain faithful. Please pray that they will not break up our family."
Some things you never forget.
A little later I found out that the church was split between those families who stuck to their faith perspective and took the children to church and those who sent them to school. I discovered that pastors were being imprisoned for advocating withholding children from school. I discovered that children had indeed been taken from their families by the state. After all, the state authorities reasoned, it was for their own good.
It probably comes as a shock for us living in North America that while there is not a general state animus toward religion, social services authorities here have a similar power to take children and break up homes.
This magazine ran a story some time ago about polygamist cult leader Warren Jeffs. He is now in jail on a conviction relating to arranging marriages of underage girls. Our society correctly sees this practice as abusive to those who are legally and literally children. The fundamentalist sect of Mormonism Jeffs belongs to is disavowed by the mainstream church of Latter-Day Saints. They long ago bowed to reasonable civil laws and changed church views on the polygamous practices that lead so easily to child abuse. Most of us have little empathy for such cults.
Back in April a polyglot force of Texas Rangers, state and local police, and government agencies launched a raid on the Eldorado, Texas, compound of the Polygamous sect. In a several -day operation 437 children were removed from the "Yearning for Zion" compound. Many of the mothers went with their children, although the authorities quickly arranged foster homes for the children, pending court action.
The media ran many cameo shots of the mothers blinking in the light of unaccustomed publicity, and wearing almost literally homespun clothes. They were too easily portrayed as brainwashed misfits rather than mothers traumatized by an intrusion. There was little sympathy for their plight.
After all, they belong to a sect that clings to the outlawed practice of polygamy! (It is worth considering that in our sexually liberated age, the state generally shows little interest in serial affairs or multiple live-in arrangements; so absent marriage documents to show multiple arrangements, action against the cult is arguably more because we find their beliefs unacceptable.)
The raid was precipitated by a phoned-in allegation by an abused 16-year-old girl. That was a very reasonable cause for state action, but surely no justification to round up all the children! An individual charge was made (subsequently found to be a crank call, by the way). It makes no more sense to round up all the families in such a sect than racial profiling ever did in finding criminals among a certain group.
This raid went well, in that there was no violence. But this "success" may obscure a worrying parallel to the infamous Branch Davidian raid of a few years ago. Rather than detain cult leader Koresh, who regularly went into town, authorities mounted a military-style assault on the compound. There was an expectation of armed resistance, it is true, but it is worth remembering that a large part of the justification came from charges of child
abuse—charges never repeated after the raid.
In the days after the Zion raid, as the children were separated from parents and grilled for information, it came out that there may have been sexual abuse of boys, also. Abhorrent as the idea is, and such a thing must be dealt with if it is so, the dynamic of this discovery also troubles me. Because the cult is beyond the pale, we conduct moral fishing expeditions, statistically certain to find something if we can believe figures that show the likelihood of such crimes in the general population. Let me speak crudely: if flying squads raided every meeting of priests and choirboys, or every Boy Scout session, they would surely find something. Let's not allow the presumption of guilt in any marginalized sect to embolden us in hunting out what our prejudice tells us we already know.
We certainly do not live in anything approaching the situation I saw in Bulgaria. But if we ever allow religious prejudice to move into state policy, we should be forewarned that the same tools and methods are available even here in a free, democratic system. Too easily do states act on their own agenda and argue that it is for the good of society—for the good of the children.
Author: Lincoln E. Steed
Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."