Andrzej Duda speaks at the Jasna Gora Sanctuary in Czestochowa. Sunday, 4 September 2016 (Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Who teaches Poles and what does Poland teach us?

Western lessons to be learnt from the Polish presidential election

Artillery Row

Living somewhere like London, where religion slumbers in the half-empty aisles of still churches, the spiritual has retreated into the deepest crevices of the soul, and thinking of God has at most been relegated to a single hour on Sunday mornings, it is hard to imagine the way in which religion (or reaction thereto) permeates so many aspects of life in a country like Poland.

By choosing the way in which we educate our children, we also determine the values and attitudes of the next generation

There, the Virgin Mary is not a symbol, she is a person (indeed “The Queen of Poland”), with agency, to be respected and asked for favours. When the President of Poland makes a pilgrimage to the country’s leading shrine in Częstochowa in time of COVID, or to celebrate his election victory, it is more than merely a political gesture, a nod to the rural electorate. It is an act of faith, paying homage to a force which conservatives in Poland see as having protected the nation in times of greatest peril – from the Swedish Deluge in 1655, to the 1920 “Miracle on the Vistula”, and the fall of communism. This combination of political posturing and genuine faith is misunderstood quite consistently in Britain, because it is not even understood in the context of the UK’s own past.

Teachers and university professors habitually point to the political motivations behind the actions of kings, popes, and crusaders without being able to understand – to really “feel” or engage in the empathy they have for generations commended to their pupils – the spiritual dimension which permeates their actions and beliefs. Such is the legacy of Foucault and the 1960s Marxist movements which have infiltrated the academy. And these are the origins of the misunderstanding of Poland. Tradition is not deployed there as a weapon, in the purely cynical meaning of the word – but the religious is and always has been political, and the political religious. In most places in Poland it is still impossible to separate the two.

My family in Warsaw happen to live on the same street as Rafał Trzaskowski, the liberal Mayor of the capital and challenger in the 2020 presidential election. In many ways I am his target demographic of voter – young, educated, metropolitan. I support many of the policies he advocated – the introduction of same-sex partnerships, and the adoption of children by such partnerships, being notable examples. I support these policies, because I value individual freedoms, and the extension of the blessings of the traditional family unit to a wider pool of beneficiaries. I support them because they promote social stability and cohesion. These beliefs are not incompatible with traditional Christian virtues and the right government might be able to integrate them successfully into a conservative society. And yet the message sent by President Andrzej Duda about opposing LGBT ideology in education engaged a particularly interesting question – the extent to which the liberal elite has the mandate to dictate national educational policy against the preferences and beliefs of the voting majority, and introduce them not under the guise of freedom, but in the context of a national curriculum that determines children’s futures.

President Duda was careful to explain that his was not a move against LGBT individuals, but merely a decision relating to educational policy. Adults may decide for themselves whether to review or retain traditional values, but children must be taught.  In questions of progressive politics, it seems important to balance regard for national and religious tradition with tolerance of minorities and respect for individual freedoms. As long as education does not promote discrimination, which Duda’s plan emphatically rejects, there is no reason why it should not take a more conservative line, with individual parents deciding how far to extend this, and at what age, within the context of each individual family. At the same time, it seems unfortunate that Duda, pandering to his own electorate, did not choose to demonstrate how the freedom to educate children unimpeded by the dangers of excessive political correctness in education is in fact the same value that should allow for consenting adults to enter into legal partnerships, regardless of gender.

By choosing the way in which we educate our children, we also determine the values and attitudes of the next generation. There is a fundamental difference between protecting the rights of the vulnerable, as Trzaskowski claimed to do in his campaign, and creating an atmosphere in which parents who wish to raise their children within traditional Catholicism would have to speak out against a state curriculum teaching that such beliefs are backward and cruel – full of “hate” even, to cite the overused phrase (also now existing in Polish as hejt). There is some room for discussion on how to marry the Christian tradition with the recognition of same-sex partnerships, but this discussion should take place between adults, before being taught to children. The reverse order would risk employing education as a political campaigning tool – something that older Poles remember all too well from the communist era.

It is a myth that only the uneducated rustic voted for President Duda. However, it is equally untrue that there were no devoted Catholics amongst those voting for Trzaskowski. The latter’s lukewarm attitude to religion and religious education may thus have been a move which cost him the election. His wife, unusually active in the campaign, in commenting that the couple had chosen to send their first child to First Communion but not their second, may have alienated this crucial part of the target demographic.

Trzaskowski gambled everything on playing to his base, and (just) lost. Many of his voters – at least in my own circles – law-abiding, church-going, small-c conservatives, voted for him as a protest against the recent ruling party’s reforms to the judiciary and state media, in full knowledge that he would be unable to shift the social and religious consensus in which so many still believed – and that, on the question of family values, he would not be able to effect meaningful change.

However, there must have been a minority who disliked the pandering to political correctness just enough to turn their vote to the incumbent. Making ideological issues the focus of a challenger’s campaign in a country where the population is broadly united in terms of faith and values shifted the focus away from state media regulation and rule-of-law questions, where he would have been strongest. This seems an absurd example of thinking within the liberal elite bubble, and a wasted opportunity to bring much-needed nuance and complexity into Polish political discourse.

I know many in my home neighbourhood prayed for a Duda victory, though the Church itself remained carefully neutral in the contest

Anecdotally, I know many in my home neighbourhood prayed for a Duda victory, though the Church itself remained carefully neutral in the contest. Passing Trzaskowski on the street that Sunday, as the latter was en route to his election-results party, my mother fresh from church set to humming a hymn whose lyrics express in no uncertain terms that “only Jesus is King”, the implication being that the candidate should be wary of hubris on a Holy Day.

Both conservatives and liberals in Poland will have to avoid hubristic thoughts – of the determinism of political victory, or self-righteousness in defeat. Poland has too much experience with compelled speech and censorship to allow for a growth of PC culture such as has occurred in the West – and the liberal voter should be wary not to make this another cause around which conservatives may rally. This would only be likely to revive national Messianism – a key aspect of Polish cultural and social thinking of the past. There is something in the Polish psyche, used to fighting in every war on every continent – and for every lost cause, which will warm to a mission to sacrifice its position on the international stage to protect “Western Civilisation” – if it is ever presented thus.

However, Poland must not, once again, be crucified politically for revealing the errors of collective-identity politics to the nations of the world; and conciliation must be attempted. This must focus on individual freedoms within a society united by love of God, tradition, and country. There is some hope for such a conciliation – President Duda invited his challenger for an election-night handshake at the Presidential Palace in the name of it. Although he was turned down, the gesture reveals a second-term President secure in his place, with the desire and opportunity to build bridges, and leave a legacy of unity for his successor. I hope President Duda is not discouraged by his erstwhile opponent’s rejection, and understands his mission as more than just political, but civilisational.

Poland, a young democracy freshly emerged from an authoritarian system and with the memory of it yet clear, is well-placed to avoid the mistakes of the West, which has attempted to repudiate its own traditions in the mistaken belief this would assuage the guilt of history. Britain and America stood with Poland when communism fell, and Reagan and Thatcher are rightly regarded as heroes in the country. Now, by standing with the West, Poland can show a more modern and freedom-loving way out of the culture wars born of more mature democracies; and President Duda may also one day be seen to have pointed the way.

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