On a visit to Rio de Janeiro in February, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow invited Catholics and other Christian faithful to join him in the trenches of the culture wars. “We still have some doctrinal disagreements,” the Russian Orthodox primate said, according to a report from the Interfax news agency. “But no one is preventing us from fighting, hand-in-hand, to end the persecutions, the ousting of Christian values, the de-Christianization of 21st-century human civilization.”
Patriarch Kirill went on to enumerate the ravages of de-Christianization, or this “evil political force disguised as tolerance.” In his words, these included people “banned” from wearing crosses at the office and from wishing each other a Merry Christmas; the expansion of same-sex marriage and the “refusal to understand marriage as a sacred union between man and woman”; and abortion and skyrocketing divorce rates.
This was not the first time the patriarch had called for a united ecumenical front against secularization. In a January speech to the Duma, the lower house of the Russian Parliament, he underscored the need for “mutually respectful” dialogue between religious leaders in the common struggle “to protect traditional values.” Meeting President Horacio Cartes of Paraguay last year, Patriarch Kirill lamented how “Christian values are being marginalized in lives of people in several countries.” He warned: “Europe must not lose its Christian roots.”
While no doubt sincere, the patriarch’s rhetoric is also of a piece with the new Russian ideology, which presents the Kremlin as a last bulwark against the degradation and spiritual poverty of liberal order. As globalization blurs boundaries (both national and sexual), and as social media and American-style consumerism flatten cultural differences, the thinking goes, Russia and her church stand for sovereignty, authenticity and Christian vigor.
As globalization blurs boundaries, the thinking goes, Russia and her church stand for sovereignty, authenticity and Christian vigor.
The message from Moscow has resonated with some leading Christian thinkers in the West. Vladimir Putin might be a thug, in their view, but in the rearguard action to preserve faith, family and nationhood against the liberal and “globalist” onslaught, the Russian strongman is no enemy. He deserves at least a sympathetic hearing, they think, and he might even prove to be a useful tactical ally. Call it the Putin Option.
Steve Bannon has considered it. In his 2014 speech on the grounds of the Vatican, the Breitbart News chief, now a White House advisor, said, “We, the Judeo-Christian West, really have to look at what [Putin is] talking about as far as traditionalism goes—particularly the sense of where it supports the underpinnings of nationalism—and I happen to think that the individual sovereignty of a country is a good thing and a strong thing.” Notably, Mr. Bannon also went on to describe Putin’s Russia as a “cronyist” and an “imperialist” power that seeks to “expand.”
In a 2014 account of efforts to re-Christianize Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the theologian John Burgess sounded similar notes. “The peril in Russia to genuine Christian faith comes not from tsarism or communism but instead from an emerging global culture that reduces human life to material acquisition and consumption,” he wrote in First Things. The Orthodox Church’s “appeals to the spiritual greatness of the Russian nation may be an essential witness to the Gospel rather than a capitulation” to the Kremlin, he added.
Rod Dreher: “One doesn’t have to believe that Putin is an angel in order to respect some of what he does,"
For the author and American Conservative journalist Rod Dreher, the redemptive promise of Putin is a constant theme. In December, Mr. Dreher wrote of meeting two young Catholics in Italy who viewed Mr. Putin favorably, as a “strong leader who embraces his country’s Christian religious heritage, and seeks to defend it and its teachings, especially against cultural liberals whose views on sex and gender are destroying the traditional family.” Mr. Dreher added: “And you know what? I agreed with them, broadly.” He carved out some of his reservations about the Putinist project but then concluded: “One doesn’t have to believe that Putin is an angel in order to respect some of what he does, and even to be grateful for it.”
No thanks. Even if you, like me, concur in the underlying diagnosis—that the West has become unmoored from its Judeo-Christian foundations, that liberalism has gone too far in eroding traditional authority and moral precepts—the Putin Option is no cure. And it entails hazards that could prove ruinous to the cause of reversing the West’s spiritual fortunes.
Putin: no friend of religious liberty
Start with the moral downsides of embracing the Kremlin in the name of morality. Christians should judge Vladimir Putin’s professed commitment to faith, family values and traditional notions of nationhood against his corrupt and murderous rule at home and his aggression against Russia’s neighbors.
Contrary to Patriarch Kirill’s assertions about interfaith solidarity, for example, Russia is increasingly restricting the domestic space for worship, evangelization and other religious activities. Under an “antiterror” law enacted in the summer, all missionaries in Russia must be affiliated with “registered organizations,” and evangelization outside state-approved religious sites is strictly prohibited. Violators can be fined as much as $780, and their churches $15,500.
The law does not exempt the Russian Orthodox Church, but evangelicals, Mormon missionaries and other spiritual seekers who have strayed from Patriarch Kirill’s flock will bear its brunt. Underground evangelical house churches are gaining popularity in Russia, as in much of the rest of the region, and some Protestants reject state registration as a matter of ecclesial principle. These pastors now find themselves caught in Putin’s anti-missionary dragnet.
At least seven people had been charged under the law by September, including an American Baptist preacher who ran a house church. The Mormon Church, meanwhile, has been forced to reassign 65 missionaries away from Russia, and others have been reclassified as community-service volunteers who do not engage in missionary activity. In December, a court in Vladivostok relied on the law to order the destruction of 40 Bibles confiscated from the Salvation Army, on the grounds that the books had not been properly labeled “religious material.”
Not even yogis are immune. A Russian computer programmer in October was briefly detained and charged under the law for giving a talk on the philosophy behind yoga at a festival. The complainant had accused the 44-year-old of recruiting “young people into the ranks of this pseudo-Hindu organization.”
When the Islamist regimes in, say, Iran or Turkey behave this way, Christians do not hesitate to denounce the repression.
Mr. Putin’s war on missionaries has been accompanied by a broader crackdown on civil liberties, including a new “patriotic stop list” that targets think tanks and other nongovernmental organizations deemed to be subversive “foreign agents,” as well as domestic activists who receive funding from such groups. Leading dissidents, such as the anti-graft campaigner Alexei Navalny, are tried on trumped-up charges and barred from running for office. Others tend to die under suspicious circumstances.
When the Islamist regimes in, say, Iran or Turkey behave this way, Christians do not hesitate to denounce the repression, and rightly so. Yet there is a tendency in some conservative Christian quarters to ignore or play down Mr. Putin’s assaults on political and religious liberty, or else to use sophistic relativism to excuse him.
Mr. Dreher, for example, protests that the Kremlin should not be held to the same standards as governments founded on “Enlightenment-era” ideals such as the separation of church and state. Mr. Putin, writes the St. John’s University legal scholar Mark Movsesian, “is not acting against the wishes of his own people” when he promotes “nationalism, authority, loyalty, and religion” as authentically Russian alternatives to the “Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic” worldview that prevails in Europe and the United States.
Let us grant that Russia is a post-Communist state that is trying to recover its historic Orthodox tradition. There is justice, for example, in the state restoring swiftly to Patriarch Kirill church properties expropriated by the Communists, even if this displeases Russian liberals who would prefer the museums and other assets to remain in public hands. Let us grant, too, that Mr. Putin’s rule is popular among broad swaths of Russian society (setting aside the role of censorship, propaganda and fear in this regard).
The question for those who see Moscow as a great protector of faith then becomes whether Putinism is good for Russian Christianity. And a follow-up: Is the rules-based, liberal-democratic order really so irredeemable that Western Christians might look for an alternative in Moscow, warts and all? The answer is no, on both counts. And if past is precedent, K.G.B.-style authoritarianism dressed in Orthodox garb is likely to undermine both church authority and Russia’s spiritual welfare in the long term.
A mere spiritual gloss
Recall how, following the decimation wrought by the October Revolution, Stalin sought to revive the Orthodox Church during World War II, and the church helped stir the Russian soul to the nation’s defense. Yet after the war, Khrushchev and his successors launched fresh anti-Christian campaigns, intimidating much of the Orthodox leadership into collaboration. Those who insisted on the church’s independence, such as the dissident priest Father Gleb Yakunin (1934-2014), were dispatched to the gulag.
Likewise, what Mr. Putin giveth, Mr. Putin can take away. Kremlin patronage has empowered the church once more since the collapse of Communism, and there is no denying the beauty of its monastic and mystical dimensions or the holiness of its ministers. Most Russians now identify as Orthodox, and the church no doubt provides them with great solace (though, tellingly, no more than 10 percent attend services regularly, according to multiple recent surveys).
But it is equally undeniable that the regime relies on the church’s senior leadership to lend a spiritual gloss to its nationalist-authoritarian project. The church has obliged, partly out of ideological fervor and partly because it has no choice. As George Weigel has observed, “The Russian Church leadership has neither the will nor the capacity...to speak truth to Putinesque power; those who try to do so are quickly marginalized or exiled.”
The path out of the West’s current spiritual crisis will not be found in a Christianity that is so bound up with revanchist nationalism.
Take the question of Ukraine. Patriarch Kirill has endorsed, as a sort of Orthodox crusade, Mr. Putin’s stealth invasion of eastern Ukraine and the illegal annexation of Crimea. The president has described Crimea as the Russian equivalent of “Temple Mount in Jerusalem for Jews and Muslims,” where “our ancestors first and forever recognized their nationhood.”
As Mr. Weigel has noted, the Russian Orthodox Church is waging theological warfare against the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in parallel with Mr. Putin’s military operation. Under Communism, the U.G.C.C. was forcibly incorporated into Orthodoxy, and it did not regain independence until the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. Now Russian Orthodox prelates slander Ukrainian Catholics as “schismatics” and “uniates,” and they have sought to sideline the U.G.C.C. in ongoing ecumenical dialogue with the Vatican—so far with little success.
Again, the path out of the West’s current spiritual crisis will not be found in a Christianity that is so bound up with revanchist nationalism. Christians concerned about the excesses of liberal transnationalism should be equally alert to the dangers of a Russian imperialism that seeks to subjugate sovereign nations, like Ukraine, whom geographic misfortune has cursed to live in Russia’s shadow.
Western Christians should also be wary of a regime that maintains such a tenuous relationship with the truth. Truth is an “essential condition for authentic freedom,” as St. Pope John Paul II frequently emphasized. Christians cannot laud the Kremlin’s supposedly pro-family stances without also being mired in its empire of falsehoods—about Russia’s role in eastern Ukraine and incidents like the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 by Kremlin-backed rebels in 2014; about Putin’s brutal campaign to destroy the non-Islamic opposition and prop up the Assad regime in Syria; about the massive and systematic graft that greases his system.
Nor is the Russian Orthodox Church’s current supremacy guaranteed. Should it fit the Kremlin’s purposes tomorrow, does anyone doubt that the regime would repress the church leadership over this or that dispute? Despair over the cultural left’s stridency and triumphalism in recent years, on questions like abortion and gay marriage, should not cloud Christian judgment about the fundamental differences between free and unfree societies, between democracy and dictatorship.
For all its flaws, liberal order still affords Christians the chance to persuade fellow citizens, to change their governments, to bring suits before fair and independent tribunals, and to bring the good news and the riches of tradition to the democratic public square. Under Putinism, by contrast, Christianity is at the mercy of the strongman and his ruling clique. The policy outcomes might be “pro-family,” for now, but church and conscience are compromised by unaccountable power.