De-Christianization in the West is a real threat. But Putinism isn’t the answer.

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.

Carlos Orozco
1 week 4 days ago

Is it not strange that with regards to Putin's intervention in Ukraine and Syria, that the author mentions, a word is hardly found in Western media dealing with the previous criminal destabilization brought by the administration of former-President Barack Obama? Before the Russian started arming pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine and aiding the Assad regime, the Nobel Peace Prize winner sent under-Secretary of State Victora Nuland to execute a coup in Kiev -bringing in an anti-Russian puppet government- and assisted head-chopping "moderates" in Syria.

I do find very unfortunate that the defense of Christian civilization no longer seems to come from Rome. Pope Francis has very little to say with respect to imposition of gender theory in education and public policies, abortion, same-sex "marriage", Islamization of Europe, indisolubility of Catholic marriage (even hiding from the subject after some cardinals demanded clarification), etc. Or maybe that too is Putin's fault?

In any case, I always find the discussion on Russia and Christianity to be interesting, especially during the centennial of the apparitions of Our Lady in Fatima.

Richard Booth
1 week 4 days ago

Historically, the defense of Christian civilization has not always come from Rome. At one time, it even came from Ireland and other notable locations. Neither do I think that we must be dualistic: either Western Civilization OR Putin. There must be some room in the middle for bringing these two dimensions closer together. By the way, Francis has spoken about a number of the issues you argue he has not.

Carlos Orozco
1 week 4 days ago

I had written "subjects" instead of "subject", my mistake. Still, I think the Pope painfully avoids speaking about many issues as much as he can. For example, during last year's visit to the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe (a symbol of the pro-life movement), not a word on abortion in the Mexican capital, only city where abortion is legal in the country -and paid by the local government. John Paul II would not have allowed such an occasion to escape him; in fact, I still remember his words on the subject in Mexico City (I think it was in 1999).

I agree with you that we must avoid artificial talking points (Western civilization or/vs Putin).

J Cosgrove
1 week 3 days ago

Scheduled to be in Fatima on October 13. Wonder if Pope will be there. We are supposed to pray for Russia as part of Fatima apparitions.

Side note. Article went political when it mentioned Crimea. Crimea has been part of a Russia for over 200 years. Interesting how Putin is evil person but no negative mention on this site of Pope and Obama socializing with Castros when they were in Cuba.

It seems like the best way to affect Putins behavior is to tie him economically to West. We seem to be doing just the opposite and driving him away from West. The whole Russia/Trump fake news charade is making it harder to achieve that objective.

Carlos Orozco
1 week 3 days ago

A healthy US-Russia relationship would help end useless bloody wars around the globe and keep in check China, that needs no excuses to make outrageous claims on the South China Sea. I bet Putin would like to balance his trade between Asia and Europe, instead of constantly making less than ideal deals when negotiating with mammoth China -the big winner from the US-Russia feud.

Valerie O'Doherty
1 week 3 days ago

Really great points from you and Carlos. I fear the author of the article is buying the misleading anti-Putin propaganda, the demonization of a man who is still considered a KGB agent and soviet Russian. These tags belong to the past. Many of us may well have been KGB agents in similar circumstances and era. Putin is the sane voice to be heard in an insane world. But how many westerners are listening?

Tom Fields
1 week 3 days ago

Destructive ideologies gain power by controlling the , "methods and means of socialization".--The USSR controlled--the Press, the Economy, and the Russian Orthodox Church. The Church was co-opted--to include training spies---some of whom were sent to the West. Would Putin do anything less?

C.S.S.M.L. N.D.S.M.D.
1 week 2 days ago

Thank you America Magazine, this was excellent. I look forward to reading more articles related to Moscow's deep propaganda manipulation, hybrid warfare, and disinformation poisoning that took place from the direction of Moscow and won - causing division within western Christianity - a demonic success. America is becoming more like Russia every day. Mainstream media is wasting time on the tip of the iceberg issues, hacking and other ruses, but this is at the core of the problem. Putin's worldview, his slave-of-the-state church, along with thousands of KGB-sponsored media and web portals operating in the west, recruited an army of people who do not understand their faith, the correct relationship between the Church, the nation, and the state, and who are also generally of a hypocrite and pharisee inclination. It is a Mussolini-type of a problem and Church has been prone to falling into such traps. KGB analysts found soft tissue to attack. Hot button moral issues are easily abused into idolatry. Putin's propaganda is probably abusing the divisions related to Pope Francis as well. Anything that can demoralize - enemy should lose faith in his leadership - this is the principle of psychological warfare. However, do not be afraid, little flock - there is no problem that cannot be solved by the rosary. Our Lady knew all about this class of problems of Russia-type before any of us were born. Praised be Jesus and Mary.

Kester Ratcliff
3 days 19 hours ago

Exactly. It's a good start from America Magazine.

In general across the media on this topic so far there have been far too many and premature OpEds which were not adequately based on investigative journalism first. I mean the Greenwaldian-Cockburnian genre of pro-Kremlin apologetics, and their followers. I hope America Magazine will be careful to look for more primary sources of investigation, or even learn to do Open Source intelligence techniques and investigate some directly. There are lots of public resources for OSINT now, such as:

https://inteltechniques.com/menu.html

https://civic.mit.edu/

http://mediacloud.org/

https://cyber.harvard.edu/

http://www.cjr.org/analysis/breitbart-media-trump-harvard-study.php

http://osome.iuni.iu.edu/tools/

Try a bit of direct Open Source citizen intel. It's quite fun! And you'll be surprised how much you find and how easily.

I think what America Magazine should focus on in this big and complicated topic is the ethical and spiritual understanding of the will to believe disinformation and misrepresentative framing which seeks to escape responsibility for others and dehumanise them.

I've been trying to reflect on the nature of that will to believe (in William James' sense), partly by looking again at the first week of the Exercises, but I know I don't yet fully understand it. I would appreciate more attempts to diagnose and reflect on that.

Kester Ratcliff
3 days 19 hours ago

I appreciate the intention of the article. It's a good move. I've been engaged with this subject for a long time, so I could say too much, but I'll just focus on one bit, which should hopefully make clear an overall slightly different approach:

>about Putin’s brutal campaign to destroy the non-Islamic opposition and prop up the Assad regime in Syria

There is a hugely important difference between Islamic and Islamist, and particularly when you actually mean extremist forms of Islamist political ideology. Please do not make this spelling mistake again, if that's all it was.

Most of the pro-democratic and moderate Syrian revolutionary and opposition civilians and resistance fighting groups loosely grouped in the FSA and Ahrar al-Sham are Islamic, even if they are not all Muslims, because resistance and rebellion against extreme tyranny by usurpation and tyranny by oppression, when the conditions for doing so in justice described in paragraph 400 of the Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Church are so clearly fulfilled, is ethically and religiously obligatory. In the theological sense of 'Islam', i.e. continuous conversion of heart and surrender to God, Christians acting out of conscience either by civilian or armed means to oppose and destroy the Assad regime including by using discriminate and proportionate force, are clearly morally justified, and their action is also 'Islamic' - in accordance with a heart surrendered to God.

Secondly, not all Islamist political ideologies are extremist. For example, look up Mohamad Lahbadi, who was a Muslim philosopher who tried to combine the kind of social moral philosophy of (Catholic) Personalism with Islamic tradition. He was, in the older sense of the word, a 'Salafist', but hardly anyone will understand how the word has changed since his day. Look it up. We should be running out to meet and welcome the stranger, not being defensive and refusing to really listen.

The Trump regime's actions in Syria since taking office make it clear that their idea of who they are aiming to destroy is not really to do with terrorism but is in fact war motivated by religious idolatry leading to discrimination against Muslims, who they dishonestly label "terrorists" whenever it is convenient for them to use that excuse to get away with whatever they want to do. Mistaking 'Islamic' for '[extremist] Islamist' in this context is a serious problem.

Extremist Islamist groups in Syria would include: Da'esh (obviously), Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, now renamed again as Hisbut Tahrir al-Sham, and Jaysh al-Islam, and subsidiaries of them.

Ahrar al-Sham has its moments and internal conflicts which make it impossible to categorise the whole group as extremist or not. Now it's again resolving its internal divisions, throwing out some of the extremist infiltrators, and mostly heading for non-extremist Islamic resistance to the Assad regime's tyranny.

The FSA does indeed include many groups with Islamic names, and regularly opens press statements with the invocation "In the Name of the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.." as Muslims normally say before beginning any significant action. Their fight against the Assad regime and its mainly Iranian and Russian backers is genuinely Islamic, not extremist. A Catholic in the same situation would also be morally obliged to resist by civilian means or fight along with them against the regime.

I will not try to engage directly with the pro-Trump pro-Putin pro-Assad commentator or in this thread, because as George Lakoff points out, engaging a frame to negate it effectively reinforces it, but just one reference on the problem of Russian disinformation about Syria and their actions:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/democracy-post/wp/2017/03/13/for-ru…

I found it quite disturbing that the article here seems to represent the scale and severity of religious oppression of Christians within Russia as if it was of equivalent ethical importance to the deliberate mass murder of mostly Muslim civilians in Syria and Chechnya, and Crimea and Ukraine. Favouritism by religious traditional affiliation is not justice and it is not truly Christian or Catholic. In these days we should be very careful to pay attention to "may your Name be held holy [apart from all created things]," and keep a strict distinction between genuine religion and idolatry, as defined for this context in Mit Brennender Sorge. The objective evaluation of the scale and severity of the crimes against human beings should come first, not which religious tradition they were affiliated with at the time.

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