In a polarized America, one might assume that Donald Trump and the Republican Party are supportive of Russia just to spite the Biden administration. One would be perilously mistaken.
As trusted Christian writer and speaker, Diana Bass Butler asserts,
In effect, the world is witnessing a new version of an old tale — the quest to recreate an imperial Christian state, a neo-medieval “Holy Roman Empire” — uniting political, economic, and spiritual power into an entity to control the earthly and heavenly destiny of European peoples.
The dream gripping some quarters of the West is for a coalition to unify religious conservatives into a kind of supra-national neo-Christendom. The theory is to create a partnership between American evangelicals, traditionalist Catholics in western countries, and Orthodox peoples under the auspices of the Russian Orthodox Church in a common front against three enemies — decadent secularism, a rising China, and Islam — for a glorious rebirth of moral purity and Christian culture [emphasis added].
The cast of characters in this new “morally pure” world order would be laughable if it weren’t so terrifying: Donald Trump of course, Steve Bannon, and Vladimir Putin, as well as some names more familiar in Russia.
What do these (white) men have to do with Christianity? Adding scare quotes might help frame the question.
What do these (white) men have to do with “Christianity”?
Trump’s connection with “Christianity is embodied in his infamous photo op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church: he is the minister of the evangelical constituency. He’s well-suited for the job, as he pointed out to Anderson Cooper in 2015:
“Why do I have to repent or ask for forgiveness, if I am not making mistakes?” I work hard, I’m an honorable person.”
His fans see God’s favor on him. Pastor Ken Peters of the Patriot Church in Tennessee reflects their sentiments:
“I think [Trump] is a miracle. I think God picked Donald Trump, an imperfect vessel, to be the champion of his people.”
(Today, as throughout his presidency, Trump is a top fan of Putin – even as many in the GOP are distancing themselves from the Russian leader.)
Diana Bass Butler describes Steve Bannon as “a kind of philosophical apostle in right-wing Christian circles.” In 2014, he was a featured conference speaker for a far-right organization at the Vatican.
Bannon preached, “Putin is standing up for traditional institutions, and he’s trying to do it in a form of nationalism…We the Judeo-Christian West really have to look at what he’s talking about.” He noted that American conservatives were drawn to Putin’s “message about more traditional values” (during the Trump years, Republicans’ views of Putin grew significantly more positive).
Bannon discussed how the removal of conservatism and God have sent the Judeo-Christian West into decline, enabling the likes of “Islamic fascism” to threaten civilization, adding, “if we do not bind together as partners with others in other countries then this conflict is only going to metastasize.”
President Putin has carved out his own niche in “Christianity.”
In 2015, Putin sent warplanes into Syria, ostensibly to protect Syria’s Christian population – as part of what the Russian Orthodox Church called a “holy war.” One Russian religious scholar stated that the move “demonstrated the importance of Russia to the world as a defender of Christians everywhere.”
After Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine, Putin had a one-on-one with the Pope. At that time, an Italian journalist asked Putin,
“Mr. President, is there one thing that you regret more than anything in your life, which you consider an error that you would never again want to repeat?”
The Russian president [replied] softly: “I will be quite frank with you. I cannot recollect anything of the kind. By the grace of God, I have nothing to regret in my life.”
(This from a fifteen-year KGB officer and sixteen years as head of Russia.)
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Why is Putin sweet on Ukraine? A one-minute history lesson
When Vladimir the Great (later Saint Vladimir) brought Christianity to the region over a thousand years ago, Kyiv was its focal point. A few invasions later, a new, rival Russian Orthodox Church, based in Moscow, emerged. The Russian and Ukrainian churches have been at odds ever since.
Putin and the Moscow Russian Orthodox Church covet Ukraine’s history as the region’s pioneer of Christianity, and have tried hard to appropriate it, most notably by erecting a massive statue of St. Vladimir outside the Kremlin 2016.
Additionally, in the roughly thirty years since the fall of Soviet atheism, the Russian state has favored the Orthodox church by the building or restoring of 38,000 houses of worship – far outpacing the worshipers’ needs.
In 2018, a number of Ukrainian orthodox groups united to form the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, based in Kyiv and completely independent from the Moscow Russian Orthodox Church. One of its leaders stated,
We must move away from those Russian imperial traditions that have been imposed on us for a long time…We must engage in enlightenment, explain to people that we must become better, so that love would prevail among us.
Russian Orthodox Church and Putin
Does love not prevail inside the Russian Orthodox Church? Apparently not – at least not among its overseers. What does seem to prevail is collusion with the Putin government. As Religion Dispatches reported,
The Russian Orthodox Church has, to say the least, a bad track record on issues of political liberty and civil rights. Patriarch Kirill himself rather infamously declared in 2016 that “some human rights are heresy.”
The Russian Orthodox Church, including close deputies of the Patriarch, were intimately involved in the 2017 law that decriminalized domestic violence in Russia [14,000 Russian women die every year at the hands of their partners], as well as the 2013 “gay propaganda” law that’s been a major force for the state persecution of LGBTQ people in Russia.
Furthermore, Patriarch Kirill and the Russian Orthodox Church he leads have worked hard to develop close alliances with illiberal forces around the world, including Franklin Graham, Steve Bannon, and the World Congress of Families.
American conservative Christians and Putin
Right Wing Watch has followed for years the affinity between Moscow and the American Christian right, noting that these “cheerleaders for Putin” admire his “traditional values,” ambition for a “Christian civilization,” and “distinctive combination of homophobia and Islamophobia that has made Putin one of the Christian right’s favorite international figures.”
In recent years, American Christian leaders have had high praise for the Russian president. Franklin Graham called Putin as a hero for taking “a stand to protect his nation’s children from the damaging effects of any gay and lesbian agenda”; Bryan Fischer of the right-wing American Family Association called him a “lion of Christianity”; Matt Barber of the SPLC-designated hate group Liberty Counsel was awed that Putin could “out-Christian our once-Christian nation”; president of the conservative Pennsylvania Pastors Network, Sam Rohrer called Putin “the moral leader of the world”; and Rush Limbaugh congratulated him for stopping “a full-frontal assault on what has always been considered normalcy.”
This is all to say that some American Christian conservatives and their leaders find they have more in common with communist Russia than with progressive American Christians.
President Vladimir Putin appears to be leading the charge today toward a new “Christian” internationalism – and powerful American conservative “Christians” are loving it. This theocratic authoritarianism is anti-progressive and treacherous, to say the least. Putin fancies himself God’s Chosen, and his efforts to restore the “Church” to its former splendor, God’s work.
The enemies of this “Church,” this “Christianity,” include all Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and animists (read: black and brown folks), and progressives (read: white pagans).
Where is the Christianity of Christ in all this?
Followers of Jesus who recognize the inherent worth of every human being – and who enjoy the privilege of Western prosperity and agency – need to expose the pretense of the Trump-Bannon-Putin version of conservative “Christianity.” The quest for domination and conformity has nothing to do with God and everything to do with earthly power.
“Christian” tyranny exists on a smaller scale, of course, and we need to call it out too (starting with our own lives).
“What would Jesus do?” is a great way to begin. Let us channel the Jesus sitting beside the woman caught in sin, the Jesus talking to the thief beside him on the cross, the Jesus of the Beatitudes.
Sometimes it may be appropriate to emulate the angry Jesus in the Temple with a whip – but we must venture there only with great caution: Jesus’ anger was directed at the religious authorities of the time, the ones who didn’t prioritize prayer, justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Let’s make sure our priorities are in line before we accuse others (lest we become authoritarian too). Jesus desires that we offer food, clothing, shelter, and companionship to those in need, and that we love all people.
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