For years, not just in the past few weeks, Vladimir Putin has sought to portray Russia as the world’s staunchest guardian of authentic Christian values. Some people have even cast the invasion itself as a war of Orthodox Christianity on decadent, woke Western culture. In his speech to the nation justifying the invasion, Putin declared:
They [the West] sought to destroy our traditional values and force on us their false values that would erode us, our people from within, the attitudes they have been aggressively imposing on their countries, attitudes that are directly leading to degradation and degeneration, because they are contrary to human nature. This is not going to happen.
Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia has not criticised the invasion, even though it has already cost hundreds of lives and could turn Kyiv, the birthplace of Russian Orthodoxy, into a smoking wasteland. He merely issued a brief and bland appeal for prayer for peace: “I call on all parties to the conflict to do everything possible to avoid civilian casualties.”.
And, as Russia began bombarding Ukraine, the Patriarch supported Putin’s view that Russia and Ukraine are inseparable: “The Russian and Ukrainian peoples have a common centuries-old history dating back to the Baptism of Russia by the holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Prince Vladimir. I believe that this God-given fellowship will help overcome the divisions and contradictions that have arisen that have led to the current conflict.”
It doesn’t have to be this way. Patriarch Kirill’s interpretation of history is not shared by Metropolitan Onuphry of Kiev and All Ukraine, who stayed loyal to Kirill after an acrimonious schism a few years ago. He, too, believes that Russians and Ukrainians are one in the Orthodox faith, but he still denounced the war. “[It] is a repetition of the sin of Cain, who killed his own brother out of envy. Such a war has no justification either from God or from people.”
Why is the head of the Russian Orthodox Church acquiescing supinely in Putin’s aggression?
Is it because Putin has made himself a champion of Christian sexual mores, a bulwark against Western decadence? He said in a speech in 2013:
“We see many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilisation. They are denying moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious and even sexual. They are implementing policies that equate large families with same-sex partnerships, belief in God with the belief in Satan.”
To be honest, there is much to agree with in Putin’s criticisms of Western culture – although Russian society is hardly a paragon of traditional Christian principles. Russia’s abortion rate is twice that of the United States, for instance.
Russian Orthodoxy has always been tightly bound to the Russian state. It’s a relationship whose roots are in Byzantine Empire and has evolved with the centuries. It’s not for outsiders to criticise it. But Christian moral life is a “seamless garment“, to borrow a New Testament metaphor used by American Catholic bishops. “Thou shalt not commit adultery” is only one of the Ten Commandments, and it comes after “Thou shalt not kill”.
Trampling on the independence of a sovereign nation, waging unprovoked war, destroying cities, and killing civilians – aren’t these un-Christian acts? Waving as a flag one thread of morality and ignoring the others can hardly be described as authentic Christianity.
There’s a lesson in this moral confusion for American politics.
Too many American conservatives appear to feel that Putin’s defiant defence of traditional Christian values takes the edge off his ruthless authoritarianism. From 7,500 kilometres away they are reprising the attitudes of Patriarch Kirill.
Pat Buchanan, one-time Presidential candidate, said in 2018: “when Vladimir Putin and Belarus’ Alexander Lukashenko are standing up for traditional values against Western cultural elites, the East-West struggle has lost its moral clarity”.
Steve Bannon, one-time political advisor to President Trump, in a podcast conversation with Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, a private military company which supplies mercenaries around the world:
Bannon: “Putin ain’t woke. He’s anti-woke.”
Prince: “The Russian people still know which bathroom to use.”
Bannon: “How many genders are there in Russia?”
Bannon: “All of a sudden, that’s not… They don’t have the flags, they don’t have the Pride flags outside of their…”
Prince: “They don’t have boys swimming in girls’ college swim meets.”
Bannon: “How backward. How savage. How mediaeval.”
Which brings us to Donald Trump. He was – and still is – coarse, divisive and untruthful. He thinks that Vladimir Putin is a “genius”.
But he opposed abortion! He opposed LGBTQI+ infiltration of the government bureaucracy! He opposed woke ideology! He spoke out strongly for Christian values!
So millions of American Christians passionately support him – just as Patriarch Kirill supports Putin. Because they’re “Christian”.
This is a huge mistake. Politicians have often used traditional Christian values to distract voters from un-Christian policies. But it just ends up discrediting Christianity. It’s likely, for instance, that the moral credibility of the LGBT lobby will be strengthened by the barbarism of Putin’s invasion. After all, they will say, what can you expect from a homophobe and transphobe?
Christians should beware of Christian autocrats. As the old saying goes, if you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.