In response to the Trump-Putin summit, emergent church guru Brian McLaren tweeted “treasonous,” echoing former CIA chief John Brennan.
McLaren like many others on the anti-“empire” Religious Left typically equates patriotic ardor with idolatry, and “treason” is not typically a major sin in that paradigm. But perhaps there will be a rediscovery of the virtues of nation and fidelity to it.
This conversation will continue as Putin has now been invited to the US amid reports that Russian operatives tried to exploit contacts at the annual National Prayer Breakfast. Some are claiming that some on the Religious Right have a weakness for Putin because he opposes pro-LGBTQ policies and ostensibly is protecting Christians in Syria.
The Religious Right and Religious Left have in some ways exchanged places from their Cold War stances, when the latter ardently sought rapport with Moscow and the former was more hard-nosed.
Of course, the regime in Moscow is no longer Soviet or Marxist-Leninist, though Putin did serve in the old KGB and old habits persevere. Some deride his rule as totalitarian or virtually communist. Of course it is not. Putin is more czarist than Soviet. The USSR with its materialistic, messianic ideology and global ambitions thankfully no longer exists. But traditional Russia, which is authoritarian, insular, paranoid, and chronically suspicious of the West, has re-emerged. Old Russia had to be countered by Western powers long before the Bolsheviks.
Putin, like the czars and boyars of old Russia, is a kleptocrat and tyrant who torments his opponents, sometimes murders them, represses voices of dissent, exploits religion, shamelessly deploys propaganda, presides over a labyrinth of espionage and manipulation, and warily views the world as vicious and zero-sum, conflating his personal rule with the interests of Holy Russia. He doubtless plans to retain power for his lifetime. To step down would be to imperil his own wealth, freedom, and life.
In short, Putin is not very unique but resembles most rulers in the world today and in history. We as Americans often assume that our own expectation of lawful rule by consent of the governed amid liberty of conscience, accountability, transparency, and free speech are the universal norm. But our freedoms are the special fruits of our own providential history. We rightly wish them for the world, believing they reflect God’s will for all creatures of His image. But our liberties and relative tranquility are historical anomalies.
Putin and depots like him disdain and despise American liberties and are threatened by them. He can never be a friend because he has defined himself and his rule by opposition to America and the West. Purportedly he does so in defense of traditional Russian heritage. But it’s tragically Russian for its rulers not to distinguish between their own parochial ambitions and the national interests.
The Cold War is no more, and Putin isn’t Soviet. But he is dangerous because he and others, including China and Turkey, represent an updated authoritarianism that is offering itself to the world as an alternative to Anglo-American democracy, whose confidence and appeal are supposedly flagging.
We should not fear or obsess over Putin. But we must assess him for what he and his regime are while vigorously countering their influence politically, militarily, culturally, and morally. A growing number of religious elite voices in America, from both the left and right and in between, are skeptical about our democracy. These voices fail to understand fully who we are as a nation and ungratefully take for granted the blessings of our democratic order.
American Christianity for its own renewal and the renewal of our culture needs to rediscover its own exceptional role in making democratic America what it is. Properly understanding Putin and similar despots is central to this project.
Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy and co-editor of Providence.
Photo Credit: Vladimir Putin meeting with Metropolitan Kornily of Moscow and All Russia of Old-Rite Russian Orthodox Church. March 16, 2017. Kremlin Photo.