Stevens: The dangerous rise of political religion in Russia — and at home

Stevens: The dangerous rise of political religion in Russia — and at home


The war in Ukraine is often blamed on Vladimir Putin as an individual. He is called unbalanced, power-hungry or personally motivated by a romantic dream of a lost empire. But there is something more disturbing taking place. Russian thinkers have for years presented the idea that Russia has a holy mission in the world — to be the savior of Christianity.

In Russia, Christianity has become a tool of Putin, and this has made it a dangerous force. He has weaponized ideas from thinkers such as Russian fascist philosopher Ivan Ilyin, who claimed that Russia’s purpose is to redeem a fallen world from the evils of decadence, secularism and democracy, and that only a strong ruler, unbound from conventions such as law, can save Russia and the world.

The Russian assault on democracy in Ukraine is politically motivated, because it is designed to strengthen fascism at home.

But at the same time, it is religiously motivated, because Putin draws on the yearning of his people to defend Christianity against the spiritual failure represented by Western politics and society.

In other words, Russia is the defender of Christianity, and Putin is the defender of Russia.

This is a powerful and disturbing view of religion that reduces it to an enabler of fascism. Putin may not himself believe in this politico-religious mission, but he derives strength and support from it. Americans following the war in Ukraine are generally unaware of the powerful, religious rationale behind it, but as Yale history professor Timothy Snyder has pointed out, in Putin’s Russia, “theology becomes politics.”

This blending of religion and politics was a special concern of our nation’s founders. They had seen the ravages of religious conflict in Europe and especially in England, with bloody attacks between Catholics and Protestants, and they wanted to structure a government not linked to religion.

This was the motivation behind the Constitution’s prohibition in Article VI against religious tests for public office and for the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

They hoped to provide for religious freedom in the private sphere, but at the same time to prevent religion and politics from merging in the public sphere. They hoped to prevent the very problem that now dominates the Russian regime.

This problem of political conflict grounded in religious disagreement led the Founding Fathers to introduce a radically new concept: a completely secular government.

Their new approach is reflected in James Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance,” which was written in 1784 as a response to Patrick Henry’s proposal to levy a tax supporting Christian teachers in Virginia. Madison argued that it was improper for the state to support Christianity, even to promote good morality.

His main point was that religious establishment is not necessary to support civil government. The effect of religious establishments has sometimes been “to effect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of civil authority, in many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny; in no instance have they been seen the guardians of the people.”

So it is worrisome to see the rise of what can only be called Christian nationalism in America.

Churches such as the Patriot Church focus more on political goals, such as opposition to the 2020 election results, opposition to gun regulation and opposition to vaccination, rather than on the redemption of the soul.

Its members believe that America is a Christian nation and that there is a liberal agenda to bully and harass Christians and ultimately to destroy Christianity. They see themselves in the forefront of a battle between good and evil.

The Patriot Church considers itself a “Trump church.” Adherents believe only he can save Christianity and the country, but in an interview with NPR, the church’s minister said: “If Trump passes away tomorrow, God forbid, does that stop us? Does that slow us down? Not one bit. We’ll be looking for the next guy to lead the way.”

The rise of political religion in America is not dangerous because it allies itself with a particular politician; it is dangerous because of its willingness to be led.

This opens the door to the manipulation of religion for political purposes. It has happened in Russia, and it can happen here. Our founders hoped to prevent this. Now it is up to us.

Solomon D. Stevens earned his doctorate in political science from Boston College and taught constitutional law, American government and political theory. He lives in North Charleston.