Reason has a commendably subtle feature essay on the emerging relationship between Vladimir Putin and Russia’s Orthodox Church. The author, Cathy Young, refreshingly concedes that the present situation “is a far cry from theocracy” while still acknowledging the remarkable resurrection Orthodoxy has experienced there in the past two decades. “When Putin restored the old Soviet anthem with brand-new lyrics in 2000,” Young writes, “’the victory of communism’s deathless ideas’ gave way to ‘a land watched over by God.’”
A faith forced underground just a generation ago has been grandly restored in defiance of both socialist historical inevitability and secular triumphalism. If you’d predicted that the beginning of the twenty-first century would see a return of religion to not only a viable public force but in some places a state-sanctioned one to, say, Western intellectuals of a generation ago, most of them would have laughed with contempt or incredulity. On the right, Young notes, those who were accustomed to sum up their abhorrence of the former Soviet Union in one word (“godless”) must also think again.
But how enthusiastic should believers be about this arrangement? Young, for all her caution with the details, basically paints the resurgent Orthodoxy as a crutch for the state to lean on to justify its power claims and give rhetoric about “national identity” and “values” grounding. Is this part of the appeal, especially for those in government? Without a doubt. But is this the full picture–and is it wholly cynical? I have my doubts. To some extent at least, Russia’s public return to faith represents a genuine resurgence after years of oppression.
Russia’s example is also notable because it’s a very modern way of melding church and state, and one that we may very well see more of in the twenty-first century as religious practice grows worldwide and old ideologies stay dead. So it seems mistaken to equate this new situation with simple nostalgia for a long-departed “Christendom,” for a number of reasons, including the conditions of the broader culture. Russia is hardly a thoroughly Christian society, is beset with secularism and consumerism and religious indifferentism, and as Young reports “sexual liberation [. . .] is still in full swing. Premarital sex is the norm; almost one in three births are to single mothers.”
Plus, at least in theory, the guiding principle here is neither totalitarianism nor “caesaropapism,” but one with a longer history in Orthodox lands. Putin dismisses of the idea of the separation of church and state as “primitive” and makes what would seem to be an allusion to the Eastern concept of “harmony” or symphonia between the two powers (in contrast to the Western “two-swords” model articulated by Augustine).
Ultimately, of course, the loyalties of a Christian must reside with the liberty of the church. And there are many ways for Christianity to shape politics and culture that do not railroad it into a subservient marriage with the state (the language of Hungary’s new constitution and the exhortations to childbearing by Georgia’s patriarch are but two examples from former Soviet realms that come to mind). Is Christianity’s ability to witness and prophesy against the culture something worth bartering for a reversal of fortunes in other areas, even a little bit? Is it even possible to make such tradeoffs? To that end, this example is not encouraging:
In return for its loyalty, the church—or at least its senior hierarchy—has been amply rewarded with wealth, status, and perks. But that doesn’t mean the more faith-specific parts of its agenda get translated into government policy (aside from local bans on gay pride events and on “propaganda of homosexuality to minors,” an area where church dogma dovetails with majority biases). Abortion, which is as unacceptable in Orthodoxy as it is in Catholicism, remains not only legal but free at public clinics. In 2011 the Patriarch’s plea to end government funding for abortions was briskly dismissed by the ruling United Russia party . . .
Therein, it seems, lies the central problem for defenses of this arrangement. There’s always a catch: “there is no doubt as to which side dominates in the church-state ‘partnership.’”