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Mykhailo Cherenkov’s pain and anger are deeply personal (“Orthodox Terrorism,” May). Anti-Ukrainian separatists have occupied the Baptist university that he used to head in Donetsk. They have also taken over forty Protestant churches in eastern Ukraine and have killed or detained at least twenty-seven Protestant leaders. A senseless war has claimed thousands of lives and created hundreds of thousands of refugees.

Russia’s actions against Ukraine, however, can hardly be reduced to Patriarch Kirill’s notion of the “Russian world.” The Russian state has never been happy with the idea of an independent Ukraine. Realpolitik plays a much larger role than the Church in Putin’s calculations. And while some separatists speak of a holy war, Patriarch Kirill and Metropolitan Onuphrius have not endorsed the separatists’ violence and have repeatedly called for peaceful resolution of the conflict.

To be sure, one wishes that the Moscow Patriarchate would publicly condemn political misuses of Orthodoxy and vigorously defend freedom of religion. But the relation of the Russian Orthodox Church to Ukraine is complicated by the painful experience of schism, a phenomenon that should trouble Protestants more than it generally does. Ukraine’s other major Orthodox body, the Kyivan Patriarchate, broke away in 1991, taking several thousand parishes and priests. It would gladly become Ukraine’s new national church, and it has not hesitated to bless Ukrainian soldiers and weapons against the separatists. Nevertheless, Cherenkov’s forceful charges are best met not by efforts to spread blame around, but rather by self-examination and repentance. That would be painful but not impossible.

After the fall of communism, some Russian Orthodox leaders came to see the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution as divine judgment on a Church and nation that were more Christian in name than in reality. Events in Ukraine now challenge the Church in Russia to reconsider its theology of culture, which does not always make clear the difference between cultural Orthodoxy and Christian faith.

I know many people in the Russian Orthodox Church who are trying to be thoughtful about these matters. In listening to Cherenkov, we should be aware of them, too.

John P. Burgess
pittsburgh theological seminary
pittsburgh, pennsylvania

Mykhailo ­Cherenkov’s article “Orthodox Terrorism” consists of a stream of invectives against the Russian Orthodox Church, beginning with the equation of Russian Orthodoxy and Islamic jihadism and following with a series of slanders founded upon half-truths, which we hope have arisen solely out of misunderstanding along with quite understandable grief and anguish over the truly horrible fratricide that is occurring in Ukraine.

Upon reading this article, however, any Orthodox Christian (or perhaps any Christian) can only ask: Why would First Things publish such horrific accusations, in such a bitter and malicious tone, against the second largest group of Christians in the world? Why would they allow such slander against their fellow Christians to be published as a headline article, without any apparent regard for either truthfulness or brotherly love? To make public accusations against fellow Christians—as Christians—should only be undertaken in cases of the most extreme necessity, with fervent prayer and the utmost fear of God. But to vilify in print an entire Church, to accuse them of having as much blood on their hands as ISIS and all the Islamic fundamentalists in the Middle East . . . how is such a thing possible?

Cherenkov makes a long series of accusations, nearly every one based upon extremely misleading information—again, we sincerely hope that this was not done deliberately and that rather the author himself has been grievously misinformed about these matters.

He writes: “In the Donbass region, an ‘Orthodox army’ is active; dozens of Protestant churches have been seized; there have been cases of kidnapping, torture, and killing of pastors.” These sins and crimes are truly sorrowful and cannot and should not be defended. However, despite charging Metropolitan Onuphrius with failure to tell both sides of the story (in his call for Poroshenko to defend the Orthodox citizens of Ukraine from persecution), Cherenkov himself is remarkably silent about the many cases of the seizure or destruction of Russian Orthodox churches and the kidnapping, torture, and killing of Russian Orthodox priests.

The unfortunate fact of the matter is that this is a bloody civil war, and parties on both sides have, in some cases, tragically co-opted religion for political purposes, committing crimes and atrocities in the name of the Christian faith. But the blame for this does not lie in Christianity, nor on the churches to which these ­parties belong.

Cherenkov, however, denounces the Russian Orthodox clergy themselves as being complicit in these atrocities: “Moscow-patriarchate priests openly bless terrorists.” Even putting aside the question of whether pro-Russian fighters are automatically terrorists, Cherenkov is completely silent about the vitally important fact that the Moscow Patriarchate has suspended from priestly service clergymen known to have given such blessings.

This is because the Moscow Patriarchate, far from being “the main actor in the bloody Russian Spring” as Cherenkov claims, has rather insistently and publicly demanded that all fratricidal violence cease immediately in Ukraine. The Russian Orthodox Church has repeatedly refused to take sides in any capacity in this conflict, and the entire response of the Church has consisted in daily prayer for the peace of Ukraine, for the aid of the suffering, the comfort of the sorrowful, and the repose of the souls of those who have perished.

The purpose of this letter is not to refute every point and accusation made by Cherenkov in his article. And again, although he consistently extrapolates horrifying and slanderous conclusions about Russian Orthodoxy from misrepresented and one-sided facts, we cannot and do not condemn him. The Ukrainian conflict is one of the most propagandized topics in the most propagandized age that the world has ever known, and it is often extremely difficult for anyone to find the truth about the events ­surrounding it.

More importantly, it is clear from the biographical note at the end of the article that Cherenkov himself has suffered in this conflict at the hands of those claiming to act on behalf of the Russian Orthodox Church, and for that we can only sincerely prostrate before him and beg his forgiveness, and assure him that he has been badly lied to about who the Russian Orthodox Church is and what she stands for.

The author of this letter does not want to enter into debate with ­Cherenkov. Nor does he want to take sides in the Ukrainian civil war. Rather, he wants to know why First Things has so easily and nonchalantly taken up slandering and condemning as nationalist thugs the Russian Orthodox Church, a Church that shed more of its blood in the twentieth century than was shed by any other church in the history of Christianity, blood which was shed for the sake of preserving faith in Christ from the assault of atheism and secularism—the same mission that First Things so deeply shares.

The author himself, a Russian Orthodox clergyman, has in the past been often edified and inspired by First Things, and has been truly encouraged to hear a voice of traditional Christianity being raised in the midst of these godless times. The Russian Orthodox monastics and clergymen around him have experienced the same. This only makes it all the more painful when they hear this voice being used to vilify their Church and its members, many of whom have also suffered grievously during this conflict. They expected better.

Archimandrite Seraphim
hermitage of the holy cross
wayne, west virginia

R. R. Reno replies:

Archimandrite Seraphim is mistaken. First Things did not publish an article attacking Orthodox Christianity. Nor did we slander fellow Christians. Mykhailo Cherenkov penned a ­forceful criticism of the shameful efforts by some to use Orthodoxy to sanctify a Russian proxy-war in Eastern Ukraine.

He also drew attention to the lack of adequate responses by Orthodox leaders to this misuse of faith. This sort of criticism does not vilify an entire church or Christian tradition any more than criticisms of the Afrikaner Dutch Reformed Church’s support of apartheid constituted a malicious attack on Calvinism. Sadly, our faith is often manipulated, perverted, and betrayed for the sake of worldly ambitions. In those instances, brotherly love requires strong criticism.

Mykhailo Cherenkov replies:

I had no doubt that many would question whether it is appropriate to use as provocative an expression as “Orthodox terrorism.” Nevertheless, to save Orthodoxy itself, it is worth talking about the danger of transforming Orthodoxy into an aggressive political-religious project. In this spirit, I would like to make two points.

First, I consider my critics’ indignation to be understandable. Orthodox terrorism, as it is seen in the Russian-Ukrainian war, should be distinguished from the canonical Russian Orthodox tradition.

Second, my decision to speak of “Orthodox terrorism” originated not so much from my personal bio­graphy as from a systematic analysis of numerous instances of religiously motivated violence against “uniates, schismatics, and sectarians” and any pro-Ukrainian or pro-Western civilians in the occupied territories. One would think that the priests of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church–Moscow Patriarchate (UOC–MP) would hide their involvement in and support for Russian aggression and the criminal activities of the separatist republics. Instead, at the military parade on the ninth of May (the seventieth anniversary of victory in World War II), the bishops of the UOC–MP celebrated behind the separatist leaders. Meanwhile, in the Ukrainian Parliament, Metropolitan Onuphrius of the UOC–MP refused to stand up and observe a minute of silence in remembrance of the fallen Ukrainian soldiers in Donbass. These facts indicate that “Orthodox terrorism” as well as the political involvement of Moscow Orthodoxy are all but an open secret. It is neither my daring theory, nor a victim complex. It is a mere summary of already known facts.

Both points underline the existence of Orthodox terrorism and the pertinence of the concept. In other words, I am not trying to claim that all Russian Orthodox are terrorists. My point is different: The fact of Orthodox terrorism—occasions of Orthodox support and blessing of terrorism aimed at “Westerners” and “heterodoxy”—requires a definite response from the Orthodox Church. To put it differently, the Orthodox Church needs to investigate and decisively dissociate itself from this phenomenon.

In the lead-up to the Ukrainian-Russian war, the Western world should have been more aware of the current condition of global and local Orthodoxy. World Orthodoxy is heterogeneous, and Moscow is not the mainstream. Local Orthodoxy is also divided. Originally and historically, “Russian Orthodoxy” was “of Kyiv” and had a Kyiv-centric character. Nowadays, the ROC does not represent the entirety of the Orthodox traditions, even in Russia, still less in Ukraine. There are reasons to believe that the Russian Patriarchate is primarily a product of Stalin’s design (the Patriarchate appeared in 1943 as a foreign policy project, to be precise), and it is not a successor to any of the ancient Orthodox traditions. Therefore, the question is, what exactly do we mean by the generic term “Orthodoxy,” who represents it, and who has the right to speak on its behalf?

With the term “Orthodox terrorism” I was aiming at the degenerate, false, aggressive forms and was warning against a degeneration of Orthodoxy that is dangerous to everyone.

The question naturally arises, then, why doesn’t the Russian Patriarchate itself try to separate itself from these false forms and from terrorists by excommunicating those priests who blessed the icons of Stalin and Putin, and who support separatist forces and Russian troops in the war against Ukraine?

Apologists within the Russian Orthodox Church have eagerly talked about the interconnectedness of religion, politics, and violence in Islam and Protestant fundamentalism, and have ceaselessly rebuked U.S. civil religion and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Unfortunately, the speakers of the ROC would rather talk about Islamic jihad; as for Orthodox jihad, there is a conspiracy of silence.

The political project of Eurasian integration has been seen as the rightful act of reunion of the “Holy Rus.” For the interests of the “Russian World” it is suggested that all ancient sacred objects and places and canonical territories should be returned to Russia. It looks for all the world like an Orthodox crusade.

Unfortunately, in their close ­cooperation with the Kremlin, the ROC has not been able to offer a “new outreach of Eurasia” (analogous with Catholic ideas concerning Europe); instead, it has given its blessing to the new imperial project of the “Russian World.”

This global project disregards ­usual state borders, cultures, and nations. By going beyond Russia, the “­Russian World” and Russian ­Orthodoxy become aggressive and dangerous.

I do not try to highlight Orthodox terrorism for the sake of denigrating the ROC. I would like to encourage authentic Orthodoxy, free of terrorism, evangelical in its spirit, universal in its scope, not isolated from other denominations, capable of ­self-criticism and inner reformation, open towards the West and friendly with its neighbors. What should “Evangelical Orthodox” believers or “simple Orthodox” believers do in the ROC in the midst of political and aggressive Orthodoxy? Their goal should be to become “the church in the Church” and reveal to the world new images of Orthodoxy, in the light of which Orthodox terrorism will look like a marginal and shameful thing.

Those who love Orthodoxy and are concerned about its future should not focus too much on the author of articles on Orthodox terrorism. They should focus on the hierarchs and theologians of the ROC who have the power to put an end to the religious animosity and stop the degeneration of their own church and the degeneration of Orthodoxy as a whole.


Michael Stokes Paulsen and Luke Paulsen make several key errors of fact and interpretation in “The Great Interpreter” (May). They show a limited knowledge of how the Constitution dealt with slavery and ­Lincoln’s opinions on that matter, and they make the stunning claim that the Constitution was “in substantial respects proslavery.” That would be news to the framers and Lincoln.

First, Lincoln repeatedly argued that the Founding was fundamentally antislavery. From his speech in Peoria in 1854 to the Cooper Union speech in 1860 and in countless other pronouncements, Lincoln made clear his position that the American Founding was essentially ­anti-slavery, announcing the principles that would undermine slavery while waiting for their fulfillment later. The authors forget that Lincoln viewed the Constitution in light of the Declaration of Independence, with his famous metaphor of the Constitution being the “frame of silver” around the “apple of gold” that is the ­Declaration. While ­Lincoln believed that the Constitution gave certain rights to slaveholders, he believed its ethos was antislavery.

The Paulsens argue that the constitutional provisions touching on slavery granted comfort to that insidious institution. They are wrong on all counts. Yes, the three-fifths clause gave some added representation to the South, but not as much as five-fifths. Yes, there was a fugitive slave clause in the Constitution, but no provision for its enforcement. That is why a fugitive slave provision was needed in the 1850 Compromise. Yes, Congress was forbidden to ban the importation of slaves until January 1, 1808. But by implication that granted Congress the power to ban the practice after that date, which is exactly what it immediately did. Finally, the word slavery is conspicuously absent from the document, instead referring to slaves as “persons.”

Finally, the authors contend that Lincoln was a “strict constructionist.” Anyone with a passing knowledge of the interpretive squabbles of the early to ­mid-nineteenth century knows this is false. Lincoln cut his political teeth as a member of the Whig party that was founded in opposition to President ­Andrew Jackson’s strict constructionist ­interpretation of the Constitution. Jacksonian Democrats frustrated the efforts of such Whigs as Henry Clay, Lincoln’s “beau ideal of a statesman,” who wanted a looser interpretation of the Constitution to justify their nationalist economic agenda. Jackson believed that the strict construction of the Constitution disallowed such policies as internal ­improvements of roads and rivers and national banking legislation. In the Hamiltonian tradition, Whigs and Lincoln believed that the Constitution gave broad powers to the national government in the formation of economic policy.

The Paulsens confuse “strict constructionism” with “originalism.” It is the argument of many originalists, such as Justice Antonin Scalia, that strict constructionism is not a sound originalist interpretive method. This belief is confirmed in numbers 23 and 44 of The Federalist Papers, which suggest a broad, but not unlimited, view of constitutional powers. ­Lincoln would be better described as a ­proponent of judicial restraint, meaning unless there is a clear violation of a constitutional provision, the Supreme Court should be restrained in using its power of judicial review and largely defer to legislative majorities. But this is not “strict ­constructionism.”

Jon D. Schaff
northern state university
aberdeen, south dakota

Michael and Luke Paulsen do a great service in elucidating Abraham ­Lincoln’s position that Supreme Court decisions, until accepted by the country as a whole, are binding only on the case and not over the other branches of government. Lincoln’s view is certainly controversial, as the Lincoln–Douglas debates show, but not radical. Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Douglas himself, in the case of the National Bank, refused to accept the finality of Supreme Court decisions.

Prior to the great debates, in a speech in Springfield on July 17, 1858, Lincoln quoted from an 1820 letter of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson believed it an error “to consider the judges as the ultimate arbiters of all constitutional questions—a very dangerous doctrine indeed, and one which would place us under the despotism of an oligarchy.”

Lincoln also quotes Andrew ­Jackson’s veto message on the National Bank legislation: “If the opinion of the Supreme Court covered the whole ground of this act, it ought not to control the coordinate authorities of this government. The Congress, the executive and the court must each for itself be guided by its own opinion of the Constitution. Each public officer, who takes an oath to support the Constitution, swears that he will support it as he understands it, and not as it is understood by others.”

The views of Jefferson, Jackson, and Lincoln have not prevailed. We have acquiesced in an intellectually corrupt judiciary’s usurpation of power. Lincoln’s prediction that passive acceptance of the supremacy of the judiciary would mean that the people would cease to be their own rulers, turning their government over to the Supreme Court, has come to pass.

Robert B. Flint
anchorage, alaska

Michael Stokes Paulsen and Luke Paulsen reply:

We thank both Jon Schaff and ­Robert Flint for their thoughtful comments. Schaff expresses two points of disagreement with our conclusions about Lincoln as a constitutional interpreter. On the first point, Schaff is simply wrong—or, perhaps, it is more charitable to say that he evaluates the evidence in a highly peculiar way. The second point is a mere disagreement over nomenclature.

The more important point concerns slavery under the original Constitution. Schaff refers to what he calls our “stunning claim that the Constitution was ‘in substantial respects proslavery.’” The claim is hardly stunning. In fact, we think it undeniable. Before the Civil War amendments, the U.S. Constitution was proslavery in important, deeply regrettable ways. The three-fifths clause provided a huge representation reward to slaveholding interests, at the expense of freedom; the fugitive slave clause compelled free states to return escaped slaves to bondage; and the importation clause granted a horrid constitutional right to engage in the international slave trade for twenty years, immune from congressional interference and off-limits to any constitutional amendment. Indeed, the importation clause’s insidious effect was to set off a twenty-year race to kidnap, transport, and enslave as many Africans as possible as quickly as possible. As we detail in our book, The Constitution: An Introduction (from which our article was adapted), the states of the Deep South imported more slaves from Africa between 1788 and 1808 than in any other twenty-year period.

Schaff does not deny any of this. He simply says that, well, it could have been worse. The representation reward to owning slaves was only three-fifths, not five-fifths. The fugitive slave clause did not specify its enforcement mechanism. The importation clause immunity expired after twenty years. And the framers used euphemisms to avoid using the word “slavery.”

All true, but somewhat cold comfort. The Constitution could have been even worse with respect to slavery. But it was plenty bad as it was. Our fondness for the framers should not blind us to this harsh reality.

Our broader point is that Lincoln recognized all these features and accepted them because of his overriding commitment to the Constitution. He was unwilling to bend, warp, or ignore constitutional provisions that did not line up with his antislavery personal views. He did not like everything that the Constitution did in protecting slavery. And he put the most charitable spin he could on the Constitution’s verbal circumlocutions and evasions, taking some small measure of comfort from the framers’ efforts to avoid using the S-word. He excused them (to a point) for the substance of what they did.

But he was also clear-eyed about it all. As we put it in our book: “­Lincoln compared slavery to a disease afflicting the nation, but one that the ­framers had not thought it possible to cure right away without killing the patient. ‘Thus, the thing is hid away, in the constitution,’ he remarked, ‘just as an afflicted man hides away a wen or a cancer, which he dares not cut out at once, lest he bleed to death; with the promise, nevertheless, that the cutting may begin at the end of a given time.’ The framers could not achieve more than this, Lincoln believed, and they made only the concessions to slavery that were absolutely necessary for the times.”

Lincoln read the Constitution’s provisions with respect to slavery strictly and gave them their fair meaning. Where the Constitution protected slavery, he accepted those protections. And where it did not, he insisted on the right of the people to govern and restrict the expansion of slavery. That is the point on which Lincoln’s strict commitment to the Constitution’s text brought him into conflict with the Supreme Court, and its infamous decision in the Dred Scott case. (We appreciate Flint’s expanding on this point, with additional examples.)

As to Schaff’s second objection, we think it fair to call Lincoln by any of a number of the labels sometimes used for those who take the Constitution’s text, structure, and historical evidence of original meaning seriously on their own terms. “Originalist” is one such label currently in vogue; “strict constructionist” is another. These terms have various shades of meaning to different people.

Our core point is that Lincoln took questions of constitutional meaning seriously, that he was committed to faithful and not results-oriented constitutional interpretation, and that his commitments to the Constitution drove nearly all of his actions as president—from his reading of the Constitution’s provisions on slavery, to his brilliant structural constitutional argument against the validity of secession, to his understanding of the obligations of the presidential oath, to his views of the scope of presidential military power as commander in chief in times of actual war.

That’s what made Lincoln “The Great Interpreter.”


R. R. Reno describes a very real problem in American society: the decay of the cultural norms that support a society of free and dignified indivi­duals (“Success Is Not Dignity,” May). Alas, many of my fellow libertarians do not acknowledge this problem, as they focus exclusively on removing the coercive apparatus of the state from our lives.

Unfortunately, Reno’s analysis is as sound as his prescription is counterproductive. Most social conservatives seem not to recognize that the fundamental problem comes from governmental intervention in civil society, with its perverse incentives and erosion of responsibility and virtue. Instead, they heroically hope to engage in the right kind of social engineering; if we could just get the right people and the right policies, government intrusion in civil society would somehow yield good results.

Instead of calling for more government regulation of marriage, and resistance against drug legalization, social conservatives would do well to learn from the Hippocratic oath: primum non nocere. Let civil society do its job. Instead of heaping on morals legislation, we would do much better by removing the government interventions that caused the decay in the first place. Virtue matters. But the state is too blunt and dangerous an instrument to advance it.

Nikolai G. Wenzel
florida gulf coast university
fort myers, florida

R. R. Reno replies:

I appreciate Nikolai Wenzel’s solicitude for civil society. But he’s mistaken to think government distinct in any fundamental way. Wise citizens know that the government has limits. There are spheres of life in which family, private associations, and religious communities properly order our lives, and if the law intervenes too aggressively, those spheres wither. But the law’s power to coerce has a proper place, and it expresses an important dimension of our moral character as a nation. As a consequence, if we decriminalize marijuana, as a people we’re saying it’s licit. Permission is as much an exercise in social engineering as prohibition, as the no-fault divorce revolution demonstrated.

Libertarianism is a very modern political philosophy, the obverse of Marxism. Both despair of political life.

For the Marxist, politics masks the true reality, which is the domination of the ruling class over all others. Revolution, not political involvement, is necessary. It will usher in the dictatorship of the proletariat in which the state withers away. Thus the promise of Marxism: We will have justice without the messy compromises of politics.

The libertarian thinks along the same lines. Politics is a struggle for control of government and the power to coerce. It is thus the enemy of freedom. What we need is a minimal, “withered” state, which is to say a political culture where as little is at stake as possible. Thus the promise of libertarianism: We will have freedom without the messy compromises of politics.

Both are false dreams. The trajectory of Marxism we know. The trajectory of libertarianism will be different. Its triumph will lead to the moral deregulation of life, creating a vacuum filled by the technocratic-therapeutic state committed to “empowering” individuals.