Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow have claimed that Russia’s so-called Special Operation is needed to defend the wider russkiy mir, the “Russian world.” By this term they mean the Orthodoxy-based Russian-language civilization that Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus share, which they see as under assault by the secularized anti-civilization of the West. If Russia had failed to intervene, “gay parades,” they said, would sooner or later unfold in the “Mother of Russian Cities,” Kiev. Thus, by their argument, the military measures taken to prevent Ukraine’s integration into NATO and the EU are justifiable actions, necessary to save Orthodox civilization from Westernization and secularization, symbolized by the rainbow flag flown atop American embassies.

Russian claims that the war in Ukraine has a cultural and spiritual dimension have been met with disdain. Even conservative commentators and critics of secularization take it as axiomatic that the Russians are engaging in propaganda when they invoke cultural-spiritual justifications for the war. Russian motives are indistinguishable from those of the old Soviet Union, they argue.

Perhaps Putin is indeed cynical in his evocation of spiritual values. Even so, it does not follow that the prevailing Western reading of the conflict, one that takes for granted that the war is devoid of religious meaning, is correct. Does anyone imagine that Ukraine’s successful integration into the Euro-­Atlantic world would not lead to greater secularization? Who is naive enough to think that such an evolution would be “natural” rather than imposed by the West? The cases of Hungary and Poland show that Washington and Brussels are quick to punish any resistance to secular progressivism.

Whatever the proportions of cynicism and sincerity may be, the Russian spokesmen are saying something that should be obvious to us all: Westernization means secularization. Indeed, the war seems to have accelerated the Westernization of Ukraine, suggesting that, if the goal was to prevent Westernization, Putin’s recourse to military means may have backfired. A recent piece in Time reports: “In a war that is widely regarded as a fight between liberal democracy and authoritarianism, many Ukrainians see the move towards greater equality and inclusivity as part and parcel of its shifting orientation towards Europe and the West.”

According to some reports, support for gay marriage in Ukraine has doubled since the Russian invasion; a bill to legalize same-sex partnerships by constitutional amendment is before the Ukrainian parliament. A push to change attitudes about transgenderism is also afoot. According to NBC, a “riotous” Instagram account known as LGBTQ Military, which features “pole-dancing, cross-dressing and fierce makeup” and publicizes stories of gay and non-binary Ukrainian soldiers, has become a symbol of Ukrainian patriotism.

Not only have “queer people . . . achieved unprec­edented visibility as Ukraine fights to preserve its sovereignty,” according to a writer at Politico; they have emerged as mascots of the struggle. Why? Why should Ukraine’s alliance with the West have such dramatic cultural consequences, all of which point toward an embrace of the secular progressive agenda?

The Italian Catholic philosopher of history Augusto Del Noce (1910–1989) helps us frame an answer. In Del Noce’s analysis, the events of the twentieth century—and, I would add, of the twenty-first—are best understood as the political enactment of the atheistic conclusions of nineteenth-century philosophy, from Kant to Marx and Nietzsche. The October Revolution was the inaugural and archetypal event of the ­twentieth century. It established the world’s first expressly Marxist, and therefore atheistic, regime.

After 1917, writes Del Noce, secularity was assumed as the truth about the human condition. A social trend or development, an event, a political figure, a movement, or a party is “rational,” “true,” “just,” “good,” and to be welcomed to the extent that it conforms to the logic of secularization. Trends or events that do not conform to this ­logic, that challenge, resist, or seek to reverse it, are judged irrational, untrue, unjust, and bad. They are the products of a false consciousness that is captive to fantasy and encouraged by the manipulation of “myths.”

Though first realized in Russia, what Del Noce judged to be the philosophical and historical meaning of the twentieth century—the translation into history of the atheistic conclusions of nineteenth-­century philosophy—attained its true fulfillment in the West. The Soviet Union retained a secularized simulacrum of the Christian sacred order it sought to displace. Marxist-Leninist thinking required a vision of “cosmic” order, albeit one understood in meta-historical rather than metaphysical terms. In other words, the Soviets preserved a supra­personal authority, that of History.

In the Soviet Union, the notion of a quasi-­sacred telos sustained a moral-cultural imagination that was open to older authorities. After a brief period of experimentation in the early 1920s, sexual morality in the Soviet Union reverted to nineteenth-­century bourgeois norms. By the time Del Noce was writing in the 1960s, the moral “Puritanism” of the Eastern Bloc was evident. What Western progressives had regarded as the land of “the future” in the 1920s and 1930s seemed retrograde compared to the liberations unfolding in the West during and after the 1960s. Russian civilization continued to be subject to a transcendent referent for political life—what Del Noce called the “myth of the sacred city.”

Following its attempt in the 1950s to prosecute the Cold War as a defense of Christian civilization, the West changed its strategy in the 1960s. We presented ourselves as superior to the Soviet Union, more modern, because we had disposed of any notion of the sacred or quasi-­sacred and were thus more perfectly secular. According to Del Noce, the West’s means of attaining this more perfect secularity involved utilizing Marxist means toward cultural (as opposed to economic) ends, especially sexual relationships. This shift was theorized by the Frankfurt School from the 1930s through the 1960s, with Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse taking leading roles. (Del Noce called Reich’s 1936 book, The Sexual Revolution, the Mein Kampf of the movement for sexual liberation.)

Thus, the sexual revolution, inaugurated in the 1960s, was for Del Noce the moment when the consequences of the atheistic conclusions of nineteenth-century philosophy, already adopted by the Western intelligentsia before World War II, were extended to the general population. By the late 1960s, the West had outdone the Soviet Union in realizing the “truth” that there are no sacred authorities, and that we ought to be free to live as we please. A consensus among the enlightened solidified: The West’s more radical secularization made our societies more just, free, and desirable. Who wouldn’t prefer jeans and rock ’n’ roll to the starched-collar Soviets, with their old-world preference for ballet and classical music?

Del Noce describes the sexual revolution as the essence of the “Occidentalist heresy,” the radical abolition of the sacred. After that abolition, there is no objective, cosmic order of truth to which individual behavior and social norms and institutions must conform. Wherever the Occidentalist heresy is introduced, the “True in itself and the Good in itself (permanent values) are denied, and thus religion, metaphysics, and morality in the traditional sense are destroyed.” Indeed, in a society secularized by Occidentalism, not only is there no longer any tradition, but “every expression (novel, show, etc.) is made meaningful only by the intensity or novelty with which it denies some traditional ­value.” The goal is to ensure that “there is nothing that can be handed down . . . no more fatherland, or family.” Del Noce wrote these words in 1970, and since then the West has gone a long way toward vindicating his analysis.

By contrast, Del Noce regarded Russian civilization, even in its Soviet form, as the “last bastion of the sacral mindset in the field of politics.” As he put it in his 1970 essay, “The Death of the Sacred”:

Every young man knows by heart all possible disquisitions about “Russian imperialism.” Every intellectual keeps saying that by now we have entered the age of homo progressivus, and that demythologization is a sign of our maturity. Supposedly, Russia’s historical delay is due to the fact of [its] being, in part, still under the spell of myths.

Del Noce held that in order to live well, we need to be under “the spell of myths,” and the task of reason is to discern which myths are true. This task has a political dimension. The “idea of the ­holy city” as an “ordering center,” Del Noce argued, “is essential for affirming the reality of the sacred.” But in his lifetime, the West, obeying the atheist conclusions of nineteenth-century philosophy, had jettisoned any notion of an ordering center for society. The success of the project of secularization in the West gave rise to the “greatest paradox of contemporary history.” Del Noce explains the paradox: “Whereas Russia’s official atheism ‘guards’ an explicitly sacral myth,” the (apparently) “non-­atheist West” can resist Russian imperialism only by offering a more extreme form of secularization, in the form of a Western democracy that is “devoid of the sacred.”

Given both the accelerated secularization of Western society since the 1970s and the public revival of Orthodoxy in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union, the historical-philosophical values assigned by Del Noce to Russian and Western civilization have become only more pronounced. Already in 1970, Del Noce asked: “Who, in the West, still thinks about the unity of the religious and political spheres?” It seems that in Russia today, many people do think about this unity. Indeed, the aspiration toward realizing that unity has been one of the leading Western objections to Russian aims in Ukraine. The West holds that any effort to preserve or renew a distinctly religious civilization amounts to “illiberalism,” or some other crime against progress.

Put simply, the West holds that only secularized societies are good societies. As Del Noce might have predicted, this judgment underwrites the efforts of the West to extend the logic of ­atheism to Ukraine.

Exhibit A: The U.S.–Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership was signed in Washington, D.C. in November 2021. The charter reiterates the goal of “strategic partnership” (an ambiguous term used by diplomats to cover a range of meanings, but which seems here to mean a de facto alliance). This partnership entails Ukraine’s “full integration into European and Euro-Atlantic institutions.”

According to John Mearsheimer, the charter was the proximate cause of the Russian invasion. The military dimension of the partnership was an obvious provocation. The United States pledged to “maximize” Ukraine’s status as a “NATO Enhanced Opportunities Partner.” This maximization would be achieved by the United States’ promotion of “­interoperability,” while Ukraine promised to “modernize its defense acquisition processes” (buy more American weapons) to “advance its Euro-­Atlantic aspirations.”

But the “strategic partnership” entails more than military cooperation. The charter also affirms the logic and methods of secularization. In Section III (“Democracy and Rule of Law”), the United States again declares its intention to “integrate Ukraine fully into European and Euro-Atlantic structures.” The integration takes a cultural turn. Point Five commits Ukraine to “advancing respect for human rights, and fundamental freedoms in accordance with international commitments and obligations, as well as fighting racism, xenophobia, anti-­Semitism, and discrimination, including against Roma and members of the LGBTQI+ communities.”

One can condemn discrimination on the grounds of skin color and call for fair and charitable attitudes towards foreigners, ethnic minorities, and indeed all human beings as human beings. This has been done at various times in human history. But that is not the point. The strategic partnership is predicated on the conviction that these goods cannot be secured apart from the ­Occidentalist heresy.

Given our shared cultural heritage, if a strategic partnership between the United States and Ukraine requires a moral framework, why should the partners not invoke the Platonic universals, ­Aristotelian natural law, or the principles of the Sermon on the Mount? The answer is obvious: Such a framework would not sufficiently Westernize Ukraine. In the present global struggle, it is imperative for the United States to make Ukraine into something distinct from, and more secular than, its Russian neighbor. NBC quotes Edward Reese, “a nonbinary communications officer with KyivPride,” who says that when Ukrainians “see that homophobia, transphobia, sexism, racism are Russian values,” they “understand that they don’t want to have anything in common with Russia.”

The Economist reports that last year the Ukrainian Rada ratified, after a ten-year delay, the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention on Violence Against Women. The reason for the long wait was the convention’s use of the word “gender,” to which, says The Economist, “Church groups,” sensing a Trojan horse, objected. Apparently, those objections were dropped or overcome. Again, the war seems to have accelerated Ukraine’s embrace of Western secularization. Having now entered the Ukrainian body politic, “gender” (a term largely propagated by postmodern theorists to undermine the metaphysical foundations of sex) will doubtless work its way through law and social norms with the same relentless logic it has followed in the United States. And we can be sure that Western governments and NGOs will work hard to attain this outcome.

In other words, both the charter and subsequent developments confirm that the declared intention of the United States is to promote the secularization of Ukraine. It is not enough for Ukraine to enter Western military and political institutions; it must become Western culturally, and that requires a theological change. Both in theory and in practice, Ukraine is emerging as the newest province of the West’s empire of secularization.

Some will object that Del Noce’s representation of the West is too monolithic, too dependent on a single logic of secularization. Are there not many individuals and groups in the West who agitate for the reform of aspects of public policy in line with the claims of traditional religion, not least this magazine?

This objection misunderstands the nature of secularization. To paraphrase the American Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann, secularization is not merely to deny the existence of God or obstruct the practice of religion; it is also, and more profoundly, to confine God to the practice of religion. As Schmemann puts it, original sin is “not primarily that man has ‘disobeyed’ God; the sin is that he ceased to be hungry for Him and for Him alone, ceased to see his whole life depending on the whole world as a sacrament of communion with God.”

To put it another way, we might say that any political philosophy that does not take Plato seriously will end up reproducing secularization. The polis must be referred analogically to God. We need a myth of the holy city that serves as an ideal template for public life; otherwise our political reflection will be reduced to the immanent categories of human mind or will alone. This reduction to the purely immanent—secularization—obtains even if the polis respects religion and marks off a private domain in which adherents may practice it.

The clash of East and West puts an urgent question before those who believe in God, and therefore in the existence of a transcendent order of the Good, the True, and the ­Beautiful. How can Western democracy once again be infused with a sense of the sacred? How can we ­reframe the myth of the West’s “holy city”? What are the terms and foundations of the sacred polis that should illuminate and inform our ­society, raising our common life above concerns about material prosperity and making our freedom more than mere license?

Beware laments that the re-sacralization of Western civilization is unfeasible, impracticable, or inexpedient. Such laments confirm the progressive conceit that history’s judgment in favor of secularization is irreversible. To be sure, the encouragement given by Russia’s leaders to a certain re-sacralization of Russian public life may be cynical. We should have no illusions about the ways in which political power can abuse the sacred in pursuit of its own ends. But let us not overlook Russia’s achievement in the twenty-first century. Russian culture identifies a spiritual goal and norm for public life, the earthly counterpart of the holy city, and its name is not infrequently invoked in public discourse: Holy Rus. In this regard, Russian culture is closer to the truth than is the West’s all too rigorous political atheism.

There are traditional moral resources that allow one to judge the Russian military campaign in Ukraine an unjust aggression. Nobody would dispute the Ukrainians’ right to defend their homeland; patriotism would demand it. And an argument can be made that the United States has a duty to help them. But as men and women of faith, let us not be so foolish as to imagine that we have nothing to learn from our adversary.

Matthew Dal Santo is associate professor of Church history and dogmatics at St. Patrick’s Seminary and University in Menlo Park, California, and executive director of the Simone Weil Center for Political Philosophy. A longer version of this essay appeared in Telos 201 (Winter 2022).

Image by Image_Masters licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

This is the first of your three free articles for the month.
Read without Limits.
Stacked Mgazines