Earlier this month, I moderated a panel at Fordham University’s Orthodox Christian Studies Center on the nascent alliance between American Evangelicals and the Russian Orthodox Church. The panel brought together former Democratic and Republican administration officials and scholars of Russian Orthodoxy. The speakers had a variety of views, but the consensus on the panel was that an alliance is indeed forming on social and cultural issues, specifically gender and sexuality, and that this alliance will have a serious influence on domestic and global politics.
There appeared to be consensus on another point as well: that there is something strange about this alliance between American Evangelicals and the Russian Orthodox, that it needs explaining. Many commentators in the media have a ready explanation: The alliance is merely strategic, even fraudulent, characterized by ulterior motives on both sides. For American Evangelicals, the alliance is a spiritually dishonest way of attacking domestic adversaries at the expense of their own principles, a selling out. For the Orthodox, who favor restrictions on American Evangelicals inside Russia, the alliance is even more cynical, a continuation of tsarist and Soviet imperialism, which constantly sought clients to advance Russian interests on the world stage. The Russians, the argument goes, want American sanctions removed, and they see the Evangelicals as tools. As an Economist essay put it earlier this year, “the older sort of diplomacy seems to be coming back.”
With respect, I am skeptical of the consensus on both these points. First, I doubt that this alliance can be deep or long-lasting. True, some Evangelical leaders have spoken well lately of Vladimir Putin, who makes Orthodoxy a major part of his public image, and some Evangelical organizations have cooperated with the Russian Orthodox Church in international conferences on the family. But profound differences in belief and practice exist, which will be very difficult to overcome, assuming either side even wishes to overcome them. Evangelicals are not likely to see the value of venerating icons, for example, and the Orthodox are not likely to accept Evangelical ecclesiology. An alliance between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, which share much more in terms of practice and spirituality, would make more sense. I also wonder how many people outside the leadership know about the nascent alliance or take it seriously. International conferences are one thing; actual commitment in the pews (assuming there are pews!) is quite another.
Nevertheless—and here is the second point—if an alliance is forming, it does not strike me as necessarily insincere. Politics no doubt play a role. But Evangelicals and Orthodox may also see each other, genuinely, as allies in a conflict with an aggressive progressivism that sets the agenda in the US and on the world stage. Religious conservatives could easily feel under siege and look for reinforcements. Consider recent developments in the US. The contraception mandate and cases such as Obergefell and Masterpiece Cakeshop could lead conservative Evangelicals to think that progressives have targeted them for payback; I suppose progressives would call it a justified comeuppance. During the oral argument in Obergefell, for example, in response to a question from the Court, the solicitor general suggested that religious institutions that object to same-sex marriage could see their tax-exempt status revoked. This wasn’t just a media pundit making an offhand comment—this was a high-ranking administration lawyer making a formal public statement.
On the global stage, Western advocates define international human rights in an increasingly progressive way, especially on issues of gender and sexuality. Traditionalist Christians like the Russian Orthodox could genuinely think that their worldviews are quickly becoming inadmissible in human-rights fora. How long will it be, they may wonder, before same-sex marriage is declared an international human right, and countries that refuse to endorse it are labeled human-rights pariahs? And how long before transgenderism is added to the categories of protected status? One can see recent standoffs in Geneva on so-called traditional values resolutions as manifestations of a conflict between two rival conceptions of human dignity: one, supported by most Western advocates, that focuses on individual autonomy; and the other, proposed by voices from the global East and South, that focuses on traditional understandings of human nature.
American Evangelicals, at least conservative Evangelicals, may genuinely admire the Russian Orthodox Church, and Putin too, for refusing to give in to the new progressive ascendancy. Christopher Caldwell recently said that Putin plays the same role for traditionalists today that Castro did for progressives sixty years ago. They don’t agree with everything he stands for, or admire him personally. But on the big issues they care about, Putin stands up to powerful forces they see as threats.
One should not dismiss an alliance between American Evangelicals and the Russian Orthodox as simply cynical. The alliance may be partly one of convenience, and it may not last. But it seems to me a genuine alliance, based on the identification of, and resistance to, what both sides perceive as a common threat, namely a progressivism that wants to push traditionalist conservatives off the stage. In the battle of ideas and values, in America and in international fora, Evangelicals and Russian Orthodox find themselves on the same side, notwithstanding their theological differences.
You can watch a video of the Fordham panel here.