The religious right, at least before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, surprisingly showed a lot of sympathy for Russia and its leader. Some see Russia as the last stand against the evils of fluid modernity, progressivism and sealing. For them, Russia is a symbol of a fearless Christian conservatism very close to state power and willing to use that power to achieve their sacred goals.
This interpretation is common among evangelicals. An article by 2018 published in Christianity Today said that Russian intervention in Syria – and, by extension, the Assad regime that protects Christians – has led many evangelicals to consider Russia “the good guys in the cradle of Christendom.” In 2015, evangelical leader Franklin Graham visited Russia and had a pleasant meeting with President Vladimir Putin. In addition, the Evangelical World Congress of Families maintains a close relationship with Russian Christians. The group is also popular with conservative Catholics. Daily Wire contributor Michael Knowles, himself a practicing Catholic, praised the Russian army’s hype that “makes the progressive US army look weak and pathetic.”
Catholic professor Jason Morgan, in an article published in January 75 in Crisis Magazine, also says that ‘according to many, including myself, Putin is a Christian who is leading a Christian people (…) To be more blunt, if God is on one side of this mess in Ukraine, He will be on the side of the Christian armies, no?” Morgan goes so far as to describe Russia as “a Christian power plant with an issue to settle with history”. While much of the praise for Putin has (perhaps temporarily) faded in tone with the invasion of Ukraine, it’s hard to ignore the recent history of the religious right’s shameless admiration for Russia, even just days before Russia launched its attack.
Putin clearly seeks to portray himself as a “defender of Christians”, a defense exemplified by Russia’s defense of vulnerable Christian communities in Syria. He is also seen as a partner to a religious right that is increasingly under siege for defending conservative values such as containment of the LGBT movement and support for the traditional family. He often mentions the Russian Orthodox Church in his speeches and has offered the church a more prominent role in Russian political life. This was welcomed by conservative Christians. Graham enthusiastically praised Russian laws against “homosexual propaganda.” Almost a decade ago, Pat Buchanan asked if Putin was a “paleoconservative” and “one of us”.
But should contemporary Russia really be put on a pedestal? For all of Putin’s rhetoric, it is important to analyze Russia’s trends in religion and morals before deeming it worthy of being copied.
At least it is quite true that until 75% of Russians identify as Christian, most of them Orthodox. It’s a huge change from the end of the Cold War, when only a third of Russians identified as Orthodox Christians. Still, only 6% of the population attend church regularly and the number of Russians attending Easter Mass has declined in recent years. Research by 1991 suggested that this just means that Russians today feel more comfortable expressing their beliefs. “It may be that after the fall of the USSR in 1991, Russians feel freer to express the religious identity they kept secret in the Soviet era” .
Whatever the reason for this disparity between religious practice and affiliation, it translates into an orthodoxy that is more or less nominal. If Russian Orthodox Christians do not go to Easter Mass, one can safely conclude that faith is not that important to them. On the other hand, and while it’s true that Americans have also been going to church frequently, approximately one-third of Americans still go to church several times a month. In other words, five times more Americans, compared to Russians, attend church regularly.
To analyze the occurrence of certain disorders social issues also help to clarify the character of contemporary Russia. Let’s think about the crux of the culture war in the United States: abortion. Even though abortion rates in Russia have been falling for decades, the country is still one of the world’s leaders in abortions, with more than one abortion for every two births. In addition, analyzes assess that the reason for the drop in abortion rates in the country is not opposition to it, but the easy access to contraceptive methods. As a medical study by 75 explained, abortion was the only form of family planning available to Russians during the Soviet Union. Although the country’s fertility rate has increased slightly in the last twenty years, it remains low, which indicates that there are still obstacles to convincing Russians to have children.
Although the United States also have problems with the fertility rate, the number of miscarriages in relation to pregnancies that end is less than 20%, or almost half of what is observed in Russia. As in Russia, the abortion rate in the US is also on the decline, in part due to greater access and use of contraceptives. And there is still a strong opposition to abortion, which can be seen from the fact that 26 states intend to ban abortion if necessary Roe vs. Wade is reversed.
Other indicators point to the deep moral chaos that defines the life of many Russians and which goes far beyond that of the Americans. The rate of alcoholism in Russia is one of the highest in the world — the average Russian over 20 years old drinks the equivalent of almost liters of ethanol per year (North Americans also drink a lot, but alcohol consumption is almost half of what is seen among the Russians). Until the decade of 1980, the Russian government saw alcohol as an important source of income for the State and, therefore, did not fight alcoholism. It is now too late and excessive drinking is something that is ingrained in Russian society. There are no national programs to combat alcoholism, as you can read in this article by 2013 published by Atlantic.
There are other manifestations of social decay. Drug trafficking and consumption is growing at alarming levels in Russia, which gives us a different perspective on the opioid epidemic in the United States. The rate of domestic violence is also so high in Russia that it is often called a pandemic — “If he hits you, he loves you” is a common phrase in Russian society. The country’s divorce rate is the third highest in the world (after the Maldives and Kazakhstan) and divorces are on the rise. The most common reason for divorce in Russia is poverty. Russia’s troubles make America’s troubles seem less catastrophic.
The other dimension of the idealized view that conservative Christians hold of Russia concerns foreign policy. The defense of the Assad regime in Syria, while pragmatic and driven by self-interest, has helped to save Christian communities in Syria, as Moscow supporters say. Behind Russia’s plans for the world is its aim to become the “Third Rome”, taking its orthodoxy across Eastern Europe and Central Asia, according to Western Russophiles. The reality is a little more complicated and suggests that Russia’s actions have little or nothing to do with protecting and expanding Christendom.
Only in the West does Russia use its military power and support economic aid to help socialist regimes that even persecute Christians. In Cuba, Christian leaders are opposed by the government, churches are often destroyed or taken over (no new churches have been built in the country since the revolution), and access to Bibles is restricted. Former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez called himself the true heir of Christ, calling the bishops perverts and degenerates. His successor, Nicolás Maduro, also maintains an adversarial relationship with the Catholic Church. In Nicaragua, the government persecutes the Catholic clergy, and in August 2021, the vice president (and the president’s wife) called Catholic bishops “demons”. Russia supports both the Cuban and Nicaraguan regimes.
Russia’s other allies are not exactly paradigms of religious freedom. Among them are China (the country that most persecutes Christians in the world), Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajakistan. Apart from Armenia and Belarus, a predominantly Orthodox country, the other Central Asian countries are predominantly Muslim, and the organization Open Doors USA cites the three as countries with some degree of persecution of Christians.
Russia does not it is a “Christian power plant”. This narrative is nothing more than an easily contested propaganda campaign created by the ruling kleptocracy. Russia struggles not only to preserve religious tradition – despite increasing transfers of resources from the government to the Orthodox Church – but also to protect and preserve families from drug use, domestic violence and widespread corruption. Russia is a country whose leaders promote a version of Russia that has little to do with the reality of everyday life for its people.
In many ways, the United States is, indeed, a postmodern country. -Christian, which is clear when you look at the number of atheists and agnostics among the younger generation. But if Russia is “a Christian power plant”, one would expect the country to be at least more religious than the United States, its great adversary. What is seen, however, is the opposite.
What is the lesson of this for North Americans? Perhaps the most important is that we realize that while politicians or leaders in a country fill their mouths about preserving and defending the Christian faith, government action is limited in terms of influencing or stopping broad social trends. Even though the United States still appears to be a more Christian nation than Russia, the demographic trend suggests that within a generation or two we will have similar levels of religiosity to Russia and Western Europe. And that, say several sociologists, will have disastrous social and economic consequences. If religion is in decline among the population, there is not much that politicians, even those guided by noble motives, can do to reverse this situation.
This is yet another reason for North Christians -Americans to stick to their “closest outside” – their families, church, communities. Available data show that when religious families are united, the children of those families are more likely to keep the faith. When children see this forming faith reinforced by the people they meet in the church and in their communities, they are more likely to stay in the faith or return to it later. Of course, we must vote for politicians who intend to rescue Christian values. But we cannot have them as a panacea in this secular age. As the psalmist says, “Put not your trust in princes.”
Casey Chalk is editor of the New Oxford Review.