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Putin, Our Tsar-Protector?

Why some religious conservatives and traditionalists in the West look to the Russians as allies

Let me do a related post to today’s earlier one, about the Church and globalism. 

The New York Times had a story the other day, talking about how white racists and other extreme-right leaders in the West have come to look to Putin as their leader. It was typical Times bias: leading with the (alas, undeniable) fact that some very nasty characters in the West look on Putin as an inspiration, as a way of getting into a story about Putin’s rising influence in the West. Excerpt:

But efforts by Russia, which has jailed some of its own white supremacist agitators, to organize and inspire extreme right-wing groups in the United States and Europe may ultimately prove more influential.

His voice amplified by Russian-funded think tanks, the Orthodox Church and state-controlled news media, like RT and Sputnik, that are aimed at foreign audiences, Mr. Putin has in recent years reached out to conservative and nationalist groups abroad with the message that he stands with them against gay rights activists and other forces of moral decay.

He first embraced this theme when, campaigning for his third term as president in early 2012, he presented Russia not only as a military power deserving of international respect, but also as a “civilizational model” that could rally all those in Russia and beyond who were fed up with the erosion of traditional values.

The Kremlin has also provided financial and logistical support to far-right forces in the West, said Peter Kreko, an analyst at Political Capital, a research group in Budapest. Though Jobbik, a neo-Nazi party in Hungary and other groups have been accused of receiving money from Moscow, the only proven case so far involves the National Front in France, which got loans worth more than $11 million from Russian banks.

Russia also shares with far-right groups across the world a deeply held belief that, regardless of their party, traditional elites should be deposed because of their support for globalism and transnational institutions like NATO and the European Union.

This story exemplifies the problem mainstream American media have trying to understand the forces changing our politics. It’s not that the story is wrong, necessarily (though it may be). It’s that the reporter seems to view greater sympathy for Putin and Putin’s Russia on the Right as confirmation that this is an expression of white racism and recrudescent fascism. Again, in the case of someone like Heimbach (a racist convert to Orthodoxy who was excommunicated by his bishop for his public racist activism), it plainly is. But framing Putin sympathy in such stark and alarmist terms — as the media tended to frame Trump sympathy — obscures far more than it illuminates.

For example, in the summer of 2015, when I was in Italy, I spoke to two young Catholic men who expressed sympathy for Putin. I don’t know the hearts of these men, who were strangers to me, but they looked extremely unlikely to turn up at a rally for the far right. From the context of our conversations, they were ordinary middle-class conservative Catholics who had come to believe that European governing elites did not have their interests at heart, and who (the elites) were committed to de-Christianizing Europe at every opportunity. These two men, in my judgment, looked favorably on Putin not because they were Russophiles or seeking to convert to Orthodoxy — they were quite firmly Catholic — but because they respected the fact that he is a strong leader who embraces his country’s Christian religious heritage, and seeks to defend it and its teachings, especially against cultural liberals whose views on sex and gender are destroying the traditional family.

And you know what? I agreed with them, broadly. I told them that as an Orthodox Christian, I am deeply concerned about the way Putin is using the Russian Orthodox Church to advance Russian nationalism. I oppose it when the churches in America enmesh themselves in nationalistic tropes and rhetoric, not because I fear that religion is going to influence the state, but the other way around. Similarly in Russia, though I am well aware that the historic relationship between the Russian church and the Russian state is radically different than that between an Enlightenment-era state (the US) and its churches. It’s absurd and unfair to expect the same separation of Church and State in older countries that we have in the US. Nevertheless, my belief is that we should always remain vigilant against the Church being compromised by the power of the State.

That said, one doesn’t have to believe that Putin is an angel in order to respect some of what he does, and even to be grateful for it. I am reminded of Megan McArdle’s column the other day about conservative Evangelicals who voted for Trump. Excerpt:

I’ve heard from a number of evangelicals who, despite their reservations about the man, ended up voting for Donald Trump because they fear that the left is out to build a world where it will not be possible to hold any prominent job while holding onto their church’s beliefs about sexuality. Discussions I’ve had in recent days with nice, well-meaning progressives suggest that this is not a paranoid fantasy. An online publisher’s witch hunt against two television personalities — because of the church they attend — validates the fears of these Christians.

When you think that you may shortly see your church’s schools and your religious hospitals closed, and your job or business threatened in the private sphere by the economic equivalent of “convert or die,” you will side with whoever does not seem to set its sights on your conservative beliefs. If that side is led by an intemperate man who more than occasionally says awful things … well, at least he doesn’t want to destroy you.

In that light, is it really so difficult to see why social and religious conservatives in the West would look favorably in some respects on Vladimir Putin?

The neoreactionary writer Ash Milton frames (accurately, in my view) the current culture war as a clash between religions — one of which doesn’t understand itself as a faith. Excerpts:

Even Christianity, where unity of belief is far more important, has tremendous philosophical diversity. The Catholic Church claims both the humanist Erasmus and the arch-reactionary anti-humanist Joseph de Maistre in its ranks. Now progressivism is an ideology, not a religion as such, and its claims aren’t spiritual in nature. That’s why people from a variety of religions can profess to it. But religious believers can also argue and contradict each other all they like, so long as their views don’t contradict the core beliefs of the religion. Neither religion nor ideology depends on total metaphysical agreement in order to unite a society.

So what sort of agreement do they depend on? Well, as we saw above, what unites Shinto, Buddhism, Christianity, and Hinduism is that each of them operates in society through certain rituals, creeds, and ideas. Specifically, certain behaviours, actions, and attitudes become considered desirable. If a religion becomes institutional and widely recognized, adherence to these norms becomes a necessity for social respectability. Personally, I prefer thinking of them as memeplexes. A memeplex is a system of memes (ideas or behaviours) which is internally consistent and self-reinforcing. Memes compatible with the system become selected for, while those incompatible with it are rejected. In daily life, this means that certain behaviours become socially respectable and others cause one to be ostracized. Some ideas and attitudes are good and proper, others are bad and dangerous. In Catholic Spain, piety toward God was praiseworthy. In Communist Russia, it was considered superstitious and condemned. Spain operated on one memeplex, Russia on another. In modern Russia, protecting the traditional Christian form of marriage is viewed by many as patriotic. In more and more of the West, it’s condemned as bigoted and loses people jobs. Now Russia’s memeplex has changed, and I’ll make the case below that the West operates on yet a third one.

Milton contends that the memeplex of secular liberalism has displaced the traditional memeplex in the West, and within secular liberalism, ideologically charged egalitarianism is shoving classical liberalism to the side. All that talk about more freedom is fast disappearing on the Left, as it has gained power within institutions. More:

This is where neoreaction asks an uncomfortable question: what happened to all that freedom?

After all, the goal of liberalism was to create a society where freedom of thought and expression was encouraged. Wasn’t that the point? Weren’t we meant to be beyond having the state impose its values on people? Wasn’t questioning orthodoxy something to be celebrated? With the memeplex idea, it’s easier to understand the shift. When a memeplex becomes culturally dominant, it becomes more and more difficult to empathize with those who disagree with it. After all, those who think or act differently from the memeplex are bad. Now, when society is divided 50-50 between those who believe in traditional Christian morality and those who don’t, each side has a choice: demonize half the population or just say “fine, but you shouldn’t impose that on other people”. If only 5% of the population believes that premarital sex is sinful or that valid marriage must occur between heterosexuals, then it’s easier to demonize them for holding the belief at all even when they pose no threat. When hippies were a derided minority, social progressives believed in freedom of speech at a cultural level, not just a political one. After all, it’s no fun getting fired because you want the troops back from Vietnam. But in our day, progressive rhetoric has changed. Now the goal is to restrict where free speech should apply to the legal minimum. In other words, as a memeplex becomes dominant, freedom becomes less important and uniformity increases. As it becomes institutionalized, it’s necessary to agree with the memeplex in order to be respectable. Even parents face these questions. Parts of the Chinese community in Vancouver have opposed cultural progressive influences in schools. The position of the schools is that children have to learn about things like LGBT issues somehow. The hidden assumption is that these programs will help them learn the right mindset. The good mindsetThe mindset of decent and respectable people. Someone’s orthodoxy has to win out.

This is why neoreactionaries say that social progressivism acts as a religion. One more passage from Milton:

Like the Russians a century ago, this generation in the West has experienced the victory of a new memeplex. What makes this memeplex fundamentally different is that it doesn’t claim the authority which religion does, or even like other political ideologies do. It insists that tolerance and personal freedom, free from judgement, are the Most Important Thing. Can’t we all just get along? But this is a delusion. In order for societies to function, commonality of values and visions must exist. Even a society which values tolerance above all else draws the line somewhere. Inevitably, certain ideas win out. Certain attitudes gain cultural dominance. Others become unfashionable, disrespectful, or outright heretical. Only bad people say or do those things. True, the new memeplex isn’t necessarily a religion, united in a single institution. But when all is said and done, when new orthodoxies are in place and new groups of heretics are shamed, purged, and punished, the only major difference is that the Church knew what it was.

Read the whole thing. It’s quite rewarding and illuminating.

So: Vladimir Putin is a global leader who openly rejects and defies this memeplex, which dominates Europe even more than it does America. Finally, religious people may say, somebody stands up without apology to these people who are trying to crush us. If somebody’s orthodoxy has to win out, and the social progressives’ ideology is driving social conservatives, especially conservative Christians, out of the public square, then what kind of masochists would disdain Putin because the people who hate them also hate him?

It is vital that we on the Right work hard to remain clear-eyed about this. To that end, I want to present a blog entry by the Austrian sociologist of religion Kristina Stöckl, writing about the EU, Russia, religion, and fear.  Excerpt:

We know from historical research that religious diplomacy during Soviet Communism was little more than a propaganda tool, with representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church offering expertise on such far-off topics like the neutron bomb in order to back up the Soviet leadership in the global peace movement. There can also be no doubt that the present Russian government has endorsed “the defense of traditional values” as ideological narrative to justify authoritarianism domestically and anti-liberalism internationally. And yet, the argument that today, just like then, religious actors are at the service of an omnipotent Russian government which employs them for their propaganda efforts, is too simplistic.

The reality of religious engagement in politics, in Russia as well as anywhere else, is more complicated than a command chain. In my book The Russian Orthodox Church and Human Rights, I have shown that over the last twenty years, the Russian Orthodox Church has made a prolonged effort to define its position vis-à-vis liberal democracy, secularism and the international human rights regime, long before the Russian government replaced the slogans of modernization of the Medvedev years with the traditional values of Putin’s third presidency. The language of traditional values as a counter-term to individual liberty had been around in the Russian Orthodox context for a while before the Kremlin picked up on it. Conservative Orthodox actors share this critique of liberalism and secularism with conservative religious actors elsewhere in Europe and the United States; not least with conservative Catholics in Poland, where the government of the Law and Justice Party is currently running its own traditional values agenda; only that in Poland, as EU member, this agenda stays largely domestic. As an observer that is acutely aware of the multivocality inside the Russian Orthodox Church, the fact that the present Russian political leadership boosts one specific religious traditionalism inside the Church, which consents into a marriage of convenience and power, is indeed worrying. But the fact that this norm contestation is taking place in the first place, is not.

There’s a lot to unpack on her full post, but as someone who is probably a lot more sympathetic to the Russian line than Stöckl is, I am grateful for her insight here. We have to keep our eye on the ball here: that the Russian state really is using culture and religion as a propaganda weapon against the West. But that doesn’t make the moral and religious ideas the Russian state weaponizes wrong or illegitimate! Never forget that the United States does the very same thing to advance secular liberalism, especially LGBT advocacy (see here and here for only two examples). Again, as an Orthodox Christian, I worry about what the Russian government is doing with religion because of the risk of corruption of the Church — and, with the Yarovaya Law, actively persecuting Protestant forms of Christianity in Russia — but I am not at all bothered by the fact that the Russian government is active in the West in promoting traditional values over and against the post-Christian (and at times anti-Christian) dominant Western memeplex. In fact, though I am cautiously encouraged by it, because we’re getting pummeled here.

In the same way, I’m not excited about a Trump presidency, but I’m very, very grateful that for at least four years, my government will no longer act as an aggressive enemy of the faith and the faithful. That’s not nothing. So too with the Russian government. Nevertheless, I agree entirely with Prof. Stöckl that this “norm contestation” is taking place. I encourage socially liberal readers (even those who identify as Republicans) to imagine yourself in the position of social and religious conservatives in the West. If you do, you ought to be able to grasp why, exactly, we feel so threatened by progressive culture war aggression. You don’t see yourselves as advocates for a kind of religion, but that’s exactly what you are — and the fact that you don’t express your essentially religious convictions in the language of theology but of human rights and liberty doesn’t make them any less religious in the “memeplex” sense.

I don’t expect you to give up your convictions, but if you consider that to many of us religious conservatives and traditionalists, it’s clear that we are up against a “memeplex” that is every bit as fierce in defending its universalist truth claims as any religion, and that we are targeted for marginalization by faithful espousers of that memeplex, because we are not True Believers in it — well, that insight will help you understand better why the culture war continues. If you think, as the Times seems to, that this is only about white supremacists and neofascists rallying to Putin’s side, you are engaging in a kind of confirmation bias that keeps you from seeing what’s really going on.

And by the way, the “memeplex” idea as applied to this conflict will help American conservatives better understand the nature of this conflict too. The question that interests me more is not, “Why is Putin emerging as an advocate of traditional faith and morals?” but “Why do more and more Western Christians feel that they have no leaders in their own societies to look to for the same?”

Remember me telling you that after the Indiana RFRA debacle, we conservative Christians could not count on Republicans to protect our religious liberty? Well, well, well:

Senate Republicans agreed to remove a religious liberty amendment from a defense bill earlier this week, after a fierce campaign was waged against it by secular groups.

“The leadership of the 115th Congress must double down against, not concede to, ridiculous, fact-free accusations meant to derail legitimate lawmaking,” Kristina Arriaga, executive director of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, stated in response to the news that the Russell Amendment was pulled from the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act.

Back in 2014, President Obama signed an anti-discrimination executive order that prohibited any federal contractor from making employment decisions based on someone’s sexual orientation. There were no religious exemptions.

Thus, any religious group or charity contracting with the government might have to recognize same-sex marriages, for example.

In response, the Russell Amendment, named for the sponsor Rep. Steve Russell (R-Okla.) established protections for religious groups against this order.

For instance, under the proposed amendment the government would not be able to cancel a contract with a Christian group just because they only hired persons who lived in accordance with their church’s teaching.

However, Senate Democrats threatened to hold up the $618.7 defense authorizations bill unless the amendment was removed. Secular advocacy groups like the American Civil Liberties Union also pushed for its demise.

President Obama, an extremist on such matters, threatened to veto the entire bill if it contained this religious liberty provision. I suppose it is possible that Senate Republicans have assurances that the incoming president will restore the religious liberty protections that Obama removed by executive order in 2014, and they passed the bill without the Russell Amendment just to get it done, trusting that Trump will undo it. I hope that’s what happened. Still, note that Senate Republicans did not fight for the principle of religious liberty in this instance. We will know soon after President Trump takes office whether or not the Senate GOP move was motivated by justified prudence, or cowardice. The point, though, related to the themes of this post, is that hostility to traditional Christians, to the point of marginalizing us in society and commerce as evil bigots, is very powerful. Not so in Russia. Some of us notice that, and wonder why.