Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Russian Trads And Western Sympathizers

A new counter-modern rapprochement between the churches of East and West

A couple of weeks ago, Sohrab Ahmari identified me as a Putinist. This came as a shock to me, as I have written critically of the Russian president, of whom I am not an admirer in most, but not all, respects. But that’s just it. Here’s Ahmari:

For the author and American Conservative journalist Rod Dreher, the redemptive promise of Putin is a constant theme. In December, Mr. Dreher wrote of meeting two young Catholics in Italy who viewed Mr. Putin favorably, as 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.” Mr. Dreher added: “And you know what? I agreed with them, broadly.” He carved out some of his reservations about the Putinist project but then concluded: “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.”

No thanks. Even if you, like me, concur in the underlying diagnosis—that the West has become unmoored from its Judeo-Christian foundations, that liberalism has gone too far in eroding traditional authority and moral precepts—the Putin Option is no cure. And it entails hazards that could prove ruinous to the cause of reversing the West’s spiritual fortunes.

A “constant theme”? Really? Ahmari must not read this blog. I stand by what I said in that piece from 2015 that Ahmari quotes. I do respect some of what Putin does, and am grateful for it. That is not the same thing as supporting or otherwise endorsing Putin, whose relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church is only one of the many things about his government that trouble me. But I said what I said back then in part because so many of my fellow Americans are so reflexively anti-Putin, and anti-Russian, that they can’t see why so many Russians like him, and that he is right about some things — some important things, and we religious and social conservatives in the West ought to pay attention. Ahmari’s viewpoint appears to come down to “if you don’t hate Putin without reservation, then you are a Putin apologist.” This is absurd.

What Ahmari doesn’t seem to grasp is that Russia, and Russian Orthodoxy, are more than just the person and government of Vladimir Putin — and that they have something important to offer to Christians in the West struggling to find our footing in the post-Christian order. Writing in The Atlantic, Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins and Brittany Pheiffer Noble explore the growing ties between Russian and Western religious conservatives and traditionalists. Excerpts:

But even as Bannon and various religious leaders seek to pit the values of Christianity against those of Islam, there is also an internal competition to decide who gets to define Christian traditionalism. Two of the main players in this competition, American Christian traditionalists—including conservative Catholics like Bannon as well as evangelicals like Franklin Graham—and Russian Orthodox, are united in their desire to save Christendom from the perceived threat of radical Islam. But buried underneath that superficial agreement is a complex disagreement as to what Christendom even means.

Well, for the record, I do see resurgent Islam within Europe to be a civilizational threat there, but I think those who see Islam as the greatest threat to Christianity today are missing the fact that Western-style individualism, consumerism, and hedonism are far more toxic to Christianity. But let’s continue with this long passage from the Atlantic piece, indicating that this story is a lot more complicated than Ahmari seems to understand:

Yet Bannon suggested that Putin is not really interested in conservatism but in changing Western perceptions of Russia, and for one main purpose: “At the end of the day, I think that Putin and his cronies are really a kleptocracy, that are really an imperialist power that want to expand.” Putin, according to Bannon, must be viewed with a great deal of suspicion. Bannon seems to think that conservative groups in the United States, like those associated with the anti-gay World Congress of Families, are being hoodwinked by Putin on these very grounds.

In addition to his suspicions about Putin himself, Bannon also highlights differences between Judeo-Christian traditionalism and the thinking of Alexander Dugin, who he (hyperbolically) credits as being the intellectual mastermind of the traditionalist movement in Russia. In contrast to mainline American social conservatives, Dugin sees the anti-globalism and anti-Americanism of certain expressions of Islam as having much in common with his own distinctive brand of traditionalism. In fact, Dugin views conservative American evangelicalism as an aberration from historical Christianity, and a cipher for neoliberal capitalism.

In contrast to Bannon’s realpolitik, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian minister of foreign affairs, has called for a greater long-term cooperation with the West—for a “partnership of civilizations” to combat modern geopolitical problems, especially ISIS. In his words, “We believe that universal human solidarity must have a moral basis resting on traditional values which are essentially common for all of the world’s leading religions. I would like to draw your attention to the joint statement made by Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia and Pope Francis, in which they reiterated their support for the family as a natural center of life for individuals and society.” The same values that motivate Russia’s foreign policy (especially its role in the Middle East) are, to Lavrov, the bedrock of the Christian civilization represented by the Patriarch and the pope.


Meanwhile, the major moral actor in Russia—the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC)—has worked hard to influence “pro-family” legislation in the state. Family values are more than just principles in Russia; they’re also a cornerstone of efforts to repopulate a nation after the collapse of the Soviet Union led to plummeting birthrates and soaring emigration. The government enacted a variety of social plans to counter its demographic freefall, and in 2016 Russia boasted a 1.8 percent fertility rate, higher than all but a few countries in the EU. While the government’s project to grow its population has been framed in vaguely patriotic terms, for conservative groups and the Orthodox Church, low fertility rates are linked with a larger collapse of the nuclear family and, in turn, of society—a symptom of a problem of Western decadence. Russia as a nation has adopted the Orthodox Church’s challenge to Western progressivism, and the message is resonating with American conservatives like Franklin Graham.

Here is where the ROC and ultra-conservative Russians have found allies in the West, and in particular among evangelicals: In a global fight for traditional families, it falls to them to promote heterosexual marriage, childbearing, and adoption as part of an overarching defense of “civilization.” Masha Gessen recently wrote about how the World Council of Families has found an eager audience in the post-Soviet world (namely Russia and the Republic of Georgia), where wealthy conservatives have joined forces to promote the traditional family and to slow or repeal pro-LGBT legislation. The scholar Kristina Stoeckl has charted how the ROC has become involved in issues of religious freedom in the EU. These Russian-led efforts, Stoeckl noted, are not unlike other international groups promoting a clear set of values and trying to enact corresponding legislation; the difference here is that we’re seeing an emergence of Christian traditionalist, rather than progressive, global coalitions.

Yes, exactly. Why shouldn’t Christian traditionalists unite to work on issues of common concern? Since the publication of The Benedict Option a couple of weeks ago, I’ve had e-mails from sympathetic Catholics in various European countries. The conditions they face in their own societies are not precisely the ones American believers face, but they share the general outlook of the book, and are eager to work together when we can — even if, for now, that’s just praying for each other. If we can help each other beyond simply praying for each other, then let’s do it. Traditionalist Christians in the US at times have more in common with fellow traditionalists overseas than we do with our American co-religionists who are satisfied with being the dwindling religious auxiliary of secular, technocratic liberalism, in both its Republican and Democratic versions.

One more excerpt:

Russian conservatives, led by the Orthodox Church, frame their need for moral conservatism and family values as a different type of freedom. Russian moral leaders insist that theirs is a freedom of association, the freedom to adhere to tradition rather than to the “totalitarian freedom” of the capitalist, pluralist West. In the words of Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, the West offers “freedom from moral principles, from common human values, from responsibility for one’s actions. We see how this freedom is destructive and aggressive. Instead of respect for the feelings of other people, it preaches an all-is-permitted attitude.”

Alfeyev has framed this battle as one to be fought by an alliance of conservative Christians, ones who can no longer count on their liberal co-religionists to stand on the right side of history. Theirs is a battle for the very heart of Western civilization. And when it comes to social values, the ROC now has the state on its side.

Can America say the same? Bannon represents his own brand of conservative Catholicism in the White House, but can American evangelicals count on Donald Trump to represent their concerns or do they need to look beyond the state for institutions of moral traditionalism? And if American evangelicals and conservative Russian Orthodox believers join forces, will they be able to overcome the reality that each of their creeds sees the other as heretical?

I agree with Metropolitan Hilarion, just as I agree with the Polish Catholic philosopher Ryszard Legutko, whose book The Demon In Democracy is a must-read (you can get a sense of his argument by reading the posts I did about him and his book.) That does not mean I endorse the presidency of Vladimir Putin, nor does it mean that I have to, any more than I have to endorse Trump’s presidency to say that he’s right about some things.

As to whether or not rival Christianities can work together to preserve our common heritage, let me offer a piece I wrote in the Wall Street Journal back in 2001, when some Orthodox monks were denouncing Pope John Paul II’s visit to Athens. Excerpt:

It must be said that not all Orthodox feel as the Greeks do. The ecumenical patriarch in Istanbul welcomed the papal visit; and the Syrian Orthodox, who share a relatively close relationship with Syrian Catholics, were much more hospitable. Still, as a Roman Catholic admirer of Orthodoxy, I was saddened by the Greek hostility. To my great relief, a (non-Greek) Orthodox priest friend shared my indignation. “John Paul II is the single person most responsible for the defeat of atheistic communism, and history will be very kind to him,” he said. “Calling for him to be cursed is just embarrassing.” My friend went on to explain, though, that Americans cannot grasp the way the Crusader sack of Constantinople in 1204 shaped the Greek Orthodox soul. True, the Crusaders behaved like barbarians; and no Roman Catholic today would defend them. But eight centuries is a long time to hold a grudge. And it’s not like the Orthodox have clean hands. The sack was preceded in 1182 by a massacre of Western Christians in that city. A cardinal was beheaded, and 4,000 Western Christians were sold into slavery.

Does the pope ask the latter-day Orthodox to apologize? Of course not. Nor does he ask the Russian Orthodox hierarchy to apologize for collaborating with the Soviets to steal Ukrainian Catholic churches six decades ago. Unlike his Orthodox counterparts, this pontiff lives in the real world. He understands that if Christianity is to survive, much less thrive, in the third millennium, believers cannot afford quarrels over past grievances. There are deep theological divisions between East and West, and any ecumenism that pretends otherwise is false. But isn’t working more closely to combat the functional nihilism that accompanies the spread of consumerist values a more pressing concern than fussing over the fate of the Filioque clause? The pope knows that the key question in the era of post modernism and globalization is not what brand of Christianity the world will follow; it is whether the world will follow Christianity at all.

I wrote that as a believing Catholic. Today I am a believing Orthodox Christian. But I stand by it, in the main, though happily, it would not have to be written today. The current leadership of the Russian church is more aware of the historical situation, and more willing to work with friendly and sympathetic elements in the Western churches.

We are in an unprecedented historical and geopolitical situation regarding Christianity. It is time for new ways of thinking. Old enemies may become new allies. We should not fear the conversation. As someone who was a strongly believing Roman Catholic, and who now is a strongly believing Orthodox (in the Russian tradition), I have seen first hand, from the inside, the strengths and the weaknesses of both churches, and what each has to offer the other, and to learn from the other. Pope St. John Paul II famously called on the church to “breathe with her two lungs” — East and West. This need not mean that Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants give up our doctrinal and ecclesiological claims, or water them down one bit. It does mean that we should work together to rediscover spiritual friendship, and to collaborate on practical concerns, such as strengthening the traditional family, which has been under sustained assault in both the East and the West for a very long time.

I’m reading a really interesting book right now, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, by the historian Yuval Noah Hariri. I find myself cheering it and arguing with it on every page (and I’ll be blogging about it when I’m done). I think this formulation from the book is brilliant:

[I]n fact, modernity is a surprisingly simple deal. The entire contract can be summarised in a single phrase: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power.

 If we traditional Christians cannot come together to stand against this, we’re doomed.

Let us approach each other with eyes wide open, but please, let us approach each other.



Want to join the conversation?

Subscribe for as little as $5/mo to start commenting on Rod’s blog.

Join Now