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Ukraine’s Illiberalism, and Ours

The incoherent nattering about religious liberty in Ukraine shows that “liberal values” are beside the point.

(Photo by YURIY DYACHYSHYN/AFP via Getty Images)

If the Ukraine war has a winner, surely it must be Patrick Deneen. Apparently both Russia and NATO are conspiring to prove that liberalism has well and truly failed. Russia’s case is more obvious, but NATO’s is far more interesting. Take, for instance, the recent clash between the Republican presidential candidate Mike Pence and Tucker Carlson over the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. 

For those who don't know, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) was founded in the 10th century by Byzantine missionaries, back when Kiev was the political and spiritual capital of the Slavic world. Until the 1990s, it remained formally united to the Moscow Patriarchate, also known as the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). The UOC has long since been surpassed, however, by the Orthodox Church in Ukraine (OCU).


The OCU traces its roots back to the 1920s, when Ukrainian nationalists made their first bid for a “patriotic” church. For decades, pro-Western politicians like Volodymyr Zelensky openly backed these patriotic churches—including the OCU—against the UOC for nakedly political reasons. So has NATO, as a matter of fact.

In the past, the Ukrainian government was content merely to seize UOC property and bequeath it to the OCU. Since Russia invaded Ukraine last year, however, Zelensky's government has waged all-out war against the UOC. Asset seizures have escalated, while members of the clergy are routinely arrested on trumped-up charges of collaborating with the Russians.

Even if the UOC were pro-Russian, the Zelensky government’s actions would violate the basic principles of liberalism. What’s insane is that the UOC's bishops have condemned the invasion repeatedly. They have also severed communion with the Patriarch of Moscow over his support for the war.

So, why does the Zelensky government hate the UOC? Because it's not anti-Russian. It doesn't reject Ukrainian Orthodoxy’s roots in the ROC. Culturally, it's more “Slavic.” Its priests are more likely to study in Russian seminaries. 

Zelensky and his comrades, then, are just plain old bigots. They’re like those American Protestants who complained that, because Catholic priests sometimes go to seminary in Europe, they must secretly be agents of the Habsburg Empire.


This is exactly the point Carlson was making in his exchange with Pence. He demanded to know why the former vice president, as a “prominent Christian leader,” failed to condemn Zelensky for persecuting the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Pence responded that he'd spoken with Zelensky and “the leader of the Orthodox Church” at “St. Michael’s in Kiev.” 

He assured me that the Zelensky government in Ukraine was respecting religious liberty even while recognizing that there were very small elements of the Russian Orthodox Church that were being utilized for advancing the Russian cause in Ukraine and they were taking steps to hold them to account.

First, St. Michael's is the headquarters of the OCU. The bishop of a pro-government church assured Pence that the government was respecting the religious freedom of its rival. Second, by the Russian Orthodox Church, he means (of course) the Ukrainian Orthodox. That’s a moniker used by the UOC’s opponents, both in Ukraine and the West. The ROC has no presence in Ukraine.

The Zelensky government hand-fed Pence this propaganda. Then, without a moment’s hesitation, he spewed it back out on international TV.

If Pastor Mike had spent just five minutes googling “Orthodoxy in Ukraine,” he could have spared himself this embarrassment. Of course, that's asking way too much from an American politician. What's striking is that conservative journalists—intelligent, thoughtful, informed chaps—are coming to his defense.

Over at National Review, for instance, Noah Rothman declares:

Ukrainian security services conducted raids on pro-Russian religious enclaves after, in one instance, congregants were filmed singing hymns to Russia’s “awakening.” At the regional level, Ukrainian authorities have pursued bans on the Russian-aligned Orthodox Church of Ukraine, citing the ways in which it “ideologically validates and supports the war, and justifies the war crimes that Russia commits on Ukrainian territory.”

It may be anathema to Americans, for whom the Bill of Rights is a civic religion, to violate the separation of church and state in wartime. But that is not the social covenant that prevails in Eastern Europe, and certainly not amid the closest thing the world has seen to total war since 1945. Those separations are observed by neither the state nor the church.

Here we have the perfect example of Rod Dreher's Law of Merited Impossibility. It will never happen, and when it does, you Russophiles will deserve it.

Michael Brendan Dougherty has done a bang-up job pointing out all the problems with Rothman’s article. Still, I do think there’s one further point that has to be made.

One could argue that Pence and Rothman have no idea what they're talking about. That would be correct. Yet, in both cases, that ignorance is totally willful. Neither of them really cares about religious freedom in Ukraine. 

Pence clearly doesn’t care, because he knows less about the issue than the average Fox News viewer. And Rothman clearly doesn’t care, because—well, he said so. He doesn’t actually believe that the principle of religious liberty established by our Constitution is self-evident, inalienable, established by “the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” In fact, he talks about the Bill of Rights the same way a Catholic integralist might—as though it’s some quirky American superstition, part of our “civil religion,” which Ukraine is right to reject. “It's good that Ukraine has no First Amendment,” he seems to say. “This way, they can really take a swing at reactionary Russkies.”

To be fair, I’m not a First Amendment absolutist either. Then again, no one is. That’s kind of the point.

Zelensky's apologists say the Ukrainian government must use illiberal means to defend liberal ends. But, of course, there are no such things as “liberal ends.” The whole point of liberalism is to be value-neutral. It’s only concerned with procedure. To a liberal, it shouldn’t matter whether Ukrainians are UOC or OCU or Catholic or Muslim or Scientologist—so long as every man gets to choose his own faith.

That’s not what Zelensky wants. It’s not what Pence wants. It’s not what Rothman wants. It’s not what anyone in the pro-Ukraine camp wants. And, for the record, I agree with Deneen: I don’t think they can see their own hypocrisy. They may even prefer religious liberty. But they won't insist on it. For them, the most important thing is to defeat the Russians. The ends justify the means.

This is the point that anti-interventionists have been making all along. NATO isn’t pro-Ukraine: It’s anti-Russian. We aren’t fighting to make Ukraine safe for “liberalism.” We're fighting to make the world safe for progressivism

Both Ukraine and Russia are corrupt oligarchies. Both countries’ rulers violently suppress their political opponents. Both countries were murdering civilians in Donbas before the 2022 invasion. The difference? Ukraine embraces Western decadence, while Russia rejects it

This is a war between ideologies: Russian illiberalism and Western illiberalism. Indeed, the War in Ukraine has exposed just how little our own ruling class—“conservatives” like Pence and Rothman included—care about freedom of religion.

No doubt that our elites would love to deal with Christian dissidents the way Zelensky has dealt with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (i.e., the same way China deals with the Roman Catholic Church). And when that shoe drops, there will be no shortage of “conservatives” to explain how much Christians love the taste of jackboot.