As Vladimir Putin’s Russia threatens the existence of a free Ukraine, it would be easy for American evangelicals to conclude that this is one more distant foreign policy question.
However, Putinism is much more than a geopolitical threat; it’s also a religious threat. And the question for evangelical Christians is whether the way of Vladimir Putin will become the way of the American church.
The threat to Ukraine hangs over far more than just the Ukrainian people. NATO worries about the stability of the European order. The US State Department worries about any remaining Americans, fearing a repeat of the Afghanistan debacle. Germans wonder whether their dependence on Russian natural gas will lead to an energy crisis. And the whole world worries about whether the move will embolden China to invade Taiwan.
Lost in all of this is another world figure contemplating his next move: the pope.
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s independence from the Russian Orthodox Church has been a firestorm of controversy since 2018. And in The Pillar, JD Flynn and Ed Condon explain that Ukrainian Catholic and Orthodox leaders are charging the Russian Orthodox Church with complicity in Putin’s military posturing towards the Ukraine and its people.
The question now, the authors note, is whether Pope Francis will meet any time soon with the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church—and if so, whether that would signal a tolerance for the potential subjugation of the Ukraine and its national church.
For American evangelicals, there are real questions too—not only about how we will respond to Putin’s use of religion for political purposes, but about whether we will emulate it.
Several years ago, before the tumult of the Trump era, I was seated with other evangelicals on a secular national news program that was broadcast on Easter morning. In one sense that weekend, we were all united—affirming together the most important truth of the cosmos: the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
At the time, I thought we just disagreed about a matter of foreign policy. But looking back now I can see that, at least for some evangelicals, there was a larger disagreement we didn’t yet know existed: the question of what “Christian values” are in the first place.
Take the issue of abortion. Not only is the abortion rate in Russia high, but even when pro-government forces articulate something akin to a “pro-life” view, it is usually in terms of curbing demographic decline, rather than protecting vulnerable human lives.
The animating principle is not “Every life is precious” but “Make Russia great again.” This is even more pronounced in the Russian government’s treatment of the children who are filling orphanages and “baby hospitals” around the country.
Without a vibrant adoption culture in the former Soviet Union, many of these children age out of the system and enter into terrifying lives of immediate substance abuse, sexual exploitation, and suicide. But that didn’t stop Putin from doing everything he could to end the adoption of these orphans by Americans and others—all as a salve for the wounded Russian national pride and a geopolitical game of strength.
The situation is even worse when one looks at Putin’s response to the gospel itself. He has carefully cultivated the Russian Orthodox Church—even to the point of approving mosaics of himself, Stalin, and the Crimean invasion to be installed in a Russian Orthodox cathedral dedicated to the military.
Moreover, the Russian regime has relentlessly pursued snuffing out the freedoms of minority religions—especially those of the relatively tiny band of evangelicals and evangelical missionaries from abroad.
Why would Putin—a former KGB official who said that the end of the Soviet Union was an awful disaster—want to partner with a church? Perhaps it is because he believes, along with Karl Marx, that religion can be a useful tool for maintaining political power.
And, indeed, religions are useful when they focus on protecting nationalism and national honor. Religions can turn already-passionate feelings of tribalism and resentment of outsiders into transcendent and unquestionable sentiments. All of that makes perfect Machiavellian sense—unless Jesus is, in fact, raised from the dead.
If only this tendency were limited to the former Soviet Union, we might have the luxury of ignoring it. Pay attention, though, to anyone who looks behind the former Iron Curtain to find the future.
Many religious conservatives—most notably Roman Catholics, but some evangelical Protestants too—have allied themselves with Hungary’s authoritarian strongman, Viktor Orbán. As libertarian commentator Matt Welch notes, the Hungarian prime minister “makes for an odd champion of American-style Christendom.”
“Abortion is uncontroversially legal in Hungary, the people aren’t particularly religious, and Orbán has exercised kleptocratic control over churches that dare to dissent from his policies,” Welch argues. The key reason for the attraction to Eastern European strongmen, Welch concludes, is that they fight the right enemies and “win.”
If this were just a skirmish between those of us who believe in liberal democracy and those who find it expendable, that would be one thing. But the other, larger problem with this authoritarian temptation is the gospel itself.
If the church is simply a cultural vehicle for national stability and pride, then one can hardly expect dictators to do anything other than manipulate it. But if the church is made up, as the Bible says, of “living stones” brought in by regenerated hearts through personal faith in Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 2:4–5), then external conformity to a set of values for civilization falls woefully short of Christianity.
That would be true even in a place that promoted more-or-less Christian values. Yet it’s all the more true when the church is blessing an authoritarian leader, like Putin, who is known by his own people for poisoning his enemies.
In the latter case, the witness of the church itself is at stake—because a religion that dismisses bloodthirsty behavior doesn’t even believe its own teachings on objective morality, much less in a coming judgment seat of Christ. Why would anyone listen to such a religion on how to find peace with God and gain entrance into the life to come?
Evangelical Christians should watch the way of Vladimir Putin—and we should recognize it whenever we are told that we need a Pharaoh or a Barabbas or a Caesar to protect us from our real or perceived enemies.
Whenever that happens, we should remember how to say, in any language; “Nyet.”
Russell Moore leads the Public Theology Project at Christianity Today.