There is an undercurrent in some conservative circles which sympathizes with Vladimir Putin because he is a Christian leader of a Christian country.
For many years now, the Russian president has deployed his faith for political purposes, both domestically – he has the Russian Orthodox Church and its Patriarch, Kirill, firmly under his thumb – and foreign. Putin said, in 2013: “We see many Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilization. They are denying moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious and even sexual.”
He was at it again this week, in his big speech on the anniversary of his bungled invasion of Ukraine. The West’s attitude, he said, “is all about the destruction of the family, of cultural and national identity, perversion and abuse of children, including paedophilia, all of which are declared normal in their lives… Millions of people in the West realize they are being led to a spiritual disaster Frankly, the elite appear to have gone crazy…”
It’s not like that in Mother Russia: “We will protect our children from degradation and degeneration,” said the man who has orphaned and deported thousands of infants and teenagers.
Ever since watching General Galtieri’s broadcast in 1982, when he announced the Argentine invasion of the Falklands, I have found the relationship between military aggression and religious faith both comical and disgusting. Invoking “the protection of God and his holy Mother,” the bemedalled and drink-befuddled dictator proclaimed: “Glory to the great Argentine people. May this be God’s will.”
It appears not to have been. Margaret Thatcher, who led Britain in the Falklands victory, once expressed her own attitude to politics and faith: “I never thought that Christianity equipped me with a political philosophy, but I thought it did equip me with standards to which political actions must in the end, be referred.”
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is brutal and utterly unnecessary. If he were to follow Mrs T’s suggestion and refer his own political actions to Christian standards, he would retire and live out his remaining days praying penitently before the icons in one of those great Russian Orthodox monasteries.
Never forget that tyrants know how to exploit the power of religion. In his speech to the Reichstag in March 1933, shortly after assuming supreme power, Hitler declared that his government “regards Christianity as the unshakable foundation of the morals and moral code of the nation”. In fact, as his behavior over the next 12 years proved, he detested Christianity because its defense of the weak “crippled all that is noble in humanity”. For similar nationalistic reasons in the Second World War, Stalin, whose atheistic communism was absolute, nevertheless boosted the Orthodox Church which, until then, he had persecuted.
It is perfectly possible that, unlike those two, Putin is genuine in his faith. The same could be said of the Taliban the West has now allowed back to run Afghanistan or the ayatollahs of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Their sincerity does not excuse them. Their invocation of religion as the moral authority for their violence is borderline psychopathic. It makes them even more contemptible than straightforward murderers.
So why would any conservative even play with sympathy for Putin? Given his depravity, I can think of no good reason, but I can see why there is some resonance in the rhetoric he deploys, just as there was in Hitler’s denunciations of Bolshevik threats and decadent democracies in the 1930s.
It is true that something strange has happened in the ethical atmosphere of the 21st-century West. Although a century has passed since Christianity was assumed to be the active, personal faith of most Western citizens, there was a long period when it was accepted as normative in morality and foundational in culture, law and values.
Most people, for example, thought marriage was the best instrument for social stability and for bringing up children, and was solely a union between a man and a woman. Rules for sexual conduct were seen in the light of this primary purpose – the propagation of the human race with the maximum chance of maternal and paternal love. So were attitudes to life, ruling out, for example, euthanasia.
Social change, in policies to alleviate poverty or improve health care, was welcomed not so much as class struggle but as deriving from Christian concern for the poor. Most schools were explicitly Christian, and almost all schools founded their educational ideas on a hierarchy of values which had Christian (and classical) roots. The Bible told stories of noble – and appalling – human conduct which were taught from childhood and offered, from the Ten Commandments onwards, the basis of law.
Even democratic politics related to Christianity. The famous separation of church and state is often depicted as the defeat of the former by the latter, but its roots are Christian. Jesus’ words “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” were sophisticated political philosophy. From them, a cohabitation of the sacred and the secular within free nations gradually developed. (It is a great problem for democratic pluralism that Islamic thinking still seems to struggle with this subject.)
The pursuit of women’s rights and, more recently, of LGBT+ rights, also has Christian roots, via Christianity’s concern for the dignity of each human person and the overriding obligation (which Hitler hated most of all) of compassion. The same applies to the focus on defeating racism.
It is also true, however, that these preoccupations are now so strong in public policy, and in top-down culture such as that offered by the BBC, that they attain the status of a new religion. The highest religious duty has moved from loving God and neighbor (and relating the two) to loving yourself and whatever identity you choose for yourself. This is destructive of social peace.
Like most religions which hold official sway, this new one quickly becomes intolerant. I respect – although I do not agree with – most of the arguments made for single-sex marriage, but I find it dismaying that people who oppose the principle behind such marriages are in effect blocked from public office. As a newspaper columnist in his sixties, I can probably get away with writing this, but I am aware that an ambitious person from a younger generation would be unwise to take the risk. Kate Forbes, the latest victim, has not tried to “impose her religious beliefs” on anyone. She has merely stated them, as is her right and, some Christians would argue, her duty. Her views on this accord with those of other mainstream faiths. Are practicing Jews and Muslims also to be debarred from public service?
Even moderate politicians now feel entitled to tell religious bodies what to practice. Before the recent vote in the General Synod of the Church of England, Penny Mordaunt, the Leader of the House of Commons, wrote a public letter to her local bishop demanding he vote for same-sex marriages in the church. How long before she instructs him who should receive Holy Communion?
There is one other respect, unfortunately, in which Putin is right. The new, woke religion is hostile to Western civilization, which it sees as racist, greedy and trapped in its “colonialist” mindset. Christian conservatives are surely well placed by their beliefs to steer between reactionary Russia and awakened narcissism. Both, though in very different ways, came to our Western way of life.