By Christopher Lamb
The image of President Donald Trump holding up a Bible in front of St John’s Episcopal Church in Washington DC during an election year was the most blatant example yet of religious imagery being co-opted for political purposes.
But to understand the role religion is playing in fuelling conservative political forces, we should not focus only on the United States. The battle is global, and Russia is playing a crucial role.
“Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church have become active players in the culture wars,” Professor Kristina Stoeckl of the University of Innsbruck, Austria, explained during a keynote lecture at the European Academy of Religion’s digital conference.
“From the perspective of conservative Christians all over the world, orthodoxy is becoming an attractive religion of traditionalism and anti-liberalism.”
Professor Stoeckl, a sociologist, citing research by Sarah Riccardi-Swartz of New York University, said there were a growing number of communities in US Midwest embracing Russian orthodoxy.
Conservative religious forces, Professor Stoeckl says, have formed alliances that cross denominational divides and national borders and are drawn to President Vladimir Putin’s anti-liberal “traditional values” agenda, strongly supported by the leadership of the Russian Orthodox church. These values push a pro-family, anti-gay message and makes Russian Orthodoxy’s position in society more privileged.
In Russia, the line between church and state is increasingly blurred and to some extent mirrors Trump’s courting of conservative Evangelicals and Roman Catholics for political support.
“Traditional values” may be couched in religious language but in reality are about Russia’s opposition to liberal democracy’s protection of minorities and limits on state sovereignty imposed by human rights obligations. Nevertheless, Russia has had some success in getting traditional values recognised by the United Nations.
“Conservative family values have become a global currency for actors on the right who want to oppose liberal democratic values and supranational human rights instruments,” Professor Stoeckl, an expert in post-secular conflicts, explains.
“The Russian Orthodox Church today is as much global as it is national. It is part of a worldwide religious market, in which its appeal lies precisely in being considered a particularly conservative church.”
Across Europe, the religious right agenda is gaining support seen by the rise of Viktor Orbán in Hungary, the government in Poland and Italy’s Lega Nord.
Matteo Salvini, the leader of the far-right Lega Nord, has used Christian iconography at political rallies and last year addressed the World Congress of Families in Verona, organised by a coalition of right-wing groups. Salvini has also been linked to Russian money.
A new book by the Italian journalist Iacopo Scaramuzzi on religion’s links to populist nationalism reports that people close to Putin see Italy has a political laboratory.
In Dio? In Fondo a Destra (God? Down to the Right) Scaramuzzi quotes a Putin adviser, Aleksandr Dugin: “We have had a new great victory over the globalist forces. After Putin, after Trump, after Brexit, after Orbán, after Kurz [the Austrian prime minister], the forces of the people begin to win over the anti-popular elites and Italy today is at the forefront of this process.”
Scaramuzzi writes that Putin looked to Orthodoxy to “give depth and spirit to his power” while the 2008 financial crash allowed the Russian leader to stand out at a time of disorder and breakdown in liberal values.
“With a bewildering reversal of history, in a few years, it has made Russia the beacon of conservative thought and right-wing populist leaders around the world.”
As the state religion of Russia, orthodoxy has given Putin moral authority in attempts to disrupt post-war liberal consensus and the western world order which emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Professor Stoeckl says that it is “more Putin than the patriarch” at the centre of Russian Orthodoxy’s global spread, with the Russian president, a former KGB colonel, widely admired in conservative circles.
A new conflict is now emerging over the very nature of Christianity, and its role in public life and not everyone in the Russian Orthodox church is happy about the Kremlin’s behaviour. Last September, more than 180 Orthodox priests urged authorities to scale back their clampdown on political opponents.
Since the Second World War, churches have accepted that they had become only one voice among many that dictated to society. A new relationship was drawn up between church and state, with the church defending a pluralistic society that protects different world views.
But in the post-Cold War era, Professor Stoeckl says, the assumption that liberalism would prevail in an open society had been blown out of the water.
She says the culture wars were an attempt to redraw church-state boundaries and challenge the position of religious moderates. The leadership of churches were also coming under fire, illustrated by the conservative attacks on Pope Francis.
Scaramuzzi, meanwhile, argues that the Pope — who refuses to be drawn into culture wars and upholds multinational co-operation — is an antidote to the co-opting of religion by the right.
The conflict taking place, Professor Stoeckl says, is “no longer between different confessions, and no longer between religious and secular, but over the very meaning of Christianity in Europe”.
She adds: “It is three meanings that are in conflict with each other: is Christianity a protector, or benefactor of European liberal democracy as a perspective of the secular age suggests? Is Christianity a cultural and civic bedrock of European civilisation as the civil religion argument suggests with all the exclusionary consequences this would have? Or is Christianity the religion that unites actors against liberal democracy as the culture war perspective suggests?”