Warning: The following is not a “whataboutism” comparison between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin or an attempt to find some kind of moral equivalence between their policies and actions.
What I am doing is making a comment about what journalists can and cannot know about a leader’s public and private religious convictions. This is a key theme in this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (CLICK HERE to tune that in) about religious issues linked to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The big idea is that politicians in a variety of cultures are skilled, when it comes to using religious themes and symbols.
First, what do we know about Biden’s Catholic beliefs?
We know that he carries a rosary, knows how to use it and frequently attends Mass, almost always in parishes sympathetic to him. We know that ancient doctrines in Catholic moral theology are important to him when it comes to immigration and social justice issues, but not when it comes to marriage, abortion, sexual ethics and, until recently, the death penalty.
What does this tell us about what he does or does not say during Confession and other crucial issues about the content of his faith? Next to nothing. Thus, his actions are crucial.
Now, what do we know about Putin’s Orthodox beliefs?
We know that he built a chapel near his office, that he knows how to make the sign of the cross and light prayer candles. We know that he believes that Orthodox Christianity is a crucial part of Russian history and that “Holy Mother Russia” is an important concept in Russian identity and nationalism. We know that issues such as abortion and marriage formation were not important to him — until it became clear that Russia is in a state of demographic collapse. Putin has, of course, used major themes from Orthodox history to justify his actions in Ukraine.
We also know that his government and his supporters have poured oceans of money into the rebuilding of Orthodox churches in the post-Soviet era, believing that this is in the national interest. This matters in a nation that endured the most sweeping wave of martyrdom in Christian history, with the closing of 98% of the land’s churches, the murder of 200,000 bishops, priests and nuns and millions of others in death camps, purges, planned famines (in Ukraine, especially) and other forms of persecution. We know that some clergy were crucified on the doors of their churches, slaughtered on their altars or stripped naked, doused with water and left outdoors in winter.
What does this tell us about what Putin does or does not say during Confession and other crucial issues about the content of his faith? Next to nothing. Thus, his actions are crucial.
We also know that, during Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, patriarchs in the Orthodox churches in both lands made public appeals for peace. We know that key figures in Russian Orthodoxy, before the Ukraine invasion, opposed the use of violence. We do not know what they have said or done in private. The actions of Patriarch Kirill have been meek and, at best, confusing.
We also know that Orthodox leaders with ties — historical ties or even direct ecclesiastical links — to the Russian patriarchate have condemned this invasion. In a remarkable document, several hundred clergy have, speaking “each on our own behalf,” have signed an online petition calling for the “cessation of the fratricidal war in Ukraine” and negotiations.
In terms of public policy, this was their Big Idea: “We respect God-given human freedom, and we believe that the people of Ukraine should make their choice independently, not at gunpoint, without pressure from the West or the East,” said the text.
However, this document ended with a bold, ominous theological statement that appears to have been addressed to Putin. This is from my “On Religion” column about this topic:
Noting that this was written after the Sunday of the Last Judgment on the Orthodox calendar, [the clergy] added: “The Last Judgment awaits every person. No earthly authority, no doctors, no guards will protect from this judgment. Concerned about the salvation of every person who considers himself a child of the Russian Orthodox Church, we do not want him to appear at this judgment, bearing the heavy burden of mothers’ curses.
“We remind you that the Blood of Christ, shed by the Savior for the life of the world, will be received in the sacrament of Communion by those people who give murderous orders, not into life, but into eternal torment.”
Does Putin regularly receive Holy Communion? To be honest with readers, I do not know. Does he have a Confessor? There are rumors, but I will, once again, have to say: I do not know.
However, I do know that it has been reported that at least one of the priests who signed that remarkable protest letter was arrested for delivering a sermon against the invasion of Ukraine.
Also, I noticed this interesting passage near the end of an Associated Press religion-desk report (“Moscow patriarch stokes Orthodox tensions with war remarks“), which quoted Pittsburgh Theological Seminary professor John Burgess, author of a book entitled “Holy Rus’: The Rebirth of Orthodoxy in the New Russia.” The key: Some clergy serving under the authority of Patriarch Kirill have begun editing his name out of prayers during Divine Liturgies.
Burgess said the practice of refusing to commemorate a patriarch in prayer has precedents. Some Russian Orthodox priests suffered persecution under communist rule for refusing commemorate a patriarch they deemed too compromising with the Bolshevik government.
The clerics currently distancing themselves from Kirill could be “risking their very future,” Burgess said.
“If President Putin and the Russians truly prevail in Ukraine, what will happen to these bishops?” he said. “They’ll be removed, or they’ll have to go into the underground.”
Let me end with a reference to a term that I learned in the aftermath of my 1991 visit to the Soviet Union at the precise time that the Communist regime was collapsing and the nation was headed into a new era of Russian identity.
What I learned was that the faithful Orthodox believers in Russia have a sense of skepticism about showy pronouncements of faith by leaders. In fact, there is a specific Russian term that is used in these discussions:
This politician is called a “podsvechnik,” or “candlestick holder.”
“He walks in, lights a candle at an icon, stands around awhile, makes the sign of the cross, and he usually messes that part up, and then leaves as soon as the photographers have taken his picture,” said journalist Lawrence Uzzell, who leads the Keston Institute at Oxford University, which monitors religious-liberty issues in Russia and the old Communist bloc.
“He’s paying his respects to the church, but he’s just going through the motions.”
Were the Russian clergy, in their remarkable protest letter, saying that the president of Russia is a “podsvechnik” or something worse?
Once again, Putin’s actions are crucial.
However, journalists (and maybe even U.S. State Department officials) will need to pay close attention to the words and actions of Orthodox leaders in Russia, Ukraine and around the world. Pay special attention to those who are sympathetic to Russian history and beliefs, but have a history of skepticism about Putin and, certainly, opposition to many of his actions. It is certainly important if these Orthodox leaders vanish or end up in jail.
Enjoy the podcast and, please, pass it along to others.
FIRST IMAGE: Official state photo from the homepage of President Vladimir Putin of Russia shows him lighting a candle during a Russian Orthodox Church liturgy.
PRIMARY IMAGE: Uncredited photo from the Orthodox Christianity Then and Now website.
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