Connecting the Dots

Bettina Krause May/June 2022

As a child of the pre-digital age, I’ve completed my fair share of connect-the-dot puzzles. You start at number one and draw a line to number two and by the time you get to number 300 or so, you’ve magically created an elaborate picture. 

The speech given by Russian president Vladimir Putin on February 21 as he attempted to justify his imminent invasion of Ukraine provides an important “dot” of information in a vast connect-the-dot image that spans the international stage.  

“Ukraine is not just a neighboring country for us. It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture, and spiritual space,” said Putin before going on to recount a version of history in which Russia and Ukraine were linked, in part, by their identity as Orthodox Christians under the authority of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate. 

It’s difficult for the Western mind—especially the secular Western mind—to truly grasp just how potent this idea of a shared spiritual identity really is. For those acquainted with the Orthodox world, however, Putin’s words held deep meaning.

Back in 2018 something happened within the global Orthodox communion that, in hindsight, was an omen of things to come. At the time I happened to be in Geneva, Switzerland, attending a gathering of religious leaders—an event that was hosted by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. The representative from the Russian Orthodox Church was conspicuously absent.  

Why? Because the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, who is considered “first among equals” by the patriarchs of other national Orthodox churches, had agreed to grant autocephaly—or independence—to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. No longer would the Ukrainian Church be subject to the patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church. 

Depending on your perspective, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine had either gained its freedom, or it had connived in a tragic schism. Some saw this act by the Ecumenical Patriarch as the equivalent of a declaration of hostility against the Russian Orthodox Church. And it was this idea—that Russia’s religious, and thus national, identity was under attack—which Putin skillfully appealed to in his pre-invasion speech. 

At school we learn how religious identity drove many bloody conflicts in the medieval and early-modern eras—the Crusades, for instance, or the horrific sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European wars between Catholics and Protestants. 

Today religious-identity politicking may have a more sophisticated veneer, but it is far from a thing of the past. Consider these other “dots” of information:

In Hungary former atheist prime minister Viktor Orbán recently won a landslide reelection, relying on his persona as a “defender of Christianity,” in the process reviving some anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and tropes. 

In Serbia far-right leader President Aleksandar Vučić was also recently reelected, running on a “pro-Christian” platform and with the strong endorsement of the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church. 

In India Prime Minister Narendra Modi continues to tap into a powerful seam of Hindu nationalism and is leading the world’s largest democracy down an increasingly illiberal path, causing challenges for Christian and Muslim minorities. 

In France Marine Le Pen, who surged in polls during the French presidential runoff election, has long taken a hardline stance against Muslims who, she believes, undermine traditional French Catholic culture. 

In Poland the Law and Justice (PiS) party—the party of the current president—has long-standing ties with the country’s Roman Catholic Church and is a self-declared defender of Catholic values. 

In Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro has employed the language of Christian nationalism, building a strong base of conservative evangelical and Catholic support.

In Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues to play religious politics, painting himself as a defender of Islam against Western liberal degradation.

Connecting these dots creates an image that should be profoundly disturbing for any person of faith. 

As nationalists, populists, and authoritarian leaders the world over know, religion is a handy tool for manipulating emotions and reinforcing a warped sense of cultural identity; one that excludes all those who are out of step with the religious majority. “Our traditional religion—and, by extension, our way of life—is threatened” is their message. “It must be defended by the power of the state.” 

What about here in America? A few weeks ago I interviewed well-known Yale sociologist and author Philip Gorski. We talked about current illiberal movements that have harnessed religion in their cause—from Hungary to India to Turkey—and I asked Professor Gorski, “Do you think something like that could ever happen in the United States?” The speed of his response surprised me: “Absolutely.” Although it’s less likely to happen here than in places with fewer constitutional and institutional safeguards, he explained, it’s not outside the realm of possibility. (You can read the full interview in the July-August issue of Liberty.) 

Could it be that we’ve grown complacent, confident in our heritage of liberal democracy? Maybe we need to listen with fresh ears to the nuances of some of our current political rhetoric. Perhaps we also need to consider why many political pundits feel comfortable casually referring to the “Christian vote” or the “evangelical vote.”

When we allow religious identity—and the language of religious morality—to become the playthings of the politicians, we enter dangerous territory. 

Of course, for many of us, our opinions about important social and political issues will be shaped by our religious convictions. And we will quite rightly bring those faith-molded opinions into the public realm as we vote, or as we contend for specific public policies. 

Yet this is very different from allowing religion to be harnessed for partisan political ends. It’s different, also, from indulging in the fantasy that our religious identity and our national identity should come as a package deal.  

History demonstrates an inescapable irony: whenever religion gains cultural power through political means, it loses power in other important ways.

It may gain the power to build a facade of moral uniformity. It may gain the power to define cultural norms. But what does it lose? 

It loses the power to speak with moral clarity, uncontaminated by the grime of realpolitik. It loses its single-minded focus on its mission, values, and principles. It loses the power to minister to all people, regardless of who they are. 

In short, it gains the world while it loses its soul.

Article Author: Bettina Krause

Bettina Krause is the editor of Liberty magazine.