Some might remember the Demacopoulos piece "On Orthodox Fundamentalism." Here, there, in conference, and in other writings he has shown himself to be staunchly anti-Muscovite. The below article strays from that position not one iota.
(GOARCH) - Pundits from both America and Europe have recently ascribed religious motivations to the actions of Vladimir Putin. Is Orthodox Christianity to blame for his militant incursions, reactionary policies, or anti-Western rhetoric?
The notion that the Ukrainian crisis has religious causes is both factually wrong and religiously offensive. What’s worse, it is politically foolish, playing directly into Putin’s preferred narrative of a culture war.
Nonetheless, the idea is gaining a foothold among powerful Western politicians. Carl Bildt, the Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs, recently asserted that Putin’s efforts to destabilize the Ukraine and his “anti-Western and anti-decadent line” have been “building on deeply conservative orthodox ideas.” The irony is that both Mr. Bildt and Mr. Putin, who have opposing political goals, are employing a strikingly similar misrepresentation of Orthodox Christianity—that it is incompatible with the modern West. Many readers will in fact agree with this assessment. Commercialism, narcissism, and rabid secularism are hallmarks of the modern West. Recent legislation decried as foolish, injurious, and amoral by many jurisdictions is the fruit of the pleaching of pluralism and "rights" at the expense of traditional ethics.
Mr. Bildt is not the only global leader to presume the incompatibility of Orthodoxy and modernity. Since the early 1990s, US and European foreign policy has been profoundly shaped by a political thesis first advocated by Harvard professor Samuel Huntington. Huntington argued that both the Slavic-Orthodox and the Islamic “civilizations” were incapable of embracing Western-styled democracy. Their religious and cultural traditions were supposedly too primitive to accept the Enlightenment principles championed in the West. Foreign policy consultants Molly A. McKew and Gregory A. Maniatis have sounded similar notes, recently linking Mr. Putin’s “revitalization” of “orthodox morality” to his “expansionist vision” and repressive domestic policies.
Only the most superficial of analyses can claim that Mr. Putin’s actions are motivated by Orthodox Christian faith. He is, in fact, doing little more than masking his own political objectives behind the veil of a moralizing principle. Mr. Putin’s efforts to criminalize homosexuality or public swearing are a function of his political calculus, not the inevitable legislative outcome of Orthodox Christian faith. Says who? What does barring homosexuality do to strengthen state power (In fact, homosexuality and the practice thereof is perfectly legal. Propaganda and enticing the youth is not.)? For that matter, how does endorsement of homosexuality ring true with millennia of Orthodox theology?
Throughout history in both East and West, political activists have routinely attempted to solidify their bases by demonizing a religious other. Mr. Putin seeks to present himself as a valiant defender of traditional Russian values against a vacuous and immoral West precisely because he believes that linking himself to the cause of a self-made Christianity will authorize him to enact his stated desire to reintegrate the ancestral Eurasian lands of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. This is an odd accusation considering Putin introduced legislation making canonical religious texts "... the Bible, Quran, Tanakh and Kanjur" protected speech (see here). One could also see his spearheading a return to Christ as in important task considering the slaughter of millions of Orthodox Christians by the previous Soviet regime.
This is not Orthodox Christianity, but classic political showmanship. And it’s far from unique to Mr. Putin. Dressing up political ambition in the clothes of traditional values goes back as far as Caesar Augustus—and for good reason. This rhetorical move is often, unfortunately, effective. While leadership as strong as Putin's is not the American way, the Russian people have always sought strong leadership that goes beyond the bounds of what Mr. Demacopoulos is comfortable with (The Liturgy itself still maintains a structure that signals the entrance of monarchs so it seems we have not cast off monarchial rule entirely.). While Putin is no Emperor, neither is America the model that Russia is trying to construct its state from. The Greek Church is not immune from secular pressure either. The New Calendar, pressed onto the Church from corporate and governmental forces, is an illuminating example.
Mr. Bildt should know better, and perhaps he does. But a more sophisticated parsing of the religious rhetoric is not useful to him and his neo-conservative American supporters. It would undermine their desire to paint the Ukrainian crisis as an exaggerated clash between East and West, wherein the West is modern and good and the East is dangerously religious and totalitarian. I'm not sure what place neoconservatives have in this discussion. As a not infrequent reader of the Weekly Standard I don't see this to be the narrative they are proposing. Nor, really, does the neoconservative movement hold nearly as much sway as it did at its apogee under the Bush years.
The “clash of civilizations” viewpoint also relies on flawed assumptions about Orthodox Christian history and doctrine. Over the past decade, scholarship has conclusively demonstrated that the supposed cultural divide between Christian East and Christian West was largely a political invention that reaches back centuries. How strongly can I disagree with this unsupported statement? A lot. Christian leaders from Popes to Patriarchs agree that there is substantive difference after a thousand years of separation. Two lungs (one for the East and one for the West) says Rome, and they say the Church must breathe with both in complementarity. Both sides say that love is the bridge between the gap, but no one pretends that there is but one monolithic breathing apparatus.
From opposing sides, then, both Mr. Bildt and Mr. Putin exaggerate the incompatibility of Orthodoxy and the modern West because it allows them to paint the political unrest in Ukraine as something other than it actually is—a political crisis brought on by the interconnection and fierce competition within the global debt and commodity markets.
The significance of these issues stretch beyond the current crisis in Russia/Ukraine because Orthodoxy is the dominant expression of Christianity in many other global hotspots, including the Balkans and the Middle East. If the economic and political interests of the West in these regions are going to be well served, then we must resist the facile characterizations of the Orthodox world and Orthodox/Western difference. They originate from an outdated and dangerous colonial vision that assumes the rest of the world should be measured according to an imaginary Western European standard. Ironically, though, the foundations of democracy, international trade, and Christianity originate from the very locations that are presented by Mr. Bildt and Mr. Putin as incompatible with the Western world. Then they will certainly be proved wrong by how smoothly the assemblies of bishops across the globe in the "diaspora" are integrating themselves into local, unified Orthodox bodies. In fact, we see no such progress and a cursory examination of the declarations written by those bodies in recent years seem to target supposedly innocuous Western actions in the areas of same-sex marriage, abortion on demand at any time, and wars fought to secure oil at the expense of innocent lives.
Our world—both West and East—offers enough real examples in which religious convictions misguide public policy and foreign affairs. We need not create a new one by believing the rhetoric of Mr. Putin.
Co-authored by Fordham Professors: Aristotle Papanikolaou, Archbishop Demetrios Chair of Orthodox Theology and Culture, and George E. Demacopoulos, Director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.