THE BLOG
05/10/2014 03:47 pm ET Updated Jul 10, 2014

Orthodoxy, Putin and the West

With the ongoing crisis in Ukraine and the swelling imperialism of Russia, Westerners have been exposed to various characteristics, frequently caricatures, of Orthodox Christianity, the dominant faith in Russia and Ukraine, but also practiced worldwide. There are even mystifying glimpses into the religious ambition -- perchance holy crusade and justification? -- of Russian President Vladimir Putin with his infatuation with Orthodoxy's foremost monastic community on Mount Athos, Greece, his personal quest for spiritual direction from high-level ecclesiastical authorities and charismatic mentors and high-profile moral pronouncements.

All of this is frustrating to Orthodox Christians, who note that many non-Orthodox are receiving a limited, distorted view through a Putin lens of their Church's spiritual tradition that values the uniqueness of every human being created in the image and likeness of God. Genuine Orthodoxy recognizes tolerance and champions religious freedom and human rights. This exasperation was confirmed recently when Carl Bildt, Sweden's Minister for Foreign Affairs and one of the architects of the Eastern policy of the E.U. claimed that Eastern Orthodoxy is the principal threat to western civilization.

The image of Orthodoxy according to Putin is vastly different, and has been further complicated by some of America's political religious right's agreement with Putin. These political circles are partial to drawing sweeping distinctions between East and West, applauding the virtues of the former while berating the vices of the latter. They perceive indiscriminate connections between the "moral infallibility" of the right and the post-Cold War religious fervor of the Kremlin. How else can one explain the cynical certitude of columnist Pat Buchanan, when he asks -- with the callous absolutism of a nineteenth-century De Maîstre -- in relation to Russia's role in Crimea and the world generally: "Whose side is God on now?" -- the title of a recent article by him.

Buchanan, a proponent of the religious right, of course knows. Like Putin, he is convinced, that God is not on the side of the West's debauchery -- by which they may in fact mean the West's emphasis on freedom and objection to discrimination of any sort. Buchanan must have had more than a bad day at the office when he wrote: "Putin is tapping into the worldwide revulsion of and resistance to the sewage of a hedonistic, secular and social revolution coming out of the West." He believes that "Putin is planting Russia's flag firmly on the side of traditional Christianity."

Buchanan also mentions that Allan Carlson of the World Congress of Families, whose international conference will this year be held in Moscow, agrees: "Russia is defending Judeo-Christian values." One Russian film, influenced by prominent religious circles, even promulgates "lessons from Byzantium," claiming that the great empire fell because it flirted with the West.

The problems with this approach lie not so much in the well-intentioned effort to discern between good and evil in the world, but in the arrogant certitude to comprehend the world exclusively in black and white terms: a world where Putin is white and Obama is black, figuratively of course. In addition, political and ecclesiastical leaders in Russia are prone to statements about the "symphony" of church-state relations -- dangerously alluding to the prevailing politics in medieval Byzantium, but conveniently concealing that these very politics led to the fall of Byzantium. Buchanan even goes so far as to recall the theory of Moscow as "third Rome" -- following the fall of Rome and Constantinople (or New Rome) -- a sixteenth-century fantasy that no one has ever either sought or managed to realize. Although, again, it might have appealed to Buchanan's favorite philosopher and theocrat De Maîstre, who preached a heinous "trinity" comprising emperor, pope and executioner. Unfortunately, one cannot possibly comment on the current relations between Russian politics and Russian Orthodoxy or connections between the Russian hierarchy and discriminatory actions against certain social or religious groups within the scope of this brief reflection.

However, the irony of the present situation must be pointed out. The conservative right in the United States that for years railed throughout the Cold War against the Soviet Union as godless is doing an about-face, now turning the U.S. into the evil empire. Buchanan states that the Cold War is now "the new war of beliefs." But when those beliefs become a pawn for Putin to play with along with the help of some of American's religious right, the real Orthodox Church is in danger of being misunderstood, if not misused. The full story about the spiritual and doctrinal foundation of the Orthodox Church includes a spirit of openness and receptivity. Authentic Orthodox spirituality is marked by tolerance of and dialogue with all people.

When Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew are together in Jerusalem on May 25, 2014, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of their predecessors' historic meeting in the Holy City, their motivation and aspiration will be rooted in their awareness that "God is love." That assurance comes much closer to the heart of Orthodox Christianity and to the heart of what matters about Orthodox spirituality than anything else. I hope that Mr. Buchanan, a Roman Catholic, will be watching with the rest of the world, including Swedish Minister Bildt, to see that the true face of Orthodoxy is not Vladimir Putin, but the face of humility and dialogue.