Thursday, December 20, 2018

The Russian Orthodox Church as a Political-Moral Force: A Case of Religion Overextended?

While visiting the Pskovo-Pechersky Monastery in northwestern Russia in 2000, Vladimir Putin wrote in the guest book, “The revival of Russia and growth of its might are unthinkable without the strengthening of society’s moral foundations. The role and significance of the Russian Orthodox Church are huge. May God protect you.” This statement is revealing concerning what has perhaps fueled the Russian president’s vision, at least ideally.
First, Putin may have a historical perspective, meaning that he did not come into office merely to gain power by enriching his connections (i.e., the oligarchs) and make use of Soviet authoritarian tools he had learned while working at the KGB. Rather, I suspect he looked back at the Czars who had made Russia into an empire well before the Soviets came on the scene.  
Second, Putin’s habit of being a road-block on the UN Security Council may extend beyond his embrace of the absolute or unfettered national sovereignty doctrine to exercising (or announcing) Russia’s might as one empire alongside the E.U., U.S. and China. That is to say, using the veto can effectively demonstrate might without the cost of a military show of force.
Third, Putin wanted to send a signal of his support for the Russian Orthodox Church. Not unexpectedly, the New York Times reported in 2012 on the continuance of the ascent of the Church as a political force in Russia. At the time Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov stood “at the center of a swirling argument about the church’s power and its possible influence on [Putin].” Shevkunov’s claim that Putin had saved Russia from “vulgar liberals” who nearly destroyed Russia in the 1990s  must have been music to the sitting president’s ears. Interestingly, however, when the cleric is said to have referred to modern Russian women to “a drunk girl standing by the bus stop,” Putin reportedly replied, “Father, you have gone too far.” Nevertheless, to have such a traditionalist Church on such a sort of power trip in the earthly realm can be dangerous to society in terms of what I would call moral dogmatism.
 Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov, head of the Sretensky Monastery in Moscow    NYT
Putin’s identification of the Church with the “strengthening of society’s moral foundations” could lead to those foundations being narrower than simply that which is moral. In other words, a particular view of what counts as moral could delimit the contours of the moral foundation of the society. Such an approach would be dogmatic in the sense of being arbitrary because equally valid moral standpoints differing from the Church’s position would be excluded even though they are moral.
Moreover, to conflate religion and morals as being one and the same ignores the fact that there are many immoral acts lauded in the Bible. More abstractly still, human moral systems, unlike theological claims, are not transcendent in that moral theories are based in our domain. To be sure, religions such as the Abrahamic faiths include moral strictures among the divine commands, but even here the moral commandments are second to the theological ones (or are derived from them and stated very broadly, as in “love your neighbor”). Put another way, were specific moral claims or principles on the same level as the theological, the Book of Job would not make sense. Job was morally not at all blameworthy and yet the theological point of God’s omnipotence (all-powerful) means that the theological cannot (by definition) be limited by what we think is moral. For us to say that Job does not deserve to suffer cannot trump God’s power, as if God were limited by our moral judgments. Do Russian Orthodox lay persons really believe that God likens Russian women to drunk sluts at a bus stop just because Shevkunov happens to hold that opinion?  I doubt it. Moreover, I doubt that God would have “vulgar liberals” inserted into the Bible. For one thing, some of the more sexually “immoral” (by modern standards!) acts by some of the heroes in the text would have to be expunged. 
Sanctioning particular moral views by theological claims and then using political influence such that those views become the cement walls of society’s moral foundations unfairly excludes other moral views from being part of the moral foundation. This is particularly relevant in the case of an empire because it is by definition heterogeneous (i.e., diverse). Different cultures had been brought into Russia at least by the death of Peter the Great. Unless there are moral universals that extend to particular applications, one can expect (as fully legitimate) there to be a bricollage of moral values interlaid in the foundation.  To identify the foundation itself with a particular institution—and one that is not primarily oriented to the moral dimension—is to ask for trouble, as the moral perspectives that are dogmatically excluded must surely in their very legitimacy press their case, either formally or as mounting pressure politically.


Sophia Kishkovsky, “Russians See Church and State Come Closer,” The New York Times, November 1, 2012.

On religion as distinctly religious and yet applicable to leadership in business organizations, see Spiritual Leadership in Business, available at Amazon.