That useful idiot again

A few weeks ago I drew attention to the Catholic Herald’s coverage of the Ukraine crisis. In an edition of the magazine that went to press just before the invasion, there was an article by Mark Jenkins that discussed Putin’s religious motivation in a sympathetic tone, suggesting that the decadent liberalism of the West deserved some sort of comeuppance. In the 1920s and 30s people – largely religious conservatives – used to justify fascists in the same way, I observed.

In my naivety I wondered whether the Catholic Herald would apologise for this misjudgement in its next edition. Instead, it has printed another contribution by Mr Jenkins. Again he writes a slightly veiled defence of Putin’s religious vision, this time focusing on his holy henchman Patriarch Kirill. The Russian Orthodox leader sees the war ‘as regrettable but necessary in order to restore the divinely ordained unity of the Russian people – a unity undermined by the emergence of a western-oriented, independent Ukraine’. Though the rest of the Orthodox world condemns this, we should be more nuanced, says Jenkins. ‘Before scoffing too loudly at this idea, it is worth noting that it is Kirill’s vision of a Christian empire, rather than the Enlightenment’s vision of a secular nation state, that reflects the historic Christian position. In the 19th century, the Catholic Church was as vociferous in its condemnation of Italian nationalism as the Orthodox Church was of Greek nationalism.’

Kirill’s detractors have been influenced by secular thought, Jenkins suggess; by contrast, ‘Putin and Kirill believe the West is in the depths of a profound moral and spiritual crisis.’ He then observes that Putin has urged his underlings to read a work by the theologian Vladimir Soloviev called The Justification of the Good. It is a ‘vision of a union of European Christian realms, a kind of “conservative utopia” through which the ancient European kingdoms might rediscover their Christian identity and, under the strategic control of Russia, fight against the Antichrist – the modern, godless, liberal world order. Soloviev had a vision of a theocratic Russia led by a partnership between the pope and the tsar, saving the West from itself.’ Instead of criticising this vision, Jenkins concludes by suggesting that Pope Francis is fundamentally sympathetic to it: he has in the past joined Kirill in warning against ‘the negative impact of western liberalism on religious values’, and he knows that the ‘non-western world is…reluctant to march to the drum beat of 21st century neo-liberalism and modernity.’

I have seldom felt so grateful to an author as I am to Mark Jenkins. When I bang on about the dangerous ghost of theocracy that haunts religious conservatism I fear that I sound dated and a bit hysterical, like a no-popery Whig. But here it is, the traditional view of how Christianity should relate to politics, minus the normal obfuscation. For Jenkins is basically right that ‘the historic Christian position’ is opposed to the modern liberal state. At root, the Catholic and Orthodox churches both believe in the unity of religion and politics, though they pragmatically soften this in order to sound modern and friendly. And this model is even idealised by ‘postliberal’ Anglicans.

If anything good comes out of this ugly crisis, it might be that it prompts Christians to rethink their denigration of liberal values. Let’s be blunt. Christians must choose between the old model of religion and politics, which is theocratic, and the modern model, in which the liberal state is seen as an outworking of the gospel. The average Western Christian has been conditioned to recoil from such a choice, and to enjoy an armchair seat on the fence, denigrating the liberal state even as he reaps its benefits. It’s time to unlearn that lazy stance. The most fundamental religious debate of modernity, buried for generations by complacent evasion, is resurfacing. Bring it on.