Journalists: Religious lessons you (could have) learned from Trump win can help explain Putin

Russia, Russia, Russia, Russia.

Everywhere you look in the news right now, journalists are trying to get a handle on Vladimir Putin and Russia. This post is about Russia -- consider it a sequel to the earlier "Dear editors at The New York Times: Vladimir Putin is a Russian, but Putin is not Russia" -- but that is not where I want to start. Please be patient, because I want to start with an American parable.

Surely, some journalists have learned by now that our recent presidential race was more complex than Hillary Rodham Clinton vs. Citizen Donald Trump. There were, fore example, Democrats who wanted to vote for Clinton. However, there were others -- #feelthebern -- who did so reluctantly, but felt they had to vote against Trump.

On the Trump side, there were people who sincerely backed his campaign (including a large number, perhaps even a majority, of white evangelicals). Then there were millions of people (including blue-collar Democrats) who didn't like Trump at all, but supported some elements of his alleged platform, so they voted for Trump. Then there others who actively opposed Trump, but felt they had to vote for him -- think U.S. Supreme Court -- to oppose Clinton. It will be interesting to learn how many people (like me) voted for an alternative candidate.

What does this have to do with Putin? Well, lots of elite journalists (hello, New York Times) have been trying to figure out why so many American conservatives are fond of Putin or think it's important to improve U.S. relations with Putin and Russia. In Times speak, anyone who sees anything positive in Putin's actions and worldview is automatically an "extremist." Thus that recent headline: "Extremists Turn to a Leader to Protect Western Values: Vladimir Putin."

Everyone pretty much goes into that "extremist," pro-Putin bag, including the alt-right, lots of Trump voters, racists, extreme nationalists everywhere, anti-Semites and, ultimately, the Russian Orthodox Church. Was Brexit in there too?

But think of that Trump parable. The problem is that there are lots of people who either loathe or totally distrust Putin (they see him for what he is), but they do not reject everything that he stands for in his warped version of a pro-Russian agenda. Thus, they are sort of "voting" for Putin, or they want America to deal with him more realistically, because the alternative, to be blunt, is the postmodern worldview of the European elites.

The religion angle? The press needs to grasp that, often, Orthodox leaders are not backing Putin when they support elements of Putin's policies that just happen to run parallel with centuries of Orthodox teachings. Oh, and they would really like to prevent the massacre of millions of Christians in Syria and what remains of the church in the Middle East.

This brings me to a recent, and typical, Associated Press report related to all of this. Here is the overture, care of Crux

MOSCOW, Russia -- The Russian Orthodox Church is expanding its influence in what was once an officially godless state -- and President Vladimir Putin appears eager to harness that resurgent power of faith to promote his own agenda.
Long consigned to society’s margins in the Soviet era of “scientific atheism,” religious activists in today’s Russia can get theater performances banned and exhibitions closed. Their next target is to end state funding for abortion in a land where nearly half of all pregnancies end in termination.

Then there is this, with the appearance of those expert "analysts."

The moral authority of the Orthodox Church has grown steadily under Putin, who sides with the church in promoting traditional family values and opposing gay rights. He, in turn, cites Russia’s Christian roots to justify the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, noting that a prince of medieval Russia was baptized there more than a millennium ago.
Analysts say Putin sees an alliance with church interests as a way to bolster nationalism with belief. They say the approach seeks simultaneously to fill the ideological void left by the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and to block any inroads by Western liberalism.

Meanwhile, Orthodox identity is said to be on the rise in Russia, while worship and the serious practice of faith is not. A trend that the Orthodox care about, but it doesn't make it into stores, is that the monasteries are growing.

Readers will be shocked to know that the Orthodox -- given the dreaded "religious right" label in this report -- want to decrease the number of abortions, and state funding for them, and have conservative views on sexuality and even some forms of modern art and entertainment.

Does anyone appear, in this lengthy feature, who can explain how some of the trends covered in this story are best explained as a rejection of modern European (and even American) life, as opposed to a desire to embrace and promote Putin? Yes, many fear, with good cause, that Putin is using the church in some cases. But can anyone explain that it is not "pro-Putin" for the Orthodox to take actions to defend (in ways often troubling to people in the West) their faith?

A church spokesman is granted a sentence or two. That's it.

That brings us to that recent Times report on that growing choir of Western supporters for Putin. It's a long and complicated story, so read it for yourself. But here is the chunk that jumped out at me:

His voice amplified by Russian-funded think tanks, the Orthodox Church and state-controlled news media, like RT and Sputnik, that are aimed at foreign audiences, Mr. Putin has in recent years reached out to conservative and nationalist groups abroad with the message that he stands with them against gay rights activists and other forces of moral decay.
He first embraced this theme when, campaigning for his third term as president in early 2012, he presented Russia not only as a military power deserving of international respect, but also as a “civilizational model” that could rally all those in Russia and beyond who were fed up with the erosion of traditional values. ...
Russia also shares with far-right groups across the world a deeply held belief that, regardless of their party, traditional elites should be deposed because of their support for globalism and transnational institutions like NATO and the European Union.

What needs to be said about this? Let me point readers toward a commentary on this Times piece -- "Putin, Our Tsar-Protector?" -- by my friend Rod Dreher, writing at The American Conservative. Dreher is, like me, an Orthodox Christian. His piece mixes valid concern, even fear, of some Putin actions and policies with observations about the slanted and simplistic approach offered in this Times piece.

As is often the case (hello Dean Baquet) it appears that the Times team struggles to "get" the role of religion in this drama. Thus, Dreher writes that:

... framing Putin sympathy in such stark and alarmist terms -- as the media tended to frame Trump sympathy -- obscures far more than it illuminates.
For example, in the summer of 2015, when I was in Italy, I spoke to two young Catholic men who expressed sympathy for Putin. I don’t know the hearts of these men, who were strangers to me, but they looked extremely unlikely to turn up at a rally for the far right. From the context of our conversations, they were ordinary middle-class conservative Catholics who had come to believe that European governing elites did not have their interests at heart, and who (the elites) were committed to de-Christianizing Europe at every opportunity. These two men, in my judgment, looked favorably on Putin not because they were Russophiles or seeking to convert to Orthodoxy -- they were quite firmly Catholic -- but because they respected the fact that he is a strong leader who embraces his country’s Christian religious heritage, and seeks to defend it and its teachings, especially against cultural liberals whose views on sex and gender are destroying the traditional family.
And you know what? I agreed with them, broadly. I told them that as an Orthodox Christian, I am deeply concerned about the way Putin is using the Russian Orthodox Church to advance Russian nationalism. I oppose it when the churches in America enmesh themselves in nationalistic tropes and rhetoric, not because I fear that religion is going to influence the state, but the other way around. Similarly in Russia, though I am well aware that the historic relationship between the Russian church and the Russian state is radically different than that between an Enlightenment-era state (the US) and its churches. It’s absurd and unfair to expect the same separation of Church and State in older countries that we have in the US. Nevertheless, my belief is that we should always remain vigilant against the Church being compromised by the power of the State.
That said, one doesn’t have to believe that Putin is an angel in order to respect some of what he does, and even to be grateful for it.

Then later Dreher adds this, with more emphasis about what he opposes in Russia's current policies:

We have to keep our eye on the ball here: that the Russian state really is using culture and religion as a propaganda weapon against the West. But that doesn’t make the moral and religious ideas the Russian state weaponizes wrong or illegitimate! Never forget that the United States does the very same thing to advance secular liberalism, especially LGBT advocacy (see here and here for only two examples). Again, as an Orthodox Christian, I worry about what the Russian government is doing with religion because of the risk of corruption of the Church -- and, with the Yarovaya Law, actively persecuting Protestant forms of Christianity in Russia -- but I am not at all bothered by the fact that the Russian government is active in the West in promoting traditional values over and against the post-Christian (and at times anti-Christian) dominant Western memeplex. In fact, though I am cautiously encouraged by it, because we’re getting pummeled here.

What's the bottom line here, for journalists? 

Let's go back to the American election, for a moment. Journalists, do you recall that some of the most interesting and nuanced criticisms of Trump came from moral and religious conservatives such as Dreher and David French? (I'm thinking also of the Revs. Russell Moore and Al Mohler, as well as Catholic Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia.)

Let's pull this over to coverage of Russia and Putin. Are there experts and insiders, even among the Orthodox, who are not true supporters of Putin, or who actively oppose him, but they understand why some -- repeat, "some" -- of this actions would draw support from Americans and others who are not so sure that the European Union (for example) is on the right side of history?

Once again, are there expert voices who can separate Putin the strongman from Russia the nation and culture? If the goal is to understand Russia and the Americans -- not all of whom are alt-right wackos -- who support some, repeat "some," of Russia's actions, then journalists need to find these voices to add them into the mix when reporting these kinds of stories. Or is this all too emotional right now and it's impossible to listen to any voices in the middle, people who want to criticize Putin, but not demonize his land and culture?

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