Religion & Politics

Weekend think piece: Guess what? Church and state in Russia have their differences

Weekend think piece: Guess what? Church and state in Russia have their differences

The priest at our parish in East Tennessee returned the other day from a pilgrimage to Mount Athos, the Greek peninsula that for centuries has been the beating heart of Eastern Orthodox spirituality. 

As far as I know, Father J. Stephen Freeman did not have any secret meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin while he was trekking from monastery to monastery on the holy mountain. However, you never know. After all, Father Stephen has many online readers in Russia and, well, he is the priest of Oak Ridge (and you know what that means).

Journalists in the West have said some rather wild things, as of late, about Orthodox Christianity and its role in Russia. This then connects with the whole "The Russians Did It, the Russians Did It" atmosphere in American politics.

But are we ready to politicize the holy mountain? Check out this passage from The Spectator, drawn from a feature with this headline: "What is behind Vladimir Putin’s curious interest in Mount Athos?" Orthodox readers may want to sit down to read this.

A secretive body of Elders governs here and all citizens are bound to total obedience. They wear identical floor-length black gowns and are not permitted to shave -- the style of dress favoured by zealots everywhere. And guess what? This state is in western Europe.
Few people have heard of Mount Athos and fewer still have visited it, and that is the way they like it. A notable exception is Vladimir Putin. He has been at least twice, once in 2006 and again in May of this year. ...
Putin has formed an unholy alliance with the Orthodox church in order to ensure he receives its blessing. This fits with his self-image as a modern Tsar embodying church and state. For believers, the Holy Mountain is the centre of their faith, their Rome, the place where the flame of their faith connects to heaven.

I wasn't expecting the Z-word.

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'Evangelical' is not a political word? Since when, in the minds of political elites?

'Evangelical' is not a political word? Since when, in the minds of political elites?

Please trust me on this. If you were a journalism graduate student in the early 1980s -- especially someone like me who already had worked through two degrees combining history, religion and journalism -- then you knew all about Francis FitzGerald.

So, yes, I devoured her famous 1981 piece in The New Yorker -- "A Disciplined, Charging Army" --  about a rising, but then obscure, figure in American life -- the Rev. Jerry Falwell. I recognized that it had some of that "National Geographic studies an obscure tribe" vibe to it, with Falwell and his supporters seen as the heathen hosts who were coming to sack Rome.

But the reporting in the piece was fantastic. I used it as the hook for a paper in a graduate seminar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign entitled, "The electronic tent revival: Computers in the ministry of Jerry Falwell."

FitzGerald was interested, kind of, in the faith and history of Falwell -- a man who was already blurring the line between an unrepentant Protestant Fundamentalism and the emerging world of the new Evangelicals. But mainly she was interested in this new threat to her world and the existing political order.

Remember that famous quote from philosopher Alvin Plantinga of the University of Notre Dame, the one in which he quipped that:

... (A)mong academics "fundamentalist" has become a "term of abuse or disapprobation" that most often resembles the casual semi-curse, "sumbitch."
"Still, there is a bit more to the meaning. ... In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relatively conservative theological views," noted Plantinga, in an Oxford Press publication. "That makes it more like 'stupid sumbitch.' ... Its cognitive content is given by the phrase 'considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.' "

This brings us to this weekend's think piece, which is a Neil J. Young review at the Religion & Politics website of FitzGerald's recent book, "The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America." The headline on the review states the obvious: " 'Evangelical' Is Not a Political Term."

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Evangelicals and Jews: Religion & Politics report has a thoughtful profile on famous Orthodox leader

Evangelicals and Jews: Religion & Politics report has a thoughtful profile on famous Orthodox leader

Some time ago, there was an opening for a religion reporter-like person to work at something new on the Washington (DC) landscape: A John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics. It is named after the former U.S. senator from Missouri who is also an Episcopal priest.

I didn’t know any of the folks who were hired at the center, but recently I stumbled across its site and hit upon some intellectually meaty think pieces. For example, there’s a piece on newly confirmed Education Secretary Betsy DeVos by someone who appears to understand Calvinism and why DeVos probably isn’t a Calvinist at all. There’s a piece on President Donald Trump and “militant evangelical masculinity” by a Calvin College professor.

But what really interested me was another piece; this one on “How an Orthodox Rabbi became an Unlikely Ally of the Christian Right.” It begins:

We are in a third world war,” said Shlomo Riskin, slamming his fist on the table. We were sitting in a windowless room in the D.C. convention center, and Riskin, an Orthodox rabbi, was explaining how he had ended up here, at the annual summit of Christians United For Israel, giving a speech to thousands of conservative evangelicals.
Riskin kept banging on the table. “If you have eyes to see, extremist Islam has taken over Islam. And this is the third world war!”
Riskin is one of the most influential rabbis of his generation. Now an Israeli, he was born and raised in Brooklyn. As a young man, Riskin voted for Democrats. He marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., in Selma. He officiated at a young Elena Kagan’s bat mitzvah and advocated for women’s rights. Over time, he developed a reputation as a religious progressive.
In the last decade, Riskin has quietly developed another project: outreach to Christians, and especially to conservative American evangelicals. His most important partnership is with John Hagee, a Texas megachurch pastor whose organization, Christians United For Israel (CUFI), claims a membership roll larger than that of AIPAC. Like AIPAC, CUFI advocates for policies that it sees as pro-Israel and organizes activists and donors across the country.

I remember Riskin’s controversial move to the West Bank in the early 1980s when he was leading the influential Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan.

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