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Moscow is not the New Jerusalem

The Orthodox Church’s ties to the Russian state undermine the gospel

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, speaks at an event with Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill in Moscow on Nov. 20, 2021. Mikhail Metzel, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via Associated Press

Moscow is not the New Jerusalem
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Does Russia’s “resacralization” of public life have much to teach the secular West?

Some think so. Matthew Dal Santo recently wrote in First Things:  “Russian culture identifies a spiritual goal and norm for public life, the earthly counterpart of the holy city, and its name is not infrequently invoked in public discourse: Holy Rus. In this regard, Russian culture is closer to the truth than is the West’s all too rigorous political atheism.”

Dal Santo doesn’t defend Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But he argues that Ukraine’s growing alliance with the West entails growing secularization in contrast with Russia’s “public revival of Orthodoxy.” As he sees it, Russia has a spiritual telos that the West lacks.

Russia asserts, Dal Santo notes, that its invasion was to “save Orthodox civilization from Westernization and secularization, symbolized by the rainbow flag flown atop American embassies.”

Admitting that Putin cynically exploits religion, as rulers often do, Dal Santo still surmises that Russian spirituality is civilizationally superior to Western secularism.

This claim might appeal to some Americans rightly distressed by contemporary decadence. They may be the audience Putin and Russia’s Orthodox Patriarch Kirill hope to reach when claiming to represent religious traditionalism.

Russian religious traditionalism is different from America’s. Russian identity is rooted in Russian Orthodoxy. The conversion of Vladimir the Great, Kyiv’s grand prince, to Christianity in 988, shaped Russian identity and culture. This narrative inextricably links Russia to Russian Orthodox Christianity and to Ukraine, where Russian culture under Vladimir purportedly was born.

“Russia world” includes Russia, Ukraine, and Belorus, over which the Moscow-based Russian Orthodox Patriarch is the spiritual shepherd. And Russia’s czar, now Putin, is considered a temporal shepherd. In this arrangement across ten centuries, the Russian Orthodox Church has almost always supported the state, no matter how repressive. And the state has exalted and subsidized Russian Orthodoxy. Putin, after the upheavals following the Soviet Union’s fall, restored the church to its rightful position, according to this narrative.

American Christians expect a Christian society to routinely challenge the government amid free debate.

This tight partnership between the Russian state and church has entailed a “public revival of Orthodoxy,” heavily subsidized and promoted by the state. Russia’s government restores and builds churches, hosts Orthodox clergy at state events, spotlights them in state media, defers to their preferences on some moral issues, and enriches their coffers. Russian Orthodoxy is publicly prominent in Russia.

American Christians envision a Christian nation having large church attendance, widespread high personal piety, church-led charity, moral and spiritual renewal, and a public life guided by Christian ethics. From their very different history, American Christians don’t expect a central church aligned with the state. Instead, American Christians ideally expect spiritual vitality from a multitude of independent denominations and congregations, not subsidized by the state and operating freely from it. American Christians expect a Christian society to routinely challenge the government amid free debate.

This American Christian vision of an open society contrasts starkly with Russia under Putin and nearly all its rulers across 1,000 years. For Russia, a Christian society under Russian Orthodoxy entails political cheerleading for the state in exchange for collaboration and subsidy. And while many American Christians are now accused of being Christian nationalists, very few conflate their country with their faith. Russian Orthodoxy unapologetically identifies itself with the Russian nation politically and ethnically.

Matthew Dal Santo in First Things extols “Holy Rus” as a flawed but admirable spiritual telos. The state’s coercive powers privilege one particular church, while that church exalts the nation and its rulers. Their partnership supposedly mirrors The New Jerusalem.

In sync with most of its history, “Holy Rus,” backed by its chief clerics, is now brutally assaulting a neighbor nation as a spiritual imperative while, at home, jailing, torturing, and assassinating regime opponents. This scheme more resembles World War II Japanese Shinto emperor worship than the gospel. Russia’s state and church, in their intimacy, lavishly enrich themselves at the national expense. Priestcraft adorns civil events, and richly adorned churches dot the landscape, while church attendance is low, as are rates of private philanthropy and volunteerism. Piety equals political passivity.

“Let us not be so foolish as to imagine that we have nothing to learn from our adversary,” Dal Santo concluded. We can learn from “Holy Rus” what a so-called Christian nation should not be. Christians in America should renounce our own nation’s sins and our complicity in them. In Russia, meanwhile, such repentance is prohibited and would lead to serious consequences. Moscow is not the New Jerusalem.

Mark Tooley

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and editor of IRD’s foreign policy and national security journal, Providence. Prior to joining the IRD in 1994, Mark worked eight years for the Central Intelligence Agency. A lifelong United Methodist, he has been active in United Methodist renewal since 1988. He is the author of Taking Back The United Methodist Church, Methodism and Politics in the 20th Century, and The Peace That Almost Was: The Forgotten Story of the 1861 Washington Peace Conference and the Final Attempt to Avert the Civil War. He attends a United Methodist church in Alexandria, Va.

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