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Putin, Christian nationalism and the American Left

In this pool photograph distributed by Russian state agency Sputnik, Russia's President Vladimir Putin gives an interview to U.S. journalist Tucker Carlson at the Kremlin in Moscow on February 6, 2024.
In this pool photograph distributed by Russian state agency Sputnik, Russia's President Vladimir Putin gives an interview to U.S. journalist Tucker Carlson at the Kremlin in Moscow on February 6, 2024. | GAVRIIL GRIGOROV/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

You would expect a saying like this to come from someone else.

Here’s the quote: [The church] “brings together not only the territory, it brings together our souls. No one will be able to separate the soul.”

It wasn’t the Roman Emperor Constantine who said that, nor was it an American Founding Father. With the term “Christian nationalism” back on the menu of media pundits everywhere (this is an election year, after all), you might expect that quote to have come from a modern-day GOP figure. You know, one of those right-wing MAGA extremists who fought in the Great Revolution of January 6th in the 45th Q-Anon brigade, or however it’s being characterized these days.

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But the quote didn’t come from ancient Rome, or from Charlemagne, or from the American right. It came from Russian President Vladimir Putin as the closing line in his two-plus hour interview with Tucker Carlson. And lest you think that Putin has had a come-to-Jesus moment, think again. Putin soundly denies the supernatural:

Carlson: So do you see the supernatural at work? As you look out across what’s happening in the world now, do you see God at work? Do you ever think to yourself: these are forces that are not human?

Putin: No, to be honest, I don’t think so. 

No, Putin hasn’t gotten that old-time religion, but he has gotten the message that a national mythology will serve his purposes for justifying his invasion of Ukraine. Carlson’s interview with him features a number of long diatribes on Russian history from Putin’s perspective. During one of these excurses, Tucker interjects a question about religion, specifically Christianity:

Carlson: You have described the connection between Russia and Ukraine; you have described Russia itself, a couple of times as Orthodox — that is central to your understanding of Russia. What does that mean for you? You are a Christian leader by your own description. So what effect does that have on you?

Putin: You know, as I already mentioned, in 988 Prince Vladimir himself was baptized following the example of his grandmother, Princess Olga, and then he baptized his squad, and then gradually, over the course of several years, he baptized all the Rus. It was a lengthy process — from pagans to Christians, it took many years. But in the end, this Orthodoxy, Eastern Christianity, deeply rooted itself in the consciousness of the Russian people.

When Russia expanded and absorbed other nations who professed Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism, Russia has always been very loyal to those people who professed other religions. This is her strength. This is absolutely clear.

One thing that Putin neglects to mention to Carlson in his celebration of Russian religious freedom is that it’s pretty much a whopper of a lie. For starters, there was Stalin’s 1929 law on religious association, which essentially sent into the shadows any religious activity that was not monitored and regulated by the state. And Putin himself is no reformer of Soviet religious persecution. In 2016, Putin signed the Yarovaya law, which, under the guise of combatting terrorism, severely restricted religious freedom in Russia, essentially making personal evangelism illegal in many cases.

Putin seems to view religion much like his communist predecessor Karl Marx. It’s an “opiate of the masses” — a kind of unifying mythological narrative. Putin is not alone among his former Soviet colleagues. Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in that office continually since 1994, has hailed himself for years as an “Orthodox atheist.” Like Lukashenko, Putin may be a card-carrying member of an institution, but he’s clearly not a believer.

Religion’s heart stoppage

Indeed, rather than moving for Christianity (or any religion, for that matter) to shape the course of his nation, Putin wants to compartmentalize and internalize it at the individual level:

“As for religion in general, you know, it’s not about external manifestations, it’s not about going to church every day or banging your head on the floor. It is in the heart.”

While it’s certainly true that belief resides in the heart, it’s likewise true that it’s not limited to it. Putin’s push to make belief a quiet matter of the heart should sound eerily familiar to Americans. In 2020, after dictating to churches how to conduct their worship services during COVID, then Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, said:

“But this year we need to think about what is truly the most important thing. Is it the worship or the building? For me, God is wherever you are. You don’t have to sit in the church pew for God to hear your prayers. Worship with a mask on is still worship. Worship outside or worship online is still worship.”

Now, to be clear, faith is indeed a matter of the heart. As Paul writes in Romans, “For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” But Northam’s view is much the same as Putin’s in that it stops at the heart. In their view, faith is a private affair that should be kept in check when it bleeds over into public life.

Christian nationalism as a tool

Back to Christian nationalism, and oh, what a tricky topic that is! There are probably more definitions for Christian nationalism currently than there ever were Christian nationalists — whatever that means. The term itself is relatively new to widespread usage. Google search trends for the topic (which go back to 2004), show that January 2021 is where the current American interest in the topic took hold.

Family Research Council held a 2022 symposium to explore its rise, broadly concluding that in large part Christian nationalism was a term used to categorize Christians who were motivated by their faith to action in the political realm. Christ Over All devoted its October 2023 edition to the topic, examining Christian nationalism from the perspective of a number of evangelical voices, showing wildly differing perspectives.

While this summary article by Andy Naselli does an excellent job of showing the framework of the differing views of political theology, it’s clear that many are still defining Christian nationalism as they go. For example, on a recent episode of the Outstanding podcast, “Veggie Tales” creator Phil Vischer described Christian nationalism as people who want “to suppress the vote of people who aren’t Christians.”

Vischer also appeared as a guest in the new Rob Reiner-funded documentary on Christian nationalism called “God and Country.” For Reiner, who is not a Christian, Christian nationalism is equivalent to Christian involvement in politics. As Reiner told Newsweek:

“The beginnings of this movement happened in 1954 with the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which said that everybody had to be treated equal in terms of where they could access education. And this was not taken well by a big swath of the population, they just didn’t like this idea. So they created religious schools where they could keep Black people from integrating the schools. And it started this movement of bringing religion, or their idea of a religion, in maintaining the separation between Blacks and whites. But it’s kind of ugly, if you think about it, that that would be the basis of a political movement.

“[It] really didn’t take root, but then along came Roe v. Wade, and by ’73 this became the galvanizing issue for Christian nationalists. They latched on to that and it became the thing that drove the movement. And then over a period of time we saw the Federalist Society getting involved in making sure that the judges were put in the right place and getting them on to the Supreme Court, and all the way up to Trump, putting three judges on the Supreme Court, and we see Roe v. Wade overturned. So we’ve seen a growth pattern over the decades of how Christian nationalism [has] gotten stronger and stronger.”

Notwithstanding the fact that there’s no reality in which all these dots connect just like Reiner says, for him and his colleagues on the American political Left, they do all connect very well. After all, a broad-tipped marker covers over any distinctions made by a fine-point roller pen. For the American Left, the concept of Christian nationalism is simply a tool that they can use to draw lines against political action by those who oppose their agenda.

In that way, it’s not unlike Putin’s use of a religion that he himself doesn’t believe in for purposes of achieving his own political stability. Putin celebrates it out loud while quietly shutting it down. The American Left lampoons it out loud to the same end: that faith would stay put in the heart of the individual. But a faith that stays put in the heart is a faith with blocked arteries. A heart that can’t pump its lifeblood outward will end in cardiac arrest.

Christian nationalism or not, biblically faithful believers can’t let their faith be defined by political forces intent on corralling them. Putin may believe that “no one will be able to separate the soul,” but we believe that, “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Originally published at The Washington Stand. 

Jared Bridges is editor-in-chief of The Washington Stand. He also serves as vice president for brand advancement at Family Research Council, where he oversees continuity and consistency for FRC’s message across its various platforms. He holds a B.S. in Communications from the University of Tennessee, and a M.Div. from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Jared lives in Virginia with his wife and children and serves as an elder in his local church.

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