“Many a bum show has been saved by the flag,” actor and playwright George M. Cohan once mumbled in criticism of the hypocritical use of patriotic symbols in efforts to rescue bad plays. One could also mumble, “Many a bum cause has been saved by the cross, or the crescent, or the star of David, etc.,” in criticism of the hypocritical use of religion in efforts to rescue incidents of hate, rage, and carnage.
Timothy J. Egan in his New York Times column (July 18, 2014) reviewed the previous week’s bum causes and mis-uses of religion by “Faith-Based Fanatics” (see References). Among Egan’s examples: Buddhists, the World Cup, Governor Rick Perry “as spokesman for the deity,” Sunnis, Shiites, Boko Haram, but not Ireland for the moment.
Egan was thankful that the U.S. founders explicitly kept God out of the Constitution. “At least that was the intent. In this summer of the violent God, five justices on the Supreme Court seem to feel otherwise.” But the U.S. is not the topic of today’s Sightings.
Instead, we look further East and mention the newcomer to the cast of characters, the one which came too late to catch Egan’s attention: Russian Orthodoxy. Its hypocritical mis-user of the week was President Vladimir Putin, who made a point of visiting a concert at a shrine for St. Sergius of Radonezh.
Putin sang this saint’s probably deserving virtues and achievements, and said things that the press interpreted as part of his campaign to make his version of Russian Orthodoxy more visible. He is turning a spotlight on Russian Orthodoxy at a time when most in the non-Russian world suspects him of participating in an villainous “bum cause.” I have no interest in impugning the concert-goer’s sincerity, but we have to note that his actions and words are, in general, drawing attention away from his role in the Ukraine.
Most noted was a comment by Carl Bildt, Sweden’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, who charged that Putin’s effort to de-stabilize the Ukraine and display his “anti-Western and anti-decadent line” builds on “deeply conservative ideas,” specifically those of Slavic Orthodoxy.
The most appropriate—to my taste—response to Putin and Bildt came from two Fordham University professors, Aristotle Papanikolaou and George E. Demacopoulos. The co-authors say that Messrs. Putin and Bildt are not the sole mis-users and abusers of Eastern Christianity. They cite the American professor Samuel Huntington’s well-known 1990’s-era argument that Slavic-Orthodox and Islamic “civilizations” were “too primitive to accept the Enlightenment principles championed in the West.”
The Fordham professors also quote other scholars who link Mr. Putin’s “revitalization” of “orthodox morality” with his aims to justify “his expansionist vision.” They see Putin in line with the long list of political leaders who seek to gain advantages by “demonizing the religious other.”
Of the Russian president’s moves they say: “This is not Orthodox Christianity but classic political showmanship.” They add that “Mr. Bildt should know better…[b]ut a more sophisticated parsing of the religious rhetoric is not useful to him and his neo-conservative American supporters.”
These “clash of civilization” expressions, say the Orthodox faculty members at Fordham, rely on “flawed assumptions about Orthodox Christian history and doctrine.” It is important to get this story and scene right, they argue because it will play out politically wherever “East vs. West” language is convenient in various causes.
So, one good sign in a bad week is that Messrs. Putin and Bildt are unwittingly prompting a reexploration of “decadent” and “non-decadent” manifestations of spiritual, political, and cultural life in both East and West.
What “we” in the West don’t know can hurt us.
Egan, Timothy. “Faith-Based Fanatics.” New York Times, July 18, 2014, Opinion Pages.http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/19/opinion/timothy-egan-faith-based-fanatics.html.
Itar-Tass News Agency. “Putin attends festive concern on 700th anniversary of St. Sergius of Radonezh.” July 21, 2014. http://en.itar-tass.com/russia/741377.
Papanikolaou, Aristotle and George E. Demacopoulos. “Putin’s Unorthodox Orthodoxy.” Blogs.goarch.org: An internet ministry tool of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, June 25, 2014. http://blogs.goarch.org/blog/-/blogs/putin-s-unorthodox-orthodoxy?p_p_auth=IpTqHq5b.
Agora Dialogue. “REX: Carl Bildt thinks Eastern Orthodoxy is main threat to western civilization.” Accessed July 20, 2014. http://agora-dialogue.com/rex-carl-bildt-thinks-eastern-orthodoxy-is-main-threat-to-western-civilisation/.
Image Credit: firdaus omar / flickr creative commons
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Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.
Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She was a 2012-13 Junior Fellow in the Marty Center.