Radio Free Europe: The Price Of Influence

Writing on the RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty Power Vertical blog, Brian Whitmore suggests that there may be a little too much symphonia in a recent move by Russian Patriarch Kirill to work closely with the United Russia political party. Whitmore:

What motivated United Russia and Patriarch Kirill I to reach an agreement giving the Russian Orthodox Church an unprecedented voice in the legislative work of the State Duma?

Aleksei Malashenko of the Moscow Carnegie Center tackles the issue in today’s issue of “Nezavisimaya Gazeta.”

He begins by asking why the ruling party would want to enter into such an arrangement:

Why? Because United Russia desperately lacks something despite its triumphs in elections throughout the country and the overwhelming majority in the lower house of the parliament. And what does it lack? It lacks society’s respect. It lacks recognition as a genuine political party and not just an organization founded and coddled by the Kremlin.

Because the crisis will inevitably require unpopular decisions that will be endorsed (blessed) by the Patriarch as a means to temper society’s discontent.

Because the crisis might foment social unrest and it will certainly benefit the ruling party to have such a formidable an ally.

And last but not the least, because United Russia would like to share responsibility for its actions and transform the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia into Vladimir Gundayev, supporter of the ruling party ever ready with religious authorization.

Vladimir Gundayev, it should be noted, is Patriarch Kirill’s birth name.

So what’s in the deal for the Kirill?

Such an appeal cannot help being flattering. The Patriarch climbed the political mountain and nearly reached the very top. But how are the believers expected to regard their spiritual authority whose influence is higher than that of Moscow Mayor [Yury] Luzhkov but less than that of [Vladislav] Surkov from the Presidential Administration?

But Malashenko writes that the move carries risks for the patriarch and the church:

Involvement with mundane secular affairs will erode the respect the Patriarch’s office commands. The Russian Orthodox Church will soon be regarded as a state structure which is hardly an asset…

The so called duumvirate may eventually evolve into a triumvirate. A grandiose leap from the standpoint of democracy, of course, but common sense is what it will be definitely lacking.

Gundayev is a gifted man. As the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, he is extremely popular. Why waste this popularity?

As I wrote in my last post, Kirill clearly wants to influence legislation on issues like sex education. According to media reports, the patriarch was the one who initiated the meeting with United Russia that led to their informal arrangement. As a result, the church just got an even bigger voice in the affairs of state than it already had. But that voice comes with a price.


  1. Political power appears to be a perpetual temptation. After all, who would not want to affect social policy for the better if they could. Even so, it is one thing to support a particular policy or position, but a party? This appears to me to have very little upside over the long-term.

    Suppose that endorsing the party to whom one has tied one’s fortunes should alienate those in his flock who support the other party or platform. Even if he and the party are broadly popular and successful, does he want to be in a position of needing to support the part? Of having his influence and the fortunes of the Church tied to that party’s? What if they go through a period of disfavor? Will the Church be denigrated because of this parties failures?

    Part of my reaction reflects an unpleasant experience with a priest whom I had previously deeply respected, but who made a point of promoting a particular political position with which I vehemently disagreed. What was corrosive, however, was not the difference of opinion, but that he spent precious moral capital on what appeared to me to be very shallow, clearly partisan and unfortunately ill-considered and incoherent arguments. Without going into details, I was shocked. At first I thought, “stick to what you know.” Over time, I began to question his moral judgment. (The argument was that bad.) Not a good thing. (On the other hand, as Father Hans would say, we should not put our trust in anyone but God. Still, you’ve got to start somewhere.)

    It is important to note that I have dealt with lots of clergy who hold positions that differ from mine without it creating a problem. (Most who were educated in the 60s, for example.) At issue is the purpose and character of the pronouncement: is it to illumine a principle, promote holiness, or promulgate a particular partisan position. That is, is it to educate us, transform us or just get our votes? Is it to bless us or use us?

    Only rarely does a specific party occupy a position of privilege relative to other parties. Perhaps such a rare example might be the party (or parties) supporting Greek independence during the period of Turkish domination. Another, ironically, was pre-Revolutionary Russia. St. John of Kronstadt became increasingly identifies with the conservatives in the latter part of his life. But of course the Church could not rationally support the Bolsheviks. (After all, they hadn’t even invented Liberation Theology yet.) Either way, it must be done with care. If the leadership becomes actively partisan, it risks compromising its priorities, and its mission. In the process it will lose the very thing it must work so hard to build and preserve: its credibility. (Though – snide remark warning – certain Bishops, Metropolitans and Patriarchs seem intent on destroying it on their own by “going to the mat” to promote a transparently self-serving agenda.)

    Despite these qualifications, faith MUST speak to the public square. Some of the best sermons I have heard provided a wonderfully prophetic view on modern political and economic issues. What set these apart was their character and focus. Generally, the clergy took great care to build a coherent, compelling theological basis for their perspective and applied it to reveal the implications of it. (Which is really what happens with any exegetical sermon.) Far more important, though, was that they addressed particular policies, practices or issues in order to show us what it means to live a holy life. And THAT focus/purpose transformed the sermon from political commentary to prophetic witness.

    When done properly, it can reveal, deepen and extend the claims of holiness on our lives; it can be illuminating and liberating. St. John Chrysostom was an outstanding example who used a powerfully prophetic (and, interestingly, exegetical) approach to such issues. To do this effectively, though, the priest must occupy a position that transcends MERE partisanship or “vested interests.” I hope the Patriarch is very, very careful. As I said above, I don’t see much long-term upside if this is true.

  2. Wesley J. Smith :

    The history of the Russian Church–other than the terrible years of brutal martyrdom–has always been too cozy with the wielders of political power for my American tastes. I think we unduly marginalize people and institutions of faith in this country in discussing public policy issues. In Russia, the problems seems to be the mirror opposite.

  3. Cynthia Curran :

    St. John Chrysostom even crticized the imperial family. Remember the Empress Eudocxia who help him get exiled the second time. But I doubt that modern church leaders whether Orthodox or Catholic or Protestant would do that in the modern world. Its true the Russian Church has always been involved more with the powers that be.

  4. George Michalopulos :

    All Old-World Orthodox churches have succumbed to the temptation of being the “national” or “state” religion. It is very corrosive. That does not mean that the Church cannot take a social stand, or even a political one. The pope condemned Nazism in an encyclical written in the mid-30s. He had it written in German as opposed to Latin so that it would be understood. (His main thesis was that Nazism was a pagan cult that was concerned with “blood and soil” or volkisch beliefs.)

    in this sense, it is perfectly acceptable for the Orthodox Church in Russia to condemn the culture of death/secularism/homsexuality/etc. These views may be congruent with those of a particular political party and there is certainly danger there. But it cannot shy away from its prophetic message or be timid when moral outrage and/or righteous anger is called for. Neither do we in America have that luxury.

    I know it’s tempting to side with the Right here in America and be accused by the Left of being “in bed” with the GOP, but just because the conservatives in America are in the GOP does not mean we should be silent for fear of the Left’s opprobriation. Just because Hitler hated tobacco doesn’t mean that non-smokers are Nazis. Likewise the Church in America should not be shy about displaying its moral witness, loudly and forthrightly. If this moral witness is congruent with those who are conservative politically, so be it.

  5. George, well said. And better said. Thanks.

  6. Wesley J. Smith :

    George: I think that is precisely what + Jonah has said. And good for him.

    But as I understood the story that started this thread, there is a partnership with a specific Russian political party and the Russian Church and Patriarch. I want Orthodox hierarchs and priests in all countries making moral arguments, including about policy, in the public square. Where I think a line is crossed, and I believe it hurts the church with people of different political persuasions, is if there is a partnership, even if informal, with a specific party, particularly a party in power.

  7. Cynthia Curran :

    A comment on social conservativism in the States in referance to George’s comment on the religious right, its dominate by protestant conservatives in the South. While they are in some ways more culturely conservative than Christians in the North or the West, most protestant conservatives in the South don’t have an interested in ancient or medieval christianity or culture which cuts them off from the past. On the other hand, I noticed some Protestant converts to Orthodoxy while being interested in the religious conservatism less interested in either the cultural or politcal conservatism. In fact, the US is a bit odd, the most poltical conservatives come from low church protestant backgrounds while the most liberal politcally are more in high church including Orthodox or Catholic and mainline Protestants. Granted, there is also a strong conservative among Catholic Church in the US, which also does a great job of typing religous conservatism with cultural and politcal conservatism. As many here stated, that isn’t true yet of the Orthodox Church in the US.

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