Do American Christians want the USA to be more like Russia?

In the past few months I’ve heard several conservative American Christians grumble that Christians increasingly have more freedom in Russia than they do in America. Obviously such comments reflect awareness of Russia’s history of rigorously anti-Christian communism during the 20th Century. At least when it comes to religion, however, Putin’s regime has more in common with Europe’s 20th Century Fascist regimes than it does with Lenin or Stalin.

And I fear that the comments of these conservative Christians says more about their own politicized perceptions than about reality. As Jonathan Merritt writes,

American Christians have a persecution complex. Whenever a public figure criticizes the Christian movement or offers believers in other faiths an equal voice in society, you can bet Christians will start howling. Claims about American persecution of Christians are a form of low comedy in a country where two-thirds of citizens claim to be Christians, where financial gifts to Christian churches are tax deductible, where Christian pastors can opt out of social security, and where no one is restricted from worshipping however, whenever, and wherever they wish.

There is an increasing tendency among some on the right to turn every single political issue into a matter of religious liberty. The base isn’t getting fired up enough about same-sex marriage? About government tax policy? Show them that their religious freedom is at stake.

This strategy strikes me as misguided for a number of reasons, both strategic and moral. First of all, there is the old story of the boy who kept crying wolf. The religious liberty charge is being thrown around so much that by the time religious liberty is genuinely at stake in this country it may evoke little more than a collective rolling of the eyes. Just as importantly, it doesn’t say much about our political morality if Christians can only become engaged by claiming victim status for ourselves. Self-interest, not justice or concern for the common good, seems for some to be the main reason why we should be concerned about same-sex marriage. Yet bemoaning the poor state of we Christians in this country is hardly a strategy likely to win the political hearts and minds of mainstream America.

In any case, on the surface, at least, there is plausibility to the claim that Russia is more friendly to religion than is America. Let’s compare the two. The Economist reports that the Oklahoma Senate just passed, by a vote of 40-3, legislation to bar both foreign and religious law from state courts. Enactment of the law would make Oklahoma the sixth state (after Arizona, Kansas, Louisiana, South Dakota and Tennessee) to have such a law on the books. As the report humorously puts it,

If a judge sentences you to be stoned for adultery, you are probably not in Middle America. But just to make sure, the Senate of Oklahoma this week endorsed by 40 votes to three a bill that would bar the use of foreign or religious laws in state courts.

This phenomena, ironically, is largely coming from the right. But of course, most of us are aware of the secularization being pushed from the left as well: same-sex marriage, the contraceptive mandate, talk of suspending the charitable tax deduction, etc. To be sure, these are serious issues, worthy of our concern. They no doubt have some implications for religious liberty. But is religious liberty really the fundamental value at stake?

Enter Russia. According to the Globe and Mail,

Russian legislators have given initial approval to a law [by a vote of 330-7 in the Duma] that would make offences against religion punishable by up to five years in prison after the Pussy Riot protest in Moscow’s main cathedral outraged many in the mainly Orthodox country.

Three women from the punk band were jailed for hooliganism after their protest over Kremlin ties to the church, but the new law would make such stunts illegal by deeming they caused offence to religious feelings, ceremonies, sites or artifacts.

The Russian Orthodox Church, with close ties to the Putin regime, strongly supports the legislation. Putin says its necessary to protect believers. But his broader agenda regarding religion seems to be just the sort that some American Christians would love to see carried out in this country:

Putin’s relationship with the church has strengthened since Pussy Riot band members entered Christ the Saviour Church last year and sang a profanity-laced song, urging the Virgin Mary to “throw Putin out” at the height of protests against his rule.

He has called for the church to have more say over family, life education and the military, and has tried to mix spirituality with his own brand of patriotism.

Does anyone outside of Russia honestly believe that Putin has the genuine interests of Christianity at heart here? Far more likely is that this is just another instance of an authoritarian political leader using faith and the church for his own purposes. And as a theologian like John Calvin can remind us, it has always been this way, even during the best years of Christendom. We are therefore left with the odd paradox that often Christians have far more freedom – and would much prefer to live – in secular western countries than in “Christian” countries that seek to synthesize religion with authoritarian rule.

In any case, amid all the rhetoric about religious persecution in this country, it helps to get some perspective about what oppression really looks like. If you’re in doubt, take some time off and catch up on your reading about Putin’s Russia.

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About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on April 12, 2013, in Religious Liberty and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Do American Christians want the USA to be more like Russia?.

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