As the tragedy in Ukraine unfolds, it is curious to note what religious organizations in Russia and Ukraine have to say about it. Two-thirds of the people in both countries call themselves Eastern Orthodox, the second largest Christian church in the world. You might expect the church in both countries to agree, but you are wrong.
The governments of Russia and Ukraine maintain close relations with the Orthodox Church. There is even a name for this relationship, “symphonia”, which ensures reciprocal veneration. Without an American-style separation of church and state, these churches’ perception of events is greatly affected by the government with which they are in bed. Understanding how these churches behave is a powerful lesson in the merits of the separation of church and state.
The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) has a long history of involvement in Russian state affairs. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the ROC was essentially a government department of the Russian Empire. Peter the Great (1682-1725) appointed all bishops, and the church was headed by a Holy Synod, to whom he appointed. Later, Catherine the Great (1729-1796) seized church lands and placed the priests on government pay. Naturally, the teachings and public comments of the ROC were carefully weighed to please the Russian government, whose pleasure they served.
After the overthrow of the tsar by the Russian revolution (1917), the communists took a dark view of the church, which had long served the interests of the tsar. About 200,000 clergy were killed during the 60 years of communist rule in the Soviet Union (according to a 1995 Russian commission) and 40,000 churches were destroyed.
Today, Russian President Vladimir Putin supported the rehabilitation of the ROC. Putin presents himself as a supporter of “traditional family values”. He claims to oppose the liberal agenda, promotes anti-LGBTQ rights legislation and says he’s all for Christianity, even as he bombs hospitals in Ukraine.
Like the tsars of old, Putin is backed by the head of the Russian Orthodox Church. Patriarch Kirill describes the Ukrainian war as “a crusade to safeguard Orthodox values and the unity of the faithful”.
It might come as a surprise to Americans that the head of the Russian Orthodox Church would replicate Putin’s talking points, even though two-thirds of the people whose homes Putin destroys are members of the Orthodox Church. Orthodox churches around the world urged Kirill to change his stance, to no avail.
This might surprise Americans, but it won’t surprise Russians or Ukrainians.
Putin reportedly showered the ROC with gifts like a 6-acre walled compound, including a luxurious former imperial residence, with a renovation budget of $43 million. Putin provided Kirill with a 100ft luxury yacht, a luxury railway carriage and other favors.
The ROC and the Russian government find it useful to support each other – symphonia.
Religious institutions are made up of people, and people can be blinded by self-interest. The Ukrainians are shattered, but Putin can count on Kirill’s support.
Here in America, the government cannot directly support religious organizations. Our Constitution prohibits the establishment of a state religion and, as Thomas Jefferson wrote, builds a “wall of separation between church and state.” However, there are Americans who want to change that.
Many religious organizations in America now receive federal and state funds to run prison programs, child adoption services, and other businesses. Tennessee and some other states support religious schools through voucher programs. Governor Bill Lee advocates paying a religious college to create dozens of state-funded religious charter schools. These relationships can benefit churches; they also provide the power and influence that some churches desire.
Churches nursing in government lose their independence, their voice, their integrity. It diminishes the very things we value in religious institutions.
Government corruption is encouraged when religious organizations are dedicated to ingratiating themselves with and showing support for government administrations.
We should remember James Madison’s warning, “Religion and government will both exist in greater purity, the less they will be mixed.”
Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor (appointed by Ronald Reagan) wrote, “Those who would renegotiate the boundaries between church and state must therefore answer a difficult question: why would we trade a system that served us so well against a system that has served others so poorly?