On a Sunday morning this month, Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, stood in the Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces outside Moscow and called on Russian soldiers to “love our fatherland … protect it, as only Russians can defend their country.” A vocal supporter of President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, Kirill disdains liberal culture and the acceptance of homosexuality. And he blames the West for the conflict. Of the thousands killed and wounded in Ukraine, Kirill preached, “All these are people of Holy Russia. They are our brothers and sisters.”
An established voice in Christendom, Kirill also links Putin spiritually with God. When Putin convened a February 2012 meeting of religious leaders in advance of his campaign to win a third term, Kirill called the 12 years of his rule a “miracle of God.”
How different from here at home?
President Donald Trump incited the Capitol insurrection intended to reverse the 2020 presidential election. Still, White evangelical Christian leaders flock to meet with him at his private Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Fla. “They do believe he’s a man who loves our country, and he’s embraced policies that are in keeping with the truth of God’s word and that’s why they selected him,” said Robert Jeffress, pastor at First Baptist Church in Dallas and a close Trump ally.
How deep and abiding a faith?
On Jan. 6, 2021, some Trump supporters storming the U.S. Capitol carried signs declaring “Jesus Saves.” After taking over a Senate chamber hastily abandoned by Vice President Mike Pence, senators, congressional staffers and security personnel, the rioters — some clad in body armor — invoked the name of Christ as they bowed their heads and prayed. They believed they were doing the Lord’s work.
Putin’s and Trump’s people, separated by an ocean, are united in defining their countries in a view of Christianity that they believe must be fought for and preserved.
Thus in a statement before the Ukraine invasion, Kirill charged that President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government in Kyiv was infringing on Ukraine’s Moscow-linked Russian Orthodox Church, and that Putin’s “high and responsible service to the people” required Russia’s armed intervention. The troops, Kirill said, should have “no doubts they have chosen a very correct path.”
Just as Trump stood in a small Christian college in Sioux Center, Iowa, in January 2016 and said in his campaign speech, “I will tell you, Christianity is under tremendous siege, whether we want to talk about it or we don’t want to talk about it.” He said most of the country is made up of Christians, “and yet we don’t exert the power that we should have.” That would change, Trump promised, if he got in office.
“Christianity will have power,” he said. “If I’m there, you’re going to have plenty of power, you don’t need anybody else. You’re going to have somebody representing you very, very well. Remember that.”
Just as Trump told White Christian evangelicals that he would fight for Christians like them, he told his crowd of supporters on the National Mall before hundreds of them marched on the Capitol, “We will never give up. We will never concede. It doesn’t happen.” The Biden presidency had to be challenged, he argued.
“If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”
And on the afternoon of Jan. 6, they fought like hell, as he demanded.
This kind of White Christian nationalism has been seen at work before. And Christianity has been seen at rest, too.
Both modes wreak havoc.
We saw White Christians in the South sit serenely in their pews listening to what the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called “pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities” as blatant injustices were inflicted upon Black people. We can’t help but notice the absence of moral sensibilities in many of today’s Christian churches, as right-wing Christian nationalists, in the name of Christ, try to overturn elections, attack voting rights and convert this country into a living hell for all unlike themselves, especially people of color and members of the LGBTQ communities.
Just as Kirill’s Russian Orthodox Church is getting away with giving aid and comfort to a Kremlin butcher of innocent souls in Ukraine.
And so we witness the wrenching sight of many mainline Christian congregations aping the behavior of those past Southern churches, sitting on the sidelines divorced from the “sacrificial spirit of the early church” that King talked about.
And there it is: the sins of commission and omission — both willfulness and the failure to do what is right — played out before our very eyes, at home and abroad. Without an ounce of repentance in sight.