The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Thursday, March 10, 2022

It’s Thursday, March 10, 2022.

I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Vladimir Putin, A Friend to Christian Morality and Conservative Culture?: A Christian Response This Question

It has been argued that moral conservatives should support Vladimir Putin and his vision of Russia. As we consider the situation with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there are at least some who have argued that Vladimir Putin in moral terms is a friend to conservative culture, to the Christian tradition when it comes to the definition of marriage and sexuality, there are those who are arguing that Vladimir Putin represents a new model for conservative leadership on the world stage. Is that true or is it false? Well, before turning to that question specifically before turning to Putin and Russia over that matter, Ukraine, let’s just consider that something very interesting is unfolding in a distinction between just to take Europe, the West and the East.

Some very interesting things happening in many of the nations of Eastern Europe, in particular, the most interesting developments have taken place in the nations of Hungary and Poland. And both of those nations, there have been very interesting conservative counter reactions against the secularizing trends that came during the Soviet era and then the continuation, or even amplification of those secular arising trends as it comes to the influence of other European nations and the general culture of what has become the European union. It is very interesting that those two nations, Poland and Hungary have appeared as interesting political alternatives in that European context and alternatives that are basically openly derided, criticized, and opposed by the more secular and liberal European leadership, and that includes the European Union.

Those interesting developments include a resurgence of moral conservatism in Poland and in Hungary, there are those on the left who argue that it’s merely political, not really theological. There are others who argue that this is a revolt against democracy, but actually I think it’s best seen as a revolt against the moral progressivism and indeed the radical new morality that has taken hold in so many European context and also in so much of North America, or even beyond that, the English speaking world, think of New Zealand and Australia. In any event, there are many people in Poland and in Hungary, just to take those two examples, who are not willing to redefine marriage, they are not buying into the transgender revolution. And furthermore, they believe in upholding the moral example and the ontological reality of marriage as the union of a man and a woman.

Now that’s not to say that either of those nations is pervasively theological. There is a very clear Catholic tradition in Poland and the Catholic church there was actually very much instrumental in the breakup of the Soviet Union and its domination over Poland, the Marxist communist regime in Poland fell at least in part because of the influence of then Pope John Paul II and Catholics on the ground there in Poland. Remember, of course, that John Paul II was the Polish Pope. He had been Archbishop and Cardinal there in Krakow before being elevated to the papacy.

In Hungary, the situation is a bit more different. You have influences from several different theological traditions and historic Christianity, but the bottom line is that under the leadership of Viktor Orban in Hungary, there has been a resurgence of moral conservatism and a pushback against the moral relativism of the West. But does this mean that in Poland or in Hungary, we see actual counter examples to the moral progressivism that we’ve experienced in the United States?

Part II

The Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian Ruler in “Symphonia” — What Does This Mean?

In coming days on The Briefing, we will consider those questions. We’ll be looking at both Hungary and Poland, but right now it’s Vladimir Putin, the Russian Orthodox Church under Patriarch Kirill there in Moscow. And it is Russia that are very much in the forefront of our considerations. And you have the argument that has been coming in recent years from at least some on the right, on the conservative end of the political and moral spectrum, that Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church, the larger example of Russian culture, represent a model of pushing back against modernity, against moral liberalism and asserting a form of national identity that is at least offering some resistance to the moral revolution, including the LGBTQ revolution. Now, part of what makes this so timely today is that just in the last several days, the Patriarch there in Moscow has suggested that the war in Ukraine was necessary in order to push back against liberal foreigners who want to hold gay parades.

Peter Smith at Religion News Service introduces the issue this way, “Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, leader of Russia’s dominant religious group, has sent his strongest signal yet justifying his country’s invasion of Ukraine, describing the conflict as part of a struggle against sin and pressure from liberal foreigners to hold gay parades as the price of admission to their ranks.” Smith then goes on to explain, “Kirill, a long-time ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin, had already refrained from criticizing the Russian invasion alienating many in the Ukrainian Orthodox churches who had previously stayed loyal to the Moscow Patriarch during a schism in their country. Several of these former loyalists are now snubbing Kirill in their public prayers with some demanding independence from the Moscow church, even as their country’s political independent is imperiled.”

Making a generalized accusation, Kirill told his congregation and the larger Orthodox community in Russia and around the world that Western nations are posing a test of the loyalty of other countries, including Ukraine and Russia. As Peter Smith says, “By demanding they hold gay pride parades to join a global club of nations with its own ideas of freedom and excess consumption.” Now, Peter Smith’s article basically is telling us that there has been enormous pushback to Kirill’s statement. The Moscow Patriarch is now no longer being mentioned in some prayers among the Orthodox faithful in the nation of Ukraine and elsewhere. Now what makes this really interesting, and I discussed this on The Briefing in several previous episodes, going back now a period of three or four years, the reality is that there has been tension between the Patriarch of orthodoxy in Ukraine, Kyiv is where after all the Russian Orthodox tradition began with the conversion of the ruler known as Vladimir the great in the year 988. With the creation of the Kievan Rus’, again, the primacy was Kyiv there in Ukraine as it is now.

But the Moscow patriarchy has grown in influence and especially during the course of the Russian Empire and also the Soviet Union, even as the Soviet Union had open antipathy to religion, even as it cracked down on orthodoxy, and even as it espoused Marxist atheism, the fact is that the Patriarch of Moscow still claimed primacy over other churches in the Russian tradition, so called greater Russia, you know how Vladimir Putin loves to use that term. And in particular, Ukraine. It’s interesting that Ukrainian Orthodox authorities have now given permission, this will sound very strange to Protestant evangelical ears, have given permission to priests and churches not to offer prayers venerating Patriarch Kirill as Russia has invaded Ukraine. And we’re being told, this is now something that is spreading throughout Ukrainian orthodoxy. And we can well understand why, especially given the fact that the Patriarch and Moscow had first not criticized the aggressive Russian invasion of Ukraine and is now out openly seeking to justify it. But here’s where things get really, really interesting, and at this point, evangelical Christians should pay very close attention.

As you’re looking at the history of the relationship between Orthodox Christianity, that means capital “O” as in Russian orthodoxy in Russian culture, it has for the greater extent been cultural rather than theological. That’s often the case in many of the lands dominated by the Orthodox tradition. And that tradition, by the way, does not understand any kind of separation of church and state, or any separate sphere in one sense between the church and the state as is understood in the Western constitutional tradition. That also means that in Russia, the Russian Orthodox Church has primacy. And that means that very little, if any, religious liberty is extended to others. And you also have the fact that Archbishop Kirill and Vladimir Putin have a very interesting mutual political pact, but that goes back centuries if you understand Eastern orthodoxy and in particular, the Russian Orthodox Church. The Eastern churches actually have a doctrine when it comes to the understanding of the relationship between the church and the state, or the church and the culture, and that is reduced to the word Symphonia.

Now just think of a symphony orchestra, meaning that all of the instrumentalists play together. That’s what makes an orchestra a symphony. The same thing is true of what basically comes down to a union of church and state, at least in purposes and in attempted ends, if not in actual structures. So in the Orthodox tradition, and this goes back, as I said, centuries, and in the case of Russian Orthodoxy, it basically goes back a millennium. There is no clear distinction between the culture and the church, and furthermore, as most people understand Russian orthodoxy today, you simply have to look at the fact that a relatively, if not amazingly small percentage of Russians, actually have anything to do with say, going to church, including the churches of Russian Orthodoxy, and considering that theological principle throughout Orthodox history of Symphonia, we shouldn’t be surprised that at this point in history, it is well understood in Russia that Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Kirill actually have formed a political pact, and in both cases, there are open accusations of radical corruption.

Now let me be clear. Any pushback against the moral revolution is to be appreciated if it actually is a pushback rather than political opportunism. But the reality is that even though there is a very traditional conservatism in Russian culture, for that matter much of Eastern Europe as well, and that includes the fact that the LGBTQ revolution has made less progress there than in the West. The reality is that we’re not looking at any kind of considerable consolidated biblical morality on terms of Christian historic doctrinal principles in most of those countries, and Russia in particular. Just consider the Russian dependence upon abortion. The basically very liberalized sexual culture in heterosexuality, and the fact that Vladimir Putin in his own personal lifestyle, and in much of the example set by at least some Russian Orthodox leaders, it hardly comports with what evangelical Christians would consider to be historic Christianity.

What is taking place in Russia right now, and in the aftermath of the breakup of the Soviet Union back a matter of decades ago, it’s not so much a resurgence of Christianity as it is a resurgence of the influence and power of the Russian Orthodox church and Vladimir Putin’s effort to try to regain lost Russian glory by cloaking that glory in the cultus and in the institutional authority of the historic Russian Orthodox Church, and Patriarch Kirill is a very willing partner in that project.

But let’s just think about Russian history and the history of the Russian Orthodox Church in one other dimension, going back about five centuries, the Russian Orthodox Church began to proclaim itself as a third Rome. That meant that the first Rome was Rome. The second Rome was Constantinople. And of course that was the capital of the Eastern empire and of Eastern Orthodoxy, but with the fall of Rome, and then about a millennium later, the fall of Constantinople, the claim was that Moscow had become this third Rome, and that Russian glory in Russian history was based in this fusion or symphonia between Russian culture and the Russian Orthodox Church.

John Burgess, a professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in the United States and an ardent student of Russian orthodoxy wrote a book a few years ago entitled Holy Rus’: The Rebirth of Orthodoxy in a New Russia, but he also writes with these words in that book, “Although Russia is one of the few countries in the traditionally Christian world, in which people report that religion is becoming more, not less important to them, few Russians understand basic church doctrine, or observe the church’s most important rituals.” He goes on to write, “By some measures, no more than three to 5% of Russians regularly attend the Sunday liturgy and even fewer strictly keep the Linton fast. To many observers,” he writes, “these statistics suggest that Orthodoxy is more a matter of cultural identity. I’m Russian, so I’m Orthodox, than genuine religious faith.”

Writing about diffusion or relationship between Vladimir Putin and the current leadership of Russian Orthodoxy, Burgess writes, “The Orthodox church has offered Russians and Vladimir Putin himself, a compelling narrative of national greatness and uniqueness.” So what we’re looking at here is something that isn’t very theological, even Burgess, who basically is writing a very sympathetic portrait of Russian Orthodoxy, even he points out that church going is extremely low. Something like three to 5%. This is not some kind of comprehensive theological recovery, this is not a theological movement that is rooted in Christian truth and in an embrace of biblical Christianity, this is a cultural statement, and it’s a cultural statement coming in the midst of a political pact between the leadership of the institutional Orthodox Church and the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, who is not just recently exposed as a tyrant and an autocrat, and effectively a dictator.

So we can express the fact that we are in agreement with those who refuse to define marriage as anything other than a man and a woman. We can speak honestly about the fact that we are in agreement with the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church in defending a biblical understanding of sexuality insofar as that church does that very thing. But at the same time, we come to understand that this Orthodox and political fusion there in Russia is hardly an example for how Christians in Western nations are to think of our role in society. This attempted even principal symphonia between the church and the culture turns out to be fatal to the church, even if it is something that gives support to the culture.

And for Christians, we have to think primarily in gospel and theological terms, even before we think in cultural terms, but even thinking in cultural terms, one of the things we see is that a church that attracts the affections of only about three to 5% of the population in terms of attendance is clearly in truth, not in moral control and certainly is not an overwhelming moral authority in that society. Instead, it is more likely that the government has turned the church largely to its own purposes. Now, one of the big questions for Western nations is whether or not the modern age, that is modernity, inevitably brings a certain kind of moral breakdown as we see in the sexual revolution and in the comprehensive subversion of morality in so many Western cultures. But the answer surely cannot be cooperation, much less emulation of a Russian dictator who has co-opted Russian Orthodoxy for cultural, and certainly not for theological purposes.

In that RNS article, a professor by the name of Cyril Hovorun is cited. He’s professor of ecclesiology, international relations, and ecumenism at University College Stockholm. He said that looking at the situation of Patriarch Kirill there in Russia, the fact is that he is in what the professor describes as a golden cage. He said that the Patriarch is actually responsible to, “Supply the ideology that Vladimir Putin has used to justify Russian hegemony and aggression.” And the professor went on to say, “Even if he,” that meaning Patriarch Kirill, “understands what is going on in Ukraine with the war, even if he wants to speak up and name things by their proper name, he can’t.” He went on to say, “He’s a completely unfree figure that needs to follow faithfully the official narrative.”

A church that is embraced by the state is a church that is eventually co-opted by the state. That’s true in Russia, but it’s not only true in Russia.

Part III

So Having a McDonalds Didn’t Guarantee Peace? Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention Proved Wrong as Russia Invades Ukraine

Coming back to the United States, we need to look at something of an awakening that has taken place in the context of the war in Ukraine. Many people who actually believed in the power of some kind of global capitalism to bring about inevitable world peace, they now have to deal with the fact that this war, the first land war between nations in Europe since World War II, has basically put that theory to a lie.

A very interesting article appeared yesterday in the New York Times, the article had the headline, and by the way, it appeared in the business section, “Russia Loses Fast Foods: Long Symbols of the West.” Julie Creswell’s the reporter here. And what she tells us is that the decision by many Western chains, including McDonald’s to cease operations in Russia, because of the invasion of Ukraine, it has basically gotten the attention of people, both in Ukraine and in Russia, but particularly it might become a political issue in Russia. And yes, Creswell is correct. The opening of so many of these restaurants, including the availability of American fast food like McDonald’s, it was considered a part of the political awakening and of the democratic movement that had emerged in Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the arrival of McDonald’s was heralded just to give one example, as a sign that Russia had entered a new future.

The article in the New York Times tells us that McDonald’s, Pepsi and Starbucks have put a hiatus on their operations in Russia. And if nothing else, it’s making a statement to the Russian people about Western outrage. There’s probably more to it than that. For one thing, just consider the supply chain disruptions that take place in the context of the kind of economic boycott that Russia is now experiencing. But even as you look at this article and you consider the fact that this really is big news, all these American fast food, major brands, ceasing operations in Russia, there’s a background to this that is something the New York Times doesn’t even acknowledge, but it certainly came to my mind. And that background is an argument made by one of the most influential columnists at the New York Times back in 1996, that columnist and his column are not cited in this New York Times article, but I’m going there in a hurry. In 1996, Tom Friedman writing an op-ed piece as a columnist for the New York Times wrote a piece in which he proposed what he called the golden arches theory of conflict prevention.

In that article, he argued, and I quote, “No two countries that have McDonald’s have ever fought a war against each other.” Again, “No two countries that have a McDonald’s have ever fought a war against each other.” Well, 25 years later, it’s happened. Ukraine and Russia both have McDonald’s. Ukraine has 108 of the McDonald’s restaurants. Russia has, we are told, 850. And all of those McDonald’s, we are told, are now paused in operation because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. So Thomas Friedman’s theory, the golden arches theory of conflict prevention turns out to have lasted just about a quarter century until, not only was it true that two European nations have gone to war, but also that both of those nations had McDonald’s. So much for the McDonald’s golden arches theory of conflict prevention.

Now I’m very interested in not only what’s going on in Russia and Ukraine, but at the New York Times, I find it very interesting that a business reporter for that very influential newspaper, perhaps the most influential newspaper in the world, seems to have forgotten a very famous argument made by a columnist for that very newspaper on this very issue. Not only that, going to the matte, arguing that there is a new age of global capitalism that will result in inevitable peace and a kind of consumer culture in which it would be unthinkable that people who eat in McDonald’s would go to war with one another. And yet here they have.

It turns out that having the golden arches did not prevent the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but there’s a bigger issue here in worldview analysis. Thomas Friedman has had inordinate influence in the cosmopolitan globalist crowd. He has been one of those persons, very much favored by the people who would gather at the Davos meetings of world capitalists. And he’s also the author of a book that came out just three years after his golden arches theory of conflict prevention. That book that was released in 1999 was entitled, The Lexus and the Olive Tree.

He was arguing that a new cosmopolitan age was coming very much like the enlightenment philosopher, Emmanuel Kant’s vision of an age of perpetual peace that will be brought about by reason. Thomas Friedman said, no, there will be an age of perpetual peace brought about by a common commitment to an involvement in a global economy, but here’s where Christians must understand. And for that matter, we must constantly remind ourselves that some kind of global peace, much less a perpetual peace, is going to be nonexistent. It certainly will not be brought about by something like universal reason when everyone gets together and just thinks a right, that’s not going happen.

And furthermore, it’s not going to come when everyone decides to join in a communal meal, eating a McDonald’s Big Mac. That age of perpetual peace is not going to be brought on the terms of the global capitalists at Davos, it is not going to be brought about by liberal enlightenment philosophers, it’s not going to be brought about by the golden arches. It will only be brought about by the prince of peace who establishes that peace in terms of his own righteousness and rule. He will judge the nations, the scripture tells us, with a rod of iron. That’s a long way from the golden arches theory of conflict resolution. And this is a good time to remember that distinction.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’m speaking to you from Columbia, Missouri, and I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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