Pamela Cooper-White commentary: Why some Christian nationalists have loved Vladimir Putin
Summary: We need to continue to find ways to talk across an increasingly vehement religious and political divide. Only then can we reestablish the American Founders’ dream of a truly democratic society.
As President Vladimir Putin intensifies his assault on Ukraine — killing hundreds of innocent civilians and forcing more than 3 million refugees to abandon their homes — leading members of the Democratic and Republican parties in the U.S. are lining up to condemn the Russian strongman and demand hard-hitting sanctions.
But as Putin grows more and more isolated on the world stage, he’s retaining one surprising base of support: far-right American Christians.
As Delaware Republican Lauren Witzke, a U.S. Senate candidate, recently said at the Conservative Political Action Conference: “Russia is a Christian nationalist nation. … I identify more with Russians,’ with Putin’s Christian values than I do with Joe Biden’s.” Days later at the America First Political Action Conference, white nationalist Nick Fuentes called for a round of applause for Putin — and got one.
These extreme views don’t exist in a vacuum. They are indicative of the swath of Americans who identify as Christian nationalists — many of whom have quietly held their pro-Putin views for decades. They admire Putin because they see him as promoting their own conservative views on cultural issues, like attacking LGBTQ+ rights. More insidiously, they also admire Putin because they see him as a macho white Christian man who is willing to use deadly force against his enemies — something, alarmingly, that they’d like to see in the United States as well.
We cannot afford to underestimate the dangers of Christian nationalism. Largely due to the election of now-former President Donald Trump, Americans who subscribe to these beliefs have become emboldened and have proved they will resort to violence to achieve their goals — as we saw plainly on Jan. 6. But to vanquish this dangerous movement, we must understand its roots.
Christian nationalists incorrectly believe that the framers of the U.S. Constitution unanimously intended to base the nation’s founding documents on explicitly Christian principles. In their eyes, the only remedy to liberals’ purported corrupting influence is to restore America to its imagined former status as a Christian nation.
Shockingly, roughly 80% of white evangelicals and half of all Americans agree at least to some degree with Christian nationalist views, according to sociologists Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry.
Putin might seem like a strange bedfellow for conservative Americans, much less for Christian nationalists. But the Christian nationalist agenda is more nationalist and right-wing than Christian. In contrast to patriotism, which is love of country, nationalism aims to grant political preeminence to a particular ethnic group as the true inheritors of their country’s character.
As such, nationalism always trends toward racism and xenophobia, based on a split between “us” and the outsider. Appeals to the “homeland” and cultural heritage mask a more aggressive strategy of ethnic superiority, extremism and hate. Distinctive ethnic foods, clothing, language, culture and religious rituals are weaponized.
In short, white nationalists use Christianity as a cover for a more dangerous core agenda: white supremacy.
Putin may be a former atheist, but he now enjoys the blessing of the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church, by which he also can claim the mantle of Russian ethnic pride. His vision is driven by a maniacal zeal to restore Russia as the center of a union of Soviet states and relive the glories of the ancient Russian empire and its imperial church.
Christian nationalists similarly look for the restoration of what they see as a threatened white patriarchal way of life. This desire is fortified by the blessing — and a concomitant desire for power — of white male conservative church leaders.
It’s important to understand the psychological underpinnings here. Certain leaders can convince even quite rational people to surrender individual conscience to their pseudo-moral arguments. Such leaders — whether religious authorities or political “strongmen” — are masters at promoting lies as absolute truths, and casting truths as conspiracy-motivated lies.
Many people will easily see through these unscrupulous tactics. But for some, being told by a persuasive demagogue what is right and wrong can offer an unconscious relief from making one’s own moral decisions. This is precisely how cults grow. By presenting a shining, simple vision, charismatic leaders can convince masses of people to join their self-serving agenda and to feel righteous in doing so.
So, what can be done to counter such dangerous delusions in a time of increasing divisiveness and violence? Arguments will rarely convert hard-core believers. But respectful dialogue with those who embrace some Christian nationalist sentiments can help restore rationality within American discourse.
We need to continue to find ways to talk across an increasingly vehement religious and political divide. Only then can we reestablish the American Founders’ dream of a truly democratic society.
The Rev. Pamela Cooper-White is dean and professor of psychology and religion at Union Theological Seminary in New York and author of the forthcoming book “The Psychology of Christian Nationalism.”
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