Russian President Vladimir Putin, the career KGB officer who has presided over the rollback of his country's post-Communist freedoms and revived Cold War-style anti-Americanism, is an unlikely hero for American conservatives. Yet the Kremlin strongman has lately found some fans on the right who see him as a defender of Christian values — most recently, in the imbroglio over Russia's new legal ban on gay "propaganda." It is a sad misjudgment that does a disservice to the causes of conservatism, freedom, and religion alike.
Spokesmen for several right-wing groups including the American Family Association have praised the Russian law, which prohibits any pro-gay speech or expression that could be accessible to minors. Veteran columnist Pat Buchanan has joined the Putin cheerleading squad. And, shockingly, the usually thoughtful author Rod Dreher, who blogs for The American Conservative, has added his own "1.5 Cheers for Putin."
While condemning anti-gay violence and authoritarianism in Russia, Dreher praises Putin's willingness to speak up for Christianity and laments that "post-Soviet Russia, for all its grievous flaws, is . . . more conscious of its Christian history and character than the United States."
This is a truly grievous misunderstanding of the reality of religion and politics in 21st Century Russia. Russia today is outwardly far more religious than most of Western Europe, but it's a religion of state more than church: Orthodox Christianity has taken Communism's place as the new official ideology, with church membership an official badge of patriotism and loyalty.
Russia's political and religious leaders speak glowingly of church-state cooperation; in practice, the Russian Orthodox Church serves as a handmaiden of the regime, which grants it special privileges. Its head, Patriarch Kirill, has obsequiously praised the "miracle" of Putin's rule and disparaged political protests. (The patriarch almost certainly has past ties to the Soviet-era KGB). Neither Kirill nor other senior clerics have criticized the government in areas where the church disagrees with official policy, such as abortion, which remains not only legal but free at public clinics; their statements on the subject have been low-key and deferential.
Not surprisingly, this "special relationship" promotes Potemkin religiosity. Nearly three out of four Russians now identify as Orthodox, up from 30 percent in 1989 — yet a poll by the Levada Center, a major independent polling firm, suggests that for many of these self-styled Christians, Orthodoxy is more a cultural and social identity than a personal faith: Nearly a third of them don't believe in God (with another 30 percent unsure) and nine out of ten never pray.
The Orthodox "revival" has coincided with the rise of rampant materialism as well as sexual permissiveness: 40 percent of Russians today, up from 16 percent in 1992, think sex without love is acceptable.
This tolerance does not extend to homosexuality, viewed as morally wrong by over 80 percent of Russians. Only seven percent, down from 17 percent in 2005, "completely agree" that gays and lesbians should have the same rights as others; nearly three-quarters say all gay or pro-gay public expression should be stopped; and fewer than 40 percent believe the state should protect gays from violence. Given Russian opinion on other moral issues — just over a third see abortion as wrong — it is likely that this virulently anti-gay mentality is not rooted in religion but, as in Soviet days, in loathing of anything regarded as "alien" and antisocial.
Dreher concedes Putin is "a cynic"; however, he argues that at least in Putin's Russia, "religious institutions are not facing a threat from liberalism in power" as he believes they are threatened by the advance of same-sex marriage in the West. But what about the way religious institutions are threatened by servility to corrupt authoritarianism in power? Some of the harshest critics of the church-state symbiosis in Russia are devout Christians, including many who practiced their faith in Soviet days when it was not only unfashionable but dangerous. And what about minority religions whose adherents often face harassment and discrimination?
Reconciling gay civil rights and religious freedom in liberal democracies is a complex issue. However, not lending even partial endorsement to a thuggish regime that targets an unpopular minority for political advantage should be a no-brainer. Support for Putin can only reinforce stereotypes of conservatives as bigoted authoritarians who would use state power to impose their morality on others if given half a chance.
This article originally appeared in the Boston Globe.