Writing in today’s Wall Street Journal (Russia Wages a Religious War Against Ukraine), Loyola University Chicago is history professor (and author of “Russia’s 20th Century: A Journey in 100 Histories,” forthcoming from Bloomsbury), Michael Khodarkovsky writes about the conflict between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Ecumenical Throne over the latter’s establishment of an autocephalous (self-governing) Church in Ukraine.
Khodarkovsky briefly sketches out the history of the conflict. What is, I think of most interest, however, is his observation about the close relationship between the Russian State and the Moscow Patriarchate.
The ties between the Kremlin and the Moscow Patriarchate are as old as Russia itself. Throughout its history, the Russian Orthodox Church had been subservient to the state and an unshakable supporter of autocracy. Since the late 15th century, the church provided Moscow’s rulers with a political theology of manifest destiny, asserting that Moscow had become the Second Jerusalem and the Third Rome (Constantinople being the second).
While the relationship is more complex than what the author suggests (or can reasonably address in an editorial), his fundamental point is sound.
The close relationship between Church and State in Russia has worked to the harm of the former. This was never more the case than with the rise of Communism at the beginning of the 20th century.
The emergence of the atheist Soviet state in 1922 dealt a severe blow to the church. The state confiscated most ecclesiastical property. It destroyed many churches while turning others into storage places. Steeples that rose high enough became jamming stations to prevent Voice of America or the BBC from reaching Soviet citizens. Few seminaries survived. Those that did, trained a small number of priests. The KGB infiltrated the priesthood, informing on clergy and promoting Soviet interests abroad.
Writing in the comments section, two readers made points especially important to those of us concerned with the evangelical work of the Church as well as to the overall health of the Church in America and worldwide.
Don Dewitt writes, “This is exactly what happens in nations without a tradition of separation of church and state.” He goes on to say that “Evangelicals and VP Pence” should “take note–partnering with government turns a church into a tool of the state, not the other way around.”
Another comment by David Holmes makes the point that the struggles of the MP in Russia parallel those of the Catholic Church in China (for example, here).
Bottom line, the Church does well to keep a distance from the State since, to borrow from the Acton Institute’s Fr Robert Sirico, “to drink the King’s wine” means “to dance to the King’s tune.”