Pamela Cooper-White Commentary: Why Some Christian Nationalists Liked Vladimir Putin – West Central Tribune
As President Vladimir Putin steps up his assault on Ukraine – killing hundreds of innocent civilians and forcing more than 3 million refugees from their homes – prominent members of the Democratic and Republican parties in the United States line up to condemn Russian strongman and demand hard- hitting sanctions.
But as Putin increasingly isolates himself on the world stage, he retains a surprising base of support: far-right American Christians.
As U.S. Senate candidate Lauren Witzke, Republican from Delaware, said at the Conservative Political Action Conference recently: “Russia is a Christian nationalist nation. … I identify more with the Russians, with the Christian values of Putin than with those of Joe Biden. A few days later, at America’s first political action conference, white nationalist Nick Fuentes called for a round of applause for Putin — and got one.
These extreme views do not exist in a vacuum. They are indicative of the swathe of Americans who identify as Christian nationalists – many of whom have quietly defended their pro-Putin views for decades. They admire Putin because they see him promoting their own conservative views on cultural issues, such as attacking LGBTQ+ rights. More insidiously, they also admire Putin because they see him as a macho white Christian who is willing to use lethal force against his enemies – something, alarmingly, they would like to see in the United States as well.
We cannot afford to underestimate the dangers of Christian nationalism. Largely thanks to the election of former President Donald Trump, Americans who hold these beliefs have become emboldened and proven to use violence to achieve their goals – as we saw clearly on the 6 January. But to defeat this dangerous movement, we must understand its roots.
Christian nationalists mistakenly believe that the framers of the US Constitution unanimously intended to base the nation’s founding documents on explicitly Christian principles. In their eyes, the only remedy for the alleged corrupting influence of liberals is to restore America to its former imaginary status as a Christian nation.
Surprisingly, about 80% of white evangelicals and half of all Americans agree at least to some extent with Christian nationalist views, according to sociologists Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry.
Putin may seem like a strange bedfellow to conservative Americans, let alone Christian nationalists. But the Christian nationalist agenda is more nationalist and right-wing than Christian. Unlike patriotism, which is the love of country, nationalism seeks to grant political prominence to a particular ethnic group as the true heirs of their country’s character.
As such, nationalism always tends towards racism and xenophobia, based on a split between “us” and the foreigner. Appeals to “homeland” and cultural heritage mask a more aggressive strategy of ethnic superiority, extremism and hatred. Distinctive ethnic foods, clothing, language, culture and religious rituals are weaponized.
In short, white nationalists are using Christianity as a cover for a more dangerous central agenda: white supremacy.
Putin may be a former atheist, but he now enjoys the blessing of the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church, thanks to which he can claim the mantle of Russian ethnic pride as well. His vision is driven by a maniacal zeal to restore Russia as the center of a union of Soviet states and revive the glories of the old Russian empire and its imperial church.
Christian nationalists also seek the restoration of what they see as a threatened white patriarchal way of life. This desire is reinforced by the blessing – and a concomitant desire for power – of white male conservative church leaders.
It is important to understand the psychological underpinnings here. Some leaders can convince even perfectly rational people to surrender their individual conscience to their pseudo-moral arguments. These leaders – be they religious authorities or political “strongmen” – are masters at promoting lies as absolute truths and presenting truths as conspiracy-driven 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 unconscious relief from making their own moral decisions. This is precisely how cults develop. By presenting a bright and simple vision, charismatic leaders can convince masses of people to join their selfish agenda and feel righteous while doing so.
So what can be done to counter such dangerous illusions at a time of growing division and violence? Arguments will rarely convert unconditional believers. But respectful dialogue with those who embrace certain Christian nationalist sentiments can help restore rationality to American discourse.
We must continue to find ways to speak across an increasingly vehement religious and political divide. Only then can we restore the dream of the American founders of a truly democratic society.
Reverend 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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