Russian propaganda demonizing Ukraine as religiously intolerant resonates loudly with many US conservative Christians, and a number of factors are turning up the volume on a familiar tune.
Ukraine’s efforts to root out collusion with the aggressor by clergy in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) have been spun by Russia and its foreign sympathizers as religious persecution specifically targeting Christians.
“TRUTH…Ukraine is not a real democracy (and) is persecuting Christians,” declared US Republican presidential hopeful Vivek Ramaswamy in a Dec. 5, 2023 post to X (formerly Twitter).
A few weeks earlier, US media personality Tucker Carlson released a viral video interview with attorney Robert Amsterdam, a representative of the so-called Union of Orthodox Journalists, denouncing what they claimed was the Ukrainian government’s widespread persecution of the UOC-MP, due to the arrests of several priests for actively supporting Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Despite overwhelming evidence that Russia is in fact doing the persecuting in Ukraine – kidnapping, torturing and killing clergy, banning “unauthorized” religious activity and destroying houses of worship (including those of the UOC-MP) – a number of US Christians, especially conservative ones, are singing (or at least humming) along to Russia’s off-key hymn.
And they’re chiming in on a well-known melody.
What those who know say
“The idea of Christians as persecuted is one of the most galvanizing issues for evangelicals around the globe, and it has really moved in many ways to the center of, at least, components of evangelical identity,” said Melani McAlister, professor of American studies and international affairs at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
McAlister, who in 2018 published her book The Kingdom of God Has No Borders: A Global History of American Evangelicals, told Kyiv Post that as U.S. evangelical Christians have increasingly learned more about their fellow believers throughout the world – especially where Christians are in the minority – “they begin to work with those folks more closely, and then sort of take up stories of persecution as their own.”
As a result, “the notion of a global war on Christians” has been “a very powerful, even dominant narrative among American evangelicals for the last, I would say, 20 years,” Mc Alister said.
More than 360 million Christians, or one in seven, experience high to extreme levels of persecution, according to the 2023 World Watch Report by Open Doors International, a global advocacy group for persecuted Christians. The 50 top countries listed on the organization’s 2023 World Watch List are largely in Africa and Asia. The US is not on the list.
But many conservative US Christians, Protestant and Catholic alike, nonetheless claim the battle is now being waged on the home front, especially as religious belief and practice have plummeted in the nation over the past several years in particular. If current trends hold, Christians are now set to make up less than half the US population in a few decades, according to the Pew Research Center.
That decline, amid an increasingly secular American society, stands to intensify what scholar Elizabeth Castelli, a professor of religion at Barnard College, has called the contemporary “Christian persecution complex” in the US – an anxiety deftly leveraged by (among others) Donald Trump, who has repeatedly cast himself as both a political martyr and messiah.
Persecution has “a long heritage” of association with Christian identity, with Christianity itself “founded upon an archetype of religio-political persecution, the execution of Jesus by the Romans,” observed Castelli in a 2007 article.
Why American Christians can relate
The Sept. 11 attacks, perpetrated by Islamic terrorists, significantly intensified political activism by US Christians seeking to counter perceived threats to their religious freedom, she wrote.
Yet Castelli noted that well before the attacks, the Christian martyr narrative had become intertwined in the US with identity politics – and with what historian Richard Hofstadter, writing in 1964, described as “the paranoid style in American politics,” marked by “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.”
The “war on Christians” movement has sought to reframe “democratic debates over social policy as acts of religious intolerance and persecution in themselves,” wrote Castelli.
Vladimir Putin’s use of Christianity and so-called traditional family values to justify both war in Ukraine and domestic repression plays counterpoint to that theme – and evokes echoes of the “cultural authority” US Christians enjoyed in early post-Soviet Russia, said Bethany Moreton, professor of history at Dartmouth College, and author of the forthcoming book Slouching Towards Moscow: American Conservatives and the Romance of Russia.
Many evangelicals can still recall when “just a few short years ago, this atheistic empire” was “inviting them in” to evangelize Russians, and to declare that “public life should be Christian, business should be Christian, education should be Christian,” Moreton told Kyiv Post. “It was a very heady moment.”
She also pointed to a “longstanding” hope among US Protestant Christians, dating from the 19th century, of winning Russia to their faith.
“Here was a mission field with all of these people who were nominally Christian, in that they were Russian Orthodox, but clearly they were still awaiting the true conversion experience and a relationship to the Bible,” said Moreton. “Russia was going to be this incredibly rich mission field.”
The missionary impulse for Russia was also “racialized to some extent, because Russia was the great white storehouse of souls that might at any moment have a mass conversion,” she said.
At the same time, Russian Orthodoxy holds a kind of mystical appeal for some US Christians, who view it as a “pure, patriarchal” faith that is “sort of unbroken from the Old Testament and the early years of Christianity,” said Moreton.
“It’s a tiny phenomenon, but there is a steady trope among Christian nationalists in the US of an admiration for, and to a certain extent, a conversion to Russian Orthodoxy,” she said, adding the trend is “well-known among Orthodox believers in the US.”
In some Orthodox seminaries, she said, “there are these kinds of unofficial cells… of people studying for ordination who are all-in on a kind of Christian nationalist, very racialized” vision for national identity in the US.
With US aid to Ukraine under threat due to partisan politics, and with a contentious presidential election looming, Russia will very likely continue to exploit the Christian persecution narrative among willing US believers – even as victims of the worst forms of Christian persecution around the world, and in Ukraine, continue to suffer.
Gina Christian is a US-based religion journalist whose work focuses on the Catholic Church (particularly the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church), interfaith relations, religious freedom and human rights. Follow her on X at @GinaJesseReina.
The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.
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