Sarah Riccardi-Swartz is a postdoctoral fellow in the Luce-Funded Recovering Truth: Religion, Journalism, and Democracy in a Post-Truth Era project in the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict at Arizona State University. An anthropologist, scholar of American religion, and trained documentary filmmaker, she specializes in politics, media, race, and Orthodox Christianity. She is the author of Between Heaven and Russia: Religious Conversion and Political Apostasy in Appalachia (2022).
Vladimir Putin’s 2022 war against Ukraine brought to the fore the relationship Russian Orthodox Christianity has to imperialist, often nationalistic, politics. Suddenly, the Western world began to take seriously the sermons of Patriarch Kirill, as he not only supported Putin’s vision of Russian nationalism but theologically enforced its expansion with the blessing of the troops and the gifting of an icon of the Virgin Mary to aid Russian soldiers in the fight against Ukraine. Yet as someone who studies Russian Orthodoxy in the United States, this did not come as a shock; it is an example of how Christian nationalism exists in different contexts and with political projects that are wholly outside of the Western context of American religion and democracy. At the same time, there are global networks of ideology that align contemporary iterations of Christian nationalism in the United States with current forms of nationalism in the Russian context that have the potential for serious social consequences.
I study the American religious far right, and I look specifically at converts to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR). Not all converts to Orthodox Christianity in the United States are far right, or “Reactive Orthodox” as I term them, but it is a growing, perhaps even colonializing, contingent in a minority, immigrant faith community. They look to ROCOR, which came back into communion with the Russian Orthodox Church in 2007 under Putin’s watchful eye, as a moral guide for a world steeped in secularism. Their anti-democratic project is a melding of Christian nationalism, traditionalism, and Russian Orthodoxy that expresses the unfolding, global connections among, conceptions of moral purity, nationalism, and rising authoritarianism. In recent years, thanks to the work of Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry (among many others), Christian nationalism has become a way of thinking about the relationship between political authority and religious belief, particularly in the United States. My own work on American converts to Russian Orthodoxy uses Christian nationalism as a launch point to think about why far-right Americans might turn to Russian religion and politics.
In the past 20 years or so, Putin and the Moscow Patriarchate have configured even more expressly the links between Russian nationalistic pride and the georeligious conception of ancient Holy Rus’ in their Russkiy mir (Russian world) enterprise, which waned for a bit in the mid-to-late 2010s but has seemingly been resuscitated by Putin in his aggression towards Ukraine. This nationalistic framing of Russia emphasizes the importance of Orthodox Christianity as a central, historical shaping dynamic of Russian politics, sociality, and culture prior to 1917 and since perestroika, especially during Putin’s multiple tenures as president of the Russian Federation. In turn, the Moscow Patriarchate has rebranded itself in the post-Soviet context, drawing on Western conceptions of social moral values to pitch itself to the West as a moral entrepreneur, or what one of my American interlocutors termed “a lodestone [sic] for the compass of my soul,” amidst rising global secularism. Among Americans taken with Russian nationalism, praise of the state is not because of its political power but rather its moral (re)attunement.
In the case of the United States and Russia, we have two types of nationalism: one deeply connected to the history of American evangelicalism and conservative political authority, and the other intimately linked to both prerevolutionary and post-Soviet Russian exceptionalism. At the same time, however, they are drawn together in the worldbuilding framework of ideological conviction that is mobilized, often digitally, via the globalized culture wars. Jocelyne Cesari’s latest book prompts us to consider how belief, behavior, and belonging are expressed in religious nationalism globally.
In both American iterations of Christian nationalism and those found in Putin’s Russia, we find this triptych of behavior, belief, and belonging drawing together ideological compatriots separated by geography, and even language, culture, and religion.
American conservatives have long been in conversation with Russian religious and ideological conservatives, as Kristina Stoeckl, Bethany Moreton, and others have pointed out. Indeed issues such as family values in Russia seem to be more of an American import than a Russian export. Whatever the case may be, far-right actors in both countries find in each other moral compatriots ready to do battle with progressive secularism. As Christian nationalism in the United States increased, particularly during the years of the Donald Trump administration, those transnational ties grew.
In the United States, Christian nationalism has become a driving factor in the panic over critical race theory in K-12 schools, overturning LGBTQ+ rights, and the emergence of mainstream politicians who cling to radical, reactive, and conspiratorial ideas about how to shape society. The emphasis on purity, separation, and preservation of the self, the family, and the nation, as expressed by the Moscow Patriarchate and Putin, has found allies among American white Christian nationalists who want to reshape society globally. In February 2022, as Putin’s war in Ukraine was just beginning, Nicholas Fuentes praised the Russian president during his America First Political Action Conference in Florida, and so too did Fuentes’s surprise guest Marjorie Taylor Greene. Drawing on conspiratorial language, Fuentes and other far-right public figures have focused on Putin’s goal of denazifying Ukraine as part of a global moment of moral securitization and a return to traditionalism in the face of Western secularism, which they see as expressed in LGBTQ+ rights, feminism, and the diversity of democracy.
The war in Ukraine has laid bare how morality rhetoric plays into the nationalistic ideologies of both Putin and Patriarch Kirill through their speeches and actions. What is puzzling to many journalists and scholars, however, is why Putin and Patriarch Kirill’s ideas about Ukraine needing to be purged of secularism, gay parades, and Nazis, is finding traction among American far-right communities.
From my vantage point, as a scholar who studies the transnational dimensions of Christian nationalism and far-right political ideologies, the embrace of Putin’s post-Soviet vision for Russian expansion is just as much about political authority as it is about notions of moral purity, social separation, and hegemonic preservation of conservative power structures at both the micro and macro levels of society.
The fears over purity—sexual, spiritual, and racial—that are part of the conversations and beliefs Christian nationalists in the United States and radical actors in Russia are more than just words. They give a language to these far-right world building projects that draws on anti-Semitism, homophobia, and racism to create an anti-modern reality. This sounds dramatic until we think about January 6, 2021, and until we think about Russia’s current war in Ukraine. These movements use reactive language to do what I term “ideological terraforming,” namely building a particular social world or reality from the ground up. We saw that very nearly happen with Trump, QAnon, and the Capitol insurrection; we see it happening now in Putin’s attempts to wipe out Ukraine’s sites heritage, to level the cities and murder citizens of a democratic nation, and we see this in the United States around the panicked policy moves focused on protecting and promoting a society with Christian social values. The anger, fears, and outrage about diversity, about human rights, and about difference are not just fomenting. They are activated and perhaps even weaponized forms of religiously inflected nationalism that are transforming democracy and creating tense state relations globally.