WWJD, what would Jesus do?
It sure wouldn't be Christian Nationalism
White #MAGA QAnon Jesus image carried during the Jan. 6, 2021, invasion of the Capitol. Photo by Tyler Merbler/Flickr/Creative Commons
After reading this morning’s AP article regarding the Pope’s commentary on “Putin’s War,” I felt that there is a sensitive topic that must be addressed. This discussion also has an enormous impact on US national security and the security of our allies and partners. So… I’ll take a deep breath and wade into this delicate topic that bridges two topics never discussed publicly in the polite version of the Midwest I grew up in; politics and religion. Please also take a deep breath and give the following serious considerations. There is no intent in my following comments to harm anyone’s beliefs in either politics or religious beliefs.
Of note, although this article asserts Christo-nationalism as a serious national security threat, I also fully acknowledge that all extremism is a threat within any religious faith. We’ve all seen the effects of extremist Islam, radicals of the far-right within Judaism, Buddhism, Hindutva and so on. I am addressing this particular topic solely because in its current form, it presents a significant national security threat to the US and many of its Western allies and for reasons that many may not know.
I’ll start with a little background:
Mom’s side of the family, raised in rural Missouri includes to this day, dozens upon dozens of cousins, more than half teachers or as is also common on that side of the family, pastors as well. Their rural, compassionate, loving and tolerant Christianity is what I was raised with. Dad’s side, though less formally affiliated with religion were none the less, good souls who observed the norm and were/ are law-abiding citizens. Of course, like any family, there are exceptions but all in all, I hit the jackpot with family.
Dad, a life-long educator both in the classroom and as administrator began his career in middle school classrooms teaching history and government. Both have always fascinated me as well and play a role, even today in my research. Personally, he also had a life-long, intense interest in what he called, “comparative religion.” I too share this interest.
Having spent much of my career in uniform in CT, Counterterrorism, deployed to combat zones in a war with violent extremists espousing rigid, intolerant and brutal religious beliefs, I know all too well what happens if no one speaks out with well-informed warnings. This is why I am speaking out now and after taking that aforementioned, “deep breath.” The bottom line to this article will revolve around the national security threat, partially inspired and agitated by Russian / Kremlin influencers, who meddled in our last two presidential election cycles… caustically. Their influence globally, yes and among the US religious right is one of the most divisive issues in America today.
When it comes to wielding influence as a weapon, religion is a most potent weapon and has been since humans first became socialized. It is exclusively a human endeavor to seek meaning about what we experience in life. Acquiring meaning is the purview of narrative, my core professional specialty, not the rhetorical tool we hear daily in the news and at work, but the true meaning of narrative, which is a phenomenon between our ears, that subconscious and consciously imparts meaning to all humans. It is literally the core of influence, regardless of whether it is positive or malicious, as with Russian influence campaigns against the US and the West. When national security influencers enact campaigns, our own unique narrative between our ears is what they are attempting to trigger. Religious identity is one of the most powerful trigger layers as that it embeds in our identity from our earliest years and is reinforced regularly throughout most people’s lives. When influencers know your religious identity very well, they can predictably trigger their desired responses. This occurs whether these influencers’ intent, is good… or bad. Russia’s use of religion as a tool of influence, is undoubtedly destructive.
Russia uses the far-right views of Russian Orthodoxy as a tool of influence. The Kremlin and Patriarch Kirill of the Orthodox Church work together to design and implement global campaigns to shape a favorable worldview among Christians in order to further Putin’s expansionism aggression.
This is a perfect time to segue into, “what does all of this Russian Orthodox talk mean to an American or global threat?
Born into mostly rural families in the Midwest in the mid-fifties, I can’t recall when two-distinctly different sides of the same religion faced off against each other in American politics, except one. That was the uproar over electing JFK to the presidency because he was Catholic. Still, this was more of a somewhat sibling rivalry issue than religious, stemming from the long-established rivalry between Christian England and the French affiliation with Catholicism, that permeated our nation’s founding. Never in my youth did I hear anything like today’s Christian right, from any pastor. Even more orthodox pastors focused on stricter interpretations of faith than on the culture wars we see today.
Over the past 40 years or so, the Christo-nationalists, so vocal in far-right politics, have had their religion shaped by a combination of political interests, amplified and insidiously co-opted by foreign intelligence services, especially Russian/ Soviet. Within Russia, Putin and Patriarch Kirill spend far more time involved in influence campaign strategy than they ever have discussing the beliefs of the church. In fact, Kirill is a key component of Russian influence operations against the West. This isn’t just about the US either. Russian use of an aggressive, Christo-nationalist ideology can be seen in places as diverse as central Asia, Africa, the Middle East and heavy investment in European politics. In every one of these regions, Putin and Kirill’s intent is to create debilitating divisiveness within democracies, not bolster the tenets of Christianity, such as forgiveness, tolerance, compassion etc.
More tragically for the US, Russian Orthodoxy, as it is exported is more grounded in US white supremacy versions of Christianity than anything moral. This includes the typical Russian and White Supremacist conspiracy theories on race, sexuality, intolerance, other religions etc. The US white supremacist origins of their aberrant views on Christianity have provided an easy pathway into much of what we now experience in Christo-nationalism and which stand in direct conflict with US, national values. Mike Flynn, disgraced former senior intelligence officer and operations officer of the January 6th insurrection, now leads a religious/ political movement that reads more like something Patriarch Kirill and Putin put together than anything remotely resembling American values. Most centric to these beliefs is that the “separation of church and state” is not a true American value. Fortunately, Thomas Jefferson well documented his reasoning on this topic and along with other contributing founders to our constitution like Madison, the actual “father” of the document.
The current right, is demonstrably controlled by the extremist, Trump wing of the party. Christo-nationalism underpins this wing and is literally a national security threat, considering its roots. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with religious systems attempting to draw folks to their faith, so long as the efforts are grounded in the highest principles of those faiths, not the sensationalistic nonsense used solely to “market” for a larger audience and by extension, increase the political “power of the pulpit” and increased fund-raising.
For most religions, the whole purpose is to encourage soul-searching for parishioners and adherence to the highest principles of that particular faith. The all-too-apparent core elements of Christo-nationalism do not meet these standards. More tragically, they do irreparable harm to US and Western values, while concurrently assisting immoral and anti-religious, authoritarians like Putin, Xi, Modi in India and of course, Trump. In the US and as enshrined by our founder in our founding documents, all religions have equal freedom and an equally restrictive barrier to becoming part and parcel of our democratic republic’s government.
I will wrap this up with a phrase that was once very popular in the US and often known simply by its acronym, WWJD or “what would Jesus do?” It is almost impossible to read the New Testament and see Jesus in the Christo-nationalist movements, so prominent in the dominant strain of the current Republican right. In fact, most faiths, Christian or otherwise assert that it is not up to mortals to judge. That is the sole purview of God. In any case, US religious movements, Christian or otherwise, need to sit down and take stock of their religious values and sort out whether in fact, they are religious values and not rigid, immoral political ideology.
I’ll close with a wish that everyone assesses and adopts their own, highest religious principles or not. If any belief system doesn’t assert an inclusive moral structure, protective of all creation, they may need a second look.
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