The trouble with Putin's Christian Orthodoxy

23 February 2022

10:10 PM

23 February 2022

10:10 PM

If you are worried about the uncertain fate of democracy in today’s world, what should you do? Become a human rights advocate, maybe, or a campaigning journalist. Or maybe you should consider becoming a Protestant missionary.

In today’s Times, Danny Finkelstein draws our attention to the democracy index compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit. It tells us that democracy has been in decline since 2006, and in recent years it has downgraded some of the most seemingly solid democracies, including the US, from ‘full democracies’ to ‘flawed democracies’.

I had a look at the top ten ‘full democracies’. Maybe I am biased to notice such things, but it struck that me that eight of last year’s top ten have something in common. They are historically Protestant. The exceptions are Taiwan and Ireland. And Ireland is arguably historically Protestant too. Maybe last year was a blip – so I looked at the previous year. Nine out of ten. Or nine and half (Ireland again).

It is rather unfashionable to speak of the Protestant roots of liberty. You get called ‘Whiggish’ by edgy ‘post-liberal’ types (as I recently did by the theologian John Milbank). Even Protestants, at least Anglican ones, are shy of blowing this sort of trumpet. But when evidence like this stacks up year after year, is it not stubbornly evasive to ignore it?

I am not going to summarise the case for the Protestant roots of liberal democracy. Well, okay, very briefly. Liberal Protestants declared that God wants a new sort of political culture, in which people are free. This overturned the centuries-long assumption that some form of theocracy was needed, for order.

You might think that nowadays all Christians have accepted liberal values. But most remain ambivalent, wanting to idealise the old ‘unitary’ ideal. Liberal Christians should be more intolerant of this, should call out the theocratic tendencies within evangelicalism, Catholicism, and – more to the point – Orthodoxy. For Putin’s ideology is propped up by a brocaded parade of men in long beards and tall hats. If the Reformation had expanded east, might Russia now be in that top ten, instead of its leadership waging war on its neighbours?

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