A decent distance between religion and government protects both institutions. When in charge of government, religion can quickly devolve into oppressive theocracies. But the flip side is equally bad: When religion allows itself to be co-opted by government, the church risks losing all integrity as it substitutes the state’s priorities for its own – and often ends up defending policies that are simply indefensible.
We’re seeing a particularly toxic example of this play out in Russia, where Patriarch Kirill I, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, has become little more than a cheerleader for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brutal war in Ukraine. Kirill’s church has been greatly rewarded with state subsidies and support, but at what cost?
New York Times writer Jason Horowitz examined the dysfunctional relationship between Putin’s state and Kirill’s church recently. Horowitz relays an interesting story: In a recent Zoom meeting between Kirill and Pope Francis, Kirill spent 20 minutes peddling Putin’s absurd line about how the war in Ukraine is really a “denazification” effort and criticizing efforts to expand NATO.
To this Francis replied, “Brother, we are not clerics of the state.” The pope later told an Italian newspaper that “the patriarch cannot transform himself into Putin’s altar boy.”
But it’s probably too late to halt that transformation. As Horowitz writes, Kirill has offered Putin “spiritual cover while his church – and possibly he himself – receives vast resources in return from the Kremlin, allowing him to extend his influence in the Orthodox world.”
Putin is now a worldwide pariah. His country is isolated, his forces are bogged down in a war that he expected to win easily and international condemnation keeps piling up. There has been talk about holding Putin personally accountable for the violence, death and terror his troops have spawned.
For some perceived gain, Kirill has chosen to tether himself to a corrupt and evil government. The danger of that is obvious: When Putin falls, he may end up dragging Kirill down with him.
As a Christian leader, Kirill might do well to consult the Book of Mark, Chapter 8, and ask himself, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?”