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Looking back at European history, it's all too easy to assume that the religious role in politics and warfare died out much earlier than it really did. We might, for instance, assume that Europe's religious wars ended in 1648, with the closure of the Thirty Years War. But most of the continent's states were avowedly Christian right up to the First World War and beyond, and most practiced some form of church establishment. When wars did erupt, governments and churches framed their nation's cause in religious and even apocalyptic terms, depicting their (usually Christian) enemies as the spawn of Satan. In England, the Crimean War was the last for which the government formally proclaimed national days of prayer, fasting, and humiliation.

The great exception to this general picture of church establishment was France, where Republican secularist traditions were so strong. Yet it was Napoleon III's France that assumed the role of Catholic crusader, at the cost of soaking the continent in blood. Long after the Enlightenment, we neglect the Christian role in European politics and statecraft at our peril.

This was nowhere more true than in Tsarist Russia, where—right up to 1917—politics never lost their apocalyptic and messianic character. When the Byzantine Empire fell to the Turks in 1453, Muscovite Russia took up that mantle. Two Romes had fallen, proclaimed the Tsars, a third stands, and a fourth will never be. As the Third Rome, Moscow was heir to the hopes that surrounded the glorious Byzantine name, including the dreams and visions presented in such texts as the Apocalypse of Daniel. In this apocryphal tradition, a future Constantine would liberate the Orthodox Christian world from the Sons of Hagar, who were increasingly identified as the Muslim Ottomans. At the height of the Turkish wars in the 1770s, Catherine the Great christened one of her grandsons Constantine.

Through the 19th century, even seemingly rational and cynical Russian statesmen maintained this concept of the messianic nation, destined to defend Orthodoxy against Muslims and Catholics alike. Nothing would prevent that empire from freeing Christians in the Balkans and then extending its power over Anatolia, Syria, and Palestine. The words of Pseudo-Daniel still guided Russian actions in 1914.

Obviously, Russian policies reflected both religious and secular motives, and both forces combined inextricably to drive this Russian version of manifest destiny. When the Russians annexed the Crimea in 1783, they did so because of the enormous opportunity to project their power into the Black Sea region, and also because they could now build warm-water naval bases. Nineteenth-century Odessa became a boom city, a Russian counterpart to San Francisco, and Sevastopol was a mighty naval fortress. But Russians also knew that extending their power on what had been those Muslim lands proved the truth of their fundamental religious/national vision. And in the 1850s, they perceived the deadly political and religious threat when foreign forces invaded the Crimea, that now-reconquered holy territory.

Tsarist power is long gone, and the Soviet regime that succeeded it had no time for mystical visions. Yet, as that Soviet idea perished in its turn, Russians have turned once more to the religious roots of national ideology. Post-Soviet regimes have worked intimately with the Orthodox Church, which has been happy to support strong government and to consecrate national occasions. In return, the state has helped the church rebuild Orthodox cathedrals and monasteries aplenty. For 20 years now, both state and church have even labored to reconstruct the once potent Russian presence in the holy places themselves, now of course under Israeli political control.

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