Last Thursday, Russian president Vladimir Putin signed a new anti-terrorism law, which, among other things, restricts missionary activities in Russia significantly. As was the case in the Soviet Union, believers will be able to evangelize only on property that belongs to their religious organizations and affiliated institutions. Violators may be subjected to steep fines. In addition, the law would tighten government control over Russian Internet providers.

While it would be easy to blame these events on the history of communism in Russia, the relationship between church and the state has a longer and more influential history in Russia.

A ‘Harmonious Relationship’ Between Church and State

In contrast to the cherished ideals of religious liberty and the separation of church and state held in the United States, a major contributing factor to the recent events in Russia is the concept of symphonia, or institutionalized “harmonious relations,” between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian state. This intentional connection between church and state allows the Orthodox Church to enjoy all the attendant privileges of political preference and feeds into a uniquely Russian national identity. This recently signed legislation goes a long way toward preserving this status quo by massively restricting non-Orthodox Christian congregations and organizations in Russia, making their missionary activities effectively illegal and subject to constant surveillance.

While such a law would be unthinkable in the United States, this sort of measure stems from a long and complex relationship between the Russian Church and the Russian state. The late Max Stackhouse, a preeminent authority on faith in the age of globalization, pointed out that “one cannot imagine trying to understand the politics of China or India without reference to Confucianism or Hinduism, or the systems of government in Southeast Asia or the Middle East without understanding Buddhism or Islam, or what is going on in the EU without reference to the legacy of traditional Christendom.…Nor can we understand the US without an awareness of Protestantism’s historic influence.” Similarly, one cannot understand Russian politics without reference to Russian Orthodoxy and the influence this faith has had on the formation of the predominant worldview in Russian culture.

The worldview of Russian Orthodoxy is holistic and organic. It does not have sharp divisions between various spheres of human society or branches of power. While it does grant considerable importance to human personality, atomistic individualism is alien to it. The search for meaning and purpose is central to this worldview, and Russians look to the Orthodox Church to provide this meaning and purpose.

A Religious Aversion to Consumerism

The notion that people will invariably choose a Western-style democracy once they taste the fruits of a market economy has been a bedrock of US foreign policy until just a few years ago. When people move to the middle class, so this theory goes, they become less susceptible to militant ideologies and more predisposed to embrace democratic values. It may be true that people living in abject poverty may be more amenable to extremist ideologies, but a material solution to their situation may only provides for their physical needs. It is deeply ingrained in the Russian psyche that people have needs that cannot be met by merely providing consumer goods.

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Russia: The Other Christian Nation