Inside the Campaign Against “Putin's Pope” – POLITICO – POLITICO

April 16, 2022
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Capital City
A close Kremlin ally, the Patriarch of Moscow has blessed the Ukraine invasion. Fellow religious leaders are going after him.
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill has rearranged the church on more authoritarian lines and cemented a close alliance with Putin. | Alexander Zemlianichenko/ AP Photo
By Michael Schaffer

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Michael Schaffer is a senior editor at POLITICO. His Capital City column runs weekly in POLITICO Magazine.
Like a lot of insiders associated with Vladimir Putin, Vladimir Mikhailovich Gundyayev has faced calls for international ostracism in the weeks since the invasion of Ukraine. It’s no surprise why: He’s used his powerful Moscow perch to endorse the Kremlin’s attack on its neighbor, cheering on the troops and casting their mission as part of a civilizational battle against western decadence.
But unlike the owner of a Russian airline or retail behemoth or energy concern, he’s not the sort of figure consumers can simply boycott or suppliers can just cut off. Gundyayev — formal name: Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and all Russia — is the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church. Which makes the process of kicking him out of polite society a bit trickier, and explains why that process at least partially runs through a small, iconoclastic Washington think tank.
The bill of complaints against Patriarch Kirill is long and ugly. Since taking over Russian orthodoxy’s highest job in 2009, he’s rearranged the church on more authoritarian lines, cemented a close alliance with Putin, and lent ecclesiastical legitimacy to the quasi-mystical, hyper-nationalist Russkiy Mir theory that Putin has used to dismiss the existence of Ukraine as a separate country.
Since the war began, it’s been uglier still. He delivered a sermon calling on Russians to rally around the authorities and “repel enemies both external and internal.” In another, he likened the battle to the struggle between the church and the antichrist. He’s said the war for “Holy Russia” has “metaphysical significance,” the conquest of Ukraine a matter of eternal salvation. For good measure, he’s also said that part of what the Russian forces are combating is the horrific possibility of gay pride parades. Plenty of oligarchs have been canceled for less.
The problem with targeting religious leaders is that they don’t simply have yachts the police can seize or air-overflight rights the government can revoke. In the United States, where the Orthodox Church in America is formally separate from Moscow (and critical of the war), there aren’t even many places where activists could protest a Kirill-aligned cleric’s sermon. Within Russia itself, a group of Orthodox priests signed a letter opposing the invasion. Outside Russia, it’s largely been other religious leaders who have taken the Patriarch to task.
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, left, talks to President Vladimir Putin, right, during the Easter service in the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow, Russia, in 2019. | Alexander Zemlianichenko/ AP Photo
And in the U.S., an evangelical minister named Rob Schenck, who leads a small D.C.-based institute named after the martyred anti-Nazi theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, has championed another venue to exhibit displeasure: He has helped organize a campaign to get the Russian Orthodox Church kicked out of the World Council of Churches, the Geneva-based international organization founded after World War II to promote ecumenical understanding.
“Instead of the Patriarch challenging Putin and calling him to account, he is essentially enabling him and offering him a moral imprimatur for the invasion of Ukraine,” says Schenck, an administrative bishop of the Methodist Evangelical Church and a one-time conservative activist who later wrote a memoir of his journey into and out of the religious right. “He has styled it as a religious war of sorts, the danger of western liberalism and its encroachment on Orthodox culture. He’s made it a culture war as much as a religious crusade.”
Working with allies overseas, Schenck has been circulating letters, lobbying colleagues and otherwise trying to wrangle the array of denominations that make up the world council. Prelates including a former Archbishop of Canterbury have embraced the idea, and last week the organization’s general secretary predicted it would be on the agenda for the next gathering. “What Rob and so many people from around the world are calling for, for the first time in Christian history as far as I can tell, is an ecumenical response to war,” says Michael Hanegan, an Oklahoma theologian and Bonhoeffer fellow who’s been working with Schenck.
But if losing McDonald’s or getting kicked off of SWIFT wasn’t going to deter Russia, would anyone really care about their national church being booted from a kumbaya society of international religious yakkers — even one that fashions itself as a kind of United Nations of churches?
Schenck says there’s some precedent (South Africa’s Dutch Reformed Church quit amidst threats expulsion for defending Apartheid) but also sees it as a matter of principle: “It violates the very message, ministry and model of Christ himself. He rebuked his disciples when they took up the sword of violence.”
At any rate, it would also be another small instance of decoupling between Russia and the broader international world. In this case, the relationship being severed is one that actually predates the end of the Cold War, going back to 1961. At the time, the Soviet Union was officially atheist, but authorities had found the church could occasionally be useful in maintaining support. Top clerics tended to have the blessing, so to speak, of the Kremlin — and the security services. The relationship ran both ways. But the church was still welcome in the WCC, where it reliably articulated Soviet positions. In 1971, then-Archimandrite Kirill became Moscow’s representative.
Religious politics, in fact, have factored into the Ukraine situation in a number of ways, most of which haven’t gotten a lot of attention in the U.S. In 2018, Patriarch Kirill was enraged after Ukraine’s Orthodox Church, up to then located under Moscow on the org chart, was made autocephalous, or able to govern itself, just like the churches in a number of other independent countries. The decision spurred a major rupture in relations between the Russian church and the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch, traditionally the leading figure in Eastern Orthodoxy. (The Orthodox Church in America has been officially autocephalous since 1970; its official statement on the Ukraine invasion calls it a “war of aggression waged by the Russian Federation.”)
Washington has never been a huge hub of interreligious statecraft, but Schenck, 63, says it’s the natural place for an outfit dedicated to promoting “morally courageous” leaders. “Bonhoeffer’s mission was to persuade government actors as much as anyone else to do what is right and good and ethical,” he says. “I’ve been 30 years in Washington and I know the lay of the land. I know the actors and players. So many denominations have their government relations offices here.”
Schenck’s earlier years in the city featured rather different sorts of headlines: A onetime Operation Rescue adviser, he was once questioned by the Secret Service after confronting former President Bill Clinton over abortion at a Christmas Eve service at the National Cathedral. He also wrote a treatise connecting the Second Amendment with the Ten Commandments. But he later experienced a second evangelical conversion and now supports gun control and Roe v. Wade. (Gun violence prevention is one of the Bonhoeffer Institute’s subject areas.)
For the record, Schenck says his real goal is to see Patriarch Kirill grow and change, too. “As Christians we believe in repentance,” he says. “We believe in making amends for one’s misdeeds, and redemption. It doesn’t have to be a permanent expulsion.”
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