By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
The world now has a preview of the outcome of the contest between democracy and autocracy. Democracy will not be exterminated, but exploited by autocrats like Putin and Trump. Democracy is dependent on public support based on public access to truth, so that autocrats who control access to the truth can control and corrupt the freedoms of libertarian democracy.
Distinguishing truth from fake news in politics can be difficult, but in America the First Amendment to the Constitution provides the fundamental freedoms of religion, speech, a free press, and the right to peaceably assemble. Those freedoms prohibit any effort to suppress the truth in religion or politics, leaving it to individuals to determine the veracity of public information.
Religion is the ultimate source of truth for people of faith, and the freedom of religion is the first of our freedoms. The greatest commandment is a summary of the teachings of Jesus and a common word of faith and truth for Jews, Christians and Muslims. It mandates love for God and our neighbors, including those of other races and religions, as we love ourselves.
In democracy, that commandment is a moral imperative to provide for the common good. Donald Trump is a narcissistic and nativist demagogue whose morality is the antithesis of that taught by Jesus; yet in 2016 a majority of white Christians supported Trump and his Republican minions with an America First civil religion that contradicts the moral teachings of Jesus.
In Russia there are no freedoms of religion, speech or the press. Putin controls a media that denies his aggression in Ukraine and punishes those who speak the truth, and the Russian Orthodox Church promotes a Russian world civil religion that supports Putin’s aggression. While Trump has praised Putin, the Constitution prevents Trump from following Putin’s example.
President Biden’s response to Putin’s unprovoked aggression in Ukraine has been economic sanctions and the threat of war crime trials for Russian atrocities. Neither has deterred Russian aggression which has shifted its focus to the east of Kiev. Without significantly more military support for Ukraine, it’s likely to experience more atrocities and ultimate defeat.
The world is watching the inadequate response of the West to Putin’s assault on Ukraine’s democracy. President Zelensky’s efforts are heroic, but cannot withstand continuing aggression by Russia’s vastly superior forces. Putin will not have to face an election until 2024, and indications are that Russian support for Puitn has grown since his invasion of Ukraine.
Freedom and democracy are losing ground in the battle against autocratic nationalism. Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church have trumped freedom, democracy and the moral teachings of Jesus, revealing how the unrestrained power of autocracy and human depravity can defeat freedom and democracy in Russia--and how it could happen again in America.
Russia is a democracy, but there’s no constitutional protection of the freedoms of religion, speech or a free press in Russia. The invasion of Ukraine hasn’t loosened Vladimir Putin’s grip on power. It might have done the opposite. “Putin has intensified his long-running battle to crack down on opposing voices within Russia. Putin signed into law a measure which effectively criminalizes independent reporting that deviates from the government line, even banning the use of the word “war” in news broadcasts about Ukraine, which led to the closure of independent Russian media outlets. Russian authorities have arrested thousands who spoke out against the invasion. The protests within Russia have been smaller during the war than the ones that broke out in 2018 over pension reforms, says a U.S. government official—a sign that the crackdown on domestic dissent has had a chilling effect. Yet experts who have seen autocrats move to solidify their power in the past say that there is still no sign Putin may be heading for the exits. If anything, the moves he’s making may augur the opposite.” See https://time.com/6163798/vladimir-putin-russia-power/?utm_medium=email&utm_source=sfmc&utm_campaign=newsletter+brief+default+ac&utm.
On April 8, after a Russian missile attack killed more than 50 civiliians at a train station in Eastern Ukraine, NBC News reported on Today that 83% of Russians now support Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, up from 60% in November 2022.
Russian World Is the Civil Religion Behind Putin’s War: The Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church see Ukraine as part of a cultural dominion to be protected from the values of an encroaching West. “Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, recently described the war in Ukraine as nothing less than an apocalyptic struggle between good and evil. Its outcome, he said, will determine ‘where humanity will end up, on which side of God the Savior. ‘Some Ukrainians—those whom President Vladimir Putin claims Russia is liberating with its invasion—have rejected ‘the so-called values that are offered today by those who claim world power,’ the patriarch explained. Those values are exemplified by gay pride parades, he said, which serve as admissions tests ‘to enter the club of those countries,’ by implication the European Union and more broadly the West. The Russian Orthodox Church has taken an active role in forging the ideology that undergirds Mr. Putin’s geopolitical ambitions. It is a worldview that holds the Kremlin to be the defender of Russia’s Christian civilization, and therefore justified in seeking to dominate the countries of the former Soviet Union and Russian empire. Inside Russia, Russkiy mir [Russian World] has found deep religious resonance, especially in the military. ‘We have a different viewpoint,” Mr. Putin said. “We believe that we must rely on our own spiritual values, our historical tradition and the culture of our multiethnic nation.”” According to a study for NATO Defense College by Julian Cooper, a British scholar, the values in question are a mostly generic list including life, dignity, patriotism and strong families, but they are framed in contrast to those of the West, which encroach on Russia’s “cultural sovereignty.” See https://www.wsj.com/articles/russian-world-is-the-civil-religion-behind-putins-war-11647539958.
The Washington Post Editorial Board has opined that “The Bucha massacre [in a suburb of Kyiv] is a grim turning point in Russia’s invasion, and the world must respond forcefully. Until now, the world’s response to these crimes has been weak. It must not be. Mr. Putin puts his faith in the tyranny of violence. He must be shown that such barbarism will not be tolerated--by identifying and holding to account those who committed the atrocities. In the end, the war against Ukraine is about whether a people who want to build a democracy, to choose their own leaders and to shape their own future, can be cowed into submission by an armed force; whether the sickening inhumanity of murdering residents in Bucha with a bullet to the back of the head will destroy the will of all Ukraine to resist. Instead, it must strengthen their resolve and boost the willpower of all nations supporting Ukraine to decisively defeat the Russian invasion.” See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/04/04/ukraine-bucha-massacre-forceful-response/?utm.
Thomas Friedman is more sanguine about the future of freedom and democracy in its contest with autocracy. See Xi, Putin and Trump: The Strongman Follies at https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/22/opinion/xi-putin-trump.html.
What is truth? That was the question Pontius Pilate asked Jesus during the trial that led to his crucifixion (John 18:37-38), and it has echoed down through the ages. More than 2,000 years later, the Christian religion has started more wars than it has ended, most of them between “Christian” adversaries. Jesus came as a peacemaker, but his peace never prevailed. Religion can give believers insight into God’s truth or blind them to it. To survive in a changing world, religions must conform their beliefs and moral standards to advances in knowledge and reason, but throughout those changes, God’s love must remain at the heart of religion. God’s love is the only immutable truth in the world, and the only power that can save us from ourselves. That’s God’s truth. See http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/08/.
Related commentary On Human Rights and Religion:
(4/16/16): Religious Violence and the Dilemma of Freedom and Democracy
(8/20/16): The Freedoms of Religion and Speech: Essentials of Liberty and Law
(4/1/17): Human Rights, Freedom and National Security
(4/1/17): Human Rights, Freedom and National Security
(5/20/17): The Freedoms of Religion and Speech: Where Human Rights Begin
(10/5/19): Musings on the Moral Relevance of Jesus to Democracy
(7/25/20): Musings on Rights and Responsibilities
(9/4/21): Musings on How Religion and Culture Caused the Afghanistan Debacle