Is Putin a New Constantine?Roundup
tags: Vladimir Putin, Russian history, nationalism, religious history, Orthodox Church
Daniel N. Gullotta is a Ph.D. candidate in American religious history at Stanford University. He is also the host of the The Age of Jackson Podcast. James Patterson is an associate professor of politics at Ave Maria University. His latest book is Religion in the Public Square: Sheen, King, Falwell.
Was Donald J. Trump a divinely appointed fighter destined to lead religious conservatives to victory in America’s culture wars? That was the view in some quarters where Trump was compared to the Persian king Cyrus, who protected Jews in exile and returned them to the promised land.
Rather than Cyrus, however, some Catholic and Orthodox traditions look for the second coming of Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor. The hope has been that this new Constantine would seize and wield power on behalf of a new Christendom.
Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to be positioning himself for that role — and not just for Russians.
To understand the connection between Constantine and Putin, we must first look at Putin’s upbringing. He was raised in the USSR by a Christian mother and atheist father, and presides over a country with a de-facto state religion. Putin has a complex relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church, but it plays an important role in both his messaging at home and appeal abroad. The church’s leader, Patriarch Kirill, recently defended the invasion of Ukraine in a sermon and has since doubled down, calling Russia’s opponents in Ukraine “evil forces.”
While Putin’s brutality has long been noted, some of the religious right have admired his defense of traditional sexual ethics and his hostility toward Islam. For example, in 2014, evangelist Franklin Graham praised Putin for “protecting children from any homosexual agenda or propaganda.” Putin’s intervention in Syria was also met with praise by Mideast Christians, who saw his military action there as an effort to “protect the Christian faith.”
Just last month, 2020 Delaware Republican Senate nominee Lauren Witzke stated, “I identify more with Putin’s Christian values than I do with Joe Biden.”
Rod Dreher, a senior editor at The American Conservative, has written in the past about Putin as a flawed defender of Christian values. Fox’s Tucker Carlson rhetorically asked his audience if Putin is “trying to snuff out Christianity.”
In short, Putin seems to strike some conservatives as a new Constantine for a new Christendom standing against progressive totalitarianism.