The invasion of Ukraine by Russia has blown into the open the coalition of the political powers with the religious powers in Russia that I first wrote about back in 2018. The Constantine Bargain is the “deal” that a political power makes with a religious leader to legitimize the church’s dogma and dominance over “heavenly things” relating to the populace, while demanding total fealty from the church as the political power exercises tight control over “earthly things.”
Central to the rebirth of the “Un-SSR’d” Russian state in the early 1990s was the rescue of the Russian Orthodox Church from decades of submission to the communist Soviet powers. Vladimir Putin embraced the church in this bargain, which is now paying off. The Russian Orthodox Church pushes a very conservative definition of the “heavenly thing” of “sin,” especially in regard to LGBTQ+ issues. Russian Orthodox leader Patriarch Krill, in a recent sermon, blamed “gay pride parades” for forcing military action in Ukraine in order to determine “which side of God humanity will be on.” Religious proselytizing by non-Orthodox churches has largely been curtailed, with Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses especially monitored. The Russian Orthodox Church’s definition of Christianity determines the religious rules by which they insist all EXCEPT the “exempt elite,” such as Putin himself, must live by.
In return, the Church has become increasingly nationalistic. When Putin invaded Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014, Patriarch Krill was in full support, calling Crimea “the cradle of Russian Christianity.” More recently he has called Putin’s rule a “miracle of God,” and then preached that a new cathedral being dedicated to the Russian military “holds the hope that future generations will pick up the spiritual baton from past generations and save the Fatherland from internal and external enemies.”
The Constantine Bargain
As I wrote back in 2018, both Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump made these “deals” with one particular strand of religion in return for political support, an echo of how the Roman Emperor Constantine (272–337) made one strand of Christianity the official religion of the empire.
The “traditional story” is that Constantine boldly converted to Christianity, but most scholars see a much more complicated picture. Constantine did not really convert to Christianity until he was on his deathbed, but he used the Edict of Milan (313 CE) to legitimize the faith, thus stopping its persecution throughout the empire and stabilizing the political situation. Christianity did not become the “state religion” until the reign of Emperor Theodosius I in 380.
It is the intent of Constantine’s decree that has long been debated. Rather than an act of religious conversion, most scholars (even in the Catholic Church; I first learned of this “bargain” from a Jesuit historian) now see this Edict as a political move. In essence, he realized that if he gave the Church “control over Heaven,” that is, over the day-to-day behavioral lives and “post-life” fate of the citizenry of the Empire, the church leaders would willingly give him “control over Earth,” that is, unfettered political power over the populace and the political fealty of the church leaders to the Emperor.
To Constantine, this was a “good deal.” The Catholic (which literally means “universal”) Church now had the power to tamp down the many divergent sects of Christianity, deeming them “heretical.” Non-Christian religions in the Empire got similar treatment, giving Constantine and his successor just one dominant religious entity to work with. If you get to define who is a “sinner” and who “gets into heaven” under your theology, backed by the power of both the State and the Church, you can mollify the populace significantly.
This “running of interference” by the Church gave Constantine the “running room” to unfettered power in order to enforce Roman law, to levy taxes, and to eliminate dissidents with impunity throughout the empire. Constantine does not have the reputation of having been a particularly “kind and benevolent” leader. Rather, he freely exercised the raw political power available to him as necessary; he would not have survived otherwise. And just like Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump 1700 years later, the rules of the Church did not apply to Constantine’s own behavior. That is the theological downside of “deathbed confessions.”
The fracturing of Trump’s Constantine Bargain
With the help of Jerry Falwell, Jr., Franklin Graham and other Evangelical Christian leaders, Donald Trump’s electoral hold over Evangelical Christians reached a massive 84% in 2020, and that after Christians had watched four years of the former president openly breaking every one of “the seven deadly sins.” In return they got three anti-abortion judges elevated to the Supreme Court. Pulpit sermons compared Trump to the great but adulterous King David, and to the Persian King Cyrus from Old Testament Bible stories.
The more subtle effects of the bargain are more long-lasting. Legislation in many state legislatures with overt religious tones, such as on reproductive health, LGBTQ+ issues, minority studies, science instruction, and elections themselves almost always approaches the debate from an Evangelical Christian viewpoint. This loosely-defined strand of conservative Christianity, which has traditionally set itself apart from “the mainstream” Protestant denominations represented by the National Council of Churches, has effectively become the “default” definition of Christianity in the United States’ media stories. Christians with differing views on these issues increasingly must kowtow to an authoritarian conservative definition of Christianity in the schools and workplaces.
However, once the Emperor has been deposed, the Church powers take the opportunity to re-think their fealty. More Evangelical leaders are placing bets on a post-Trump candidate who will restore them to political power. Donald Trump’s support as the preferred 2024 candidate for president has dropped almost in half from that 84% number, if you assume that Evangelical preferences are reflected in Republican support in general. People who claim Covid vaccine exemption “because of their religion” (a specious claim at best) have not been shy in booing the former president when he recommends vaccination. The out-of-power Emperor’s support may be teetering.
The knives held by the American conservative religious leaders may be less visible, but they can be very effective if the return road to power seems to look better via a candidate with less “King David” baggage. There is no shortage of candidates willing to take on this mantle, but bravery is not their strong suit. For instance, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who was personally humiliated by Trump in the last election’s primaries but bowed down to him anyway, regularly tweets Bible verses and puts “Follower of Christ” in his Twitter bio ahead of “husband, father, and Proud American.” But, unless there is a Brutus to take on Caesar, Donald Trump still has control over a majority of his base.
The Ukraine Orthodox Schism
After the separation of Ukraine in the dissolution of the Soviet Union, relationships between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Ukrainian parishes hit a breaking point as the Russian body became more nationalistic. In 2019, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine was granted self-governance by Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios, the Istanbul-based head of the Orthodox Christian world.
[Curious side note: The city of Istanbul was long ago called Constantinople, named after the above-noted Emperor Constantine. The final split between the “western” Roman Catholic Church and the “eastern” Orthodox Church did not happen until 1054.]
The Ukraine-Russia schism has become very personal. According to reports, Metropolitan Epifaniy, the head of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, claimed that the Kremlin was attempting to murder him, saying: “I’ve been informed by foreign agencies that I’m target number five in the list to be killed.”
Putin not only wants Ukraine back under political control, but he also needs the Ukrainian Church back under the control of his own captive Patriarch. We are now back to Christians killing other Christians, with each side claiming the mantle of Jesus Christ, stained with the blood of the faithful this time.
Postscript: A recent, supposedly independent poll of Russian citizens pegs support for President Putin’s “de-Nazification” (his words) of Ukraine at 58%, with only 23% opposed. After four years of watching fundamentalist Christians giving Donald Trump’s persistent lies 80%+ support. I believe that number, an indication of the Orthodox faithful’s allegiance to Putin.