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Dreher’s war, part 2

The second of two columns on how America’s best-known Orthodox Christian writer looks at the war in Ukraine.

Rod Dreher addresses the Brussels National Conservatism Conference on March 23, 2022. Video screen grab

(RNS) — After a timeout to consider the Supreme Court’s likely reversal of Roe v. Wade, here’s the promised follow-up to my backgrounder on Rod Dreher.

So how has America’s foremost Eastern Orthodox culture warrior responded to his co-religionists’ war in Ukraine?

For starters, let’s note that, unlike some on the far right (including a few Republican members of Congress), Dreher’s pro-Russian leanings have not led him to back the invasion.

“Putin has gone way too far this time,” he tweeted on Feb. 26, two days after Russian troops crossed the border. “Being pro-Russian is not without limits. I’m generally more favorable to Russia than most, but invading Ukraine is too much.”


RELATED: Dreher’s war, part 1


On March 9, he tweeted, “Putin had better hope nobody in his circle decides to shiv him today, because after bombing that maternity hospital, he would bust Hell wide open.”

Fine. But to understand where Dreher’s Orthodox heart lies, take a moment to read what he had to say on March 10, in his only detailed commentary to date on the the conflict. 

As an Orthodox Christian, I can tell you that the tragedy playing out here is tectonic. Patriarch Kyrill and Vladimir Putin are going to go down as the Russian leaders who lost Ukraine, politically and religiously. The only way Kyrill could possibly save Church unity at this point — if it’s even achievable — is to effectively martyr himself by publicly and unambiguously denouncing the war. Putin would do away with him somehow — either professionally or literally by martyring him — but he might have a chance at saving the unity of the Church. If not, though, Ukraine, the birthplace in the year 988 of Russian Orthodoxy, will be lost to Russia forever.

The worst cost of Putin’s war is the loss of human life. But this comes next. This is fratricide, and by not openly condemning it, the Patriarch appears to bless it … Russian Orthodoxy — grounded in Truth, long-suffering piety, and a matchless beauty that magnifies the Eternal — will survive this, as will Orthodoxy in Ukraine. But both will be diminished and wounded. It will be left to generations to come to heal this war between brothers — a war that did not have to happen, but was chosen by Vladimir Putin, and effectively sanctified by Patriarch Kyrill.

Politically and religiously, this was off the wall. Ukraine has been an independent country since the end of the Soviet Union, and one with a language and national identity of its own for much, much longer than that. It was not Putin’s to lose, except in the sense that he has succeeded in profoundly deepening Ukrainian nationalism and Ukrainians’ hostility to Russia.

On the religion front, as Dreher himself acknowledges, the unity of Russian Orthodoxy was already broken by the recent establishment of an independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine — recognized as such by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. Only to the extent that the invasion succeeds in pushing the Orthodox Ukrainian minority that remains part of the Russian Orthodox Church into the new body might Kirill, the Moscow patriarch, be said to have “lost” Ukraine.

But apart from that we should ask: Is a full institutional separation of Orthodox Russians and Ukrainians worse than having one’s spiritual leader bless an unjust, fratricidal and all but genocidal war? 

I’d say no. For one thing, in the Orthodox world, it’s very much the norm to have independent national churches. I’d also venture that Kirill did not have to anoint Putin’s imperialist venture with the unction of holy war to avoid metaphorical or real martyrdom. He could simply have kept his mouth shut. Unlike the Orthodox leaders who have heaped Kirill with criticism, Dreher lets him off the hook.

Why?

Bear in mind that Kirill has been Orthodoxy’s leading culture warrior, a hierarch who has worked hard to place himself at the head of what’s been termed “The Moralist International.” On March 7, the first day of Orthodox Lent, he gave a sermon in which he asserted that the fighting in Ukraine was the result of a rejection of “fundamental values” by those who “claim world power.” The powers, he claimed, “demand that you hold gay pride parades as a test of loyalty.”

Dreher’s most consistent cultural concern has also been with the need to preserve heterosexual norms, and his angriest language has been reserved for the powers and principalities that undermine them. This is why, two months after the U.S. and its NATO partners summoned the strength to oppose Russian aggression, he could write, “The West is ruled by an evil elite who deserve nothing but defiance.”

Simply put, Dreher shares the Russian patriarch’s moral obsessions. 

Not that he ignores the peril of flitting too close to the flame of secular power. Indeed, he cautioned today’s Catholic integralists — conservative intellectuals who favor an officially Catholic state — to “think hard about the wisdom of closely uniting Church and State.” For: “When the Church becomes a de facto arm of the State, people will hold it responsible for State decisions.”

Nor has he exempted the Russian Orthodox Church. Because of the vast sums showered on it by the post-Soviet Russian state, he wrote, “now we see that it makes it very hard for the Church to speak prophetically to the State in times of crisis.”

So yes, Dreher has directed some of his own prophetic thunder against Putin & Co., but he has railed no less against the West’s military response — tweeting, for example, “We are once again being frog-marched off the precipice by our ruling class. Thank God for @TuckerCarlson and @ggreenwald for being among the few senior journalists willing to call them all out.”

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that, at the end of the day, he’d be content to see Ukraine forced into the Russian fold by Putin and Kirill. Better that than subordinate itself to the “evil elite” of the West that he defies.

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