Vienna, October 23 – In this electoral season, Russian politicians are learning what their counterparts in other countries already know: treating believers and their faiths with respect is a requirement for victory but identifying oneself too closely with either is almost certainly a recipe for defeat.
That might seem counter-intuitive, Moscow commentator Pavel Umnov argues in an essay posted online this week, given all the attention religion receives in the Russian media and especially the appearance of political figures at religious observances www.russ.ru/layout/set/print/politics/docs/cerkov_protiv_politiki_politika_protiv_cerkvi.
But a close examination of how President Vladimir Putin and the most successful Russian politicians behave shows that in addition to legal prohibitions and church injunctions against mixing religion and politics, they recognize that they must act in ways that do not offend their country’s overwhelmingly secular electorate.
As in so many areas, Putin is the prime example of this. He always “distances himself from conversations about h is religiosity,” Umnov points out, and he “consistently stresses that the religious convictions of an individual and his faith are Privatsache, aspects of his private life.”
And his own party, United Russia, while interested in using the hierarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church to legitimize itself in the eyes of some Russians is very careful to keep the faith and its propositions at arms’ length because the party’s program shows it to be “the ideological opponent” of the church on many important questions.
But underlying such political calculations – and Umnov suggests that all of Russia’s major parties make them – are three fundamental facts of political life in Russia concerning religion that someone running for office can ignore only at the near certainty that he will lose votes and possibly a chance at office.
First, Umnov says, as survey after survey confirms, Russians overwhelmingly identify with religions, at least the traditional ones, as cultural markers rather than as sets of beliefs. And as a result, they are typically disturbed by those, politicians or not, who suggest that religion is more than a cultural variable.
Second, he continues, those who try to wear their Orthodox Christianity or Islam on their sleeves as it were almost invariably generate a negative response among voters because of the myths about these faiths that most Russians have assimilated either in Soviet times or more recently.
While they may admire the Russian Orthodox Church in the abstract, Umnov says, they cannot forget its close ties to the state and the moral shortcomings of some of its clergy and thus are unwilling to hand over to those who identify with its basic premises the power to tell them how to live.
“Leave me in peace” says the average Russian voter, fearful that those who are actively religious – Orthodox Christian, Islamic or any other major faith -- will not be inclined to do just that but rather to get involved in parts of his life from which the state has only recently left.
And third, there is the fear that those who speak about their faith too often may seek to promote the clericalization of what is a fundamentally secular society, with the result being “a threat to the freedom of the voter. That is all the more so now, after some hierarchs, such as Metropolitan Kirill have given their views on human rights, homosexuality, and so on.
And consequently, Umnov concludes, “it is much more effect to use in politics the positive image of religion” with the image of the church, mosque or synagogue shimmering in the background than to try to link together politics and genuine religious beliefs.
In words that could have come out of the mouth of many American campaign managers, Umnov notes, politicians who hope to succeed need to manifest tolerance and respect by in serial fashion being “photographed with the Patriarch,” donning a soccer uniform, and drinking tea with religious elders of other faiths.
All that has lead some to conclude that faith is playing a bigger role in politics in Russia now than ever before, Umnov suggests. But the reality is that this use of religious symbols does not represent the introduction of religious ideas into political life but rather a way to keeping them out -- at least for voters fearful of what their entrance might mean.