The reason for this small piece is that some Western Christians, who really ought to know better, have been taken in by Russian photo ops, propaganda, and posturing, and have begun to describe Vladimir Putin as a new Constantine. It just goes to show. What, I am not sure exactly, but it does go to show.
I want to outline five reasons why I believe this is not the case, but first I want to put an important disclaimer up front. Some of my reasons below are critical of Eastern Orthodoxy, and so I want to place some important context here as a preamble. We live in a generation when not a small number of eastern Christians have been beheaded rather than deny Christ, and nothing said here should be taken as disparaging the honor of those martyrdoms. They bowed to icons more than they should have, but they have also died for the sake of Jesus Christ more times than I have. So that should be kept in mind. And second, none of my arguments should be taken as justification for continued Western apathy about the plight of such Christians in the Middle East. What we should do about it is a subject for another time, but what we should not do is continue to not care.
That said, why is Putin not a new Constantine?
1. The fecklessness of President Obama in the Middle East has created an optical illusion. Alongside Obama, it is difficult for any world leader to avoid looking decisive, bold, and competent. And when Putin does it in the name of Christ, this is a snare to some Christians in the West because virtually all of our leaders, conservatives included, are cowed by our forms of secularism. Throw in Putin’s opposition to the homo-jihad, and the supine opposition of our leaders to that, and the optical illusion is complete. But we need to remember that Russian history is not American history, and that there is more than one kind of cul de sac. And Putin is farther down their cul de sac than we are down ours.
2. Constantine was an imperfect ruler, but he was a vast improvement over the centuries of pagan rulers before him. For just one example, the cessation of the pagan sacrifices was a glorious advance in human history. He was an imperfect ruler, but he was headed in a good and healthy direction. Thank God for Constantine. But Putin is not in this unique historical position at all. After the commie hiatus, Putin is simply in a position to continue the centuries-long and very tragic story of Russian church/state relations, one that specializes in kennel-fed ecclesiastical dignitaries.
3. This relates to the third reason. The branch of Christendom that Vladimir Putin has embraced is the branch that has not done well in resisting the the blandishments of caesaropapism. This creates a situation where the church simply becomes an echo chamber for a strong national leader, and then supplies a religiousy and colorful background scenery for that same leader to be photographed in front of. With cameras clicking, Putin kisses icons for the same reason he takes his shirt off while riding horses, which is that Russian chicks apparently dig it. So the church in Russia may be applauding Putin’s bombing of ISIS — and, just to clear, they deserve every bit of what they are getting — but the church is also on board with his shenanigans in Ukraine. Right? This means that what we are seeing is a resurgence of older forms of thuggish nationalism, and not a new anything.
4. Putin’s war on ISIS, a group of Muslim extremists, is being done in order to prop up the Assad regime, a Muslim culture with a secular veneer. He is not fighting back ISIS, and liberating Syria from their wretched civil war, in order to send in Christian missionaries. So holy Crusader language might be helpful in motivating the troops against ISIS, but somebody will eventually notice that this is a Christian crusade that will not result in any net loss of Muslim-held territory. In other words, this is all just talk. This is just Realpolitik with religious eye wash.
5. And last, Putin cannot really be a champion against Islam so long as he plays along with the grievous errors of iconolatry. Islam is a scourge against European Christianity, a barren scourge without images or representations, raised up by God to chastise those branches of Christendom that had lapsed into the veneration of images. God scourges every son He receives (Heb. 12:6), but we really ought to pay attention to the point of the scourging. Islam will be with us as long as Christians are praying to paintings.
None of this is to be taken as a simplistic anything. Putin is right in some areas where the West is dead wrong. But he is still a thug, still in it for the main chance. And we will not be able to do anything about him unless and until we repent of our follies. Chief among those follies is the notion that a civilization can be held together by the watery values of secularism. The only way someone like Putin could even start to look good is because we have turned our backs on the gospel of Jesus Christ. Putin is trying to return to a decrepit heritage, while we continue to ignore a robust one. No wonder we are muddled and confused.