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Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Sunday Sermon: Putin's Russia Becoming Protestant?

Mine eyes have seen the glory
Of the coming of the Lord
He is trampling out the vintage
Where the grapes of wrath are stored
He has loosed the fateful lightening
Of his terrible swift sword
His truth is marching on!
Paul Goble reports that Russia is turning Protestant as fast as it's turning Muslim. Way to go, St. Vladimir of Putin! Another feather in your cap!

Protestant congregations in Russia as of this year outnumber those of the Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches there combined. And the total number of practicing Protestants is likely to exceed the number of active Orthodox and Catholic faithful sometime before 2012, according to a new study. If those projections hold – and they may not -- Russia could become a Protestant country, at least in terms of the number of practicing faithful, for a few decades until ongoing demographic developments transform it, at least in its current borders, into a Muslim majority one sometime later in the 21st century. And that possibility, two Russian writers arguethis week might be a good thing because, in the words of one, “Protestant countries are the most stable and wealthy” and in the words of the second, Western Christians are more focused on improving conditions in this life than in looking beyond the grave.

The first of these writers,’s Dmitriy Tayevskiy argues that the post-Soviet upsurge in interest in Orthodoxy has begun to recede as more and more Russians see the Church’s obsequiousness toward the state and its simultaneous efforts to promote itself as the single moral instructor of the nation. Protestantism, in contrast, has won adherents in large measure because of its support from abroad and because of its commitment to helping its members with their lives and promoting the social gospel, two resources that Russian Orthodoxy does not have to the same degree. And it is Tayevskiy who wades into the controversial issue of just how many real believers there are in Russia. As the Irkutsk analyst notes, the Patriarchate routinely claims that 80 percent of all Russians are Orthodox because that is the percentage of the population baptized in the Church. But few of these people take an active part in Church life, he notes, and “more sober-minded” priests admit than only about two percent of the Russian population – some three million people – are in fact “church” people who attend regularly and maintain religious discipline.

For other faiths as well, there are gaps between the number of adherents claimed and the number of actual practitioners. Most Jews in Russia are secular rather than practicing, Tayevskiy continues. Many Russia’s Catholics are Catholic in name only. And Russia’s Buddhists have a hard time specifying just how many of them there are. The situation with regard to Islam is the classic example of this difference. There may be as many as 25 million “ethnic” Muslims in the Russian Federation, people who are members of traditionally Islamic nations. But fewer than one in five is linked to a mosque or actively lives according to the five pillars of the faith.
Protestants, in contrast, are the great exception. Given Soviet oppression in the past and Orthodox opposition to what the Patriarchate routinely refers to as extremist “sects,” few Russians declare they are Protestants if they are not practicing members of one or another denomination. Consequently, there is a far smaller difference between the number of believers Protestant leaders claim and the number of actual participants in their denominations. That makes it easier to project the number of believers, but it may in some circumstances lead to exaggerations as well. Nonetheless, Tayevskiy almost certainly is correct when he suggests that unless Moscow’s policies toward religion change dramatically or the practice of one or more of the denominations undergoes a fundamental shift, Protestant believers will outnumber the active followers of all other Christian denominations in Russia a decade from now. The implications of such a development are potentially enormous, and some of them were explored, admittedly indirectly, by Moscow literary critic Valentin Nepomnyashiy as part of a discussion of the ways the core ideas of Orthodoxy and Western Christianity affect the behavior of their followers.

In a widely disseminated Interfax interview this week, Nepomnyashiy focuses on the comparative importance of Christmas and Easter in the two church traditions. In Western Christianity, he notes, Christmas is the more important holiday, suggesting as it does that “God became man” and consequently that men must try to improve the world. Because God came to man in this way, he continued, “in the West after the Renaissance arose ‘the idea of the incompleteness of the world as the cause of all misfortunes and unhappiness of people’ and as a result in the 20th century, ‘the surrounding world was in fact conceived as construction material’” out of which man could make the world better. The Eastern tradition of Christianity, the critic suggests, sees Easter as more important than Christmas. It focuses on Christ’s sacrifice for man’s sins and invites the Orthodox to “take up the cross” and follow Christ’s example rather than try to change the world in more concrete ways. Consequently, although Nepomnyashiy does not say so in this interview, were Russia to shift from one of these paradigms to the other, that change would represent a far more revolutionary development than even the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917 or the collapse of communism and the USSR in 1991.

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