The (mis)use of religion in the Ukrainian conflict

Here are the notes from the talk I gave at the Foreign Policy Research Institute on 07 November 2017 at the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  They asked me to talk about the effect of religion on the conflict in Ukraine for their 21st Annual Templeton Lecture on Religion and World Affairs.  It is a difficult subject.  War is like that.  


Of Little Green Men and Long Black Robes: The Role of the Orthodox Church in the Conflict in Ukraine
Fr. Anthony Perkins

It is an honor to have been invited to present the twenty-first Templeton Lecture on Religion and World Affairs at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. It is humbling to be part of a series that has included scholars whose work has so strongly affected my own thinking on politics and religion, and it is a blessing to be able to participate in Mr. Templeton’s ministry of spiritual growth through broadly ecumenical understanding.

I hope to bring my experience as a political scientist, intelligence analyst, and Ukrainian Orthodoxy priest to bear as I share my reflections on the role of Orthodox Christianity in the conflict in Ukraine. It’s a great topic, and I appreciate the opportunity to share my thoughts with you.

It is wonderful to speak with an audience that appreciates that religion’s effect on anything is complicated. As you know, this isn’t the case with every audience. After September 11, 2001, when I was working as a strategic military intelligence analyst, I was dismayed at the two extremes some analysts fell into when it came to understanding the effect of Islam on the insurgencies in Afghanistan and Pakistan. At one extreme were those who assumed that religion was just a veneer for what was “really going on” and at the other were those who thought that the insurgents had been brainwashed (the old “hypodermic effect”) by the Koran and their religious teachers to behave in certain ways. The truth is more nuanced. Even though there are agitators who use religious language, symbols, and stories to manipulate people in opportunistic ways, the fact that people can be manipulated by these things has to be taken into account. And as a full-time teacher and preacher of religion, I can tell you that it takes a lot more than a holy book and a bunch of lectures and sermons to reach people’s hearts and change their behavior! Adam Garfinkle did a great job explaining this last year in his Templeton Lecture on religious violence. Now, I encourage you to reflect back on that talk and accept that the specific case of the effect of Orthodoxy in the Ukrainian conflict is similarly important and complicated.

Read the rest here.


By way of an epilogue to this post, let me paraphrase the prologue to the second edition to one of my favorite Russian novels, A Hero of our Time by M. Y. Lermontov.

The public of this country is such that it cannot understand the meaning of a fable unless the moral is set forth at the end. Unable to see a joke, insensible to irony, it has, in a word, been badly brought up. It is like a simple-minded person from the country who, chancing to overhear a disagreement between a husband and his wife, comes away with the conviction that their love has grown cold and their union is near its end.

You will say that the cause of Orthodoxy gains nothing by this talk. I beg your pardon. People have been surfeited with sweetmeats and their digestion has been ruined: bitter medicines, sharp truths, are therefore necessary. This must not, however, be taken to mean that the author has ever proudly dreamed of reforming the Church. Heaven keep him from such impertinence! He has simply agreed to depict aspects of a difficult situation using such meager skills as he has at his disposal. Suffice it that aspects of the disease have been pointed out: how it is to be cured—God alone knows!

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