Opening a Moscow youth centre, Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has compared himself to Jesus. It’s the latest in a long line of populist leaders using religious rhetoric for political gain, says Tony Wilson


Source: Alamy

President Putin has been criticised for using Bible verses to defend Russia’s traditional values as he opened a new youth centre earlier this week in Moscow. Drawing on Jesus’s call to Andrew and Peter to become fishers of men, he asked young Russians to reject ‘Satanic’ Western morality and promote their own conservative cause.

Putin said: “Do you remember how Jesus came to Galilee and saw the fishermen beside the Sea of Galilee?

“One was catching fish, another was fixing his net. And he said to them: ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men, fishers of human souls.’ They became his evangelists, his students.

“This was very important at a time when world religions were developing… but it is no less current now, when we must defend our traditional values, our culture, our traditions and our history - this is very important for the future of the country.”

Under siege

Under his presidency, Putin has built a story that Russia is under siege from Western liberalism. This narrative has been used to support the idea that the people of Ukraine need to be rescued from malign influences.

Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, has called Putin’s long reign a “miracle of God” and said the war in Ukraine was a battle against the “forces of evil” in which Russia fights against the “Antichrist”.

Although Russia was staunchly atheist under the communist Soviet era, many of the people remained quietly Christian. Now Putin has gradually used the ancient heritage of the nation to promote his own agenda.

Jesus cannot be categorised under the headings of left or right

Sadly, Jesus has been abused in every age by those who try to appropriate him for their own political ends but, in the Gospel accounts, he refused to promote any earthly agenda. Satan tried to tempt him with political power.

The Zealots wanted him to overthrow the occupying Romans. Herod wanted Jesus to perform miracles to satisfy his passing interest. Pilate couldn’t understand him. The religious rulers condemned him. But this hasn’t stopped rulers over the years from using the Christian faith as a recruiting tool.

Creating tension

The rise of populist political leaders, often with a far-right agenda, have been no exception. Over recent decades developed countries have become increasingly wedded to consumerism and a hyper-individualistic agenda. We have consistently asserted the rights of the individual over the needs of our societies. The story goes that we owe more to ourselves than we do to those we live among.

An inherent tension has emerged from this. We have generally accepted that people have the right to express their own lifestyle choices while not harming others. We have even allowed people to choose to do things that we might personally consider harmful.

More recently, we have been under pressure to not only allow this, but to add our vocal support. It is not sufficient that we give people the freedom to make a particular choice; we must now say we agree that the choice is good - or risk being ostracised.

Jesus has been abused by those who try to appropriate him for their own political ends

This has led to a backlash that has been seized upon by those with a far-right agenda. Seeing that many people find themselves in a society that no longer reflects their values, it is easy to recruit those who feel uneasy with a rhetoric that promises to restore something from a bygone time.

Populists such as Trump, Le Pen and Farage tap into our fear that we have given too much ground to the liberals. They then throw in a few Christian allusions and add a whole set of policies that simply fail against any honest reading of the Gospels.

A better way

Jesus cannot be categorised under the headings of left or right. He calls us to radical personal responsibility that far-left politics undermines. But he also requires us to support the poor and outcast in a way that the far-right reject.

Many Christians have been persuaded to hold their noses and vote for morally dubious leaders who promise to return their nations to traditional values. Putin put Russia on a war footing against ultra-liberalism. But surely it is possible to find a compassionate, centrist politics that offers freedom and respects our rights to disagree agreeably?

More than ever we need Christians who are prepared to put forward a new vision of a cohesive society built on values of responsibility, support and respect that is both socially conservative but with all the compassion that Jesus extends.

Political leaders often tell us that everything will be fine if we can only fix the bad stuff in other people. Jesus teaches us to start by locating the problems that we bring into the world (Matthew 7:3-5) before looking to others.

This is how we can rescue the world from leaders with extremist agendas. Make no mistake, the world is in a very fragile place. We need to find a voice that pulls our nation states back into a more irenic middle ground.