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When politicians cynically misuse religion for personal gain

The recent death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny (by "death" I mean murder by Vladimir Putin's autocracy), was one more example of how a political leader who pretends to be committed to a religion uses that religion as a weapon to advance his or her own power.

Patriarch-kirill-vladimir-putinIt's disgusting, appalling and unsurprising, given how often it's happened (and is still happening) in human history. The shock is that anyone still is fooled by it.

Putin uses the Russian Orthodox Church as a political sycophant, thus adding to his personal political power even as he destroys the spiritual legitimacy of the church, as this surprisingly accurate article from Fox News points out.

"Putin," the piece asserts, "is a master at weaponizing religion to fulfill his personal ambitions to become the modern Czar and to advance the goals of Mother Russia."

This Tablet magazine article adds to the evidence that a cynical Putin robes himself in religion not for spiritual reasons but to crush political opponents and make him seem like a redeemer.

"Navalny," the article notes, "is the latest in a series of high-profile opposition leaders and dissidents to be assassinated by the Russian state. Putin’s most visible and outspoken opponent had spent the last three years imprisoned under the most austere and barbarous conditions that Russia’s prison camp system offers.

"In fact, Putin had been so terrified of the challenge that Navalny posed to his system that he has spent years steadfastly refusing to utter his name. The murder of the Kremlin’s most audacious and charismatic political opponent — one who earned his political stature through his superhuman courage — a month before the upcoming elections sends an unmistakable message to any other Russians countenancing opposition to Putin’s police state."

Politicians, of course, often have used religious languages, tenets and doctrine for political gain. At times, in fact, discerning when a political leader's appeal to religious ideas is a purposeful path to more power can be tricky. Abraham Lincoln, for instance, often used the language of Christian spirituality to help Americans understand what he was trying to accomplish in the Civil War. This was true even though Lincoln's thinking was often in some tension with traditional Christianity. My reading suggests, however, that this was less an exploitation of religion for political purposes than it was Lincoln's effort to communicate in ways that most Americans would understand.

That's a far different approach than, say, that of former President Donald Trump, who liked to promote the idea (widespread among his most ardent followers) that God had chosen him as a political leader to accomplish what God wanted accomplished. The facetiousness of that idea was so apparent that it was shocking that even one person believed it.

Similarly, the notion that Putin is a tool God is using for divine purposes is such an astonishing claim that it's hard to imagine why anyone agrees with it. But time and again through history, leaders have wrapped themselves in the divine. Our job as citizens is to explore every such claim and, when necessary, challenge it. And, it turns out, it's almost always necessary. Just ask Alexei Navalny's family and supporters.

(The photo here today shows Putin with his deeply compromised buddy, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill.)

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YOU PICK 'EM

Just for fun: A spacecraft built by a Houston company landed on the moon the other day. I can't remember who first created this joke, but it begins with the start of an old complaint that urges doing something more useful than landing on the moon. It goes: "If we can send a man to the moon. . ." then finishes this way: ". . .why can't it be (you fill in the blank)?" Donald Trump, Joe Biden, my history professor, my dentist, etc. Let me know if your choice of someone to be blasted off to the moon ever gets picked. 

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Cherry-B-masksP.S.: How did you help people through the Covid pandemic? My friend Cherry Barthel, a member of my congregation, hand-made and distributed 3,418 masks for people. Each mask, she says, took about an hour and 45 minutes to create.

Cherry used to be a seamstress and sewing teacher at the former Kaplan's material store on the Country Club Plaza. Well into her retirement now, she keeps making beautiful and helpful things. If you are reading this on Facebook, X or LinkedIn, feel free to leave a note if you're one of the recipients of Cherry's Covid-inspired handiwork, as am I. And give Cherry, who is holding a few of her masks in this photo, a high-five, at least virtually.

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