I predicted back in 2010 that globalizing and technological trends would lead disparate religious traditions to find common ground on socially divisive issues like abortion and gay rights.
Just as environmentalism, feminism, and indigenous rights were partnering various more liberal church groups with environmental and social justice organizations, contributing to the development of an ”eco-egalitarian” global civil religion, so would socially conservative movements — among Christians, Muslims, Jews, and others — lead to a quasi-religion of global “social traditionalism.”
What I didn’t foresee is how quickly this convergent tendency would grow between American Evangelicals and one of the most introverted of international churches — the Russian Orthodox Church. The two had not long ago been arch-rivals in what sociologist of religion Eileen Barker called the “opium wars of the new millennium” — skirmishes over religious turf in the former Soviet Union. (See Barker’s piece here, and my contribution into the post-Soviet mapping of religions here; pdf warning for both.)
As reported in articles in Patheos and The Nation, the increasing persecution of gays in Putin’s Russia has been accompanied by an increase in the influence and prominence of American Evangelical groups, who have been writing the very scripts of the new anti-gay legislation promoted by Orthodox activists.
All of this plays into the changing role of Russia in the growing “cultural cold war.” The Obama administration has signaled its entry into this cold war by sending an entourage of lesbian and gay athletes to the Winter Olympics at Sochi.
Russia is no longer the cold war other, vilified by western conservatives, and defended (if hardly loved) by many on the left. For the former, it was Soviet dissidents who were the ultimate bearers of truth; for the latter, they were troublesome and inconvenient. (Not that there weren’t some on the left who found common cause with the dissidents. But even in the peace movement, as I well recall, the nonaligned anti-authoritarians were outflanked by the better funded, Soviet-supported peace groups.)
Today, it is dissidents like Pussy Riot that represent the good Russia for liberals.
And in the struggle being played out in the streets of Kyiv (Kiev) — between pro-democracy demonstrators (somewhat inaccurately called “pro-EU demonstrators” by many in the western press) and the emerging dictatorialism of Ukraine’s Putin-supported president, Viktor Yanukovich — the Ukrainian prime minister could say to pro-government demonstrators:
“Оpposition leaders are telling us fairy tales about how we can sign a treaty today and tomorrow we’ll be visiting the EU without visas. Nothing like that: first we have to legalize gay marriage and pass a law about the equality of sexual minorities. Ukrainians aren’t ready for that, and the church is against it.”
That was just a crafty ploy from Putin’s playbook of cozying up to Russian Orthodox “values voters.”
A few weeks ago I wrote on Facebook:
“In the new cold war over cultural values (and gay pride), the US and Russia are using cultural policy instead of nuclear missile stockpiles. Who’d have thought it 30 years ago… Will Russia start appealing to cultural fundamentalists in the West? How Huntington’s clash of civilizations has gotten scrambled…”
While the exchange of signals over gay rights hardly qualifies as a new cold war, and it’s still too early and too facile to speak of a global clash of two civilizations — something like William Connolly’s “eco-egalitarian” and “evangelical-capitalist” “resonance machines” expanded to global scale — I do think these signals point to emerging alliances whereby social or cultural values become the glue between institutional groups whose “civilizational” contours may appear extremely divergent.
But these values and institutions can come together in a variety of ways. Ecology, for instance, need not only be a “liberal” thing (as some of Europe’s Far Right groups have shown).
And capitalism can go in either direction: it can be an ally of gay rights (as Hollywood liberals and Russian Euro-skeptics both know) and of evangelicalism (as Connolly argues about the American evangelical-capitalist resonance machine). It took a lot of work for that latter alliance of free-market neo-libs and evangelical neo-cons to consolidate itself in the U.S. It will take work for “eco-egalitarianism” — or “eco-global civil religion” — to consolidate itself as a global force.
One thing I’m convinced of is that environmentalists, like other activists, will need to think more explicitly about their cultural politics — which means about individual and collective rights, media freedoms, and religious, nationalist, and other forms of identification.