No Place for Religion in Political Race

Patriarch Alexy II has blessed First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as the next president, giving a literal meaning to the idea that Medvedev is President Vladimir Putin's anointed successor. In supporting Medvedev during an address Thursday, the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church spoke highly of Putin and expressed hope that there would be "a continuity of the course that has been implemented by Vladimir Putin in the past eight years."

The patriarch is not the only religious leader who has backed Putin's choice to succeed him in the March 2 presidential election. Chief Rabbi Berl Lazar, a senior mufti and a Baptist leader have also voiced their support for Medvedev.

Citizens of a country that is constitutionally defined as a secular democracy have the right to support whomever they want in elections, and the clergy are no exception. But you have to wonder about the ethics of a situation where a religious leader clad in flowing robes wholeheartedly endorses a politician in front of television cameras for lengthy broadcast on all state television channels. A secular democracy, after all, provides for the separation of state and church.

Church leaders should realize that supporting specific politicians -- no matter how much they like them -- will drag them into politics. This may eventually bring the church under the control of the ruling elite at the cost of its independence. If anything, the Russian Orthodox Church should have learned what close proximity to the state can entail from its experience after the Bolshevik Revolution. The church suffered from repressions by adversaries of imperial Russia and the subsequent infiltration of its ranks by secret police agents.

Moreover, the Russian Orthodox Church is a supranational entity beyond the authority of one national government, with entire dioceses in countries like Ukraine and Estonia, and it has condemned previous attempts by local Orthodox churches to break away from the Moscow Patriarchate. Therefore, it should think twice before endorsing a candidate in one country -- which might have poor relations with another country where it has dioceses.

Finally, Alexy should keep one more tactical consideration in mind. What if the Kremlinologists who see politics in a Machiavellian light are right and Putin decides to endorse a second candidate for the sake of a "fair" competition in the presidential election? What if that candidate also promised to continue Putin's course? What would the patriarch say then?