Staunton, January 28 – Evangelical Christians now form “the majority” of those whom Moscow officials and media refer to as “non-traditional” religions in Russia, according to Roman Lunkin, a senior scholar at the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Science and president of the Experts Guild on Religion and Law.
In a presentation to the Moscow Carnegie Center on Friday, Lunkin said that despite their growth and contribution to “the de-secularization of society and its return to Christian values,” Russian attitudes toward evangelical Christians remain much as they were in pre-1917 Russia or in the 1930s and 1940s (www.blagovest-info.ru/index.php?ss=2&s=4&id=50967).
Now as then, he argued, evangelicals are considered “an inevitable evil in Russia society,” an interesting if somewhat depressing commentary on a country where “inter-religious peace has been proclaimed but where intolerance is the norm.”
Among those concerned about the increasing influence of Protestants in Russia, Lunkin continued, are “in the first instance,” local officials who do everything they can to restrain “the social activism of evangelical Christians” by limiting their areas of work, blocking construction of churches, conducting show trials, and suggesting that evangelicals are “sectarians.”Many Russian Orthodox believers share these views, the Institute of Europe scholar said, viewing all evangelicals except the Lutherans and “traditional Baptists” as sectarians. And these attitudes in society are reflected at the top as well: there are no Protestants in the Inter-Religioius Council of Russia, thus putting them “in the status of foreigners” in their own country.
But it is not just the Orthodox and the authorities who have these views, Lunkin pointed out. Many in the liberal-democratic camp share the view that evangelicals are “sectarians” and thus a problem. Indeed, “the only party which insists on the equality of all citizens regardless of their denomination is the Communist Party of the Russian Federation.”
The rise of evangelical Protestantism in Russia beginning in the 1990s was “neither unexpected nor brought in from the outside,” Lunkin said. “That increase in activity was prepared by the entire history of the evangelical churches in Russia from the beginning of the 20th century.”
Evangelical Protestants have been especially active “in those spheres of social service” that the government does not deal well with, including work with orphans, the sick and the elderly, and the drug addicted. They generally avoid politics, he continued, but they also generally “consider democracy to be the social arrangement closest to the Christian ideal.”
“A new phenomenon of the second half of the first decade of this century,” Lunkin noted, “is Protestant representation in local organs of power.” A majority of evangelical churches have representatives in local legislatures and the mayors of Tol’yatti and Nikolayevsk openly acknowledge that they are Protestants.
In addition, Lunkin pointed to the support Protestants give to business activity through their formation of “formal and informal business clubs.” (That role recalls the writings of Max Weber on capitalism and Russia which are most usefully surveyed by Richard Pipes in his essay, “Max Weber and Russia,” World Politics, 7:3 (1955): 371-401.)What is striking, Lunkin suggested, is that the percentage of Protestants is greatest – perhaps 11 to 14 percent – in non-Russian areas like Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Yamalo-Nenets AO, and North Osetia, a pattern that suggests Protestantism could be a bridge for many to return to Christianity.
“The crisis of religiosity” in today’s Russia, Lunkin concluded, is best understood “as a crisis of centralized historical churches. And genuinely religious feelings and interest in faith” are most often found in “the ‘non-traditional’ Christian churches,” something that is “gradually destroying the myth about ‘the inevitable evil’” they are thought by some to represent.
The scholar concluded that “the division of Russian religions between ‘the traditional’ and ‘the non-traditional’ is rooted in history, but it does not reflect the current situation of things: [Evangelical Protestants represent] an important part of society,” one consisting of “active citizens who are present in all spheres and are ready to defend their interests.”