Putin and the Culture Wars: An Analysis

Putin and the Culture Wars: An Analysis

Okay, so right now as I write this Russia, and specifically its leader Putin, are still invading the Ukraine, who is fighting back. As historian Heather Cox Richardson (along with others) have been pointing out, most American politicians, even those in the GOP, have been rolling back their support for Putin over the course of his invasion of Ukraine, but there are still some key politicians who are supporting Putin. As others have pointed out over at MSN.com, even the white Evangelical support of Putin is fracturing. In today’s blog piece I hope to build on a previous piece to unwrap more of why white Evangelicals have been supporting Putin up to this point and how it connects to the idea of defending an idea of God that looks remarkably like a straight white male who only stands up for profoundly unhealthy militant heterosexuality. In this piece I plan to unwrap some of this via looking at some of my own socialization into culture wars rhetoric, especially surrounding LGBTQ+ issues.

And yeah, at the end of all of this, I hope to provide some encouragement and a call to keep fighting this kind of toxic crap wherever we find it. Because being away from the Ukraine here in the US, and having most of the rest of the world on Ukraine’s side doesn’t mean our kids aren’t in danger from culture war rhetoric that births policies that literally endangers the lives of vulnerable folx here.  

Lives Are at Stake Here as Well as There

Because that’s the thing about the heterosexual (white male) God fallacy. It’s a fallacy. People defending heterosexuality at all costs ought never be allowed to think they’re on the side of God. Especially if the lives of the vulnerable are at stake.

Thanks for giving me a bit of time to unwrap this. I previously talked about some of these themes here, among other places.

My Background and Standpoint

As always, I’m coming into this as a pastor’s kid from a “moderate” white Evangelical denomination with some progressive sides to it. A PK, specifically, that grew up on the conservative-leaning churches of that denomination, but later got deeply disturbed by the Iraq War and gradually moved toward being less and less comfortable in the militant masculinist perspectives the historian Kristin Du Mez outlines in her book Jesus and John Wayne.

Ultimately, after I got a PhD in Communication and studying things like fascistic rhetoric and stress, trauma, and conflict communication I ended up starting this project to help others unwrap the unhealthy sides of this weird religio-political landscape we’ve been living through, and to call people to be assertive about it.

So Yeah, Back to Putin and the Culture Wars

And so yeah, let’s talk about Putin and the culture wars and how white Evangelicals came to be persuaded to support him before it became finally blindingly clear to many of them what was clear to the rest of us before: that he’s not the healthiest person to support.

Hm….Is God Really Only Out to Support Straight White Male Egos? Wait…

See, as Du Mez outlines in Jesus and John Wayne, which I first reviewed here, white Evangelical messaging for decades has supported this idea of defending not God, per se, but stirring up this militant masculine vision of God as this white straight male that is out to, well, to boil the analysis down from my discipline’s perspective, it looks an awful lot like this “God” is only protecting white straight male egos and nothing else.

Creating a “War” Within the US—Against the Vulnerable? Ouch

That fact is strongly illustrated in Jesus and John Wayne as she talks about how that very militantly masculine Christian nationalist vision is directed into the “culture wars” within the United States, as progressives who support different views of abortion, “traditional marriage,” and treatment and rights of LGBTQ+ populations are targeted by this rhetoric. (Note that I talk about the views of abortion and LGBTQ+ issues as hasty generalizations from the Bible here.)

In the end of the book, her connecting of all the sexual abuse scandals makes it abundantly clear that all of this othering rhetoric isn’t even meant to help keep white Evangelical women and children to damage.

Oh Wait, the Culture Wars Led to Supporting Bullying Leaders in Other Countries? Hm…

So to those watching the rhetoric in recent years, it’s been fascinatingly disturbing to watch how both the GOP and white Evangelicals in the US have extended these culture wars to actually support those against gay marriage in other countries. That has included Putin, who as discussed here was until very recently often supported by these populations specifically because of his culture war stances on refusing equality to LGBTQ+ populations on human rights.

Note: None of This is Supported by Much in the Bible

Again, note that there are very few Bible verses to clearly decry abortion and gay marriage, much less to deny the rights of transgender kids rights to step out of the gender binary our society hews to. I talked about this before—how even God the father is often described as a mother in the Bible, for instance. God does not fit into a clear gender binary, and Jesus isn’t described as married.  

Not to mention that all sorts of situations genuinely fit under the rubric of “biblical marriage,” including some passages that seem far from…heterosexual.

So Let’s Recap on “God Terms”

Well, let’s unwrap this—and how it connects to white Evangelical support of Putin—a bit from a rhetorical perspective. As we’ve discussed before, rhetorical scholars use “god terms” to talk about things that are meant to be defended at all costs—things that often are separate from dictionary definitions, for instance. An example of this that I’ve discussed before that gets invoked a lot in the US is “freedom.”

Too Easy for People to Get Drawn into Demonization that’s Not ACTUALLY Soundly Biblical

Now, note that these things are often separate from religious usages, but unhealthy religio-political leaders often intertwine these things, especially when it comes to defending things like America or individualism in the name of religion.

This is how people end up espousing Christian nationalism—even when it pops up in bullies that want to take over the world!—even when they disavow what they see as the fringe versions of it.

I Grew Up with This

I certainly grew up with this kind of thing, and have especially seen it heightened amongst the people I grew up with in the years since the 2016 election. My people would often tell you they were “holding their noses” and vote for the 45th president, and they would ardently decry extreme versions of militant masculinity when you showed them to them.

And YET they would absolutely defend the culture wars issues around LGBTQ+ folx to the point where they would quietly step away from relationships if someone put forth affirming theology perspectives too strongly. Sometimes they would even have gay friends, but privately would hold—again, deep cordial hypocrisy beliefs—that being affirming of LGBTQ+ folx theologically was a deep and horrific sin.

Abortion and LGBTQ+ Issues as the Tribal “Boundaries”

In fact, when pushed, it has seemed clear to me that to many conservative-leaning Christians, it is this culture wars version of theology that is seen to form a boundary of who is in and out of their tribe.

It’s like those old maps that have a boundary that show literal sea monsters outside of the “safe” areas on the map.

I Was Not Exempt

And yeah. I get it. I too grew up with all of this rhetoric, much of it by the right-wing efforts to whip up a voting block premised specifically on “social issues.”

Those social issues ALWAYS boiled down to (1) abortion and (2) LGBTQ+ issues. Both issues, as I’ve mentioned before, that don’t really boil down to concern about the God of the Bible, but the rights of straight men to preserve control over sex and gender binaries and procreation concerns.

Trained to See the “Other Side” as a Threat

And I remember how much I was socialized to feel people who disagreed with us on those issues as a threat. I too bought it so far into my adulthood that I could specifically be scared into ignoring a whole host of other unhealthy political policies and to stop listening to all sorts of reasonable policies if the person disagreed with the GOP on these social issues.

(And yeah, on the other hand, I know lots of other people who said they were liberal on these social issues, but voted conservative for “fiscal reasons.” Two sides to the same coin, honestly.)

Back to Understanding White Evangelical Support for Putin

But back to the point at hand—white Evangelicals’ support for Putin.

My Own Progression In This Area

I can see so strongly how it took my own great discomfort with the Iraq war to help move me away from this particular kind of tribalism.

And even then, my moral and political disgusts ran so deep that it took another five years to be willing to vote for the side that had been demonized.  

Shifting the Brain Can Sometimes Need to Come Before the Gut

Even after that, mind you—and this is a confession—I was still internally judgmental of LGBTQ+ folks for years.

That’s how deep my socialized moral disgusts about these vulnerable populations ran.

Thanks be to all that is holy, my brain had been convinced that it was the right thing to do to vote on their behalf. And I had begun to turn away from my unhealthy gut reactions. But it still took more years before my viscera were fully on board.

Behaviors, Then Values, Then Gut Responses

I remember distinctly when the first domino on this issue specifically.

The first domino fell for me when a biblical expert I trusted explained, around the time gay marriage passed, a different biblical interpretation of those classic “clobber verses” on this issue.

But after that, it actually took me going through a divorce and the 2016 election and such to finally break free to that particular socialization and really fully appreciate the validity of my concerns of my LGBTQ+ friends without the inner judgment.

Incredibly Bad Fruit of Non-Affirming Theology and Politics Alike

It also took me working through the literal evidence and stories of what incredibly bad fruit non-affirming theology has caused. How many suicides. How incredibly much trauma.

So yeah, this all boils down to acknowledging that while I never supported Putin because he was against gay marriage, I absolutely get the ways unhealthy socializations into the right-leaning religio-political landscape could drag one in that direction.

I get it.

Whew I Hate That It Took Me So D*mned Long!

And here’s the thing: I get it NOW. It took A LOT for me to get it viscerally. I hate that so hard, but it also gives me hope.

See, those who are turning away from support for Putin now in the white Evangelical community may or may not actually be turning toward affirming theology. Many of them will likely accept whatever justifications are being made for trans-harming and other unhealthy conservative culture wars legislation in the US.

The Bullies Don’t Have Absolute Power

But there will be some. As there were when the 2016 election hit, there will be some to whom this event, as the Iraq war did for me, start to fracture that gaslighting narrative and socialization.

Eventually that group may start to recognize, piece by piece, as I have, that these unhealthy religio-political socializations have nothing to do with Christianity.

That, in fact, they require one to overlook hundreds and thousands of verses that are against the exploitation and abuse and literal death caused by powerfully fragile white straight male egos like Putin’s.

So Yeah, To Be Clear, the War on Ukraine Is Horrific

Let me be clear: I don’t see some sort of great biblical meaning of this invasion of Ukraine by Putin as the end times folx do. I think it’s a horrendous thing and that we need to stand up against it.

I don’t have strong enough words to express how strongly I denounce it.

Rising Up with Agency in Tough Times

And yet—as Emily Nagoski points out in her book Burnout, we don’t have to condone the worst of circumstances in order to recognize that we have agency within them.

And what I have hope of is this: that a few tentative folks in the conservative and white Evangelical communities will claim their voice and their agency out of this crisis, and recognize in Putin’s incredibly negative example what they have not seen before. I hope they will continue along the same journey I and so many others before me have traveled toward better understanding of how incredibly unhealthy and damaging this culture wars rhetoric is.  

Hoping the White Evangelicals Get There Fast—Because There Are Lives at Risk NOW

I just heard of another trans kid on suicide watch because relatives wouldn’t call them by the name they most associated with, so all I have to say is I hope they get there fast.

Lives are at risk.

We Don’t Have to Wait, Thankfully

And in the meantime, I hope those who are already on board will rise up to do what we can to get out the vote for key races in the upcoming midterms. It’s so incredibly important for us to do what we can to make a better world for us all.

Whatever happens with Putin, I know that these culture wars that got white Evangelicals to support him are still raging here and now in the US. And there is hope that others will join us as support for Putin is turning in other directions.

But whether they do or not, there are plenty of us who believe in fighting against these unhealthy egos that are trying to make us pretend they have all the power.

Militant Heterosexuality as False (and Weak) God

And I know this much is true—they do not have all the power. I know that the disinformation and misinformation gradually lost its hold on me. And I know that in the US after 2016 the Women’s March and so many other intersectional movements rose up to stand up against the bullying in this country.

And it resulted in better results in the midterms in 2018. And in the presidential election in 2020.

It’s Been Tough for Us, But Let’s Keep Doing What We Can

And I know it’s been a hard couple of years since then, but we can rise up again in 2022. Because I know there are still reasons to fight. There are still trans’ kids’ lives at stake, for one.

Putin and Other “Christian Nationalists” Are Neither God Nor Satan

I know this much is true: men like Putin and other bullies defending their own egos are definitively not God.

They are not the devil either.

Which doesn’t mean they can’t cause a lot of damage. But ultimately, their power can be broken.

All we need to do is do what we can to speak up assertively toward a healthier world for us all.

A Final Charge

Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let us not grow weary of doing good, folks. Don’t let the bullies have the loudest voices. Let’s continue to speak up on behalf of a healthier world where fewer kids are on suicide watch, shall we? We can do this thing.

Want to donate to keep this work going? I just finally, after almost 4 years of this project, set up tip jars at Venmo and PayPal so you can help keep the lights on and such. Here’s the info:

Venmo: @assertivespirituality

PayPal: https://www.paypal.com/donate/?hosted_button_id=Q2QWKELCNATBE

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Putin and the Cultur…

by DS Leiter Time to read: 11 min