by Rodney Kennedy
Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. The pastor of 7 Southern Baptist churches over the course of 20 years, he pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years. He is currently professor of homiletics at Palmer Theological Seminary, and interim pastor of Emmanuel Friedens Federated Church, Schenectady, NY. And his sixth book – The Immaculate Mistake: How Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump – has just been published by Wipf and Stock (Cascades).
Evangelicals claim they have a commitment to imitating Jesus, but they remain enthralled with Donald Trump, the Donald Trump who loves and seeks to emulate Vladimir Putin – a former KGB agent, dictator, human rights violator, and long-time enemy of the USA. What an odd trinity: Jesus, Putin, and Trump.
Putin has been an appealing figure for many on the American Right – Tucker Carlson is just one example – thanks to the “masculinity he radiated in such sharp contrast to his U.S. counterpart” (Tim Alberta, American Carnage: On the Front Line of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump). As far back as September 2013 commentators were noting the cult following Putin was amassing on the American right with his macho exploits: tranquilizing a tiger, hunting a gray whale with a crossbow, riding war horses, catching gigantic fish. He was always shirtless and never afraid, “Rooseveltian testosterone oozing out of every pore.” Even though Putin has admitted that the macho exploits were mostly staged events, his macho image has been sealed in the media.
And in the evangelical mind. Nothing impresses evangelicals like the image of the “strong man.”
Of course, evangelicals routinely ignore that the “strong man” theology/ideology never fares well in the Bible. Perhaps the strongest of the strong men in the Hebrew Scripture was Samson. He was seduced and deceived by a woman, captured by the Philistines, and had his eyes put out. When his hair grew back out (the secret to his strength), the Philistines failed to notice. During a celebration in the Temple of Dagon, the Philistines brought Samson out for the people to see and mock. Samson asked of his captors: “Let me feel the pillars on which the house rests, so that I may lean against them.” In one act of revenge Samson pulled down the temple and died along with three thousand Philistines. The strong man ended his life in an act of suicide, terrorism, and mass murder.
But never mind. Evangelicals love the “strong man.”
As the world stands on the precipice of another war that could envelop all nations, Trump has said that Putin’s move into Ukraine is “genius” and “savvy.” Dan Rather and Elliot Kirschner, remarking on the unusual support of Putin by Trump and his allies: “There is something else this time around, something new that I have never seen before on the scale we are witnessing. There are many in this nation, cheered on by powerful media voices, who seem more aligned with a dangerous foe to America and a peaceful world order than they are with our own leadership.” Having already damaged democracy by attacking our anchor institutions – press, court, Congress, and military leadership – Trump now sides shamelessly with Putin, and his acolytes in Congress and his adoring evangelical fans are mouthing Putin love. Democracy now inhabits the arena of precarity.
But evangelical love of Putin is not simply a matter of idolizing the “strong man.” It is also about the evangelical obsession with the “end times.”
The doomsday preachers have always salivated at the apocalyptic scenarios that include Russia – the “bear from the North” (Daniel 7). They locate Russia in the esoteric prophecies of Ezekiel as Gog and Magog. The preachers breathlessly quote Ezekiel 38 and Daniel 7. According to self-proclaimed prophet Craig C. White:
The new Russian Union is here! Kazakhstan and Belarus have joined Russia in a new Eurasian economic Union. Ukraine was supposed to join but backed out at the last moment. I think this is a big step. Daniel Chapter 7 tells us about the Russian bear during the end times. Three ribs may be nations along its western border in the teeth of Russia. Two of those nations may be represented here. This is a new Russian Union! Christians should be alerted that Daniel 7 is moving forward. This is an economic Union. I expect that three nations will one day soon say to Russia, you must create a Political Union including other nations! [Ukraine?] Devour much flesh!
Russia figures prominently in the final war that occurs in what essentially is the genocide of the earth’s remaining population. Putin now embodies this apocalyptic scenario in frightening reality. But contra the rapture preachers, there will be no “superman” Jesus flying in from outer space to rescue God’s special evangelical children.
Putin now has the power to put all humanity in the crosshairs of his delusional lust for power with all of Russia’s nuclear capacity at his fingertips. This is a different kind of precarity that threatens humanity as a species: the Anthropocene. “In the Anthropocene,” note G. Mitchell Reyes and Kundai Chirindo, “the precarity that had been the nearly exclusive preserve of people occupying the bottommost rungs of human society is becoming generalized to most if not all humans.” We are all an endangered species, and yet evangelicals are playing with rapture charts and giving support to Russia’s madman.
In Precarious Rhetorics, Wendy Hesford, Adela Licona, and Christa Teston suggest that one cause of the growing sense of precarity felt around the world is the growth of right-wing nationalist populism. The rise of “hard-right populism,” they note, “is cultivated through the sowing of fear and suspicion.” “One’s life,” Judith Butler observes, “is always in some sense, in the hands of the other.” This cultural or socialized precarity, in other words, is an inescapable fact of the publics that humans constitute. And now, all our lives seem to be in the hands of a sixty-nine-year-old Russian dreaming of world dominion. Precarity to the max!
Putin moves to put into effect his long-sought goals of restoring Russia to the position of world power. Betul Eksi and Elizabeth A. Wood argue that his right-wing populism is a gendered performance, a Janus-faced masculinity. His political masculinity allows him to position himself as an outsider yet insider, bad boy yet good father to Mother Russia. His performed political masculinity supports conservative social and political gender norms as well as nationalistic ones. His machismo combines a bullying masculine set of performances with a paternalistic dominance that claims to protect his own people. He is the good father saving Russia by rejecting others whose masculinity he impugns. Putin falls into the category of a “populist authoritarianism.”
While Putin dreams of restoring the old borders of the Soviet era, he embodies a tradition of paranoia, a mistrust of institutions, an inferiority complex that sees himself as both the savior of the nation and a victim of great conspiracies, and a deep sense of resentment and desire for revenge against enemies.
Putin expresses resentment over Russia’s losses. He uses aggressive, even angry language to show his authenticity. He exhibits tough talk to signal the tough stance of an aggrieved, underdog nation toward outside powers. Putin is all about being strong, about winning no matter the cost to the world. There’s no moral imperative.
As Eksi and Wood have pointed out, “No politician has ever been so fantastically vulgar [as Vladimir Putin]. Ordinary people love it because it’s the way they speak themselves.” Putin has said that his defense of the Motherland is “a man’s affair,” and he did not need to engage in public debates on which was better, “Tampax or Snickers.” Proclaiming that “we showed weakness and the weak get beaten,” Putin positioned himself as the strong man who would not show weakness. In response to those foreign powers who want “to tear off a fatty piece” of the nation, Putin insisted that “We won’t allow anybody to interfere in our internal affairs because we have our own will, which has helped us to be victorious at all times.” And Putin has threatened any nation that interferes in his invasion of Ukraine with “consequences you have never experienced in your history.”
Putin had more than twenty years to prepare his most recent speech. After promising to start with just “a few words about the history of this issue,” he gave a lengthy revisionist account in which he claimed that Ukraine was merely a region of the old Russian empire. In a belligerent tone (“the strong man”) he offered an argument on why Ukraine had no right to exist. Putin called Ukraine “historically Russian land” that was stolen from the Russian empire and has since fallen into the hands of neo-Nazis and corrupt “puppets” controlled by the West. He offered the bizarre claim that he was “denazifying Ukraine” by invading it.
Here, his words sound more like QAnon conspiracy talk than world leader rhetoric. According to Timothy Snyder, Yale history professor, there is a great irony that Putin appears to be behaving just as the Nazis did, invading neighbors on the pretext that their borders are irrelevant: “It’s very strange when you’re surrounded by the reality of Ukrainian history, to hear a distant tyrant declare that the thing doesn’t exist — obviously he’s wrong.” As Snyder observes, “This kind of language, that another nation doesn’t exist, is something we need to pay attention to because it usually precedes atrocious actions.”
Putin is the personification of the kind of leader that Americans need to reject. We should not allow ourselves to be deceived by the lies of Putin. In the last two weeks Putin vehemently insisted that he was not invading Ukraine. That lie is now publicly known, and Ukraine’s people hang in the balance.
Putin is forced to perform like a long-running American crime drama: more and more violence must be inserted into the plot, or the audience will turn away. Quoting Eksi and Wood, “Janus-faced masculinity must be performed in larger and more outrageous ways to prove itself.” Putin’s model of rule must seek enemies, internal and external, and he must dominate them all. “When those external enemies are also in the grip of a masculinist set of ideologies used to justify their very existence, the danger of conflict and war increases exponentially.”
Despite all of this, it is striking how many evangelicals seem at home in the apocalyptic scenario now laid out by Putin. They have affixed their future on the “strong man” trope, the toxic male, the bully. In the trinity of Jesus, Trump, and Putin, Jesus is odd man out.
This is dangerous on so many levels.