It was Christmastime in 1941, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill came to America hoping to rally Americans to defeat Nazi Germany. His visit came on the heels of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, but Churchill’s charm offensive had stretched over a year at that point—with rhetoric that intentionally sought to lump together all of “the English-speaking world.”
His efforts to cement this special relationship went beyond highlighting our shared language. Churchill declared in 1940 that, “Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization.” The next year, he and President Franklin Roosevelt secretly met on a battleship off the coast of Newfoundland. The meeting included a church service where Churchill—not a religious man, himself—arranged for the last hymn to be “Onward Christian Soldiers.”
Fast forward to this week. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky also visited America at Christmastime. Like Churchill, his visit included a rousing speech to the U.S. Congress. But Zelensky, who is Jewish, is not well-equipped to sing “Onward Christian Soldiers.” Indeed, when it comes to using Christianity to rally Americans to their cause, Zelensky’s detractors seem to be leading the charge.
“If you were a Republican office holder, and Zelensky came to Washington, maybe you would, for a moment, ask him about his current and ongoing war against Christianity in Ukraine,” said my former boss, Tucker Carlson, on his Fox News show on Wednesday night.
Tucker continued: “You will not hear a word on television tonight about the fact that Zelensky has banned an entire ancient Christian denomination in Ukraine, and then seized churches, and then thrown priests in jail,” he said. “According to Mitch McConnell—who apparently hasn’t left his office since the mid-’80s—anti-Christian despotism is what most Republicans want above all.”
He was referring to Ukraine’s decision in early December to effectively shut down the Moscow-linked Russian Orthodox Church in the country. The reason? As Christianity Today reported, Ukrainian authorities say they have “uncovered large amounts of cash, ‘dubious’ Russian citizens, and leaflets calling on people to join the Russian army…Other material cited as evidence included prayer texts of ROC patriarch Kirill and a video of hymn singing that celebrated Russia’s ‘awakening.’”
It’s easy to understand why Zelensky wants to prevent a fifth column spy network from operating in Ukraine. However, his actions provide fodder to prove he is at war with Christianity.
The charge that Zelensky is at war with Christianity is potentially a potent wedge issue on the right, particularly as Republicans, many of whom are Christian (and many of whom are increasingly skeptical of foreign entanglements) take control of the U.S. House of Representatives next month. Most Republicans still support aiding Ukraine, but support is declining. If this narrative takes hold, it is sure to negatively impact our role as an ally.
Russia knows this. Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council, wasted no time in casting Zelensky as an enemy of Christendom, saying, “The current Ukrainian authorities have openly become enemies of Christ and the Orthodox faith.” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov went so far as to accuse Ukraine of “waging a war on the Russian Orthodox Church.”
But is it true? It seems to me that if Zelensky is actually waging a war on Christianity, then it is an ill-advised war against his own constituents. According to the Pew Research Center, 78 percent of Ukrainians identify as Orthodox (a higher percentage than exists in Russia).
Meanwhile, only “14 percent of the public called themselves faithful to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate…” That leaves a lot of Christians with whom Zelensky isn’t at war with.
As The Wall Street Journal notes, a rival Orthodox Church of Ukraine “was recognized in 2019 by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople as fully independent from Russia, a major diplomatic achievement for Kyiv and a blow to Russian soft power.”
Besides, Zelensky doesn’t talk like a man who is at war with Christians. “[W]e will celebrate Christmas,” Zelensky declared during his speech to Congress on Wednesday night. “Maybe candlelit. Not because it’s more romantic, no, but because… there will be no electricity… We’ll celebrate Christmas. Celebrate Christmas and, even if there is no electricity, the light of our faith in ourselves will not be put out.”
(It might not be “Onward Christian Soldiers,” but it ain’t nothing.)
The bottom line is this: It’s impossible for anyone to know exactly what is happening in Ukraine. But I’m inclined to trust Zelensky over Putin.
You’d probably have to believe in Santa Claus to believe otherwise.