Many pockes on many houses

Several of my correspondents wrote yesterday to express surprise that I had changed my opinion du président russe Vladimir Poutine. (Perhaps he is more digestible in French; many things are.) I note this only as an example of the difficulty of writing on politics with precision. For I said no such thing. I wrote that my views had changed on Ukraine, and implied that I had been dispossessed of certain illusions about Ukrainian nationalists. But my views on this crass, ex-Soviet, power politician and thug, have not changed, so far as I recall, since I first caught sight of him, rising within the Yeltsin kleptocracy.

They were clinched when I learnt, about 1999, that he has a pathological aversion to cats. It was the last straw. He cannot charm me.

I am aware there are quite a few “conservatives” today who admire this creature for his support of the Russian Orthodox Church, and opposition to public homosexuality, plus the odd feint towards a market economy.

Even Stalin spoke well of the Orthodox Church when, thanks to the invasion of Soviet Russia by Nazi Germany, he needed fewer enemies. The words, “Holy Mother Russia” are quick to utter and very cheap. I have nothing to add to what God might say about the condition of Putin’s soul, but I can see the political machinations. Whether “sincerely” or “insincerely” (not my call), he is doing what innumerable tyrants have done through the history of Christendom: using Church to advance interests of State. He presides, currently, as he probably understands, over a society that is morally vitiated by long generations of Communist rule, and all the corruption that has since followed. He would like Russians to drink less, work harder, and generate more babies. But this is for reasons of State.

Even members of the Communist Chinese elite, we learn from some reports, semi-publicly express their admiration for Christianity, and its role in building the industrious society of the West. To this way of thinking, it is a source or moral strength, that contributes to public order; a useful instrument of social control. Well isn’t that just peachy keen.

The problem for them, as for all previous tyrants acting in “enlightened self interest,” is how to control this religion; in particular, how to prevent the Roman Church — by far the largest and most international of nameable denominations without interruption through the last twenty centuries — from acting independently of the State.

That is why Red China has gone to the trouble of creating a parallel “national catholic church” that is virulently anti-Roman — while actively suppressing manifestations of the Thing itself. (A move from Henry VIII’s old playbook.) If Chinese people want to become obedient little Christians, as it is now evident many do, fine and well. But their beloved Party leaders do not want them to go so far as to think that obedience to Christ can take priority over obedience to their beloved Party leaders.

In many ways the systems of government in America, Europe, Russia, and China, have been converging. Each offers “freedom of religion” to those who agree not to act on it. In the United States, for instance, Catholics remain entirely free to practice their religion so long as it does not encroach in any way on public life. Leaders who are obviously not Christian (the name Obama comes to mind, along with the rest of the usual suspects, to which we can now add Donald Trump), will even give lip service to the religion, when they find some doctrine which seems, in isolation, to champion some part of their own agendas. So it is and will be in the other centres of power in this world, outside the Dar al-Islam and, perhaps, certain ultra-ultra neighbourhoods in Israel.

What they will not allow is for the Church to operate freely. She must be bound by State regulation, and she must never challenge the claims of the State. She is to take her place alongside the Rotary Club and the Jaycees.

Moreover, this has been the modern arrangement, for about five centuries now — even in countries that have been, outwardly, overwhelmingly Catholic. It is the fundamental difference between our background political order — institutionalized in the Treaties of Westphalia — and the Western mediaeval order. Westphalia put the nation state formally above God.

In the Middle Ages, while local Princes were always trying to appropriate the local Church — chiefly by means of controlling appointments to her hierarchy — they could not always succeed. Even when they did succeed, they felt bound to acknowledge a higher jurisdiction; and they manoeuvred to avoid conflict with the Holy See. By this they acknowledged, at least in words and gestures, the Kingship of Christ, even while trying to subvert the very teachings of Our Lord to their own rather worldly purposes. But by this acknowledgement their power was limited. They could push only so far. They could not manoeuvre onto the moral high ground against the Church, so long as the identity of the Church was understood. Even when short of cash or soldiers, the Church retained the power of Anathema.

A Christian politics acknowledges that there is an authority higher than the political, to which all political authority must kneel. It survives, through invincible belief and conscience, in a sense of responsibility for the fate of all souls under the Prince’s protection. So far as he believes, himself, he fears going to Hell; and at many moments there were remarkable conversions. Faith, to this extent, governs the government; and the products of Faith will be apparent — visible, and often audible — everywhere one turns. That is what I hold out for, in politics; that and nothing less.

Everything short of that ought to be condemned, and I condemn Putin because I cannot doubt he is in unscrupulous pursuit of worldly power — employing the methods of his old employers.

The notion, among the same “conservatives,” that this man should be encouraged to do the West’s own “dirty work” in Syria, is exceptionally naive. Iran is his client; Assad is Iran’s; and so is Hezbollah. He is doing precisely what the (confused and incompetent) Obama thinks he is doing, by favouring Iran: siding with one monster against another. This never ends well.

It is sometimes necessary to tolerate a lesser evil; it is never necessary to encourage one. “Conservatives,” to my mind, should apply this to themselves, too: neither Putin nor Assad will ever be your friend.

Nothing done from profoundly impure motives ever ends well. I have this myself on the highest authority.