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Weissman writes: "Indiana tries to defend the 'religious freedom' of conservative Christians to discriminate against same-sex couples."

Indiana governor Mike Pence. (photo: Michael Conroy/AP)
Indiana governor Mike Pence. (photo: Michael Conroy/AP)

Indiana, Russia, France: Welcome to God-Watch

By Steve Weissman, Reader Supported News

08 April 15


ndiana tries to defend the “religious freedom” of conservative Christians to discriminate against same-sex couples. Russia similarly discriminates against gays in the name of religion, while its Orthodox Christianity plays an unexpectedly large role in the country’s growing nationalism. France has a legally mandated separation of church and state, or laicité, which contrary to its stated purpose ends up promoting both Islamic radicalism and the Christian Nationalism of Marine Le Pen’s Front National.

Three different cases, each with its own history, nuances, and self-justifications. But together they highlight some of the dangers of allowing the irrationality of religious faith to dominate the world in which we live.

Selling to Sinners

In Indiana and other of the disunited States, new “religious freedom” laws have claimed to protect the individual rights of believers who see same-sex marriage as a sin against their God. Why, these “good Christians” complain, must we sell wedding cakes or flowers to the offending couples? 

As those of a certain age will recall, these right-wing Christians are following in the grand tradition of Atlanta’s ax-wielding Lester Maddox and other racial segregationists who demanded the freedom to deny black people service in bars, restaurants, hotels, and motels. Only this time the comeuppance came more swiftly, as tech industry and other corporations threatened to withdraw business from the states if discrimination were legally permitted or encouraged.

But let’s hold our hosannas. Hardline American Christians began their attack on freedom long before they made race their issue and they will find other issues beyond their homophobia, no matter that their antagonism to lesbians, gays, transgender people, and bisexuals is deep-seated and mean-spirited. They are also loony. Senator Tom Cotton thinks gays should be grateful that Indiana does not execute them. Fox News host Bill O’Reilly compares gay right activists to anti-Christian terrorists. Televangelist Pat Robertson insists they will force Christians to like anal sex and bestiality. Former Arkansas governor, preacher, and perennial presidential candidate Mike Huckabee warns that they “won’t stop until there are no more churches, until there are no more people who are spreading the Gospel.”

Poor victimized Christian wingnuts! What is their problem? Besides their rich sexual fantasies, they honestly believe that their God gives them the right – no, the divine obligation – to tell the rest of us what we can and cannot do. They have over the years used their Gospel to give a religious seal of approval to slavery, segregation, inequality, imperial war, and discrimination against women, blacks, gays, Jews, Catholics, and Muslims. They try to use the power of the state to impose their religious edicts on private lives and public space. They trample other peoples’ freedom of religion – and from religion. They override the Constitutional separation of church and state. And they constantly push the United States to become “a Christian nation.” Anything less they take as a denial of their religious freedom.

Growing up among so many of these people in the American South, I had to fight to fend off their interference, which included burning a cross on my parents’ lawn. Less than saintly myself, I often felt tempted to tell them to their face, “Take your effing religion and shove it.” But my southern manners and friendship with Christian liberals stopped me from saying any such thing.

The Gospel of Vladimir Putin

Russia has taken its Christian Nationalism to equally scary depths, though in a different way. Unlike in Indiana, the pressure for going religious does not appear to have come from the flock. While some 72% of Russians identify as Orthodox Christians, according to Pew Research no more than one-in-ten said they attend religious services at least once a month. But this obvious indifference has not stopped nationalist politicians from using religion to strengthen an autocratic state and justify its political agenda, which currently includes opposition to a woman’s right to choose abortion and discrimination against gays and homosexual marriage. Such abominations offend what Russian president Vladimir Putin has called “the traditional values which we inherited from our forefathers.”

More interesting is how Putin uses religion to legitimize his nationalist desire to bring back into his fold the 25 million ethnic Russians whom the collapse of the Soviet Union left behind in newly independent countries like Ukraine or the Baltic nations. “Millions of Russians went to sleep in one country and woke up in another,” said Putin in a speech last March. These orphans of history are a large part of why as early as February 2004 he called the dissolution of the Soviet Union “anational tragedy on a massive scale.”

This, as I argued last week, is the significance of Crimea. In a film broadcast on Russian state television, Putin proudly announced that he had sent military intelligence and elite navy marines – his little green men – into Crimea to disarm the 20,000 Ukrainian troops located there. He said that he decided to annex Crimea on February 22-23, 2014, just at the point that he helped Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych escape from the American-led coup in Kiev. “We are forced to begin the work to bring Crimea back into Russia,” he told his defense and special services chiefs.

Nothing I’ve seen contradicts any of Putin’s claims in the film, but his December address to his federal assembly puts those claims in context. “Crimea is where our people live, and the peninsula is of strategic importance for Russia as the spiritual source of the development of a multifaceted but solid Russian nation and a centralized Russian state,” he told his parliament in December. “It was in Crimea, in the ancient city of Chersonesus or Korsun, as ancient Russian chroniclers called it, that Grand Prince Vladimir was baptized before bringing Christianity to Rus.”

Crimea and Sevastopol, he declared, “have invaluable civilizational and even sacral importance for Russia, like the Temple Mount in Jerusalem for the followers of Islam and Judaism.”

Consider how tightly this fits with the decidedly non-religious warning that Putin sent to the US and its allies even before the Americans unleashed their coup against Yanukovych. His messenger was the economist Sergey Glazyev, his point man on Ukraine, who addressed the same conference in Crimea at which Bill and Hillary Clinton gave their blessing to Ukraine’s proposed integration into the European Union. This was in September 2013.

As I described a year ago, Glazyev explicitly warned the international conferees that Russia would respond with economic counter-measures, as it had already begun to do. He then told Western media that EU integration would cause separatist movements to spring up in the Russian-speaking east and south of Ukraine, and that this could cause Russia to consider voiding the bilateral treaty that delineated the borders between the two countries. Russia, he said, would be legally entitled to support the breakaway regions.

Between Glazyev’s detailed warnings and Putin’s celebration of Crimea and Sevastopol as Russia’s Temple Mount,  it is obvious that the Russian leader had long had his eye on Eastern Ukraine and the historic territory of Crimea. His foresight turned out to be strategically justified, even as it destabilized the region and added to the threat of nuclear war. Why, I wonder, do so many of Putin’s supporters in the West ignore all this and continue to deny his calculated, largely covert, and brilliantly executed intervention?

Even more perplexing is how President Obama and his allies processed Putin’s unmistakable intent. Did they fall asleep at the switch? Did they not care? Or did they consciously want to start a new Cold War? I’m still trying to document a solid answer, but the beginning of wisdom is to understand a simple fact of bureaucratic life. The decision to press ahead with a second Orange Revolution in Ukraine would almost certainly have come from the highest levels of Obama’s National Security Council, and not from neo-con underlings like Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland or the longtime president of the National Endowment of Democracy, Carl Gershman.

Baldly put, this is Obama’s Cold War, and sensible people everywhere should demand that he undo the damage before Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, or someone even more hawkish makes the conflict worse. If Obama can deal with a theocratic Iran, he can pull back from the brink with a nationalistic Russia, as John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan managed to do with the Communist-led Soviet Union. The longer Obama waits and the more he and NATO pursue the present confrontation, the more Putin’s Christian Nationalism will dominate Russia and other countries he brings into its orbit.

The Illusions of Laicité

In the days following the January massacre at Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket on the outskirts of Paris, French leaders loudly celebrated “the Republican value of laicité,” a separation of church and state far more thorough-going than in the United States. No president here would ever end a speech, à la Obama, with “God bless you, and God bless the French Republic.” 

Part of this comes from the French Constitution, which requires the state to remain “laique,” or secular. A 1905 law on the Separation of Church and State lays out how to keep the church – primarily the Catholic Church – out of the state’s business and, though less so, how to keep the state out of establishing a state religion or favoring one religion over another. The dominant culture reinforces all this, encouraging people to keep their religion in their private lives and out of the public square.

According to the ideal of laicité, the state treats all French citizens as equal, without any concern for their race or religion. In fact, no one knows with any precision how many Muslims or Jews live in France because census-takers are prohibited from asking.

The reality is less exalted. Laicité has always discriminated against newcomers, and today that primarily means Muslims. Under the 1905 law, local governments own all religious buildings, which works fine for Catholics, the vast majority of whom rarely attend the tens of thousands of churches the state maintains for them. Muslims have a problem. They must first find funding for new mosques and prayer rooms, and they have to get building permits, which few local governments are eager to grant.

This is laicité at work, and it encourages radicalization, said government minister Thierry Mandon, who is trying to deal with the problem. “There aren't enough mosques in France," he told iTele, France’s TV news channel. "There are still too many towns where the Muslim religion is practiced in conditions that are not decent."

"The more you let the Muslims of France pray in cellars and garages,” he said, “the more you hold a mirror up to discrimination that is the basis of anger and fertile ground for radicalization."

The overcrowding often causes Muslim worshippers to flow into the streets, which Marine Le Pen began protesting as far back as 2010, when she was still vice president of her father’s Front National. Likening the Muslims blocking traffic to an occupation of French territory, she signaled the new direction in which she is now leading the party. Bash Muslims. Defend France. And stand aside from the Nazis, whose Holocaust her father Jean-Marie has once again gone out of his way to minimize as merely a “detail” of history.

Laicités contribution to Marine Le Pen and the radicalization of Muslims gained strength from 2004, when President Nicolas Sarkozy’s center right and the center-left Socialists both supported a new law banning the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in French public schools. The ban included large Christian crosses, Jewish skullcaps, and Sikh turbans, but the primary targets were Muslim girls wearing traditional hijabs, or scarves. The two main Republican parties subsequently extended the bans to prohibit Muslim women from wearing in public places their fuller scarves, or nijabs, and full body and face cloaks, or burkas. Few French Muslim girls or women wore these garments, and the mainstream parties were politicizing laicité to win back voters from the Front National. Sarkozy was competing for right-wing traditionalists long attracted to Christian Nationalism and its built-in bias against Muslims. The Socialists were looking to formerly left-wing workers who blamed the Muslims and other immigrants for the country’s economic woes.

This was the nasty truth. Even as a matter of policy, denying Muslim women the right to wear what they wanted or thought religiously necessary hardly helped keep the state secular in any way that made any sense to my admittedly American mind. French Muslims had a more pointed response. They took the bans as a purposeful poke in the eye, which further radicalized a small but significant minority. Equally important, the debates over the various bans created an enormous furor, which legitimized the Front National’s Christian Nationalism with its more extensive Muslim-bashing.                               

This support for religious extremism continues, as neither of the parties shows any indication of turning away. Sarkozy has supported these and more recent anti-Muslim measures to greatly enhance his chances of regaining the presidency in 2017, while the Socialists have dug themselves so deeply into their denial of freedom that they have nowhere else to go either politically or ideologically.

Quid Pro Quo?

Remember Mediapart, the French online media group created by Edwy Plenel, the former editor-in-chief of Le Monde? Back in November, they forced Marine le Pen and her father to admit that they had accepted “loans” from politically connected Russian banks to finance their campaign expenses. The loans enabled the Front National to run candidates in last month’s local election across France, which gives Marine Le Pen a strong grass-roots organization to wage regional elections in December and her 2017 campaign for president.

Now Mediapart has added a new twist, suggesting that Putin made the money available at least in part to thank the Le Pens for supporting his annexation of Crimea. Their evidence? A hack attack by a Russian data-leaking group called Anonymous International against Timur Prokopenko, deputy chief of the Kremlin’s internal policy department and former co-president of the youth wing of Putin’s United Russia party. The hackers claim to have accessed Prokopenko’s mobile phone and email account, and to have published some 40,000 of his SMS messages on their website Shaltay Boltay, which is the Russian name for Humpty Dumpty. Some of these leaked messages refer to Marine Le Pen.

“There seems little doubt about their authenticity,” wrote Mediapart. “Nikolay Molibog, the chief executive officer of newspaper and television company RBC, has already confirmed on his Facebook page that the messages are genuine.” Molibog was apparently referring only to messages between Prokopenko and himself.

My graduate school Russia is far too rusty to probe the website or Molibog’s Facebook page for myself, but my previous experience with Mediapart leads me accept their professional judgment. Readers will have to decide for themselves.

According to Mediapart, the SMS messages about Marine Le Pen started on March 10, 2014, six days before the referendum in Crimea. Prokopenko texted “Kostia,” whom Anonymous International identified as Konstantin Rykov, a former member of parliament for Putin’s United Russia. Prokopenko asks if Kostia can get Marine Le Pen to come to Crimea as an observer of the referendum. “We really need it,” he writes. “I told my boss you were in contact with her????”

“Yes,” replies Kostia, “I’ll try and find out tomorrow.”

The following day Kostia reported that Marine was busy campaigning in local elections, but had responded positively. “Today or tomorrow the Front National will officially adopt its position on Crimea,” writes Kostia. “We’ll know then if she is prepared (which is unlikely) to come to Crimea or if one of her deputies will come.”

“Oh, That’s great,” Prokopenko replies. “We can convince them …”

“About the funding no,” Kostia interjects.

“Thanks, very much,” says Prokopenko. “The ministry of foreign affairs will discuss it with her again.”

Kostia mentioned that Florian Philippot, the FN’s vice-president was thinking about coming. But Prokopenko returned to the question of money. “Has someone from the fund contacted you about the funding?” he asks.

“Yes, the vice-minister for foreign affairs will telephone,” Kostia replies.

“We also have the support of the Danish but I can’t discuss it with them,” says Prokopenko. “I don’t speak their language.”

The referendum was held, and Aymeric Chauprade, who was at the time Le Pen’s advisor on Foreign Affairs, turned up as an observer, though apparently not officially as a representative of the Front National. The following day, March 17, the two Russians exchanged texts once again.

“Marine Le Pen has officially recognized the results of the referendum in Crimea!” says one of them, probably Kostia.

“She hasn’t disappointed us ;)” says the other.

“The French need to be thanked in one manner or another,” says the first voice. “It’s important.”

“Yes, great!” says the other.

According to Mediapart, on April 14 Marine Le Pen went on a private visit to Moscow to meet with the chairman of the parliament, Sergey Naryshkin, a close Putin ally whom she had already met in June 2013. On April 18, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s funding association Cotelec received a 2 million euro loan from an offshoot of VEB Capital, a Russian state bank subsidiary. Aymeric Chauprade helped arrange the loan, which Jean-Marie used to advance funds to the FN’s candidates to the European parliament.

Then in September Marine received a 9 million euro loan from Moscow’s First Czech Russian Bank, which she used for the local elections last month. Was this the “thanks” that Prokopenko and Kostia discussed? Marine would not answer Mediapart’s question, but she later insisted that there was no quid pro quo.

Strangely enough, I’m prepared to believe her. As I think we’ll discover in the coming months, the Christian Nationalists of France and Russia will turn out to be much closer than that.

A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he is researching a new book, "Big Money and the Corporate State: How Global Banks, Corporations, and Speculators Rule and How to Nonviolently Break Their Hold."

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