Friday, March 25, 2011

Our Lady of Kazan and American Pluralism

The icon of Our Lady of Kazan (also known as the Black Virgin of Kazan) is one of the most famous in Russian Orthodoxy. One of the Virgin’s two feast days coincides with the Day of National Unity. This is appropriate. Kazan occupies an important place in Russian history. Its conquest and destruction in 1552 eliminated the last stronghold of Mongol power in what since then has been southern Russia. The Mongols of that region, descended from the mighty Golden Horde, had long before converted to Islam. Thus the conquest of Kazan (which was followed by a massacre of its civilian population) is also a highly symbolic marker of the conflict between Orthodox Christianity and Islam, which still reverberates today along the southern perimeter of the former Soviet Union. The association of the Virgin with national unity is symbolic as well. It evokes the so-called sinfonia—the close unity of church and state—which characterized Russia from the beginning of its national history to the Bolshevik revolution. It would be an exaggeration to say that the Putin regime has once again established Orthodoxy as the state religion, but it has come close to doing so. Thus Our Lady of Kazan again bestows legitimacy on the Russian state, including its foreign policy, which has been supported by the Patriarchate of Moscow. The state in turn has supported the policy of the Patriarchate to re-assert its authority over previously independent Russian Orthodox churches abroad. The long shadow of the Black Virgin has extended to America.

According to the Atlas of Global Christianity (a very useful source, edited by Todd Johnson and Kenneth Ross, and published in 2009), there are 6,200,000 Orthodox Christians in the United States. This figure has been challenged. If it holds, the number of Orthodox is more than Episcopalians, still regarded in the media and public awareness as an important denomination, and roughly comparable to the number of Jews, whose cultural influence has been enormously larger. (Can one imagine speaking of the role of Orthodox Christians in Hollywood? Or in American humor?) Despite its place in the religious demography of America, Orthodoxy is still widely perceived as marginal and exotic. I don’t know just when Orthodox priests, with their black robes and elongated black hats, first appeared with Protestant, Catholic and Jewish clergy at important national ceremonies such as presidential inaugurations. But it would be a mistake to deduce from this some great political or cultural influence.

The explanation of this paradox is simple. It is what one may call the ethnic captivity of Orthodox Christianity in America.
Read the rest here.

1 comment:

Ingemar said...

I had a long reply prepared, but Blogger crapped out and it was never sent. I'll just try to remember the major parts.

1). Americans who want Orthodoxy to grow here often forget that there was usually an undeniably top-down effort to do so (St. Boris of Bulgaria, St. Vladimir of Kiev.... in fact, let's also throw in Emperors Constantine and Theodosius). I don't see Obama becoming baptized Orthodox any time soon and even if he did I doubt he'd violate religious freedom in order to "baptize" America.

2). I've had a very skeptical eye on Orthodoxy in Russia. I feel that the clergy are trying too hard to be in the good graces of the RusGov. Nevertheless if Russia is trying to become a genuinely Orthodox state that may be an important departure of the trend of eradicating the Christian confessional state in Europe.