Surrounded by Mormons

Mitt Romney. Source: ABCWhile nearly half of the active American electorate voted for a Mormon for president earlier this week, the Church of Latter Day Saints has not enjoyed such a warm reception in Russia as of late. Activists from the ruling party’s youth group held a protest on November 1 accusing Mormons of pursuing “anti-Russian interests” and told them to fly back “home” to Washington. In this column for, religious historian Boris Falikov talks about how this sudden burst of ire has far more to do with the Russian Orthodox Church’s own political problems than any actual threat.

Surrounded by Mormons
By Boris Falikov
November 6, 2012

Not long ago, Vladimir Putin dropped a few words about the need to perfect control over totalitarian sects. This happened at a meeting with representatives from the Samarskaya region. One of those present complained to the president that these sects have broken loose entirely and that something needed to be done about them. Putin agreed that it was a problem and promised to deal with it on the federal level – stipulating, incidentally, that it was a subtle matter, since it dealt with freedom of religion.

The Public Chamber took up the president’s remarks. A list had to be drawn up immediately of the ringleaders of these sects and turned over to the security services. At the same time, dubious religious organizations needed to be checked for signs of totalitarianism.

And Young Guard, which brings together all of United Russia’s young supporters, decided not to waste any time and went straight to work. And now in Moscow and other Russian cities we already have pickets against Mormons, telling them to go back to their historical homeland in the US. Especially since they’re not only a totalitarian sect, but also CIA agents. What is it that’s behind this surge in the war on the “sectarian threat?”

This war didn’t start yesterday. After the demise of the atheistic regime in Russia, missionaries and evangelicals of every imaginable persuasion poured in from all over the world. The Russian Orthodox Church, which has always insisted on its special position in the country, did not like this. Neither did this boundless pluralism suit the state, which wanted to bring order to the religious sphere in one fell swoop. As a result, Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism were officially declared to be traditional religions, and the rest were asked to stand aside.

That might’ve been all, but the Russian Orthodox Church thought that was too little. To try and win over people’s souls by strictly religious means is a long, laborious process. It’s much easier just to declare your competitors to be enemies of society and call on the government for help. So now we have this concept of “totalitarian sects.” This has turned out to be quite a boon. For believers, a sect is a mob of heretics; for secularists, it’s a group of intolerable fanatics. It’s true that the word also has a scientific meaning used by religious sociologists. But this meaning is entirely destroyed with the added epithet of “totalitarian.” As a result, it has become a label that can be thrown at competitors to accuse them of antisocial behavior.

This label is used widely by the anti-sect battle squads formed in the depths of the Russian Orthodox Church. It’s easy to slap onto practically any religion or confession, since it was never scientifically specific.

As far as I can recall, the only things have been declared totalitarian sects are new religious movements and Protestant denominations that had success with their missionary efforts and formed competition for the Russian Orthodox Church.

Of all non-titular faiths, Catholics have managed to avoid this fate. But who knows – it if wasn’t for the warm relationship between the Russian patriarch and the Vatican, maybe the Pope would also turn out to be the leader of a totalitarian sect.

This state of affairs suits the security agencies quite well. They don’t need to break their skulls over who’s a threat to society and who’s not. They’ll always have the list of “usual suspects” drawn up by the Orthodox anti-sect fighters. Among all those distinguished is also the well-staffed expert council on the Judicial Ministry. But what good does all this do for society?

We all know well that religion is not always a blessing. Sometimes it’s a risky entity, and not only because religious radicalism is on the rise all over the world, Russia no exception. What are totalitarian sects most commonly accused of? That their charismatic leaders subjugate their disciples and twist them into knots. That is to say, they don’t so much help them find God as draw them into a blind faith in the leaders themselves. But there’s no reason to believe that misuse of spiritual authority and turning it into cruel authoritarianism is a problem that only comes from new religions. It’s a common misfortune that not even the most respectable religions can guarantee against.

But when eloquent preachers pontificate about the coming end of the world and frighten the public, then it’s not remotely important which religion is spreading the panic. The damage is the same.

Or take child-rearing. Sectarians, as a rule, are accused of crippling children, robbing them of joys of youth. But if we remember the orphanages of several certain Orthodox monasteries, such as Bogolyubsky, then it becomes clear that these foster children don’t exactly have it any better. The children of devout believers run into identical problems, and they have nothing to do with what exactly their parents believe in. Neither are there confessional boundaries when it comes to the abuse of property. Those victims can be from any religion. What needs to be determined is whether they gave their property to a religious organization voluntarily or were forced into it by dishonest tricksters.

Law enforcement agencies should address these problems by relying on our civil and criminal codes. Making lists of leaders of nontraditional religious organizations and checking them for secret signs of totalitarianism isn’t going to help. More likely, it’s going to be a hindrance, since it replaces a concrete war against violations of the law with a war on ideologies. Aside from the fact that they’d be undercutting the principle of citizen equality before the law, regardless of religious conviction. However, this is the path that the authorities prefer to take. Sure, there isn’t much benefit to society from any of this, but there is to the government, and it’s not insignificant.

The fact of the matter is that a timely witch hunt is a tried and true method of drawing public attention away from urgent political and economic problems that the Kremlin doesn’t have the strength to fix. A few words tossed around by the president at a meeting in Novo-Ogaryovo elicited an immediate response from the Public Chamber. And the loyal Young Guards are already striking against a totalitarian sect whose roots extend across the ocean. The fact that a Mormon has a decent chance of becoming president of the United States underlines the significance of the threat. The enemy is great and terrible – it’s obvious why nothing in this country works out.

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