Over at Via Meadia, Walter Russell Mead has an insightful post on the issues of religious identity that surround Greece’s possible exit from the eurozone. One often hears Europe described, sometimes disparagingly, as a Christian club. That’s certainly how Muslim Turks see it. But it may be more correct to see Europe as a Western Christian, as opposed to an Eastern Christian, entity. Of the 17 eurozone members, only two, Greece and Cyprus, are historically Orthodox. Greece is on the brink of ruin, and Cyprus’s economic fortunes are closely tied to Greece’s. Many Greeks feel intensely bitter about the way other European countries have treated it and do not seem to care too much about remaining in the eurozone. Many other Europeans apparently feel the same way about Greece. If Greece does exit the eurozone, Mead predicts, it will find solidarity in a relationship with a similarly alienated Orthodox country, Russia. Mead explains why:
Americans often don’t “get” the Russia-Greek connection. In Ottoman times, Orthodox Russia was the protector of Orthodox Christians in the great Islamic empire and frequently used its diplomatic clout to defend the rights of its co-religionists. Greece looked to Russia as a reliable ally during much of the troubled period after modern Greece gained independence from the Turks.
The feeling is reciprocal. Russia received the gospel from Greek Christians. The Russian tsars married into the Byzantine royal house; the word tsar (or czar) is the Russian form of Caesar, indicating the strong Russian sense that Orthodox Moscow, after the fall of Constantinople, was the “Third Rome.” Much of modern Russian identity and sense of a unique place in the world is wrapped up in its civilizational connection with Byzantine culture and religion.
Mount Athos, the center of Orthodox monasticism and the spiritual heart of Greece, looms large in Russia. No less a person than President Vladimir Putin has made pilgrimages to this site.
In the 1990s, the late Samuel Huntington wrote a controversial book, The Clash of Civilizations, which discussed, among other things, the Orthodox/Western fault line that runs through Eastern Europe. At the time, Huntington’s work was dismissed as reductive, even offensive, particularly by some Orthodox, who resented the suggestion that they weren’t fully part of Western culture. Shared religious identity really does matter, however, and Huntington was surely on to something, as Mead’s analysis of the present situation demonstrates.