Why Political Leaders, From Vladimir Putin to Donald Trump, are Claiming the Mantle of Religion

Nina L. Khrushcheva at Project Syndicate: One might argue that there is nothing unusual or even particularly problematic about invoking faith to comfort or motivate people in times of crisis; even Stalin embraced the Orthodox Church during World War II: people would be more likely to support the fight if they believed that God was on their side. By contrast, Putin uses religion to justify the creation or aggravation of crises.

Putin is not alone nowadays. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for example, declared earlier this year that he has “completely dedicated” himself to God, who sent him “for a purpose.” Though Modi’s cult of personality failed to deliver a majority to his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party in the recent general election – India’s democracy has not fully gone the way of Russia’s – he remains the world’s most popular elected leader.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – another autocrat in democratic clothing – has used religion in a similar way, such as in 2020, when he declared Istanbul’s iconic Byzantine basilica, Hagia Sophia, a mosque. Some of his acolytes now claim that he was “sent by Allah” as a hope for Muslims. Since Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party suffered a rare electoral defeat in April, Erdoğan has doubled down on religion, such as by pushing through changes to school curricula to emphasize religious studies and promote “national values.”

Then there is Donald Trump, the “orange Jesus” of America’s radical right. Trump might not know any Bible verses, but he does know how to stoke religious fervor to unite his base. And for Trump’s supporters, no claim is too bizarre. In 2021, for example, hundreds of Trump-loving conspiracy theorists gathered in Dallas, Texas, for the second coming not of Jesus, but of John F. Kennedy, Jr., who they believed would become vice president when Trump was inexplicably reinstated as president.

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