During my recent trip to Eastern Europe, I was reminded of the first time that I went abroad during the impeachment hearings for President Richard Nixon. I was traveling then on a green card. There was a problem with my green card and I was stuck in one country for an extra week. The TV played as many Westerns as possible, repeats of Kojak, and lots of propaganda. My gracious hosts were very nice, but their politics were slightly anti-American. Even though their country was communist and everyone knew there was corruption in their government, they bombarded me every day with questions prompted by their TV propaganda.
It seems that people today are more knowledgeable about international political situations because their news is no longer limited to their own country. Many people read international newspapers and many want to interact with tourists, especially Americans. In the country of Romania, the three countries that they want to visit or move to are the USA, Germany, and France. Serbians also want to live in the USA, although they feel that their best defenders are the Russians since the US bombed their capital city for many days during the Kosovo conflict. The US finally stopped bombing Belgrade when they accidentally hit the Chinese embassy.
So I was surprised when I lectured on the Reformation at Beograd University’s Political Science Department and got a question about Trump’s salvation. Based on some of Trump’s policies such as his unwillingness to accept immigrants, his language, and his immoral involvement with women, they feel that he is not saved or a Christian. It seems that many of them agree with Pope Francis who questioned Trump’s Christianity in the early part of the campaign. My answer was that people could certainly disagree with policy. Even though I agree that biblically we are evaluated by our fruits, in the final analysis, only the good Lord knows who is saved or not.
The Russians consistently play all of their political cards. Romania is a part of the European Union while Serbia is not. 80% of Serbs believe (according to a Pew Research poll) that the best defenders of their country are the Russians because they are Orthodox. The Orthodox connection is mentioned less often in Romania; while Romanians are mostly Orthodox, they are of Latin origin and thus less enamored with pan-slavism or Russian expansion. In fact, their history compels them to feel very differently about the Russians, since their expansion took over several regions of their Romania. They were Slavicized so much that they did not return to their Romanian roots when the USSR broke down after Gorbachev’s glasnost.
While historically I was always aware of the three Romes nomenclature in Orthodoxy (First Rome: the Roman Catholic Church is heretical, Second Rome: the Constantinopolitan Patriarchate is enslaved by the Moslems, Third Rome: Moscow is free), I was not aware of how active that position is today. Orthodox believers are attacking the immorality of the West like never before, but they also agree that their countries have more corrupt politicians than the rest of the world. Many of their politicians desire a political career because they see it as means of getting rich and when they are in the office, they engage in corrupt practices. Therefore, when the political parties change over, many of them land in jail for corruption.
What pleasantly surprised me is that, while many people have been criticizing the United States, it seems that they are criticizing us because they idealize us. They hope that there is a country in the world where things are different, better, moral. They hold us up as an example and in a way, they mourn for their envisioned example. They feel that if we cannot be a moral, exemplary country in our politics, economics, and education, no country can. I took the compliment but, as an historian, I knew that the reality is very different.