MOSCOW (ChurchMilitant.com) - Voters in Russia have approved constitutional amendments to ban same-sex "marriage" and to declare "a belief in God" a core national value.
Russia's Central Election Commission reported 78% of voters across the world's largest country supported changing the constitution. Just over 21% voted against. Turnout was recorded at 65%.
For the first time, Russian voters had seven days to cast their ballots. The week-long time frame ending on July 1 was implemented to boost voter turnout, given the complications of holding an election during the pandemic.
The Russian referendum also included a critical mechanism that would allow Putin, whose term ends in 2024, to run for president again, potentially enabling the 67-year-old leader to remain in power until 2036.
The constitutional amendments were also padded with other critical miscellanies, including guaranteed minimum pensions and the primacy of Russian law over international norms.
The results come despite strong pushback from LGBT activists in the West.
The United States, Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand issued a joint statement calling on Russia to "adhere to its stated commitment to protecting the rights of all citizens, including the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community."
Putin allies are accusing Canada, in particular, of trying to interfere in the election, after Canada's ambassador to Russia Alison LeClaire warned that the amendments, if approved, would lead to "less inclusive" conditions for Russian homosexuals.
One Putin ally responded to LeClaire's statement by saying, "She will burn in hell." Another suggested she be removed from her post for meddling in the election.
In February, Putin ruled out legalizing same-sex "marriage," saying that as long as he is in power, "there will be dad and mum." Just 14% of Russians believe homosexuality should be accepted by society, one of the lowest rates in the world.
Though many faithful are applauding the advancement of these particular Christian ideals in Russia, others are more cautious, viewing the changes as a cynical ploy by Putin to cozy up to the Church to empower himself.
According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom's 2020 annual report, for example, "Religious freedom conditions in Russia deteriorated [during 2019]. The government continued to target 'nontraditional' religious minorities with fines, detentions and criminal charges under the pretext of combating extremism."
While 68% of the Russian people identify as Russian Orthodox Christian, religious minorities include Muslims (comprising 7%) and Catholics, Protestants, Jehovah's Witnesses, Buddhists, Jews and Baha'is (collectively comprising 25%).
According to the Commission's 2017 report,
Over time, the Russian government has come to treat the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church as a de facto State church, strongly favoring it in various areas of State sponsorship, including subsidies, the education system and military chaplaincies. This favoritism has fostered a climate of hostility toward other religions.
And while the percentage of Russians who identify as Orthodox has risen sharply since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, for most, this hasn't yet translated into true conversion.
According to the author of A Sacred Space is Never Empty: A History of Soviet Atheism Victoria Smolkin, Orthodox Christianity lends Russia a "moral legitimacy" that can harken back to a "millennial pedigree."
Putin can showcase Orthodoxy as the State religion, Smolkin argues, but the reality of Russian life "is just as damning for Orthodoxy's official status as it had been for Soviet atheism."
Russians are "largely unchurched," she points out, with only 6% attending church weekly and only 17% praying daily.
They often don't conform to the doctrines of the Orthodox Church — the rate of abortion in Russia is more than double that of the United States, while attitudes toward divorce and premarital sex remain lax.
Still, many are hailing July 1, 2020 as the day when the world's largest nation enshrined traditional Christian values in its Constitution — and extended Putin's power.