Russian tank rolls through Georgian region of South Ossetia, 10 August 2008/Vasily FedosenkoRecognising when religion plays a part in a military conflict can be a tricky business. Its role can easily be overemphasized, underplayed or misunderstood. Having covered several such conflicts myself, I was curious when I saw Ted Olsen’s post at Christianty Today about how John McCain stresses Georgia’s Christian heritage when talking about its conflict with Russia. When Russian forces rolled into Georgia in support of pro-Moscow separatists there,  McCain’s reaction statement noted that Georgia was “one of the world’s first nations to adopt Christianity as an official religion.” In his televised discussion with leading evangelical pastor Rick Warren on Saturday, he said “the king of then Georgia in the third century converted to Christianity. You go to Georgia and you see these old churches that go back to the fourth and fifth century.”

John McCain and Rick Warren, 17 August 2008/Mark AveryHistory is fascinating but McCain’s use of it here begs the question whether there is an actual faith factor in this conflict or just in his presentation of it. Russia, after all, is also a traditionally Christian nation, but he made no mention of that. After the fall of communism there, the Russian Orthodox Church has resumed its traditional role there — as has the Georgian Orthodox Church in the Caucasian republic after state-sponsored atheism lost out there too. There are no obvious doctrinal disputes that divide them.

Church-to-church relations also seem reasonable. According to the Russian news agency Interfax, senior officials of the two churches spoke by telephone last week and “declared their common peacemaking position and readiness to cooperate in this field.” Patriarchs of both churches have called for a ceasefire and condemned the violence among fellow Christians. “Orthodox Christians are among those who have raised their hands against each other. Orthodox peoples called by the Lord to live in fraternity and love confront each other,” Russia’s Primate Alexiy II said. “What is most important (is that) we (are) united with Christian faith and must live peacefully without blood,” Georgian Catholicos Patriarch Ilia II said.

Georgian Patriarch Ilia II (r) speaks with Russian Major General  Vyacheslav Borisov in Gori, Georgia, 15 August 2008/Gleb GaranichSince Orthodox churches are organised nationally, each side naturally reflects in some way its own country’s political view of the crisis. But even in his protest letter to Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, Ilia’s only reference to religion was his lament that Orthodox were killing each other.

Other religious authorities — Pope Benedict after an Angelus prayer and the World Council of Churches and Conference of European Churches in a joint statement — have also mentioned the two countries’ common Christian heritage in their calls for a ceasefire but not implied it played any role in the conflict.