President Donald Trump’s July 16 joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin has left political observers breathless. They’re running out of adjectives to describe it. (“Treasonous” seems to be a favorite.)
Appearing with Putin after the two leaders held a summit in Helsinki, Trump turned his back on reports from the FBI, CIA and other agencies that have concluded that the Russians interfered in the 2016 U.S. elections. Instead, Trump backed Putin, who insists nothing happened. (Trump’s now attempting to walk it all back, but it’s not very persuasive.)
While political observers are in shock – and even some Republicans seem willing to admit that this time Trump went too far, his allies in the Religious Right aren’t troubled by the president’s latest sellout to the former KGB autocrat. Many are continuing to applaud him.
Part of the reason is simple: Trump is delivering for the Religious Right. He has come through for the movement in many ways, especially when it comes to courts. The nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court is another potential win for budding theocrats.
But there may be a deeper reason as well: Like Trump, leaders and followers of the Religious Right admire Putin and the country he is building. They want the United States to be more like Russia.
When it comes to religion and the interaction between church and state, Putin’s Russia is far removed from the official atheism of the Soviet era. Under Putin, the Russian Orthodox Church has assumed a prominent position, both culturally and politically, and the “traditional values” that church leaders champion are becoming government policy. In many ways, modern Russia is the Religious Right’s ideal society.
Consider the following:
* LGBTQ rights are under attack in Russia. A 2013 law that aims to ban the dissemination of “gay propaganda” to minors has been used to squelch public gatherings of gay people and detain gay-rights activists. Hate crimes against members of the LGBTQ community are soaring. Even health-related websites have been shut down. The mere act of dispalying a rainbow flag can get you in trouble.
* Religion classes are mandatory in Russian public schools. A 2012 law requires that Russian public schools teach a course called “Fundamentals of Religion” to elementary and secondary school students. Although the courses are offered in four religions – Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism – with an ethics course being offered as well, critics have charged that many schools are steeped in Orthodoxy. In addition, creationism is on the upswing. In 2010, an official with the Orthodox Church called for an end to the “monopoly of Darwinism” in Russian schools.
* Women’s rights are in a steady retreat in Russia. Last year, legislators in effect decriminalized many forms of domestic abuse. Orthodox Church officials are pressing for women to remain confined to “traditional” gender roles. Some observers believe Putin will bow to pressure from church officials and curb legal abortion.
* Russia does not respect freedom of conscience. Certain religions are banned there. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has labeled Russia a “country of particular concern” for its violations of religious freedom.
* Freedom of press in Russia is rapidly disappearing.
The Religious Right’s love affair with Putin’s Russia is hardly a secret. Several writers have examined it. Russian operatives are eager to exploit the connection. Maria Butina, a Russian national who was arrested on Monday and charged with conspiracy and being an agent for the Russian government, sought to make inroads to U.S. conservative groups and attended the National Prayer Breakfast for at least two years running.
Most Americans have no trouble viewing Russia as what it is: a dangerous rogue state headed by a dictator, a place where human rights are crushed and freedom does not prosper. When Trump and the Religious Right look at Russia, they see something quite different: a model for the United States.