The war in Ukraine has put the spotlight on the small number of U.S. extremists who continue to support Russian President Vladimir Putin, despite his brutal invasion and sponsorship of war crimes. As I noted in the most recent issue of Church & State, many of Putin’s American fans are Christian nationalists who believe the Russian strongman is a kind of bulwark against the secular, pro-LGBTQ policies of many Western nations.
In a recent column, Melani McAlister, professor of American Studies and International Affairs at George Washington University, writes, “A significant subset of the U.S. evangelical community, particularly white conservatives, has been developing a political and emotional alliance with Russia for almost 20 years.”
In 2015, evangelist Franklin Graham, McAlister writes, “famously visited Moscow, where he had a warm meeting with Putin.” Graham later praised Putin’s support for the Russian Orthodox Church, contrasting his “positive changes” with the so-called “atheistic secularism” of America.
The irony, of course, is that during the Soviet era, U.S. evangelicals viewed the USSR as the font of atheism and evil. Some evangelicals looked for ways to proselytize in the USSR and its satellite states despite their hostility toward faith, and, after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, evangelists began pouring into the East Bloc.
Within the space of a few years, Russia went from being evangelicals’ nightmare state to a kind of model society. As McAlister notes, Graham and other Christian nationalists swooned over Putin’s advocacy of a repressive “gay propaganda” law that’s so strict that even displaying a Pride flag can get you in trouble.
McAlister notes that Graham has stated he doesn’t support Russia’s invasion, and she notes that Christian nationalists’ alliance with Putin is being tested by the war. Perhaps. But I have noticed that Christian nationalist groups were slow to condemn the war, and even now their focus is using the conflict as a vehicle to undermine President Joe Biden, not addressing the suffering of the Ukrainian people.
In short, the Religious Right’s romance with Putin may not be over just yet.