April 2022 Church & State Magazine

To Russia, With Love: Christian Nationalists’ Have A History Of Backing Putin’s ‘Pro-Family’ Agenda

  Rob Boston

As the eyes of the world focused on Ukraine in February, where a beleaguered pop­ulation is valiantly defending its nation from a brutal Russian assault, Americans across the political spectrum rallied around the Ukrainian people and the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky.

But in Arizona, a state senator had a different view of things.

Speaking to the America First Political Action Conference in Orlando Feb. 25, Sen. Wendy Rogers (R-Coconino) celebrated the actions of Vladimir Putin, Russia’s autocratic president, and called for more tanks to roll over Ukraine.

AZ Mirror, a state-based news website, reported that Rogers “also raised eyebrows with inflammatory social media posts about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, some of which included well-established antisemitic tropes. She said Zelensky, who has become the global face of resistance to Putin’s invasion, ‘is a globalist puppet’ for George Soros and the Clintons. She added that he, French President Emmanuel Macron, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ar­dern and Canadian Prime Minister Jus­tin Trudeau ‘all report to the same Satanic masters.’”

Rogers tweeted, “I stand with the Christians worldwide not the global bankers who are shoving godlessness and degeneracy in our face.”

Rogers wasn’t the only one egging on Putin. Andrew Torba, CEO of Gab, a social media site popular in conservative circles, tweeted, “Putin is brilliant” and added, “I hope the Globalist American Empire gets humiliated from all angles. Ukraine needs to be liberated & cleansed from the degeneracy of the secular western globalist empire.”

An echo of these extreme statements even reached the halls of the U.S. Congress, where U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.), a champion of Christian nationalism, told attendees at a townhall meeting, “Remember that Zelensky is a thug. Remember that the Ukrainian government is incredibly corrupt and is incredibly evil and has been pushing woke ideologies.”

While most Americans have no problem seeing Putin as the villain in this situation, a stubborn remnant of extreme Christian nationalists insists on looking at the Russian dictator as a champion of the Christian faith, a man who stands firm against the decadent, secular, LGBTQ-friendly policies of the West.

“White evangelicals once saw Russia as an existential threat to traditional gender roles and sexual morality, but over the past three decades, they have forged a partnership in a global family values movement that not only embraces sexual and gender traditionalism but sees these practices as a solution to demographic changes around the globe,” wrote Bethany Moreton, a professor of history at Dartmouth College and author of the forthcoming book Slouching Towards Moscow: American Conservatives and the Romance of Russia, in a recent Washington Post opinion column.

On the surface, many Christian nationalist groups are talking tough about Putin. But as is often the case with Christian nationalism, what may at first glance look reasonable is just a cover for rot underneath. Some of these organizations, specifically the Family Research Council (FRC) and the American Family Association (AFA), don’t care about the suffering of the Ukrainian people; their main goal is to use the horrific war for political ends, hoping to hobble President Joe Biden by portraying him as weak and assailing him over the high gas prices that followed in the wake of the invasion.

In a March 9 column, FRC President Tony Perkins asserted that Biden is using Putin as a “scapegoat” for failed energy policies and added, “For Joe Biden, who’s been desperate to offload his share of the blame for this global catastrophe, the Russian warmonger has been a convenient option.”

The AFA, meanwhile, warned Am­ericans that “the fossil-fuels hating White House” is using the Ukraine crisis to attack drivers’ fondness for SUVs.

The irony is, at the same time these org­anizations are assailing Putin, they’re being less than forth­right about their ongoing associations with his corrupt and dangerous regime.

The fact is, many U.S. Christian nationalist organizations have ties to Russia through an entity called the World Congress of Families (WCF), an international nonprofit founded in 1997 by Allan Carlson, a paleo-conservative and president of a Rockford, Ill.-based organization called the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society. Over the years, WCF, which claims to promote “pro-family” policies worldwide, built bridges to some of America’s Christian nationalist groups – all while holding Russian social policy up as a model.

In 2015, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), an LGBTQ-rights organization, produced a major report on WCF and its ties to American Religious Right groups. The report notes that WCF has partnered with “some of the largest and most influential conservative groups in America and in the West – including Focus on the Family, Alliance Defending Freedom, American Family Association, Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America and National Right to Life Committee.”

Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow for policy studies at FRC, participated in WCF’s conference in Moldova in 2018, and, according to WCF’s most recent list of partners online, Alliance Defending Freedom and the Home School Legal Defense Fund are supporters, as well as a host of smaller U.S. Religious Right organizations.

The relationship cuts both ways, and WCF staffers have surfaced at Chrisian nationalist gatherings. During the 2008 Values Voter Summit, a major Religious Right confab sponsored annually in Washington, D.C., by FRC and its allies, Don Feder, a former right-wing newspaper columnist who now does communications work for WCF, gave a speech on one of his favorite topics: “demographic winter,” a term WCF uses to bemoan declining birth rates in many European countries.

Feder criticized the use of birth control and pined for the days when the average woman had six children.

“Remember when births weren’t controlled, and pregnancies weren’t planned?” Feder asked. “You married and you had children.” (WCF, however, wants only certain kinds of people – whites – to produce more children. The group has been accused of being xenophobic and anti-immigrant.)

WCF’s ties to Russia are longstanding. Indeed, the organization is little more than a front for repressive social policies that have become popular in that nation since the fall of the Soviet Union. WCF was founded after Carlson met in 1995 with Russian scholars who were convinced that birth control, homosexuality and feminism were threatening families, a view often peddled by religious extremists in America. The Howard Center’s aim, according to its publication, The Family in America, was “to restore the child-rich, married-parent family as the cornerstone of American society.”

While some U.S. Religious Right groups have criticized Putin’s military actions, they remain tied to WCF. At least two U.S. Religious Right organizations – the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) and Americans Uni­ted for Life, an anti-abortion group – participated in WCF’s 2019 conference in Verona, Italy. Indeed, Brian Brown, president of NOM, also serves as president of the International Organization for the Family, the entity that sponsors WCF.

The HRC report singled out WCF’s close relationship with Putin, the Russian government and clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church–ties that several scholars have pointed out since the invasion.

“Its staff members and representatives have established close links with Russian President Vladimir Putin and anti-LGBT extremists in Africa,” observes the report. “WCF has been most active in Russia, where the group is supported by billionaire oligarchs and extremist members of the Russian Orthodox Church. It works closely with members of the Russian government and the Putin regime and has encouraged the passage of anti-LGBT laws in Russia, most notably the 2013 ban on ‘gay propaganda.’”

WCF staff members, the report noted, have repeatedly praised Putin. HRC pointed out that Feder has called Putin “a power player who cares more about Russia’s national interests, and Russian minorities in his near abroad (smaller countries around Russia that were formerly part of the Soviet Union), than in that mythical force known as world opinion.”

In 2012, WCF Managing Director Larry Jacobs wrote that Putin “is the one defending laws and morality consistent with the freedom in the U.S. Constitution.”

Christian nationalists’ connections to Russia and Putin shouldn’t surprise anyone. In many ways, modern Russia, which is busy combining church and state, is their ideal society.

LGBTQ rights have taken perhaps the strongest hit. A 2013 Russian law that aims to ban the dissemination of “gay propaganda” to minors has been used to squelch Pride events and detain gay-rights activists. The law has been invoked to shut down even health-related websites. Same-sex marriage is illegal, and same-sex couples may not adopt children; the mere act of displaying a rainbow flag can get you in trouble. Hate crimes against members of the LGBTQ community are soaring.

LGBTQ activists in Ukraine fear that their rights will be squelched if Russia takes over their country.

“In Russia, LGBTQ people are persecuted,” an 18-year-old student who was identified by the name Iulia told CBS News in late February. “If we imagine that Russia occupies all of the Ukraine or just a big part of the country, they won’t allow us to exist peacefully and to fight for our rights as we are able to do that in Ukraine right now.”

Edward Reese, an LGBTQ rights activist in Kyiv, added, “Ukraine is a European country. We have a 10-year history of Pride marches, and as you know, in Russia, the situation is like opposite. We have totally different paths. … We see the changes in people’s thoughts about human rights, LGBTQ, feminism and so on. … So, definitely, we don’t want anything connected to Russia … and we won’t have them.”

Aside from Russia’s rabid anti-LGBTQ views, the nation has been moving to make religion classes mandatory in Russian public schools; many of these classes are steeped in Orthodoxy.

The classes are supposed to be about Russia’s historic and cultural ties to the Orthodox Church, and they’re to include discussion of other faiths that exist in the country, such as Islam, Judaism and other versions of Christianity. But critics charge that the classes are clearly proselytizing in nature.

In 2007, The New York Times wrote a story about the classes and noted that while their content varied from region to region, Orthodoxy tended to dominate. The story quoted a teacher in Kolomna, a city of about 140,000 residents in western Russia, who told her class that Jesus died for their sins, adding, “Faith in God is as important for every human as the root for a tree. But our tree unfortunately has died just like a human soul can die without doing good. This is what happens to people who do not do good things and do not follow God’s laws.”

The presence of the classes alarmed 10 prominent Russian scientists, among them two Nobel Prize winners, who sent a letter to Putin speaking out against what they called the “growing clericalization” of Russian society, The Times reported.

Women’s rights are also under assault in Russia. Although the country’s 1993 constitution guarantees equal rights for women, in recent years Orthodox leaders have been pushing for women to return to “traditional” roles.

In 2017 the Duma, Russia’s parliament, passed a law that effectively decriminalized domestic violence. Since then, new restrictions on abortion have been proposed.

In a 2018 article in Foreign Policy magazine titled “Putin’s War on Women,” Amie Ferris-Rotman, the pub­lication’s Moscow correspondent, wrote, “Of course, Putin, backed by the resurgent Russian Orthodox Church, has made his country more conservative in numerous ways. Under this new patriarchal order, gender stereotypes are thriving, according to Oksana Pushkina, a lawmaker with the ruling United Russia party. Describing current attitudes, Pushkina, who heads the Russian parliament’s committee on family, women and children, says, ‘Men must be masculine and strong, and women should be feminine mothers.’ Such social mores, she says, represent a ‘massive impediment in the development of women’s rights … and completely [hold] back the strength and position of Russian women in society.’”

Religious freedom is also curtailed in Russia. The country’s constitution recognizes four faiths – Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism – as the country’s “traditional” religions. But it also recognizes a special role for the Russian Orthodox Church, and religion in general is endorsed in the Russian Constitution, which was amend­ed in 2020 to recognize “ideals and faith in God” as historically important.

A 2020 report by the U.S. State Department found that “Religious groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported [that] authorities continued to investigate, detain, imprison, torture, and/or physically abuse persons or seize their property because of their religious faith, including members of groups the government classified as extremist and banned, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses” and certain Muslim organizations.

Finally, freedom of the press is under sustained attack in Russia. Laws passed in 2014 and 2019 control what bloggers can write and limit use of the internet. A former radio journalist in Moscow told Voice of America in 2020, “There is little critical reporting toward Putin’s system. And many Moscow-based media are also under control [of the state].”

The cozy relationship between church and state cuts both ways, and Putin can rely on top church leaders to bless his actions. Last month, Patriarch Kirill, head of the Orthodox Church in Russia, justified the invasion by labeling it a backlash to gay pride parades that have been held in Ukraine and elsewhere.

Kirill asserted that pro-Russia separatists in Ukraine were motivated by a “fundamental rejection of the so-called values that are offered today by those who claim world power.” He added that unnamed liberal forces are supposedly demanding a “test for the loyalty” for countries by insisting that they sponsor “gay parades.”

How did Russia arrive at this place? For decades, Soviet-imposed atheism suppressed or controlled religion in the USSR. The collapse of the Soviet system in 1991 led to a resurgence of the Russian Orthodox Church, the leadership of which is now closely aligned with Putin. U.S. Christian evangelists began flooding the country shortly afterwards, where they built ties to Orthodox leaders over shared values such as opposition to LGBTQ rights and feminism.

Since the invasion of Ukraine, several writers have examined how U.S. Christian nationalists helped shape the Russia we’re dealing with today, and how they promoted social conservatism in the country.

Writing for “Religion Dispatches,” historian Katherine Kelaidis noted that many conservative evangelicals became enamored of Putin’s Russia due to the resurgence of the Russian Orthodox Church under his rule. While American society was moving toward a more LGBTQ-friendly stance, Orthodox leaders in Russia moved in the opposite direction, staking out anti-LGBTQ positions so fierce they filled America’s Christian nationalists with delight.

“Taking a page right out of the playbook of the Moral Majority, the Russian Orthodox Church has positioned itself as the leader of the conservative/traditionalist position, not only in Russia, but around the world,” Kelaidis wrote. “Putin’s speech [Feb. 28] made clear that Russia doesn’t see itself as challenging the West and its values; rather, Putin’s Russia is positioning itself as the last and rightful guardian of what the West once was and what it ought to be again, a Christian culture centered around family, faith, and ‘traditional values’ that have been abandoned in the face of secular modernity.”

Ties between the U.S. Religious Right and extreme “pro-family” activists have been growing for years. In 2017, writer Casey Michel penned a piece for Politico explaining how under Putin, Russia began “forging a new role for itself at the helm of the global Christian right.”

“[A]merican fundamentalists bent on unwinding minority protections in the U.S. have increasingly leaned on Russia for support – and for a model they’d bring to bear back home, from targeting LGBT communities to undoing abortion rights throughout the country,” Michel wrote.

These ties were more pronounced during the presidency of Donald Trump, who viewed Putin as an ally and even seemed to admire his strongman rule. During Trump’s presidency, Christian nationalists tripped over themselves to make excuses for Trump every time he kowtowed to Putin, most notably during the infamous 2018 “Surrender Summit” in Helsinki. They dismissed allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election. When Maria Butina, a Russian operative, infiltrated conservative groups and the National Prayer Breakfast, they yawned.

Christian nationalists in America may claim to stand with Ukraine, but their past actions and goals for America align them more closely with Putin’s vision.

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