Will the Christian Right’s love affair with Putin be wrecked by his invasion of Ukraine?

By Bill Berkowitz | 10 March 2022
Daily Kos

(Credit: YouTube / screengrab)

Over the past few decades, America’s Christian Right has viewed Russia’s Vladimir Putin as a culture war ally; a defender of the faith. Republican Party officials, right-wing television talk show hosts and conservative Christian evangelicals have been enthralled by Putin’s anti-gay initiatives, his authoritarianism (being a “strong” leader), and his lovey-dovey relationship with former president Donald Trump.

“The question of the American right’s support for Putin and Russia is a complex, many-layered issue,” Devin Burghart, president of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, told Al Jazeera. “There is an attraction to Putin’s hardline authoritarian stance and his aggressive foreign policy. Others are attracted to the brand of traditionalist Christianity Putin has expressed. Some like Putin’s attacks on the Russian LGBTQ community.”

At the recently concluded Conservative Political Action Conference, Lauren Witzke, a GOP candidate for the Senate in Delaware, said: “Here’s the deal. Russia is a Christian nationalist nation. They’re actually Russian Orthodox. … I identify more with Putin’s Christian values than I do with Joe Biden.”

As MSNBC’s Althea Butler asked, “As things escalate in Ukraine, evangelicals and Republicans alike are faced with a hard choice: How do they support the authoritarian policies of Putin while Ukraine and its evangelical population face the horrors of war?”

Franklin Graham, the son of the late Billy Graham, was an early Putin enthusiast. As Slate’s Molly Olmstead recently wrote, “Just a few years ago, shortly after Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, the American evangelist Franklin Graham wrote admiringly, in his father’s magazine, of Putin’s efforts to protect children from the ‘propaganda of homosexuality.’”

“Calling Vladimir Putin’s presence at the Olympics ‘commanding,’” Olmstead noted that “Graham chastised President Barack Obama and lauded the Russian president. ‘Isn’t it sad,’ Graham wrote, ‘that America’s own morality has fallen so far that on this issue—protecting children from any homosexual agenda or propaganda—Russia’s standard is higher than our own?’ As a bonus, Graham added, Putin was supporting the Assad regime in Syria in order to protect persecuted Christians. ‘In my opinion, Putin is right on these issues,’ he wrote.”

Graham probably doesn’t have second thoughts about his support for Putin’s war on the LGBTQ community, but he recently told Religion News Service that he did not support Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. “There are a few things Putin has done that are right,” Graham reiterated. “But this is a war. I don’t support war and I don’t know of any Christian that supports war. We pray for peace, not war.”

Historian Bethany Moreton recently wrote: “From 1992 to 1997, a consortium of major U.S. evangelical organizations raised $60 million to bring former Soviets to Jesus through Bible studies, Christian video courses, biblical marriage conferences and public school curriculums.”

“During the Cold War,” Slate’s Molly Olmstead wrote, “the Soviet Union was seen as a great spiritual enemy to conservative Christians, a godless place built on heresy and atheism. After the Soviet Union fell, American evangelists swept in to proselytize in Russia and in former Eastern bloc countries. (As a part of this trend, many American missionaries have spent time in Ukraine—another element that helps explain some of the change in sentiment around Putin following the invasion.)

“Meanwhile, Russia started to make its own play for power among American evangelicals. In 1997, a professor at the conservative Hillsdale College founded the Rockford, Illinois–based World Congress of Families—along with two conservative Russian sociology professors, according to Mother Jones. For two decades, World Congress of Families agitated for anti-LGBTQ causes and created a web of connections between Christian fundamentalists in the U.S. and the Kremlin.”

Christian Right leaders, formerly enthusiastic Putin supporters, are now thinking twice. Olmstead reported that “J.D. Greear, the former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, praised Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s leadership. The National Association of Evangelicals declared that the invasion was unjustified. Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University lit up its ‘Freedom Tower’ in Ukrainian blue and yellow; the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary did the same. The prominent theologian Russell Moore called Putin a ‘murderer and a tyrant.’ The American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer, who has defended Putin and praised Russia’s anti-gay laws in the past, lauded Ukrainians as fighting for a ‘Christian revolution.’”

However, there are still Christian Right Putin admirers; preferring him over the America’s Democratic Party. “The Christian author Eric Metaxas blamed the ‘Deep State’ for not welcoming Russia into the community of nations. The right-wing commentator and Christian apologist Dinesh D’Souza said, in a series of tweets, that he ‘respects Putin because he tenaciously defends his country’s interests and understands the use of power,’ that the news media were lying about Ukraine, and that Putin was a ‘lesser evil’ to Democrats.”

Far right activists and Christian evangelicals “see Putin as conserving white Christendom in Europe,” said Marilyn Mayo, a senior research fellow at Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. “This grouping is opposed to globalism, multiculturalism, promoting what they see as modernist values like promoting the LBTGQ community, diversity, and allowing liberalism to dominate.”

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