Ever since its inception in the mid-1990s, the World Congress of Families (WCF) has worked to bring Russia and America’s Religious Right together. The project has served many roles over the years: policy shop, networking opportunity, geopolitical tool, and platform for prominent Russians to connect with far-right Americans in a way that mirrored other collaborations, from Texas secessionists to the National Rifle Association.
Annual WCF conferences routinely feature heavy-hitters from the American Religious Right, but this year’s event, held last week in Chisinau, Moldova, was notably different. Between attendees’ condemnations for liberal democracies and calls to unwind abortion and same-sex rights, there was a constant question hanging in the background: Where were all the prominent Americans?
To be sure, there were plenty of Americans in attendance. American pastors, family lawyers, and anti-abortion filmmakers all made the trip to Chisinau; American professors, publishers, and activists all helped lead assorted panel discussions.
But beyond WCF staff, no Americans were featured as headline speakers. Moldovan President Igor Dodon spoke multiple times, and the wife of sanctioned Russian oligarch Vladimir Yakunin helped open the conference, but high-profile American Religious Right figures were nowhere to be seen. Groups like the Alliance Defending Freedom and Americans United for Life had previously stood out at prior WCF meetings, but were absent in Moldova.
That is to say, at the annual conference for the leading joint Russian-American organization, a slate of notable Russian officials and operatives were happy to headline — but their American partners appeared unwilling to follow suit.
Policy and piety
Nearly two years after Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, backed resoundingly by the Religious Right, American policy toward Russia remains largely the same as it was under the Obama administration. Sanctions lists have ballooned. The U.S. is no closer to recognizing Russia’s occupation of Crimea, and American opposition to Russian energy projects remains entrenched. NATO has expanded its membership ranks, and Washington has finally supplied lethal weaponry to Ukraine.
Russia-U.S. relations have clearly “changed for the worse” under Trump, Alexey Komov, a WCF representative who works directly for sanctioned Russian businessman Konstantin Malofeev, told ThinkProgress.
As such, where America’s Religious Right was willing to look to the Kremlin as an easy, willing ally in the waning days of the Obama administration, that momentum appears to have stalled. In a sense, it was easier for American Christian conservatives to build ties in Russia when the Kremlin was squaring off with the previous administration — when Russia was the Religious Right’s enemy-of-their-enemy, so to speak. But with the current administration now responsible for sanctioning Russian officials, the impetus to build bridges with the Kremlin has slowed.
But that’s not to say it’s ended completely. Russian representatives, for instance, indicated that they intend to continue using the WCF to try to build ties with their American counterparts. Komov noted that despite current American policies, the WCF can “definitely can help to bring [people] closer, especially conservatives in the U.S. and Russia, and overcome this madness of sanctions and demonization of Russia.” Yakunin’s wife, Natalia Yakunina, likewise pointed to the WCF as the “appropriate platform for creating new laws.”
The Americans with whom ThinkProgress spoke, however, didn’t necessarily see the WCF as a bridge to repairing U.S.-Russian relations.
“Maybe yes, maybe no,” religious publisher James Kushiner told ThinkProgress. “And [repairing relations is] not the intent, or the expected result or goal” of the conference. The Family Research Council’s Peter Sprigg likewise said rebuilding the frayed ties between Moscow and Washington was beyond the WCF’s scope. “I don’t know if I really have a comment on that,” Sprigg told ThinkProgress. “These contacts here are more at the level of NGOs and private citizens and religious organizations contacting each other. I’m not sure whether it has any implication for government-to-government relations.”
The dreams of Brian Brown
There was one American, though, who bucked the trend, and reiterated his belief that the WCF as an organization remains the last, best way to re-align Russia and the U.S.: conference organizer Brian Brown.
Brown, who originally made a name for himself at the virulently anti-LGBTQ National Organization for Marriage, presided over the Moldova conference, helping recruit both the Moldovan president and Vatican secretary of state along the way. But he couldn’t convince any of the American Religious Right figures at previous conference to reprise their featured speaking roles this year. And in one of his speeches, Brown hinted at what was behind the lack of American attendees — and how he believes the WCF can regain its status as a conduit between the Kremlin and America’s Christian conservatives.
“In the United States right now we have an investigation into the president over connections with Russia — and some want to use this to try and divide us,” Brown said. “Well, I wanted to tell everyone here that we know [that] what we’re doing leads to peace. We know that what we’re doing — in creating friendships of trust — is in the best interest of the family. And we know what we’re doing — there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. The attempts to muddy the water are simply attempts to stop us from creating a more powerful, more global, unity around the family… The depths of our friendships will make it through.”
To that end, Brown — who announced that next year’s conference will be held in Verona, Italy — did his most to continue playing to his post-Soviet partners. On Sunday, Brown led conference speakers to a Moldovan Orthodox service in Chisinau’s historic Nativity Cathedral. Housed in an atmosphere of austere gold, the service (pictured above) was a dramatic affair. The Moldovan president stood amidst the crowd, holding a candle, and bowed. Komov looked upward, closing his eyes. A Georgian WCF representative knelt in front of everyone to see.
And Brown, a practicing Catholic, followed the lead of other parishioners, walking up to one of the cathedral’s gilded icons, placing his face on the glass as he did.
Following the service, Brown led a contingent of WCF conference participants across Chisinau’s main boulevard to lay a series of wreaths at the feet of a statue of Stephen the Great. He then meandered into a nearby “Festival of Ethnicities,” detached from the rest of the WCF participants, and melted into a crowd of dancing and singing and twirling Ukrainians, Romanians, and Bulgarians. And he disappeared, alone in the throng.
“I believe that this conference, along with the past conferences we’ve had, have started something new in the world,” Brown said at the conference a day earlier. “Back at the end of the Cold War, I think many folks in the U.S. would have said, ‘I don’t think I’m ever going to be traveling to Eastern Europe and Russia and making new friends who believe the same thing that I do [about] family.’
“But the world has changed! The world has changed.”