As evidence continues to emerge of Russia’s alleged attempts at the direction of Vladimir Putin to disrupt the 2016 election through nefarious means, President Donald Trump has endured fiery criticism from all sides regarding his ties to the authoritarian leader. In addition to an avalanche of progressive detractors, Republican senators such as Lindsay Graham (R-SC) have expressed unease about the connection, and Pope Francis declared the budding alliance between the U.S. and Russia “dangerous.”
But as Trump prepared for his first face-to-face meeting as president with Putin this past weekend, his attempt to thaw relations with Moscow was blessed by a seemingly unusual source: Rev. Franklin Graham, a prominent member of the Religious Right and the son of evangelist Billy Graham. Days before the meeting, the younger Graham — a longtime Trump supporter who led a prayer at the president’s inauguration — published a Facebook post voicing optimism about a potential Trump-Putin partnership.
“The media and enemies of President Trump have tried to drive a wedge between Russia and the United States,” Graham, who is known for spouting Islamophobic and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, wrote. “Our country needs Russia as an ally in the fight against Islamic terrorism. Join me in praying for President Trump and President Vladimir Putin as they have this very strategic meeting.”
An evangelical heaping praise on a U.S.-Russian partnership may surprise some, but the pastor’s prayerful post belies a deeper history that is already shaping American politics: Graham, working tandem with Russian church officials and select few of his right-wing Christian colleagues, has already formed an alliance with the Russian president — all while Putin continues to use faith as a tool to accrue power.
Putin and the Religious Right are a match made in Moscow
To fully understand how some members of the Religious Right came to appreciate Putin, it’s important to asses how Putin came to appreciate the role of organized religion — particularly brands that oppose LGBTQ equality.
Russia, after all, is hardly a bastion of religious freedom. The 2016 U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom report listed the country as one with an increasingly “negative trajectory in terms of religious freedom,” pointing to policies that limit the activities of Muslims and other minority religious groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Pentecostals.
Yet Graham’s remarks are the result of a years-long international power consolidation effort by Putin, who is is well known for using faith — particularly the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), a subset of Eastern Orthodox Christianity whose reach extends beyond Russian borders — as a mechanism to expand his country’s influence and antagonize Western opponents.
According to Christopher Stroop, a visiting instructor at the University of South Florida honors college and a published expert on modern Russian history, Putin became close with the ROC after beginning his third term in 2012.
“The Orthodox church domestically shores up the [Putin] regime, but it also works internationally to push the party line in pursuit of its own goals as well — and the church hierarchs are genuinely socially conservative,” Stroop told ThinkProgress, noting that Putin’s embrace of the ROC coincided with a broader shift toward right-wing populism.
“Putin has rebranded himself [and Russia] as a Champion of traditional values,” Stroop said.
Putin and the church are technically two entities with different agendas, but Stroop said they’ve developed a codependent strategy that benefits both parties. The Russian president often grants the ROC privileges not afforded to other faith groups to help him win domestic debates, for instance. Meanwhile, Russian priests in countries like Moldova and Montenegro have pushed back against efforts to align those nations with Western powers, and a Kremlin-funded spiritual center now sits near the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France.
And as the New York Times reported last fall, Putin lifts up the church’s moral authority as a “traditional” answer to the west’s increasing liberalism, positioning Russia as an opponent to progressive causes such as LGBTQ rights and multiculturalism. This allows Putin to perpetuate the idea that Europe and America — not Russia — are faithless nations by comparison.
“Putin has rebranded himself as a champion of traditional values,” Stroop said.
The Russian leader has said as much himself. “Many Euro-Atlantic countries have moved away from their roots, including Christian values,” Putin said in a 2013 keynote speech. “Policies are being pursued that place on the same level a multi-child family and a same-sex partnership, a faith in God and a belief in Satan. This is the path to degradation.”
“American 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,”
The push against the liberal west slowly won converts the world over, with Russia analyst Casey Michel describing the country in February as “the leader of the global Christian Right.”
“American 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 in POLITICO.
The potential political benefits for the Kremlin are obvious: The Religious Right would be a prize for anyone looking to gain influence American politics, as right-wing faith leaders — especially those who claim evangelical Christianity — have long played an active role in elections. What’s more, some of their most controversial members (including Graham) have only gained influence during Trump’s rise.
To be sure, the alignment between some American religious conservatives and Russia predated Putin’s third term. As the Atlantic’s Jonathan Merritt observed in January, the World Congress of Families — an anti-LGBTQ rights group — was conceived in Moscow and its head said in 2010 he believes American evangelicals can be “true allies” of their conservative Russians.
But the shift has accelerated in recent years. Other anti-LGBTQ groups such as the American Family Association, American Center for Law and Justice, and National Organization for Marriage (NOM) have all endorsed various anti-gay legislation in Russia. NOM head Brian Brown even traveled to Russia to testify on behalf of anti-gay legislation and deem Putin a “lion of Christianity.”
Evangelical leaders such as pastor Rick Joyner have also spoken favorably of Russia in the past year, and Ken Ham — an ardent creationist who erected both the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter in Kentucky — praised Putin’s jabs at the West in a Facebook post in 2014.
“Putin is actually seeing what is described in Romans 1 happening before our eyes in the USA (and the West in general) and being exhibited before the world. We are in a massive spiritual battle — I pray the church wakes up,” Ham said, referencing Putin’s rejection of LGBTQ rights.
Franklin Graham warms to Putin — to get back at Obama
Just a few decades ago, an alliance between a major American evangelical leader and a Russian president would have been unthinkable. The rise of the so-called Religious Right was triggered largely by the onset of the Cold War, when famous evangelists such as Billy Graham regularly denounced communist Russia as a “godless” nation. The phrase “in God we trust” was added to U.S. currency around the same time, and “under God” was inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance — both in an effort to distance America from Russia’s officially officially atheistic disposition.
But recent years have seen the younger Graham preach a different view of Russia under Putin, largely so he could target someone else: President Barack Obama.
In 2014, Graham published an opinion piece about the Russian president’s decision to sign a law barring the distribution of “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” to children. The law, which was widely perceived to be homophobic, stirred controversy ahead of the 2014 Olympic games in Sochi. But Graham defended it anyway, saying America’s embrace of LGBTQ rights amounts to “secularism” that “is as godless as communism.”
“In my opinion, Putin is right on these issues,” Graham wrote. “Obviously, he may be wrong about many things, but he has taken a stand to protect his nation’s children from the damaging effects of any gay and lesbian agenda.”
He also lauded Putin’s pledge to protect Christians in Syria, noting how it was “one justification for his support of the Assad regime in Syria.”
“It’s obvious that President Obama and his administration are pushing the gay-lesbian agenda in America today and have sold themselves completely to that which is contrary to God’s teaching,” Graham wrote. “In my opinion, Putin is right on these issues. Obviously, he may be wrong about many things, but he has taken a stand to protect his nation’s children from the damaging effects of any gay and lesbian agenda.”
“Isn’t it sad, though, 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?” he added.
Graham caveated his praise by insisting he wasn’t “endorsing” Putin, and it’s important to note that his implicit flattery of the foreign dignitary evoked skepticism among his colleagues in right-wing faith circles. During a panel discussion on ABC News the next month, neither Russell Moore, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s legal arm, nor Ralph Reed, head of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, sided with Graham’s assessment of the Russian president. Conservative love of Russia, while growing, is still a fringe movement.
For Graham, though, Putin quickly transformed into a favorable figure, and he repeatedly used him as a foil to prod the Obama administration. Graham even met the Russian president during a visit to Russia in 2015, where he also declared that Obama “promotes atheism” while speaking to ROC Patriarch Kirill — who is allegedly a former KGB agent.
“Pray for the President of Russia, [who] defends traditional Christianity,” Graham reportedly said.
Again, Graham’s Russia fandom remains a somewhat fringe belief, but his 2014 op-ed (and Putin’s efforts) had an effect all the same. Just a month later, Pat Buchanan — another leader of the Religious Right — published his own piece about Russia potentially replacing the U.S. as a bastion of “Christian values,” asking “Whose side is God on now?”
Somehow, it all comes back to Trump
It’s unlikely Putin had Trump in mind during his 2012 pivot toward the ROC, but the trend appears to have aided the American president’s religious supporters — not to mention Putin himself.
Graham and Putin’s emerging relationship hit a snag in 2016, for example, when the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association — partially run by Franklin Graham — was scheduled to host its World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians in Moscow. The idea for the conference was hatched during Graham’s 2015 Russia trip, but a few weeks before the event, Putin signed into law an “anti-terror” provision limiting evangelism efforts outside of church buildings. Graham balked, abruptly moving the summit to Washington, D.C.
“For decades, [Hilarion] has reached out to socially conservative forces in the west and tried to build coalitions.”
The Russian connection, however, remained intact. Graham still invited a delegation from the ROC to the 2017 event, and it was moved to D.C. at the suggestion of ROC external relations head Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev of Moscow — the same man who helped Graham come up with the idea for the conference in the first place. Vice President Mike Pence, an outspoken religious conservative sometimes described as a “theocrat,” delivered a speech at the event and reportedly met with Hilarion backstage to discuss how Russia and the U.S. could cooperate on Middle Eastern counter-terrorism efforts.
The conversation brought Pence — who once said it’s “inarguable” that Putin is a better leader than Obama — into the ROC’s orbit.
“Mike Pence was not involved in these networks before, but now he is,” Stroop said. “He now seems to be facilitating some of the stuff involving the Russian Church.”
Stroop noted the conference was also something of a triumph for Hilarion, as the church official spent years working to forge networks of like-minded believers across the globe.
“For decades, [Hilarion] has reached out to socially conservative forces in the west and tried to build coalitions,” Stroop said. “He has done so very successfully…usually with Catholics, but clearly with Protestants too.”
And while the event was not in Moscow, it still ended up close to the man Russians allegedly wanted to influence anyway: The next day, roughly 800 conference attendees dined together at the Trump International Hotel in downtown Washington, D.C.
We have clarified this piece to reflect the timing of the persecuted Christians summit (earlier this year), as well as how long Hilarion has reached out to other global conservatives. Stroop initially said 10–11 years, but later explained that it was “decades,” as Hilarion has held his position since the mid-1990s.