One of the strangest aspects of Vladimir Putin’s third term as president of the Russian Federation has been the emergence of Russia as the global standard bearer for so-called “traditional values.” Many commentators, pundits, scholars, and Russia watchers have had difficulty coming to terms with this shift.
While certain left-wing commentators such as Stephen F. Cohen and Glenn Greenwald have joined Green Party candidate Jill Stein in continuing to see Russia as somehow mysteriously leftist, Moscow has made no secret of its pursuit of a “traditional values” agenda in close collaboration with the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church. At the same time, GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump consistently supports Putin and spouts Russian propaganda.
Over the last several years, European and US religious conservatives have often rallied to the new Moscow-centered “traditionalist international.” I have argued elsewhere that if we examine this series of events in historical context, we can see that it represents a revival of the Slavophile discourse of Russian moral superiority. When anti-LGBTQ activist Paul Cameron spoke to the Russian State Duma in October 2013 “to thank the Russian people, the State Duma, and President Putin… in the name of the entire Christian world” for Russia’s passage of its infamous “gay propaganda” law, Russian media largely portrayed the charlatan Cameron as a serious scholar.
A few months after Cameron’s effusive praise of Putin, American evangelical heavyweight Franklin Graham began to warm to the Russian president as well. Viewing this remarkable rapprochement between American and Russian conservative Christians united by a culture wars agenda as potentially very harmful to the cause of human rights, I initially thought that Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in March 2014 might disrupt collaboration between Russian and Western social conservatives. After all, American Evangelicals have numerous ties to Ukraine through missionary activities and adoption. In fact, the World Congress of Families—perhaps the single most important forum for collaborative efforts between West European, American, and Russian hardline religious conservatives—felt compelled to suspend planning for WCF VIII, which had been scheduled to take place in Moscow in September 2014.
The WCF, however, simultaneously announced that it “takes no position on foreign affairs, except as they affect the natural family,” and its leading members continued to shower Putin with praise for his scapegoating of Russia’s LGBTQ community. A rebranded WCF VIII went ahead with Russian financing, much of it linked to the ostentatiously Orthodox oligarchs Konstantin Malofeev and Vladimir Yakunin. Now billed as a forum called “Large Families: The Future of Humanity,” the event featured American WCF leaders as planned. While the anti-Westernism widespread in Russian society and the ROC created tensions in this coalition, an internationally isolated Russia took the opportunity to claim moral authority and leadership in the area of “traditional values,” with parliamentarian Elena Mizulina proclaiming falsely that a forum of this nature could probably not be hosted in the West.
A year later, WCF IX was hosted in Salt Lake City, and Russian Orthodox Christians played a prominent role there. For example, Alexey Komov, WCF’s Regional Representative for Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States and a member of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Patriarchal Commission on the Family and the Protection of Motherhood and Childhood “touted Russia’s leading role in the global ‘pro-family’ movement today, emphasizing . . . ‘Eastern Europe can really help our brothers in the West’ to resist the ‘new totalitarianism’ associated with ‘political correctness’ and the sexual revolution.” Perhaps the apex of this high-level Russian Orthodox-American Evangelical Protestant collaboration was reached when Graham met with Patriarch Kirill in October 2015, and Patriarch Kirill proclaimed Christians opposed to same-sex marriage, such as Graham, to be “confessors of the faith.”
More recent developments, however, make it possible to believe that such warm relations between the ROC and conservative American Protestants—an example of “bad ecumenism” focused not on the pursuit of the common good but on the domination of the marginalized—may have fallen apart, at least for now.
The first sign of fraying relations came when the preparing for a World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians that Graham planned to host in Moscow, in collaboration with the ROC, was quietly put on hold by the Russian side last spring. In March 2016, however, Graham announced that the summit would be moved from Moscow to Washington, D.C. and take place March 10-13, 2017. Acting as if the initiative to break with Russia was his own, Graham cited Russia’s recent passage of an “anti-terrorism” package known as the Yarovaya Laws (for the key role of United Russia Duma deputy Irina Yarovaya in their passage) as his reason for moving the summit. These laws place severe restrictions on Protestants and other minority religious groups in Russia, essentially banning proselytizing. In effect from July 20 of this year, the Yarovaya Laws are already being enforced. Protestants are being detained and fined for conducting ordinary religious activities. For example, Americans David Kozan and Reverend Alexander Whitney, Associate Pastor of Missions at First Presbyterian Church in Baton Rouge, LA, were arrested and fined 3000 rubles each in Kaluga for participating in religious activities on tourist visas. Russian Protestants have faced sanctions as well. And as long as Russia has returned to the genuine persecution of Protestants, it seems unlikely that Graham and his ilk will be able to make common cause with Moscow for what both parties erroneously perceive to be persecution against Christians who object to equal rights and full accommodation of members of the LGBTQ community in the public square. (Such “secularism,” Graham has declared “is almost no different from Communism.”)
I reached out to William Yoder, a Belarus-based writer on church affairs who has decades of on the ground experience working with Protestant communities in Eastern Europe and Russia, to get his opinion on the current state of affairs. In his view, “the Yarovaya Laws are putting a damper on the budding relationship between the Christian right in the US and the Orthodox in Russia . . . I can imagine an on-going tussle on the issue within both Russian Orthodox and government circles.”
Yoder is surely right that tensions remain in ROC and Russian government circles over the impact of the Yarovaya Laws on Orthodox-Protestant relations. As the current American election is revealing, some hardline American conservatives will continue to look to Putinist Russia as a model. Nevertheless, by persecuting Protestants, the Russian state is making it considerably more difficult for American Christian conservatives to count themselves among Putin’s right-wing fellow travelers. Anti-Americanism, always a tension that has run through the social conservative coalitions of Russians and “patriotic” Evangelical and Catholic Americans, has arguably become the Russian Federation’s current legitimating ideology. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that some Russians and Americans will manage to overcome these tensions in order to continue collaborating through the WCF, which is certainly an organization to watch. While events have driven a wedge between Russia’s and America’s hardline conservative politicians and religious leaders for the time being, the ground is liable to shift rapidly in such unstable times. Russia will undoubtedly continue to assert itself as the global standard bearer for “traditional values” conservatism, and those who care about human rights should pay attention to how this plays out down the road.
Christopher Stroop is a Provost’s Postdoctoral Scholar at the University of South Florida.