Just a few years ago, shortly after Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, American evangelist Franklin Graham written with admirationin his father’s magazine, of Putin’s efforts to protect children from “homosexuality propaganda”.
The 2014 Sochi Olympics had just ended and the United States had included gay athletes like Billie Jean King in her official delegation to the games—in part, a rebuke to a law passed in Russia the previous year that prohibited equating same-sex relationships with heterosexual relationships.
Calling Vladimir Putin’s presence at the Olympics “commanding,” Graham berated President Barack Obama and praised 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 program or propaganda – Russia’s standard is higher than ours?” 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.
Where Putin is right — and wrong — is now a surprisingly open question among many conservative Christian leaders who, like Graham, have praised Putin in the past. The current invasion of Ukraine, a brutal campaign that has killed, by a very low estimate, over 470 civilians and displaced more than 2 million refugees – can change mindsets in a way that the annexation of Crimea in 2014 did not.
Of Putin’s current invasion of Ukraine, Graham said in a Feb. 25 interview with Religion News Service, “I don’t support that at all.”
“There are some things Putin has done that are right,” Graham said. reiterated. “But this is a war. I don’t support war and I don’t know any Christian who supports war. We pray for peace, not war.
This is potentially new territory for many on the religious right, who have largely ignored Putin’s authoritarian tendencies due to his culture war stances. The chief executive of the World Congress of Families, an international organization crusading for Christian right-wing values, called on Russia “hope for the world right now.” The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association featured Putin on the cover of March 2014 issue of his review. (Franklin Graham also met Putin and “exchanged views on Russian-American cooperation” and “discussed issues related to traditional family values” with other Russian officials.)
And then, of course, there was Donald Trump, eager to praise Putin as a strong leader and potential ally.
It wasn’t just the conservative Christian leaders. According to a 2018 pew pollthe share of Republicans who viewed Putin favorably more than doubled between 2015 and 2017. And according to a 2018 Public Religion Research Institute investigationAmericans who believed the United States was a Christian nation were more likely to see Russia as an ally.
According to Andrew Whitehead, sociologist at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis and author of the book Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United Statesthis trend was not just an extension of Trumpism.
Christian nationalism, in general, can foster a penchant for authoritarianism, he said. If God calls for a certain political outcome, and democracy fails to deliver, then good Christians must do whatever it takes. In other words, for some Christians, as the United States became more culturally progressive, Russia’s “traditionalism” became an aspiration—a bulwark against sexual decadence and a tantalizing model of what a Christian nation freed from democratic constraints could achieve.
Whitehead described the position of Putin-loving Christians in the United States as follows: “‘If we can have a strongman to protect our cultural heritage and our values, that’s what we want’ because ‘we want a fighter “.
It didn’t matter that Russia is not a religiously unified country, or that it has a high abortion rate and low church attendance rate. In the same way that so many white Christians feel drawn to a mythically simple and “grand” American past, said Philip Gorski, a Yale professor who studies white Christian nationalism, they also feel drawn to Russia as a vision of a unified Christian nation. “It’s a Potemkin village version of Russia that they have. A fantasy,” he said.
Changes in the US aren’t the only thing that has sparked affection for Putin’s iron will. From the religious right, Gorsky said, “they have an image of Russia that was sold to them by Putin and his allies.”
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was seen as a great spiritual enemy of conservative Christians, a impious place built on heresy and atheism. After the fall of the Soviet Union, American evangelists swept away to proselytize in Russia and the former Eastern bloc countries. (As part of this trend, many American missionaries spent time in Ukraine – another element that helps explain some of the change in sentiment around Putin after the invasion.)
Meanwhile, Russia has begun to play its own power game among American evangelicals. In 1997, a professor at the conservative university Hillsdale College founded the Rockford, Illinois-based World Congress of Families with two conservative Russian sociology professors, according to Mother Jones. For two decades, the World Congress of Families has campaigned for anti-LGBTQ causes and created a network of connections between Christian fundamentalists in the United States and the Kremlin.
In 2011, according to Politics, Russia also drew inspiration from the American Christian right when it passed a law cracking down on abortion. And upon his re-election in 2012, Putin reflected on his new identity as a Christian crusader. (There are little evidence Putin is a personally religious man, but there is ample evidence to show his savvy use of religion as a powerful propaganda tool. To see: its new khaki green militarist cathedral literally made of guns and tanks.) A year later, Moscow rolled out its law targeting its LGBTQ population for harassment, once again pulling out of the Christian right’s playbook.
And many on the American Christian right were thrilled.
Now, however, many mainstream evangelical leaders, including many Trumpians, spoke out in favor of Ukraine. JD Greear, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, rented The leadership of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The National Association of Evangelicals said the invasion was unjustified. Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University alight its “freedom tower” in Ukrainian blue and yellow; Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary did the same. The eminent theologian Russell Moore called Putin a “murderer and tyrant.” Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association, who defended Putin and rented Russia’s anti-gay laws in the past have praised Ukrainians as fighting for a “christian revolution.”
Condemnation of Russia has not been universal among conservative Christian leaders, of course.
Christian author Eric Metaxas blame the “deep state” for not welcoming Russia into the community of nations. Right-wing commentator and Christian apologist Dinesh D’Souza said in a series of tweets that he “respects Putin because he tenaciously defends the interests of his country and understands the use of power”, which the media lying on Ukraine, and that Putin was a “lesser evilto Democrats.
“One thing is clear, that those on the right are not coming to berate Trump for his Recent Comments“, said Whitehead. “They can decry Putin, but not Trump, who supported Putin.”
A third, less conventional form of reaction came from those who focused instead on the prophetic meaning of the invasion. On Monday, televangelist Pat Robertson returned to his old show on the Christian Broadcasting Network to claim that Putin was “compelled by godto invade Ukraine, as part of Bible prophecy in which the invasion was a precursor to a battle of Armageddon. “God is preparing to do something amazing,” he said. “And it will be accomplished.”
Gorski said that from his perspective, he has seen more traditional evangelicals revert to older Cold War sentiments. But he also said it was too early to tell what this meant for the religious right. “Honestly, I think there have been cracks that have been opening for a while,” he said. “But it’s not quite what I was expecting, about Putin. But that’s the story of the world for you.
“I think the question mark is: How does it break in the endhe added. “In 20 or 30 days, after Putin’s battalions have shelled Ukrainians for a month, how many pro-Putin evangelicals will be left? It will be interesting to see.