Religious conservatives in Russia and America
While some people fear that relations between Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and their respective entourages have been too warm and cosy, others feel that those relations ought to be even closer.
Adovcates of closer ties include American evangelicals who insist that the two countries’ leaders should be working together against common foes, ranging from secular liberalism to jihadist terrorism. Perhaps the most vocal supporter of this line is Franklin Graham, a hugely influential evangelical preacher who prayed at Mr Trump’s inauguration. Ahead of the meeting between Presidents Trump and Putin at the recent G20 summit, Mr Graham declared on Facebook:
The media and enemies of President Trump have tried to drive a wedge between Russia and the United States. Our country needs Russia as an ally in the fight against Islamic terrorism. Join me in praying for President Trump and for President Vladimir Putin as they have this very strategic meeting.
Mr Graham was the main organiser of a conference on the global persecution of Christians that was held in May in Washington, DC, and brought together senior figures from Russia and America. On the sidelines Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, head of the external relations arm of the Russian Orthodox church, had a short but cordial meeting with Vice-president Mike Pence, a religious conservative who was raised Catholic but later became evangelical.
Mr Alfeyev, an Oxford-educated Russian cleric, said after the conversation that he felt optimistic about Russo-American ties. In their speeches to the conference, both Mr Pence and the Russian prelate said Christians in the Middle East were suffering genocide and stressed the need for international action to fend off this threat.
On a note that would have been familiar to his American evangelical listeners (but perhaps bewildering to people outside that camp), the Russian cleric used the gathering to make a link between violence in the Middle East and secularist trends in Western countries.
The manifestations of aggression in relation to Christians in the modern world has acquired the forms not only of physical violence, but also the curtailment of peoples’ right to a public expression of their faith, to following their values and openly wearing religious symbols…Certain things are happening in society which are more and more often recognised as the norm…We are seriously alarmed by the striving of a number of countries to allow the practice of euthanasia…In many European countries and America, the ideology aimed at supporting sexual minorities and the propaganda of the homosexual way of life is actively imposed, often with the help of the media and the educational system.
Mr Putin’s “gay propaganda” law (whose stated aim was sto stop the dissemination to minors of material advocating “non-traditional” sexual relations) drew warm praise from American religious conservatives, including Mr Graham, even as it was condemned as a homophobes’ charter by liberal human-rights groups across the world.
Yet another arena for American-Russian cooperation in the cause of old-time religion is the World Congress of Families, an American-based association that convenes international gatherings to lobby for conservative social polices, most recently in Budapest and Tbilisi.
Larry Jacobs, the managing director of the Congress, once told a meeting in Moscow that “Russian [and] Eastern European leadership is necessary to counter the secular post-modern anti-family agenda and replace what I’m calling the cultural-Marxist philosophy that is destroying human society and in particular the family”. For a Rip van Winkle who had fallen asleep during the cold war, it might be surprising to hear an American calling on Russia to save his country from Marxism. But Mr Jacobs is by no means alone in his view.
On the face of the things, there will always be limits to the relationship between the Russian Orthodox and America’s evangelicals. Theologically, they are a long way apart. For example, the veneration of the Virgin Mary is an essential part of Evangelical faith and alien to Orthodox believers. Evangelicals tend to be philo-Semitic and pro-Israel; within the world of Russian Orthodoxy (although not its current leadership) there has often been a strain of anti-Semitism. When the late Patriarch Alexy of Moscow gave a warm speech to rabbis in New York, he faced huge internal criticism. Evangelicals tend to be uncompromisingly anti-Islam, but conservative Russian Christians are more pragmatic in their attitude to that faith and get along quite well with traditionalist Muslims of the peaceful sort. And it is hard to argue that Russian society has anything to teach America about “family values”; rates of divorce and abortion are much higher in Russia than in America.
Then there is the issue of religious freedom in Russia. The meeting on Christian persecution that recently convened in Washington, DC, was originally scheduled to take place in Moscow; but the venue was changed after Russia passed a law that curbed evangelical missionary work, upsetting American Protestants.
Still, Russia’s masters, whether political or ecclesiastical, have generally been skilled at cultivating friendships and tactical alliances wherever they can be found. For the tsars, protecting the interests of Orthodox Christians in the Middle East was a cornerstone of foreign policy. The Soviet Union sought friends round the world in the name of proletarian internationalism. Now the older sort of diplomacy seems to be coming back.