A grand jury indicted Russian gun-rights activist Mariia Butina on Tuesday for planning to “infiltrate” several American political organizations including, apparently, the National Rifle Association, on behalf of a high-ranking Russian official. Given her interest in loosening Russian gun laws, Butina’s close relationship with the National Rifle Association is not entirely surprising. But it’s also worth noting the many relationships Butina seems to have cultivated with the same segments of the Christian right that now support Donald Trump.
Take Butina’s remarkably chummy appearance on The Eric Metaxas Show in July 2015, for example. The daily radio program is hosted by a prominent conservative evangelical who is now enthusiastically pro-Trump. Butina, then in her mid-20s, was there to discuss gun rights and religious freedom. The friendly conversation between the American author and the Russian activist is a helpful glimpse at her easy courting of certain Christian conservatives.
The Yale-educated Metaxas, who styles himself as a New York intellectual, is the author of a best-selling biography of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyred for his opposition to the Nazis. (Yes, a popular historian of the Holocaust is a vocal fan of Donald Trump.) The interview begins with a discussion of gun rights in Russia, with Butina explaining the mission of her organization, the Right to Bear Arms. “I love the idea of this, to think—those of us in America, we can be very parochial,” Metaxas enthused. “We forget that the fight for liberty goes on all around the world in different guises.”
They were later joined by Republican strategist Paul Erickson to discuss religious freedom. Butina and Erickson, who once worked for Pat Buchanan, have been reported to have lived together and to have been in a romantic relationship. Butina insisted at points that Christianity has flourished in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union, and the two bantered somewhat incoherently about the value of a state church. “When we talk about the Russian-American relationship, the main point is Christianity, in both countries,” Butina said, and Metaxas chimed in to praise the “thousand-year history of Christianity in Russia.” Metaxas suggested once or twice that Putin may not be comfortable with dissent, but no one listening would have been aware of, say, Putin’s recent crackdown on Christian practice in Crimea.
The appearance on Metaxas’ show is far from the only connection Butina has had to American evangelical circles of power. She worked for several years as the assistant to Alexander Torshin, a senior Russian official beloved by the Prayer Breakfast crowd in Washington. His pet issues included gun rights and religious freedom—the same issues she discussed on Metaxas’ show—and he was a regular attendee at the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual event organized by conservative Christians in Washington. (For more on the Prayer Breakfast as a site of Christian right power-brokerage, see journalist Jeff Sharlet’s 2008 book, The Family.)
In 2016, according to a timeline compiled by the Washington Post, Butina emailed a Prayer Breakfast organizer to suggest that Putin might attend the following year. That didn’t happen, but she and Torshin attended. “A new relationship between two countries always begins better when it begins in faith,” Butina emailed an organizer afterward, thanking him for a gift and for the “very private meeting” after the breakfast. Butina was also part of a group that attempted to secure a meeting with the Trump campaign in May 2016 to talk about the persecution of Christians around the world, a topic of great interest to many American evangelicals. (Metaxas has not yet responded to questions about how Butina and Erickson became guests on his show, but he was the featured speaker at the Prayer Breakfast in 2012.)
Butina has known Erickson, who has strong ties to the NRA, since at least 2013. It was Erickson who emailed a Trump campaign aide in May 2016 with an offer to arrange a meeting between Trump and Putin. Butina, meanwhile, helped Christian conservative advocate Rick Clay make a similar meeting request through Torshin, then her boss. That email suggested that the Russians believed they had “shared Christian values” with the Trump campaign. Torshin has said that he and Butina are both “life members” of the NRA.
Much of the Christian right views contemporary Russia with a surprising fondness, and it’s a coziness that predates the Trump administration. Christian conservatives including Pat Buchanan and Bryan Fischer have fawned over Putin in recent years. Along with having an instinctual affinity for authoritarian leadership, these men respect Putin’s yearslong rollback of gay rights and abortion access. Franklin Graham, for example, gave an interview to a Russian newspaper in 2015 in which he praised Putin for “protecting Russian young people against homosexual propaganda.” Other cultural conservatives see Russia as “Christianity’s front line” against Islam. Presumably, then, it wasn’t hard for Butina, a friendly Russian gun-rights activist, to curry favor in these same Christian conservative circles.
Update, July 18, 2018: This piece has been updated to reflect the most recent news report.