Just a few years ago, shortly after Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, the American evangelist Franklin Graham wrote admiringly, in his father’s magazine, of Putin’s efforts to protect children from the “propaganda of homosexuality.”
The 2014 Sochi Olympics had just ended, and the United States had included gay athletes like Billie Jean King in its official delegation to the games—in part, a rebuke to a law passed in Russia the year before that made it illegal to equate same-sex relationships with heterosexual ones.
Calling Vladimir Putin’s presence at the Olympics “commanding,” Graham chastised President Barack Obama and lauded 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 agenda or propaganda—Russia’s standard is higher than our own?” 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, praised Putin in the past. The current invasion of Ukraine—a brutal campaign that has killed, at a very low estimate, more than 470 civilians and displaced more than 2 million refugees—may be changing minds in a way that the 2014 annexation of Crimea did not.
Of Putin’s current invasion of Ukraine, Graham said in a Feb. 25 interview with Religion News Service: “I don’t support this at all.”
“There are a few things Putin has done that are right,” Graham reiterated. “But this is a war. I don’t support war and I don’t know of any Christian that supports war. We pray for peace, not war.”
It’s potentially new territory for many in the religious right, who have, broadly, overlooked Putin’s authoritarian tendencies because of his culture war stances. The managing director of World Congress of Families, an international organization crusading for the values of the Christian right, has called Russia “the hope for the world right now.” The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association featured Putin on the cover of the March 2014 issue of its magazine. (Franklin Graham has also met with Putin and has “exchanged views on Russia-US 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 conservative Christian leaders. According to a 2018 poll from Pew, the share of Republicans who viewed Putin favorably more than doubled between 2015 and 2017. And according to a 2018 Public Religion Research Institute survey, Americans who believed that the U.S. was a Christian nation were more likely to see Russia as an ally.
According to Andrew Whitehead, a sociologist at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis and author of the book Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States, this trend wasn’t just an extension of Trumpism.
Christian nationalism, in general, can foster fondness for authoritarianism, he said. If God is calling for a certain political outcome, and democracy isn’t delivering on that, then good Christians have to do whatever it takes. In other words, for some Christians, as the U.S. became more culturally progressive, the “traditionalism” of Russia became aspirational—a bulwark against sexual decadence and a tantalizing model for what a Christian nation unencumbered by democratic restraints could achieve.
Whitehead described the stance of Putin-loving Christians in the U.S. as: “‘If we can have a strongman protect our cultural heritage and values, that’s what we want” because “we want a fighter.’”
It didn’t seem to matter that Russia is not a religiously unified country, or that it has a high abortion rate and low church attendance rate. In the way so many white Christians feel drawn to a mythically simple and “great” 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 they have. A fantasy,” he said.
Changes in the U.S. aren’t the only thing that triggered an affection for Putin’s iron will. Of the religious right, Gorski said, “they have a picture of Russia that’s been sold to them by Putin and his allies.”
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was seen as a great spiritual enemy to conservative Christians, a godless place built on heresy and atheism. After the Soviet Union fell, American evangelists swept in to proselytize in Russia and in former Eastern bloc countries. (As a part of this trend, many American missionaries have spent time in Ukraine—another element that helps explain some of the change in sentiment around Putin following the invasion.)
Meanwhile, Russia started to make its own play for power among American evangelicals. In 1997, a professor at the conservative Hillsdale College founded the Rockford, Illinois–based World Congress of Families—along with two conservative Russian sociology professors, according to Mother Jones. For two decades, World Congress of Families agitated for anti-LGBTQ causes and created a web of connections between Christian fundamentalists in the U.S. and the Kremlin.
In 2011, according to Politico, Russia also looked to the American Christian right for inspiration when it passed a law cracking down on abortions. And upon his reelection in 2012, Putin leaned hard into his new identity as a Christian crusader. (There’s little evidence Putin is a personally religious man, but plenty of evidence shows his savvy use of religion as a powerful propaganda tool. See: his new khaki-green militaristic cathedral literally made of guns and tanks.) A year later, Moscow rolled out its law targeting its LGBTQ population for harassment, once again pulling from the Christian-right playbook.
And many in the American Christian right were delighted.
Now, though, many mainstream evangelical leaders, including many Trumpian ones, have come out in support of Ukraine. J.D. Greear, the former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, praised Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s leadership. The National Association of Evangelicals declared that the invasion was unjustified. Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University lit up its “Freedom Tower” in Ukrainian blue and yellow; the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary did the same. The prominent theologian Russell Moore called Putin a “murderer and a tyrant.” The American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer, who has defended Putin and praised Russia’s anti-gay laws in the past, lauded Ukrainians as fighting for a “Christian revolution.”
Russia condemnation has not been universal among conservative Christian leaders, of course.
The Christian author Eric Metaxas blamed the “Deep State” for not welcoming Russia into the community of nations. The right-wing commentator and Christian apologist Dinesh D’Souza said, in a series of tweets, that he “respects Putin because he tenaciously defends his country’s interests and understands the use of power,” that the news media were lying about Ukraine, and that Putin was a “lesser evil” to Democrats.
“One thing that is clear is those on the right are not coming out to reprimand Trump for his recent comments,” Whitehead said. “They can decry Putin, but not Trump, who was supporting Putin.”
A third, less conventional form of reaction has come from those who have focused instead on the prophetic meaning of the invasion. On Monday, the televangelist Pat Robertson returned to his old show on the Christian Broadcasting Network to argue that Putin was “compelled by God” to invade Ukraine, as part of a biblical prophecy in which the invasion was a precursor to an Armageddon battle. “God is getting ready to do something amazing,” he said. “And that will be fulfilled.”
Gorski said that from his vantage point, he had seen some more mainstream evangelicals revert back to older, Cold War sentiments. But he also said it was too early to say what this meant for the religious right. “Honestly, I think there are cracks that have been opening up for a while,” he said. “But this is not one I had quite expected, over Putin. But that’s world history for you.
“I think the question mark is: How does this break in the end?” he added. “Twenty or 30 days from now, after Putin’s battalions have been pounding the Ukrainians for a month, how many pro-Putin evangelicals will be left? That’ll be interesting to see.”