n early April 2014, as the post-Cold War order roiled in the aftermath of Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula—the first forced annexation in Europe since the Second World War—Pat Buchanan asked a question. Taking to the column-inches at Townhall, Buchanan wondered aloud: “Whose side is God on now?”
As Moscow swamped Ukraine’s peninsula, holding a ballot-by-bayonet referendum while local Crimean Tatars began disappearing, Buchanan clarified his query. The former speechwriter for Richard Nixon and intellectual flag-bearer of paleoconservatism—that authoritarian strain of thought linking both white nationalists and US President Donald Trump—wrote that Russian President Vladimir Putin was “entering a claim that Moscow is the Godly City of today[.]” Despite Putin’s rank kleptocracy, and the threat Moscow suddenly posed to stability throughout Europe, Buchanan blushed with praise for Putin’s policies, writing, “In the culture war for the future of mankind, Putin is planting Russia’s flag firmly on the side of traditional Christianity.” .................
Three years on, it’s easy to skip past Buchanan’s piece in discussing Russian-American relations, drenched as they are in mutual sanctions and the reality that Moscow attempted to tip the scales in Trump’s favor during the election. But Buchanan’s article crystallized a paradigm shift in religious relations between Moscow and Washington, and in Moscow’s role within the global Christian right. Before 2014 Russia was largely seen as an importer for Christian fundamentalists, most especially from the U.S. But as the Kremlin dissolved diplomatic norms in 2014, Moscow began forging a new role for itself at the helm of the global Christian right.
And Moscow’s grip at the tiller of a globally resurgent right has only tightened since. Not only have Russian banks funded groups like France’s National Front, but Moscow has hosted international conferences on everything from neo-Nazi networking to domestic secessionists attempting to rupture the U.S. Meanwhile, American fundamentalists bent on unwinding minority protections in the U.S. have increasingly leaned on Russia for support—and for a model they’d bring to bear back home, from targeting LGBT communities to undoing abortion rights throughout the country. “In the same sense that Russia’s [anti-LGBT] laws came about in 2013, we’ve seen similar sorts of laws proposed in Tennessee, for example,” Cole Parke, an LGBT researcher with Political Research Associates, told me. “It’s difficult to say in a chicken-and-egg sort of way who’s inspiring whom, but there’s definitely a correlation between the two movements.”
It’s no coincidence that Buchanan’s column, which outlined the players within the “cultural, social, moral war” between Russia and the “hedonistic” West, mentioned a semi-obscure group called the World Congress of Families. As Buchanan wrote, the WCF listed Russia’s emergence as a “Pro-Family Leader” as one of the “10 best trends” of 2013. Indeed, in order to outline how Russia challenged—and supplanted—the U.S. role as a clarion for Christian fundamentalists, you have to parse the WCF’s role, and the group’s attendant impact on Russian policy over the past few years. .............., Putin announced plans to return to the presidency, supplanting then-President Dmitry Medvedev. Buffeted by a flat economy, Putin shored up his support by tacking to a nativist, nationalist—and resentful—base. In the first 18 months after his return to the presidency in 2012, Putin corralled protesters, smothered many of the remaining independent media outlets, and dissolved the distance between the Kremlin and the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church. All of his moves pointed toward a hard-right shift in outlook—to a return to Tsar Nicholas I’s triumvirate of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality.”
America’s Christian fundamentalists followed Putin’s moves with glee—all the more after then-President Barack Obama earned a second term, and same-sex rights charged forward. In 2013, Moscow pushed an “anti-propaganda law” specifically targeting the country’s beleaguered LGBT population. Despite widespread condemnation throughout the West, members of America’s Religious Right tripped over themselves in supporting the Kremlin. Likewise, as a Daily Beast report found, the “anti-propaganda law,” like the anti-abortion measures before it, didn’t arise in some kind of retrograde ether, but “had emerged from a years-long, carefully crafted campaign to influence governments to adopt a Christian-Right legal framework”—stemming from the efforts of both American and Russian WCF officials who had “successfully disseminated a U.S.-born culture war that’s wreaking havoc on women and queer folks all around the world.” Even Moscow’s ban on Americans adopting Russian children that year managed to gain support within the U.S.’s far right, with Christian fundamentalists praising Putin’s move as preventing children from living with same-sex parents....