The Holy Alliance: How American Evangelicals Helped Shape Russia’s Anti-LGBT Laws

How Russia became the religious right’s next frontier.

May 3, 2017

By Kasey Stricklin 

R0m706JQddUg2o9uucWfiW4ZOK5XbsKVPhoto: Kremlin.ru

Russia has never been a paragon of LGBT rights, to put it mildly. The history of the Russian LGBT community includes imprisonment in penal colonies and gulags, physical violence and harassment, bans on public gay pride events, and a prevailing narrative of homosexuality as a Western infection or a mental illness. While the law on homosexuality was liberalized shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, homophobic sentiment did not disappear overnight. In 2013, Russia passed the federal anti-gay propaganda law – which, though it doesn’t make it illegal to be gay in Russia, nevertheless fosters intolerance towards Russia’s LGBT community by effectively banning public discussions or displays of homosexuality under the guise of protecting minors. 

What explains the timing of this law’s passage? While many commentators characterized the legislation as another example of Russia’s traditionalist, anti-liberal agenda, there is strong evidence that American evangelicals were working behind the scenes, looking to Russia as the next frontier for the promotion of conservative family values as the United States became more progressive in its attitudes toward same-sex marriage and other rights.

The Russian population’s veneration of the church as an important aspect of national culture made the country fertile ground for a resurrection of Christian values. Most Russians are not religious in a traditional sense, with few regularly attending church services, but the overwhelming majority still supports the policies of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). Eighty to ninety percent of ethnic Russians consider themselves Orthodox Christians and view the Church as a symbol of national pride. 

During Soviet times, the Church regarded American evangelical groups as competitors and wanted nothing to do with them. In recent years, however, the ROC has begun to view the evangelical community as an ideological partner in arms, even establishing an emissary to the U.S. evangelical community. Such channels have allowed American evangelicals to provide advice and support for the anti-LGBT movement in Russia. 

In recent years, Patriarch Kirill has stated that same-sex marriage is a sign of the apocalypse, and urged Russians to make sure that such “sin” is never sanctioned by state law. These statements come at a time when the ROC is expanding its influence within Russia, with the strong support of the state. Since returning to the Russian presidency in 2012, Vladimir Putin has aligned himself closely with the Church, making use of its vast reach within society. Putin’s ideology has also closely tied in with anti-Americanism. American evangelicals who often see themselves on the losing end of the U.S. culture war are paradoxically viewed as allies in this quest to push Russia’s conservative agenda as an alternative to Western values. 

The Americans are coming

In 2006, prominent American evangelical Scott Lively called on Russian lawmakers to “criminalize the public advocacy of homosexuality.” Lively followed his statements with a tour around Russia the following year to “bring a warning about the ‘homosexual political movement.’” Lively’s involvement in Russia follows his success in Uganda, where he was directly responsible for the country’s “Kill the Gays” bill. He may have been inspired to expand his anti-gay messaging to other countries after Massachusetts, his home state, became the first place in the U.S. to hold a legal same-sex wedding in 2004.

In November 2010, Russia’s Sanctity of Marriage organization held its first national conference, which emphasized traditional family values. In attendance was Larry Jacobs, the Vice President of the World Congress of Families (WCF), an umbrella group that includes many influential figures of the American religious right. Since 2010, the WCF has organized several events in Russia. Though it’s based in the United States, the WCF was conceived in 1997 by two professors at Moscow State University and an American conservative Christian scholar. The three worked together to craft an organization that would facilitate the worldwide Christian rights movement, while reestablishing Russia as a global religious leader.

Since Jacobs first traveled to Russia in 2010, he and other members of WCF have been back to Russia to work on building the country’s anti-gay movement. The organization has hosted at least five major gatherings where American evangelicals could teach their views to Russians. Elena Mizulina,  a member of the Russian State Duma (lower house of parliament) and Russia’s preeminent family values legislator, has met several times with Jacobs and has attended WCF events. Tellingly, two days after the Duma approved the anti-gay propaganda law, Brian Brown, the head of WCF’s Moscow 2014 conference planning committee, flew to Moscow to work with Mizulina to craft the next piece of anti-gay legislation: a ban on adoption by gay couples.

Jacobs has said that Russia “might be the Christian savior of the world.” Russian lawmakers have increasingly adopted evangelical rhetoric to denounce gay rights, including the support of traditional family values and the protection of youths. The creation of anti-gay laws in Russia has almost exactly mirrored WCF’s involvement in the country, with thirteen new laws passed since Jacobs’ first trip in 2010. When asked whether he contributed to this pattern during an interview in 2014, Jacobs laughed and said, “yes, I think that is accurate.” Similarly, the evangelical leader Scott Lively said he had an indirect connection to the anti-propaganda law, calling it “one of the proudest achievements of my career.”

Moral marriage of convenience 

Since the passage of the anti-gay propaganda law, the relationship between U.S.  religious figures and the Russian establishment has stalled. In 2016, Putin signed a package of legislation that placed restrictions on “missionary work” in the country, leading American evangelicals to cancel a planned conference in Moscow that was to be co-hosted with the ROC. The legislation fines individuals and religious groups that operate in the country without special permits, and restricts all religious activity to designated church buildings. Critics expect this law to help further consolidate power in the ROC – which is exempted from the restrictions –  by broadly banning a number of activities unless they are undertaken by a registered organization. 

These so-called Yarovaya laws, which also contained amendments to the anti-extremism laws, have been applied solely to minority religions. Most severely, the Russian Supreme Court voted in April 2017 to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses, asserting they are an extremist group. Though Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia don’t vote and haven’t been hostile toward Russian authorities, the Russian government considers the group a foreign agent because of its roots in the United States. The Russian security services and government, therefore, view it with suspicion. 

But while the new restrictions on minority religions in Russia may prove to be an impediment to further collaboration between American evangelicals and Russian lawmakers, there are reasons to expect continued partnership between these groups. First, despite the recent downturn in U.S.-Russian relations, many religious conservatives still view common social issues as more important than geopolitics. In 2014, several U.S. activists, including Brown, traveled to a traditional values conference in Russia, despite the recent Crimean annexation and conflict in eastern Ukraine. Meanwhile, Putin’s popularity among U.S. Republicans has nearly tripled in the wake of Donald Trump’s election (from 12% to 32% since 2015). While some of this boost can be attributed to Trump’s calls to partner with Moscow in the fight against ISIS and on other foreign policy issues, many U.S. conservatives also view Russia as the savior of Christian values and a welcoming venue to spread their message. 

Second, American evangelical groups won’t necessarily receive the same treatment as the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The latter eschews many of the traditional tenets of Christianity, such as the Holy Trinity and celebration of Easter, and does not participate in interfaith collaboration with other denominations in Russia. Thus, enough mutual interest appears to exist to continue this moral marriage of convenience into the future.

 


 

Kasey Stricklin is a member of the 2016-2017 CGI Rising Experts Program and is currently completing a mid-career Master’s in International Policy and Practice at the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University. Kasey graduated with a JD in 2014 from the University of Oklahoma College of Law, where she focused her research on international law, particularly international human rights.

The Center on Global Interests does not take institutional positions. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect those of the affiliated institutions or individuals.

 

 

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