For most of the past century, America’s conservative Christians and conservative politicians were united in the firm belief that the communist USSR — and later, Russia — was anti-American, anti-God and a threat to the world. In the 1950s, a young Billy Graham preached the Cold War as a holy crusade. In the 1970s, Hal Lindsey’s “The Late Great Planet Earth” claimed the biblical book of Revelation said the Soviet bloc would play a major role in the apocalypse and the second coming of Christ.
But that script has been flipped during the last decade as traditional family values have brought together supporters of “Christian America” and “Holy Russia.” A handful of U.S.-based Christian nonprofits have consistently praised Russian President Vladimir Putin as a global beacon of hope — both for families and for the survival of Christianity.
In February and March 2014, Putin invaded Ukraine and annexed the Crimean Peninsula. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) featured Putin on the cover of the March 2014 issue of Decision magazine, ignoring the invasion but praising the dictator’s stand protecting children from “propaganda of homosexuality and pedophilia.”
“To be clear, I’m not endorsing President Putin,” wrote Franklin Graham, BGEA’s president and CEO, in the 2014 cover story. “Isn’t it sad, though, 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?”
“I think Russia is the hope for the world right now,” said Larry Jacobs, managing director of the Rockford, Illinois-based World Congress of Families, in 2014. Russia’s invasion of Crimea led WCF to cancel its 2014 gathering in Moscow that year, but the nonprofit continues to partner with Russia’s religious and political leaders.
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“The Russians are not our problem,” said the American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer in a 2018 post about then-President Trump and the 2016 election.
BGEA: From cold warriors to promoting Putin
Over the last eight years, Franklin Graham has had private meetings with Putin and members of his inner circle — including Vyacheslav Volodin, the Russian official responsible for overseeing Crimea’s political integration into Russia after the 2014 invasion. Volodin has been sanctioned by the U.S., but Graham has said it was an “honor” to meet Volodin, a “very gracious man.”
Putin began massing troops on Ukraine’s border in April 2021. Three months later, Graham traveled to Moscow to meet with Volodin and other religious and government leaders. The September issue of Decision magazine covered the visit in its “Good News” section, reporting the two had met for two hours. “This is the time for the U.S. and Russia to stand together,” Graham said after the visit.
Not everyone agreed. “The meeting between America’s most prominent evangelical and one of the most prominent sanctioned politicians in Russia fits a broader, years-long pattern of Kremlin-connected officials cultivating relations with American Christian fundamentalists,” said The Bulwark.
During his July 2021 visit, Graham gave a half-hour interview to RT, a Russian propaganda outlet. The Bulwark reported that during that interview, Graham declined to say whether the 2020 election was conducted freely and fairly.
BGEA has worked in Russia since Billy Graham’s 1992 crusade there and says it has much to show for it — organizing some 100 associate festivals, hosting more than 20 schools of evangelism, broadcasting more than 900 Russian-language “Hour of Decision” radio programs, dubbing and producing 20 BGEA films and video programs, translating more than a dozen books by Billy and Franklin, and publishing a Russian-language version of Decision with original content.
Though Franklin Graham has said he repeatedly talked to Russian government officials about U.S.-Russia relations and other political matters, he pushes back against claims that he has strayed from his work as an evangelist.
“This was not a political meeting and I’m not a politician,” he said in Decision. “I am a minister of the Gospel, and I’m working to strengthen relationships between the Christians in our countries. This is what my father did in Russia and it is what I continue to do in many countries around the world.” But Decision never did cover stories on Russian strongmen when Billy Graham was alive.
After a 2015 visit to Moscow, Franklin Graham announced he and leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church would organize a 2016 World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians in Moscow, but Graham postponed the summit after Russia passed new anti-terrorism laws that restricted evangelism. BGEA spent $4 million to host the summit the next year in Washington, where Russian attendees protested U.S. sanctions against their country.
BGEA’s crusade team has been working on a Festival of Hope featuring Graham that is scheduled for St. Petersburg, Russia, this July 9-10. It is not clear if the event will proceed.
World Congress of Families partners with Russian officials
Graham isn’t the only American religious leader to meet with Russian officials who have been sanctioned by the U.S. government. One such official, Yelena Mizulina, was a featured speaker at the World Congress of Families 2018 gathering.
Founded in 1997 by Allan Carlson, a former history professor at Hillsdale College, WCF is a division of the International Organization for the Family. WCF’s mission is to convene “major international public events to unite and equip leaders, organizations, and families to affirm, celebrate, and defend the natural family as the only fundamental and sustainable unit of society.”
WCF says Russia is known for “its historic commitment to deep spirituality and morality.” As managing director Larry Jacobs said, “The Kremlin used to be a no-no for conservatives. We’re going to redeem that building.”
(DISCLOSURE: In 2015, MinistryWatch President Warren Smith spoke to the World Congress of Families in Salt Lake City.)
The American Family Association defended Russia in a Bryan Fischer post that also defended President Donald Trump’s 2018 Helsinki press conference, where Trump took Putin’s word about alleged Russian election interference over the findings of his own intelligence agencies.
“So who do we have to worry about?” asked Fischer. “Well, it’s not Russians he’s worried about, it’s Americans. Americans in the United States government, Americans in the Department of Justice and the FBI, Americans who work for him.”
Meanwhile, the Family Research Council acknowledges that Putin is a danger but used the situation to make the point that “weak” Democrat presidents like Obama and Biden haven’t been able to stand up to him.
“There’s a lot of volatility outside our borders these days—and very little faith that our president has the strength to confront it,” said FRC, which has not criticized Trump’s many friendly overtures to Putin, his efforts to dismantle the NATO alliance or his praise Tuesday of Putin’s “genius” and “savvy” for Russia’s recent Ukraine strategy.
Russell Moore — director of Christianity Today’s Public Theology Project and former president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention — has pushed back on the idea of using religion as a tool for gaining political power. “If the church is simply a cultural vehicle for national stability and pride, then one can hardly expect dictators to do anything other than manipulate it,” he said.
In his recent article at Christianity Today, he said, “The witness of the church itself is at stake — because a religion that dismisses bloodthirsty behavior doesn’t even believe its own teachings on objective morality, much less in a coming judgment seat of Christ. Why would anyone listen to such a religion on how to find peace with God and gain entrance into the life to come?
“Evangelical Christians should watch the way of Vladimir Putin — and we should recognize it whenever we are told that we need a Pharaoh or a Barabbas or a Caesar to protect us from our real or perceived enemies,” Moore continued. “Whenever that happens, we should remember how to say, in any language, ‘Nyet.’”
This piece originally appeared at MinistryWatch.
Steve Rabey is a veteran author and journalist who has published more than 50 books and 2,000 articles about religion, spirituality, and culture. He was an instructor at Fuller and Denver seminaries and the U.S. Air Force Academy.