The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The bond that explains why some on the Christian right support Putin’s war

Russia has become an ally in a global movement.

State Sen. Wendy Rogers (R) speaks before the appearance of former president Donald Trump at a Save America Rally on Jan. 15 in Florence, Ariz. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)
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Arizona state Sen. Wendy Rogers (R) was only one of the speakers at the Feb. 25 America First Political Action Conference to voice support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But her meme-ready remark — urging more tanks and using a crude term to call for fewer transgender people — reminds us that many on the American right see Russia as an ally in the culture wars. This long-standing alliance has forced a rift within the Republican Party since Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Even with mounting civilian casualties this week and a growing humanitarian crisis, former president Donald Trump’s most ardent supporters refuse to condemn his remarks about the “smart” invasion.

But there is another dimension to this rift, illustrated by the audience to which Rogers spoke: how this alliance of cultural conservatives in the United States and Russia has also embraced racial and ethnic bigotry. White evangelicals once saw Russia as an existential threat to traditional gender roles and sexual morality, but over the past three decades, they have forged a partnership in a global family values movement that not only embraces sexual and gender traditionalism but sees these practices as a solution to demographic changes around the globe.

In fact, GOP-proposed state-level anti-transgender and “Don’t Say Gay” bills actually echo Russian laws — which isn’t surprising since U.S. conservatives contributed to the Russian legal prohibitions. That’s become a real problem for Republican leaders, who over the past week have rejected not only AFPAC’s support for Putin’s war but also the group’s explicit white nationalism, antisemitism and incitements to violence.

American critics condemned the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in overtly sexual terms: Collectivizing farms and factories, they charged, inevitably meant collectivizing women. A Senate committee found that by destroying a wife’s dependency on her husband, communists stripped men of their masculine prerogatives and blurred gender roles — to the detriment of social order.

Anti-radical crusaders charged that Soviet women were forced to register at a national Bureau of Free Love, where any man had the right of sexual access. The sexual threat of Russia’s “red menace” galvanized organizations such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in defense of both private property and private family life. They monitored textbooks, compiled blacklists of “subversives” and defeated liberal legislation on maternal health and child welfare. “Economic bolshevism is destructive,” warned a conservative editor in 1922, “but it is nothing as compared with sexual bolshevism.”

Christian missionaries to the U.S.S.R. walked a fine line in these years. Some initially hailed the Russian Revolution as an opportunity to win souls from the shackles of what they considered the authoritarian, superstitious Russian Orthodox Church.

But Russia under the Bolsheviks challenged the very nuclear family that American Christians saw as the bedrock of civilization and property relations. The 1918 Family Code predicted that by turning domestic labor into a public service rather than a private duty, socialism would eliminate “the fetters of husband and wife.”

Over the next decade, Soviet authorities did their best to fulfill that prediction. They shuttered churches, secularized schools and removed Bibles from libraries while decriminalizing abortion, liberalizing divorce and recognizing de facto marriage. In 1929, new laws barred foreign proselytizers. Atheists organized in the League of the Militant Godless pledged to eradicate religion in the Soviet Union by 1937.

Nothing could have alarmed believers in the United States more. With atheistic Russian Communism as the enemy, Christianity and sexual and gender conservatism became crucial fronts in the Cold War.

As the United States experienced a religious revival after World War II, Republicans such as Sen. Joseph McCarthy (Wis.) latched onto the supposed security threat posed by sexual perversion and gender “confusion” for their own political gain. The Lavender Scare linked homosexuality to Russian spying, with Christianity the only bulwark against both. Sexually tinged spy scandals spurred the Truman administration to purge suspected gay and lesbian people from federal employment because they were “security risks,” a project that continued for two decades. “I do not know what homosexuals are,” sighed a congressman in 1950, “but I never saw anybody get so much free advertising in the Congress of the United States in all my life.”

Conservative Christian animosity toward the Soviet Union only grew when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev launched a new round of religious suppression in the 1960s. For conservative believers, the Communist persecution of Christians became the starting point for interpreting global politics. When glasnost began to relax curbs on communication and travel to the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, hundreds of Christian organizations quickly mobilized to take advantage of what seemed like a miracle — the opportunity for evangelism in the heart of atheism.

From 1992 to 1997, a consortium of major U.S. evangelical organizations raised $60 million to bring former Soviets to Jesus through Bible studies, Christian video courses, biblical marriage conferences and public school curriculums.

As in the 1920s, the connection between Christian sexual morality and private property relations was self-evident: The Christian College Coalition joined Russian counterparts to create a Christian business degree. And they did this with the approval of the Russian Ministry of Education, which invited the American evangelical ministry Campus Crusade for Christ to teach “Christian Ethics and Morality” to tens of thousands of Russian educators. American Christians, it seemed, could help the former atheist libertines find their way to market values and family values, for the two were mutually dependent.

What these missionaries could not have foreseen, however, was that the conversions would run both ways: Eastern Orthodox Christianity would attract Americans searching for a robustly conservative faith. In 1987, pastors from within the heart of U.S. evangelicalism officially incorporated 2,000 American evangelicals into the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. The mass conversion stemmed from White Protestant disillusionment with the freestyle worship, therapeutic ethos and perceived feminine emotionalism of their old church homes — what one influential critic labeled “The Church Impotent.” “Evangelical churches call men to be passive and nice (think ‘Mr. Rogers’),” explained a convert. “Orthodox Churches call men to be courageous and act (think ‘Braveheart’).” Such celebration of masculinity is one reason Orthodoxy is majority male, unlike any other American Christian denomination.

As right-wing religious Americans discovered Orthodoxy, so did the leaders in Moscow. First Boris Yeltsin and then Vladimir Putin found in the Russian Orthodox Church an important symbol of national unity. Their governments increasingly gave the church semiofficial status, and its Moscow Patriarchate oversaw a dramatic renaissance in the 1990s and 2000s.

These developments encouraged new forms of cooperation between Russian and American advocates of sexual conservatism, revealing the unacknowledged connection to surging global authoritarianism and ethnonationalism. Their concern with gender rigidity and sexual purity could not be disentangled from concern over racial purity. The connection was explicit in the shared panic over “demographic winter”falling birthrates among people of European descent.

In 1995, Russian demographers met with the American Howard Center for the Family, Religion and Society, a project of the paleoconservative movement that mixed Holocaust deniers, Neo-Confederates and racist anti-immigrant activists. They agreed that low White birthrates were caused by the decline of traditional family forms and gender roles — and therefore the answer was the official suppression of sexual and gender dissent.

Their efforts produced the World Congress of Families, which combines funding from conservative Russian oligarchs with the organizing know-how of groups like the National Organization for Marriage — a key player in California’s 2008 same-sex marriage ban (which was later overturned in the courts). At its annual meetings, religious traditionalists coordinate policies to promote the “natural family” and combat LGBTQ and reproductive rights around the world.

Russian Orthodox leadership in the global family values movement makes Eastern Christianity an appealing symbol for some of the most repugnant representatives of the racist right — again demonstrating the racial subtext of overt sexual conservatism. Neo-Confederates champion Orthodoxy as the spiritual home of white nationalism. Converts have played roles in the Charlottesville riot of 2017 and the Capitol insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021. The terrorist who took nine Black lives in a Charleston church had an Eastern Orthodox priest as a spiritual adviser. At the same time, the American alt-right embraced Russia as the land of unapologetic whiteness and unreformed masculinity. To the concern of many Orthodox believers, such converts are having an impact within branches of Orthodoxy in the United States.

As Russian tanks roll toward Kyiv and AFPAC speakers cheer, Putin can count on the respect many Christian conservatives in the United States have for Orthodox Russia as the international standard-bearer for family values. Certainly not all the ties between American Republicans and Russian interests are based on long-standing religious visions of traditional families and White Christian supremacy. But there is no making sense of them without that context.