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Evangelicals haven’t always cozied up to Russia

St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow in 1980. Photo courtesy of Ceri C/Creative Commons

The following commentary is by guest contributor Gregory Thornbury, author of  “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?: Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock.”

(RNS) — Vladimir Putin’s re-election as Russia’s president is widely believed to have been rigged. Putin’s three main opponents were murdered, forced to flee the country or disqualified and some citizens claim they were forced to vote for Putin. Russia’s history of limiting political freedom makes these events somewhat unsurprising, if worrisome.

But what is surprising is how American evangelical leaders were mostly quiet in response. We’ve heard barely a peep from most, including those in President Trump’s inner circle who speak out with regularity on political controversies.

Their silence aligns with a troublesome trend across this faith community. In recent years, leaders of this influential religious group have nurtured a growing admiration for all things Russia and its strongman, Putin. Despite Putin’s horrific recent track record on religious liberty and campaign to bar American couples from adopting at-risk Russian orphans — issues that believers claim to be of urgent concern here at home — evangelical leaders such as Franklin Graham have praised Putin as a “defender of traditional Christianity.”

Since Trump was elected, journalists at outlets such as The Economist, The Atlantic and New York Magazine have detailed the gusto with which evangelical leaders have embraced Russia for all manner of things — chief among them being the denial of certain rights for LGBT people.

Image courtesy of Convergent Books

It was not always this way.

A generation ago, evangelical luminaries denounced the Soviet Union in general, and Russian leadership in particular, in the strongest possible terms. Under the leadership of Billy Graham and its founding editor, Carl F. H. Henry, Christianity Today — the flagship periodical of evangelicalism — subjected Russia to withering critique, from its relentless persecution of religion, to its suppression of freedom in both market economies and speech.

When American secular elites called Russian dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn a dangerous zealot for his critique of Soviet totalitarian and atheistic rule, evangelicals embraced him as a new hero. Even after the fall of the Soviet Union, evangelicals kept the pressure up, calling out the suppression of religious groups competing with the Russian Orthodox Church.

One Christian artist who had personal experience confronting Russian authorities was Larry Norman – the father of Christian rock. Although he had traveled the world as a successful recording artist and touring musician, he made a fateful decision to play with his band in the Soviet-bloc country of Estonia in the fall of 1988. Jesus plus rock ‘n’ roll seemed to be too much to swallow for the Estonians’ Russian overlords. And it just so happened that he had arrived on the very night the Estonian Parliament had declared independence from the Soviet Union.

Along the way to their show, Larry and his brother Charles were poisoned by the KGB at the now infamous Viru hotel. When an ambulance filled with burly male nurses mysteriously appeared to take these Americans to the hospital for an “emergency appendectomy,” Larry and his band fled to the concert venue. Despite feeling ill, they attempted to perform the concert. Soviet soldiers shut down the show after 20 minutes. The Norman brothers and their band, Q Stone, beat a hasty trail out of the country and found safe haven in Finland.

Norman returned to Russia in 1990 and played shows in Kiev and in Moscow at the Olympic stadium. Despite the winds of change supposedly blowing in Russia, Norman wrote a song a year earlier that expressed his skepticism that much had changed despite Mikhail Gorbachev’s best intentions:

Me and my brother went to Russia,

We sang our songs and played our drums and guitars,

Am I supposed to be impressed with glasnost,

Well, what about the Christians still behind bars?

With Trump giving Russia the benefit of the doubt in the infamous Salisbury poisoning while the rest of the West was filled with certainty that Moscow was behind the attack, we remember a day when evangelicals viewed Russian authorities at best as a corrupt kleptocracy and at worst, an enemy of the freedom of religion and the dignity of all human persons. 

Image courtesy of Gregory Thornbury and The King’s College

(Gregory Alan Thornbury is author of “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?” and is chancellor of The King’s College. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.

24 Comments

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  • Gregory Thornbuy writes,

    “Since Donald Trump was elected, journalists at outlets such as ‘The Economist,’ ‘The Atlantic,’ and ‘New York Magazine’ have detailed the gusto with which evangelical leaders have embraced Russia for all manner of things — chief amongst them being the denial of certain rights for LGBT people.

    It was not always this way.”

    As I think about what white evangelicals (and white Christians in general) have shown themselves capable of at this point in American history, the words of former Republican National Committee chair (and former Catholic seminarian) Michael Steele yesterday:

    I said have said before, for the last thirty-five years, you have condemned everybody else in this country for how they lived their lives, very publicly and in a very embarrassing way. Here you have a man in the White House with all of this “ish” coming out about him and his behavior — and you’re giving him a mulligan?

    I said before, repeat here again, we don’t want to hear it.

  • Not to mention, they are going after the JW’s as well, and the Russian Ortho church is getting the theocracy it only dreamed of after the czars.

  • Our present situation brings to mind Odysseus’ journey between Scylla and Charybdis, only Trump’s hyperkinetic impersonation of a pinball on steroids lacks the stout resolution of the Greek hero. Speaking as a conservative Evangelical of unquestioned credentials, I’m disturbed by the those Evangelical leaders who unblushingly fail to endorse the chief executive’s actions without a hint of reservation.

  • Because religiously conservative Christianity tends to produce members who have varying degrees of authoritarian personalities, it is not surprising that some favor elite-centered rule provided that they like the elites who are in charge. And if you combine that with Church history and how the dominant branches of the Church have tended to support wealth and power, that SOME Christian evangelical leaders did not criticize the election of Putin should come as no surprises. After all, in the past, many of these same leaders unconditionally supported US foreign policies that facilitated the replacement of a democratically elected left-leaning foreign leader with a dictator approved of by our government.

    I am happy that Thronbury is drawing attention to the absence of a response to Putin’s election by evangelical leaders who support Trump but that lack of response shows that nothing has really changed from the time when Billy Graham and Carl Henry criticized the Soviet Union.

  • “that SOME Christian evangelical leaders did not criticize the election of Putin should come as no surprises”

    Do you have examples of ANY who criticized the election?

    Any who criticize Putin in general?

    As with Trump, Evangelicals throw their lot in with the obviously immoral in exchange for getting concessions to their agenda. Power being far more important than values.

  • Spuddie,
    I am working from the article and the avoidance of making assumptions. There was a movement of some evangelical leaders to oppose Trump during the election. And Trump has faced evangelical criticism for supporting Putin (for example, see https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/why-i-dont-think-you-must-vote-for-lesser-two-evils/ ). BTW, you might want to check why Protestants in Russia supported Putin despite Russian laws that target them (see https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2018/march/russia-protestants-president-putin-election.html )

    The statement that evangelicals supported Trump can only be made as a general statement.

  • The enemy of my enemy is my friend…

    Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely…

    God controls everything. God gave us trump. Who am I to question god?…

    Pretty much sums it up.

  • Of course Evangelicals have cozied up to Putin. Putin got their candidate elected to the White House. Why would they care about anything else, like Democracy, freedom of religion, freedom of expression, assassination of political opponents, or any of the other countless horrible things Putin has done. Putin got Trump in office, which means more pro-lifers on the supreme court, which means more control over female sexuality. And in the end, that’s all Evangelicals care about.

  • You’re talking about the movie Oh Brother Where Art Thou, right? As a conservative evangelical of unquestioned credentials it only makes sense that Trump would not compare well to George Clooney. But if you can imagine Clint Eastwood playing Clooney’s part…that, would make my day.

    As a conservative evangelical of very questionable credentials, I’m not at all disturbed by evangelical leaders who do not unblushingly fail to endorse Ulysses’s actions without a hint of reservation.

    Glad to see you posting again, I thought you got turned into a toad. (That probably only makes sense if you have seen the movie)😊

  • Just someone who pays attention and, unlike you, actually cares about foreign governments meddling in our elections. We all know you wouldn’t care even if it was true. You’d cheer if Trump shot a man on national television.

  • Show me some proof of those accusations. You know nothing about me, my political affiliations, nor my views on Trump. Altogether amazing how you can spew blatant lies about someone you know NOTHING about.

    But for the record, I believe it is wrong for foreign governments to meddle in our internal politics, just as it is wrong for our government to meddle in the internal politics of foreign countries, sponsor coups, etc.

    Would I cheer if Trump shot a man on national television? That depends on the man. If it were a shooter gunning down school children, then, yeah, I probably would cheer.

    My question to you is: Would you cheer if someone shot Trump on national television?

  • Right or wrong, how my people of faith perceived of USSR then, and what they think of Russia now, don’t really matter. Because, TRUTH IS, according to James Petras, “Why the UK, the EU and the US Gang-up on Russia”, Global Research, March 21, 2018:

    “The Western regimes recognize that Russia is a threat to their global dominance; they know that Russia is no threat to invade the EU, North America and their vassals. … Western regimes believe they can topple Russia via economic warfare including sanctions. In fact Russia has become more self-reliant and has diversified its trading partners, especially China, and even includes Saudi Arabia and other Western allies. … The UK has attempted to unify and gain importance with the EU and the US via the launch of its anti-Russia toxic conspiracy. … [However] while the EU and Washington may back the UK crusade against Russia they will pursue their own trade agenda; which do not include the UK. … [But none of that matters.] Russia will remain a global power … under the leadership of President Putin.”

  • Putin’s election was/is covered by Global Research, ZeroHedge, SOTT, Consortium News & The Duran. Tell me your thoughts on their reporting.

  • I have not. It was recommended by a friend, but I’m not a real Clooney fan; I much prefer his aunt Rosemary. A toad…well, maybe. I just grew weary from all the vitriol. I have pledged to comment sparingly and with the utmost courtesy I can muster towards those with opposing views. If I fail in that, I’ll clam up again. But I definitely will not respond to ad hominem attacks and polluted language. Cheers.

  • What, then, does your own notion of “the absence of a response to Putin’s election by evangelical leaders who support Trump”, have to do with the nature & meaning of that election in the context of today’s geopolitics?

    Noone’s talking about that context except those independent journalists I mentioned. Not even you.

    Our Evangelical brothers & sisters are dumb in this regard, but it’s even dumber to dignify that dumbness of theirs.

    Larry Norman. I can’t believe he received such publicity in this article.

  • HpO,
    I am willing to give them time to see how they will respond. We have a bigger problem here with Trump being President than Putin being President of Russia. I oppose both presidencies but I am just one person.

    As for saying that our Evangelical brothers and sisters being dumb and dumber, I can only remember the parable of the two men praying or James 2:1-13. When we who live by God’s mercy judge others without regard to that mercy, then we are asking to be judged without mercy. That doesn’t mean that these Evangelical leaders aren’t wrong in this instance, it does mean that I too have my moments and that is why I need to live by God’s mercy.

  • Evangelical so called Christians are behaving just like their forefathers, the Calvinists. They really do not care who is hurt, but only care about seizing power just like Calvin & Cromwell.

  • In the geopolitical grand scheme of things that is Cold War II right now, our Evangelical people are:

    IRRELEVANT
    INNOCUOUS
    INCOHERENT

    Like brother Larry Norman.

    Like you & I.

  • Here you go, folks, the latest & greatest OXYMORON: “Evangelical so called Christians … only care about seizing power just like Calvin & Cromwell” – hence, “Evangelicals [have] cozied up to Russia”!

    It’s one thing to know history, but it’s another to historicize everything.

    HISTORICISM. Look it up.

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