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The other Russian collusion story

In this file photo taken on Saturday, July 28, 2018, Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill, left, leads a religion service as Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Eastern Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria and all Africa Theodoros II, second right, attends a ceremony marking the 1,030th anniversary of the adoption of Christianity by Prince Vladimir, the leader of Kievan Rus, a loose federation of Slavic tribes that preceded the Russian state in Moscow, Russia. The Russian hackers unmasked by the U.S. special prosecutor last month have spent years trying to steal the private correspondence of the world’s most senior Christian Orthodox figures, The Associated Press has found, an illustration of how high the stakes are as Kiev and Moscow wrestle over the religious future of Ukraine. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

As we wait to learn exactly what’s in the Mueller report, there’s another Russia story that deserves our attention. It’s about collusion between the Christian right in America and the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), and it will be on display this coming weekend in Verona, Italy, at the World Congress of Families.

The WCF, in case you haven’t heard of it, is an annual event sponsored by the International Organization for the Family (IOF), a Washington-based NGO dedicated to furthering the Christian right’s agenda by opposing abortion, same-sex marriage, legal protections on the basis of sexual orientation, and pornography around the globe.

It was established in 1997 by Allan Carlson, a history professor at Hillsdale College, who had the clever idea of turning the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights into a charter for traditional family values.

He did this by seizing on Article 16, Section 3, which reads, “The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.” A decade later, then Metropolitan Kirill of the ROC upped the ante, justifying traditionalist policies by way of Article 29, Section 1: “Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.”

In other words, if you’re at odds with the community’s traditional family values, too bad for you.

Since Kirill became Patriarch of Moscow in 2009, WCF leaders have made their presence felt in Russia. In 2013 WCF Vice President Larry Jacobs (along with anti-gay activist Scott Lively) helped the church engineer passage of a bill that attacked LGBT rights in Russia by imposing fines for the dissemination of “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors.”

In 2014, the WCF was all set to meet in Moscow until Russia’s annexation of Crimea forced cancellation of the event.

“What’s new is Russia taking leadership in the traditionalist agenda, formerly advanced by Muslim states and the Vatican,” said Kristina Stoeckl, a sociologist at the University of Innsbruck, at a seminar on Orthodoxy and Human Rights at Fordham University last week. “As it goes transnational, the Russian Orthodox traditionalist agenda becomes ‘Christian Right’ with the usual Christian Right topics.”

The Verona event will include talks by Carlson, now the WCF international secretary, and Brian Brown, its president, on the American side, and, on the Russian, ROC Archpriest Dmitri Smirnov, who likes to warn of the Muslim threat to Europe, and Alexey Komov, the WCF’s Russian representative. And there will be a host of other speakers as well —family values activists from around Europe, conservative religious figures from Africa, officials from Hungary and Moldova, whose governments have embraced the traditional values agenda.

As the WCF has become more active and influential over the past decade, it has attracted the attention of liberal publications and non-profits that track right-wing actors and activities. Disentangling the networks and relationships can be difficult, and it’s easy to fall into conspiracy-mongering.

What’s clear, however, is that America’s Christian right has come to see the ROC as a partner in an undertaking that relies on an alliance with authoritarian leaders around the world. Kirill has called Vladimir Putin’s rule a “miracle of God” in much the same way that evangelical pastor Paula White has praised Donald Trump as “chosen by God to protect religious values.”

So if you’re still marveling at the readiness of White, Jerry Falwell, Jr., Franklin Graham, and Robert Jeffress to accept with equanimity any and all evidence of Trump Inc.’s engagement with Russia, marvel no more.

It’s part of their own program.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

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