Franklin Graham, Russia and the ‘Moralist International’

The war in Ukraine has made strange bedfellows of the international religious right.

Franklin Graham, right, meets with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill on March 5, 2019. Photo courtesy of the Moscow Patriarchate

(RNS) — Four days before Russia invaded Ukraine, Franklin Graham tweeted, “Pray for  President (Vladimir) Putin today. This may sound like a strange request, but we need to pray that God would work in his heart so that war could be avoided at all cost.”

I think we can mark that prayer down as unanswered. The Holy One’s response, assuming there was one, seems to have been more along the lines of what happened when Moses put the pinch on Pharoah to let the Hebrews go free. According to the Book of Exodus: “And the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh.” 

Since Putin’s heart to date shows no sign of softening — last week he likened his opponents to a plague of gnats — Graham might assume the righteous prophet’s voice. As he did in 2015, for example, when he railed that then-President Barack Obama “has stood defiantly against God. And against his teaching. And the teachings of the Scriptures.”

I’ll go out on a limb and say that to invade a country without provocation and promiscuously kill its civilians is to stand against Graham’s God and Scriptures.

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To his credit, Graham has committed Samaritan’s Purse, the relief organization he heads, to providing relief to the victims of Russian war-making. But as for his issuing a prophetic denunciation of Russia, I’m not holding my breath. It would mean disavowing an alliance he has been involved in for years. 

That alliance is the subject of “The Moralist International: Russia in the Global Culture Wars,” a book by University of Innsbrück sociologist Kristina Stoeckl and Russian scholar Dmitry Uzlaner, forthcoming this fall from Fordham University Press. Stoeckl and Uzlaner show in fascinating detail how the Russian Orthodox Church turned itself into a leading promoter of “traditional family values” inside Russia and on the world stage as part of a “Moralist International” led by the American religious right.

Central to the story is Kirill, the current patriarch of Moscow, who, after the fall of the Soviet Union, seized on family values as a means by which his church could restore its traditional place in Russian society and realize an age-old ambition to supplant Constantinople as the “Third Rome” — the headquarters of Eastern Orthodoxy, if not of world Christendom.

In 2000, then-Metropolitan Kirill wrote a widely read article explaining how Russian Orthodoxy could become a public religion capable of “defining the future face of human civilization.” That meant not only standing against the morally corrupt values of secular liberalism but breaking out of a narrow Orthodox shell that eschewed alliances with conservatives in other faith communities.

Although culture warfare is alien to the Eastern Orthodox tradition, Kirill succeeded in having the Russian church embrace it after becoming Moscow patriarch in 2009. Thus, under his leadership Russians began to play an important part in the World Congress of Families, an American organization designed to spread a Christian-right agenda internationally. 

Franklin Graham tweets a photo of meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in April 2017.

Franklin Graham tweets a photo of meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in April 2017.

It was after Putin was elected president of Russia for the third time in 2012 that he himself signed on to Kirill’s agenda, signing laws that established penalties for offending religious feelings and for displaying LGBT symbols. Putin’s goal of reestablishing the Russian empire dovetailed perfectly with Kirill’s messianic ambition for his church.

Along the way, Graham has been there to facilitate the cause, meeting with Putin in 2015 and with Kirill in 2019, tweeting after the latter encounter, “I’ve been in Moscow this week & had the privilege of meeting w/Patriarch Kirill of Moscow & All Russia. It was also a blessing to meet w/evangelical leaders & other officials while there. Pray for them & for more opportunities to share the truth, hope, & life found only in Jesus.”

RELATED: How Putin’s invasion became a holy war for Russia

It seems obvious that, however the war in Ukraine turns out, Putin will have turned himself into an international pariah. The same is likely true for Kirill, who has thus far served as the war’s foremost religious apologist.

At a conference hosted by Fordham’s Orthodox Christian Studies Center last week, Stoeckl said she expected that, because of the war, the Russians would be dropping out of the global family values movement — the Moralist International. “They were on the rise to become the leading moral voice,” she said.

As for Franklin Graham, who knows?

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