Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church has represented something of particular interest to American Christian conservatives, and vice-versa.
The Russian Orthodox Church and American Christian conservatives
For many years, and especially since 2011, the two have been working together in their goal to spread their vision of traditional social values against the cultural corruption of ‘liberalism’ and ‘tolerance’.
This suits Vladimir Putin’s agenda as he presents western liberalism as a disintegration of traditional moral values. So, unlike other post-1917 Russian leaders, he offers the church state legitimacy whilst the Russian Orthodox Church acts as a soft power arm of his regime with a shared vision of a ‘Greater Russia’ and therefore a significantly larger congregation. It strongly supports Putin in his war against Ukraine and even dedicated a cathedral to the Russian military in 2020.
In May 2011, the Russian Orthodox Church declared that Orthodox and American evangelical Christians hold the same views on matters such as abortion, the family and marriage and that they both seek “vigorous grassroots engagement” between the two groups in those areas. An alliance between the American Christian right, until then fervently anti-Russian, and the Moscow-centered Russian church was born.
The Republicans and the Russian Orthodox Church
The Christian right’s grip on the Republican Party (the GOP), goes back to the ‘moral majority’ movements of the 1970s. These evangelical movements are many and varied and they have more often than not allied to the right on the basis of traditional family values. In the mid-1990s conservative Christian intellectuals, Eastern Orthodox Churches in the States, and the Christian right, issued the Manhattan Declaration around three concepts: life, marriage and religious liberty.
It all sounds very reasonable but some translation is required: ‘life’ equals no abortions; ‘marriage’ – uniquely between men and women, totally opposed to gay marriage, and the only legitimate basis for a sexual relationship; and religious liberty, which is associated with exemptions from civil rights laws regarding life and marriage, also known as ‘conscience clauses’ such as the ‘freedom’ to refuse to provide an abortion.
The Christian right in the States have been willing to accept ‘imperfect vessels’ such as Donald Trump to further their cause and to ensure that a Republican president is elected to give them, among other things, a supreme court composition necessary to overturn Roe v Wade. Abortion is highly problematic to these groups as it is seen as a symptom of a degenerate society in which sex is regarded as more than a means of reproduction, but also as a source of pleasure, especially for women. This is why women’s right to contraception is the new target and sex outside of marriage is frowned upon.
The Russian Orthodox Church is in total alignment with these views and is working to further the cause on an international basis. An example of this is the strikingly similar operation last Autumn when the Russians and the Republicans launched simultaneous attacks on gay literature in November 2022. Putin passed his ‘gay propaganda’ law as certain Republicans were banning books discussing race or LGBT+ issues in some states across the USA.
It could never happen here…
Stanley Johnson is the perfect example of an imperfect vessel preaching the word when he said that native Britons (whatever that means) should breed more because immigrants arrive and have lots of babies when home grown women aren’t reproducing at a fast enough pace.
You take that view, sprinkle it with a bit of religion and you open the door to all sorts of currently influential conspiracy theories such as the ‘great replacement’ and Christian persecution theories.
The first lesson from America: use the law
A crucial tactic in the States is to use Christian legal centres to challenge government legislation and further their agenda through the courts. This is being played out in America with ongoing cases concerning access to abortion, and potentially rights to contraception and gay marriage.
In the UK the tactic is being replicated by set-ups such as Christian Concern, previously the Lawyer’s Christian Fellowship co-founded by Andrea Williams Minichiello, who worked closely with Nadine Dorries on an anti-abortion campaign. The organisation’s stated aim is to alter the law and to influence the media and government.
Its sister organisation, the Christian Legal Centre, has adopted tactics from wealthy evangelical groups in the US, notably the powerful Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), with whom it has close connections and which was listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Centre in 2017.
The American ADF has joined forces with the Christian Legal Centre and Christian Concern in the UK to launch the Wilberforce Academy, which aims to train delegates “for servant-hearted, Christ-centred leadership”.
The second lesson from America: use the legislature in the Commons
Last year, home secretary Suella Braverman was sacked by Liz Truss for leaking politically sensitive information to her mentor and ‘secret advisor’ Sir John Hayes. He is on the founding board of the Orthodox Conservatives whose manifesto would slot quite happily alongside those to be found in Texas or Moscow. He shares a place on the board with Benjamin Harris-Quinney, who in 2015 spoke at an anti-gay conference at the Church of Christ the Saviour in Moscow.
Hayes also has links with Turning Point UK, an offshoot of a group of the same name in the USA with its stated mission being “to identify, educate, train, and organise students to promote the principles of freedom, free markets, and limited government”. It has a ‘faith’ section dedicated to promoting a culture war agenda aimed at attracting supporters among religious conservatives.
In the Lords
In February of this year, HOPE not hate uncovered a secret Christian organisation the New Issues Group, operating within the House of Lords which seeks to promote anti-Muslim and immigration legislation. HOPE not hate suggests evidence of funding from US evangelicals being funneled into the UK to support them and said that the documents they received appear to show that the New Issues Group has set up a series of charities and had a hand in the creation of a number of anti-Muslim and far-right organisations.
Hand in hand with the American Christian right and the Russian Orthodox Church
These groups’ agendas mirror the highly traditionalist views of their counterparts in the US and in Russia, and several of their organisations are closely linked. In the UK we have historically been discreet when it comes to matters of faith, but in recent years a network of evangelical conservative Christian groups, sometimes offshoots of American counterparts, has sprung up.
Intolerance, when presented as faith, is harder to argue against than simple bigotry and the history of the world is littered with examples of how religion, in all its articulations, can be usurped for political, and usually intolerant, ends.