The Putin-effect galvanizing evangelicals and Eastern Orthodox?

American evangelicals are finding common cause with Eastern Orthodox believers inspired by the rise of President Donald Trump and his association with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, according to scholars speaking at a recent New York conference attended by RW. Much of the conference, which was held at Fordham University in early November, echoed other observers’ claims that evangelical supporters of Trump have warmed toward Orthodoxy and Russia because of their mutual embrace of “traditional values” (see January, 2017 RW).  Nicholas Gvosdev, a political scientist at the U.S. Naval Academy, struck a different note early on by speaking about how Orthodox Americans responded to the 2016 elections, setting the stage for this unusual courtship. Trump’s economic appeal to the Rust Belt states drew in many Orthodox who have traditionally been swing voters. Trump spoke about issues that resonated with the Orthodox such as on the Balkans, Egypt, and Syria, and some appreciated his more benign stance toward Russia and Putin, Gvosdev said. During the same time, the approval of same-sex marriage and the little-known case of gay rights supporters demonstrating at an Orthodox cathedral in San Francisco in 2015 made a segment of Orthodox believers more sympathetic to the religious freedom and prolife activism of the evangelicals and Catholics.

Writer and staunch “never-Trumper” Peter Wehner said that the evangelical-Orthodox alliance is growing stronger under the leadership of Franklin Graham, whose Samaritan Purse relief ministry draws from both Russian and American funders, as well as such religious right organizations as American Family Association and the World Congress of the Family. There is “a lot of courting going on” between evangelicals and the Russian Orthodox Church over their shared pro-life stances along with their critical attitude toward Islam and gay rights, he said. Gvosdev added that Putin’s shift to a more pro-Israel stance in recent years has caught the attention of the evangelicals and is another reason for the stronger ties between these churches.

Sociologist Kristina Stoeckl of the University of Innsbruck in Austria conducted interviews with participants in the World Congress of the Family and finds that the Americans are on the “sending rather than receiving” end of this relationship as they have exported the “culture wars” to countries such as Romania, Slovakia, and Croatia where “traditional values have moved from discourse to law.” She said that Orthodox activists in these countries have led referenda in their constitutions against gay rights measures. But participants at the conference wondered whether such activism and statements by leaders really reflect the attitudes of people in the pews. Wehner said that while laypeople may not be aware of such churnings, the evangelical climate has changed under Trump. He noted that the Republican evangelical favorable support of Russia has doubled in two years. “Evangelicals are attracted to fighters who will push back against the left,” he said regarding the appeal of Putin and Trump. Gvosdev concluded that the Eastern Orthodox dialogue with evangelicals on theology has not progressed very far, and that much of the evangelical and Orthodox shared affinity for Russia and Putin is based on perception and image. “Putin equals strength and Obama equaled weakness. The optics of Russia’s intervention in Syria was seen as decisive and the image of Putin in monasteries and churches should not be [underestimated]…These images circulate both in the evangelical and Orthodox worlds,” he added.