As President Obama and world leaders debate whether to go ahead with this year’s planned G-8 meeting in Sochi after Russia’s military incursion into Ukraine, American Religious Right leaders are facing a diplomatic dilemma of their own.
In September, social conservative leaders from around the globe, including representatives of several major American Religious Right groups are planning to hold the annual World Congress of Families gathering at the Kremlin. The gathering is supported by political leaders in Russian Orthodox Church and will include a joint session with the Russian parliament.
American social conservatives have rallied – with varying levels of enthusiasm – to support Russian President Vladimir Putin as his government has passed aseries of anti-gay laws and joined with the church to take up other “family values” issues. These activists, in praising Russia’s renewed push on issues such as gay rights, have largely chosen to ignore the role that social issues are playing in Putin’s larger plans.
Issues such as gay rights, abortion rights, and population growth aren’t a side project for Putin – they’re closely entwined with his tightening grip on power and what Julia Ioffe calls his “appetite for expansion.” For instance, as Buzzfeed’s Lester Feder has reported extensively, Russia and its allies in Ukraine and throughout Eastern Europe have riled up anti-gay sentiment as part of a larger agenda of fomenting distrust of the EU and the West. Putin’s anti-gay crackdown has also been useful in promoting nationalist sentiment within Russia and to provide a useful scapegoat as he tightens his grip on power.
When Larry Jacobs of the Rockford, Illinois-based World Congress of Families gushes that “the Russians might be the Christian saviors of the world” or when former Fox News producer Jack Hanick, who has been active in anti-gay causes in Russia, says that “God called on” Russia to “stand up for traditional values,” they are playing into Putin’s own narrative.
In October, leaders from major U.S. Religious Right groups including the National Organization for Marriage, Alliance Defending Freedom and Focus on the Family traveled to Moscow for a planning meeting for the upcoming conference, where they met with Yelena Mizulina, a member of parliament at the head of the Kremlin’s social conservative push and coauthor of the infamous “gay propaganda” bill.
In addition, nearly every major Religious Right group in the country is an official paying “partner” of the World Congress of Families; groups including the Family Research Council, the American Family Association, Concerned Women for America, Alliance Defending Freedom, Focus on the Family and the National Organization for Marriage, pay an annual $2,500 fee to support the organization, which is an offshoot of the Illinois-based Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society.
The American Right has found Putin’s Russia to be an ally of convenience as they work to build an international movement opposing gay rights, choice, and religious pluralism. But how far are they willing to take the relationship?