Russian evangelicals would have loved to listen in on the first phone call between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin this past weekend—but for opposite reasons from many Americans.
As the recent presidential campaign turned US attention to Russia—with reports of Trump’s alleged ties to the Russian president as well as alleged hacking by Russian operatives in hopes of influencing the election—Russians were following American politics too.
“The hope for a new understanding between Russia and the USA is very strong, especially for evangelicals,” said William Yoder, spokesman for the Russia Evangelical Alliance.
Russia’s evangelical minority, roughly 1 percent of its population of 143 million, finds itself living and serving in the East-West tension between its nationalistic government and the outside evangelical groups that support its gospel work in the heavily Orthodox country.
Yet Putin’s popularity spans across religious groups in Russia, and so did Trump’s. According to campaign polls, Russia was the only country among the top 20 economies in the world that favored Trump over Hillary Clinton, and evangelicals generally sided with their compatriots.
“They see [Trump’s victory] as turning back to more traditional values, and that’s a good thing,” said Sergey Rakhuba, president of Mission Eurasia and a former Ukrainian missionary to Moscow.
Russia’s Orthodox Christians and evangelicals share concerns over traditional marriage and family; they were among the harshest critics when the US legalized gay marriage in 2015. Under a regime known for fusing politics, religion, and morality, Russians viewed Trump as the family values candidate, he said.
Rakhuba was in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, on America’s election night; he said Ukrainians, including Ukrainian evangelicals living in Russia, were more likely to oppose Trump—in part because of his characterization of Crimea, the territory taken over by Russia a few years ago.
A Ukrainian Christian and former Soviet dissident was among the evangelicals who participated in Trump’s National Prayer Service on Saturday. Joseph Bondarenko prayed in Russian for Trump’s relations with Russia, asking specifically for God “to transform the heart of President Putin and his administration” and “restore the good relationship between our countries,” Time reported.
Another factor contributing to Russian evangelical support for Trump was evangelist Franklin Graham, who prayed at Trump’s inauguration ceremony.
“You have Franklin Graham as pro-Trump, and that is taken seriously by Russian evangelicals,” said Yoder. He described Graham as the best-known evangelical leader in Russia, with more name recognition than native church leaders.
Billy Graham’s son and protége is among a handful of evangelical leaders who, like Trump, have praised Putin. As CT reported, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association put the Russian president on the cover of its Decision Magazine in 2014, and convened meetings between Russian clergy and representatives from evangelical institutions and the US government later that year.
Earlier this month, The Atlantic listed the American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer, National Organization for Marriage’s Brian Brown, televangelist Tim Bakker, and evangelical film critic Ted Baehr among Putin’s evangelical supporters, particularly for his restrictions on Russia’s LGBT community.