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.
But Graham also cancelled a global summit for persecuted Christians scheduled to take place in Moscow last fall in partnership with the Russian Orthodox Church. The evangelist later attributed the decision to severe restrictions on missionary activity newly enacted as part of Russia’s anti-terrorism efforts, though the event was called off a few months before the “Yarovaya laws” were proposed.
Vitaly Vlasenko, director of external relations for the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, instead blamed controversy and concern surrounding Russian Orthodoxy, including the patriarch’s decision to meet with Pope Francis. (Catholic news site Cruxwrote that one of the only things the pope shares with America’s new president is a controversial willingness to associate with Russian leaders.)
Though the new anti-evangelism law has been inconsistently applied, CT reported last week that Protestants in the country are pushing the government for further review. Given the global backlash against the restrictions, any American influence—whether Clinton or Trump had been elected—would have offered evangelicals hope for easing the laws and improving religious freedom, Yoder said.
On Saturday, Trump held his first official phone call with Putin to address “terrorism and other important issues of mutual concern,” the administration reported. Neither government mentioned the hacking allegations or religious freedom concerns in their statements. The two discussed plans to meet in person.
“If they meet, I’m sure the American government or Mr. Trump, they have to address this persecution,” said Rakhuba.
Theology professor Andrey Shirin wrote that the legislation, which significantly restricts all non-Orthodox congregations, reflects the historic ties between religion and Russian culture: “This intentional connection between church and state allows the Orthodox Church to enjoy all the attendant privileges of political preference and feeds into a uniquely Russian national identity.”
Most Russian evangelicals don’t have concrete expectations for Trump to incite change in a country where they have always been the restricted minority. They have gotten used to leaning on God and toughing it out amid persecution, according to missions groups.
“The Protestants, mostly Baptists and charismatics, they don’t want to be seen as the West carrying their cause,” Yoder said. “But if behind the scenes Trump can be a help, as Nixon was in the ’70s, that kind of support is appreciated.”
In early January, the US government released new details about Putin’s reported efforts to help Trump win the election through leaked information—news that raised far more concerns in the US than it did in Russia.
Their reaction “is more like, ‘Who cares?’” said Yoder. “Russians see the US as interfering with their public life for years.” Russia’s “foreign agent” laws, a decade-plus effort to crack down on NGOs, reflect the country’s reservations over outside influence.
Rakhuba said the educated intelligentsia is less flippant. “They think it’s a very humiliating thing that [Russia] tried to do that,” he said.
The Russian nationalists who celebrated Trump’s inauguration last week have other priorities in mind, including the potential for Trump to lift economic sanctions on the country. News reports shared photos of Trump’s face next to Putin’s on tchotchkes, billboards, and even a calendar that reads, “Christianity, Superpowerness, National Ethos!”
But Rakhuba warns against conflating the two leaders. “I can’t compare these two. They’re so different,” he said. “In Russia, Putin has absolute power. He’s a dictator. There’s hope in America, where power is shared and still in the hands of the people.”
CT’s coverage of Christianity in Russia includes a deeper look at the 2016 anti-evangelism law, an essay on Russian evangelicals’ support for Putin, and a 2011 interview with the head of external relations for the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church.