Commentary: The other Russian collusion story involves the U.S. Christian right and the Russian Orthodox Church

(Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File) In this Saturday, July 28, 2018, file photo, Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill, left, leads a religious service as Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Eastern Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria and all Africa Theodoros II, second right, attend a ceremony marking the 1,030th anniversary of the adoption of Christianity by Prince Vladimir, the leader of Kievan Rus. The loose federation of Slavic tribes preceded the Russian state.

As we wait to learn exactly what’s in the Mueller report, there’s another Russia story that deserves our attention. It’s about collusion between the Christian right in America and the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), and it will be on display this coming weekend in Verona, Italy, at the World Congress of Families.

The WCF, in case you haven’t heard of it, is an annual event sponsored by the International Organization for the Family (IOF), a Washington-based nongovernmental organization dedicated to furthering the Christian right’s agenda by opposing abortion, same-sex marriage, legal protections on the basis of sexual orientation, and pornography around the globe. (It met in Salt Lake City in 2015.)

It was established in 1997 by Allan Carlson, a history professor at Hillsdale College, who had the clever idea of turning the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights into a charter for traditional family values.

He did this by seizing on Article 16, Section 3, which reads, “The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.” A decade later, then Metropolitan Kirill of the ROC upped the ante, justifying traditionalist policies by way of Article 29, Section 1: “Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.”

In other words, if you’re at odds with the community’s traditional family values, too bad for you.

Since Kirill became Patriarch of Moscow in 2009, WCF leaders have made their presence felt in Russia. In 2013, WCF Vice President Larry Jacobs (along with anti-gay activist Scott Lively) helped the church engineer passage of a bill that attacked LGBTQ rights in Russia by imposing fines for the dissemination of “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors.”

In 2014, the WCF was all set to meet in Moscow until Russia’s annexation of Crimea forced cancellation of the event.

“What’s new is Russia taking leadership in the traditionalist agenda, formerly advanced by Muslim states and the Vatican,” said Kristina Stoeckl, a sociologist at the University of Innsbruck, at a seminar on Orthodoxy and Human Rights at Fordham University last week. “As it goes transnational, the Russian Orthodox traditionalist agenda becomes ‘Christian Right’ with the usual Christian Right topics.”

The Verona event will include talks by Carlson, now the WCF international secretary, and Brian Brown, its president, on the American side, and, on the Russian, ROC Archpriest Dmitri Smirnov, who likes to warn of the Muslim threat to Europe, and Alexey Komov, the WCF’s Russian representative. And there will be a host of other speakers as well —family values activists from around Europe, conservative religious figures from Africa, officials from Hungary and Moldova, whose governments have embraced the traditional values agenda.

As the WCF has become more active and influential over the past decade, it has attracted the attention of liberal publications and nonprofits that track right-wing actors and activities. Disentangling the networks and relationships can be difficult, and it’s easy to fall into conspiracy-mongering.

What’s clear, however, is that America’s Christian right has come to see the ROC as a partner in an undertaking that relies on an alliance with authoritarian leaders around the world. Kirill has called Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rule a “miracle of God” in much the same way that evangelical pastor Paula White has praised President Donald Trump as “chosen by God to protect religious values.”

So if you’re still marveling at the readiness of White, Jerry Falwell, Jr., Franklin Graham, and Robert Jeffress to accept with equanimity any and all evidence of Trump Inc.’s engagement with Russia, marvel no more.

It’s part of their own program.

The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.