Why the Christian Right has embraced Putin
Last week’s arrest of Marina Butina, the 29-year-old operative who allegedly wielded sex as a weapon to spy for Russia, revealed not one but two channels into American power pursued by Russian intelligence. We’ve known for a while now that the Russians have attempted to use the NRA, and America’s love affair with guns, to shape the nation’s politics. But Butina’s other “backdoor” was more surprising: the faith community, which she infiltrated through the National Prayer Breakfast.
The annual National Prayer Breakfast dates back to 1953, and every US president since Eisenhower has regularly attended, along with much of Congress, foreign heads of state and high officials. Invitations to the seemingly bland event come on congressional letterhead.
And yet the breakfast is entirely organized by and funded through a private and deeply secretive Christian organization called the Fellowship, known by its innermost members as “The Family.”
“The more invisible you can make your organization,” its longtime leader, the late Doug Coe preached, “the more influence it will have.”
That’s a sentiment Maria Butina and her handlers in Moscow could agree with.
The National Prayer Breakfast is the Fellowship’s only public display. The event itself is spoken of within the Fellowship as a recruiting tool to bring elites into private “cells” that will “work behind the scenes.” The breakfast itself, Coe once said in a rare interview, “is only one-tenth of 1 percent of the iceberg.”
Butina was clear about what the Russians wanted: “a back channel of communication” with American conservative elites. But what was in it for the Fellowship? Why would they not only allow their big event to be co-opted for Russian influence-peddling but actively facilitate such “back channels” with the government of Vladimir Putin, an autocratic American adversary?
Because Putin is their kind of guy. The Fellowship dates back to 1935, when founder Abraham Vereide believed God told him that Christianity had been getting it wrong for nearly 2,000 years by focusing on the “down and out.” God, Vereide said, wanted him to build a movement for the “up and out,” “key men” with the power to shape whole societies for Jesus.
Democracy, Vereide concluded, would only get in the way.
He followed instead what the organization calls to this day “the man method” — bringing “key men” — and, more recently, a few “key women,” such as Butina — together in private to work things out “beyond the din of the vox populi” — the voice of the people.
It’s not just the means that are antidemocratic. God, the Fellowship believes, can be understood through a study of strongmen. “You know Jesus said, ‘You got to put Him before mother-father-brother-sister’?” the late Doug Coe was fond of preaching. “Hitler, Lenin, Mao, that’s what they taught the kids.”
This isn’t just rhetoric: throughout its history, the Fellowship has provided “back channels” to American power for a long list of dictators, from the genocidal Suharto of Indonesia to Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, where the Fellowship’s men in parliament not long ago developed legislation known, accurately, as the “Kill the Gays” bill.
Putin would be a prize of another order. American fundamentalists admire his anti-LGBTQ crusades, his revival of the Russian Orthodox Church, his “family values” lip service, his bare-chested manliness. The GOP, observed Butina in The National Interest, a conservative foreign-policy publication, “derives much of its support from social conservatives … and those that support an aggressive approach to the war against Islamic terrorism. These are values espoused by [Putin’s] United Russia.”
Most of all, they admire Putin’s strength — and they’re glad at last to have an American leader who hits just as hard, even if he may be nearly as corrupt.
At a 2017 Prayer Breakfast in Moscow, Doug Burleigh — a current Fellowship leader and lifelong Russia hand — appeared alongside Butina’s handler, Alexander Torshin, to declare “a breakthrough in relations between Russia and the US is about occur.
“I believe,” the Fellowship leader continued, “that Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump will yet become friends.”
Jeff Sharlet is an associate professor of journalism at Dartmouth College and the author of “The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power.”
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