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Evangelicals haven’t always cozied up to Russia

St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow in 1980. Photo courtesy of Ceri C/Creative Commons

The following commentary is by guest contributor Gregory Thornbury, author of  “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?: Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock.”

(RNS) — Vladimir Putin’s re-election as Russia’s president is widely believed to have been rigged. Putin’s three main opponents were murdered, forced to flee the country or disqualified and some citizens claim they were forced to vote for Putin. Russia’s history of limiting political freedom makes these events somewhat unsurprising, if worrisome.

But what is surprising is how American evangelical leaders were mostly quiet in response. We’ve heard barely a peep from most, including those in President Trump’s inner circle who speak out with regularity on political controversies.

Their silence aligns with a troublesome trend across this faith community. In recent years, leaders of this influential religious group have nurtured a growing admiration for all things Russia and its strongman, Putin. Despite Putin’s horrific recent track record on religious liberty and campaign to bar American couples from adopting at-risk Russian orphans — issues that believers claim to be of urgent concern here at home — evangelical leaders such as Franklin Graham have praised Putin as a “defender of traditional Christianity.”

Since Trump was elected, journalists at outlets such as The Economist, The Atlantic and New York Magazine have detailed the gusto with which evangelical leaders have embraced Russia for all manner of things — chief among them being the denial of certain rights for LGBT people.

Image courtesy of Convergent Books

It was not always this way.

A generation ago, evangelical luminaries denounced the Soviet Union in general, and Russian leadership in particular, in the strongest possible terms. Under the leadership of Billy Graham and its founding editor, Carl F. H. Henry, Christianity Today — the flagship periodical of evangelicalism — subjected Russia to withering critique, from its relentless persecution of religion, to its suppression of freedom in both market economies and speech.

When American secular elites called Russian dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn a dangerous zealot for his critique of Soviet totalitarian and atheistic rule, evangelicals embraced him as a new hero. Even after the fall of the Soviet Union, evangelicals kept the pressure up, calling out the suppression of religious groups competing with the Russian Orthodox Church.

One Christian artist who had personal experience confronting Russian authorities was Larry Norman – the father of Christian rock. Although he had traveled the world as a successful recording artist and touring musician, he made a fateful decision to play with his band in the Soviet-bloc country of Estonia in the fall of 1988. Jesus plus rock ‘n’ roll seemed to be too much to swallow for the Estonians’ Russian overlords. And it just so happened that he had arrived on the very night the Estonian Parliament had declared independence from the Soviet Union.

Along the way to their show, Larry and his brother Charles were poisoned by the KGB at the now infamous Viru hotel. When an ambulance filled with burly male nurses mysteriously appeared to take these Americans to the hospital for an “emergency appendectomy,” Larry and his band fled to the concert venue. Despite feeling ill, they attempted to perform the concert. Soviet soldiers shut down the show after 20 minutes. The Norman brothers and their band, Q Stone, beat a hasty trail out of the country and found safe haven in Finland.

Norman returned to Russia in 1990 and played shows in Kiev and in Moscow at the Olympic stadium. Despite the winds of change supposedly blowing in Russia, Norman wrote a song a year earlier that expressed his skepticism that much had changed despite Mikhail Gorbachev’s best intentions:

Me and my brother went to Russia,

We sang our songs and played our drums and guitars,

Am I supposed to be impressed with glasnost,

Well, what about the Christians still behind bars?

With Trump giving Russia the benefit of the doubt in the infamous Salisbury poisoning while the rest of the West was filled with certainty that Moscow was behind the attack, we remember a day when evangelicals viewed Russian authorities at best as a corrupt kleptocracy and at worst, an enemy of the freedom of religion and the dignity of all human persons. 

Image courtesy of Gregory Thornbury and The King’s College

(Gregory Alan Thornbury is author of “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?” and is chancellor of The King’s College. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.

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