Brexit Boosters: Why the Religious Right Hates the European Union

At the World Congress of Families (WCF) annual summit in Tbilisi. May 17, 2016. Photo: Eana Korbezashvili/

The European Union has been a powerful advocate for advancing the rights of women and LGBT people. That’s why so many Religious Right activists see the EU as an enemy to “traditional values” and the “natural family”—and it helps explain why so many religious conservatives cheered the British vote to leave, and presumably weaken, the EU.

One way the EU’s equality-promoting influence has been felt has been through the requirement that countries wanting to affiliate with the EU make legal changes to meet its human rights standards. And people traveling freely within LGBT-friendly Western European nations help shift cultural attitudes.

Take Latvia, for example. Last year the Washington Post quoted a Latvian gay rights activist marveling over the difference between the overwhelmingly hostile reception that an attempted 2005 pride march received and the large festive celebration that took place last year. Said the activist, “If nobody believed we are becoming an open, democratic society, this is proof of it. We are becoming a normal European country. It’s part of being in the E.U.”

Of course, that kind of legal and cultural change is exactly what religious conservatives and right-wing nationalists are resisting. And that’s why so many American Religious Right activists warmly embrace Vladimir Putin and his allies in the Russian Orthodox Church in spite of Russia’s crackdown on free speech, independent media, religious liberty, and other democratic values.

The American Religious Right has openly sided with Russia in its posturing as the defender of Christian civilization against a decadent and secularist West—which nationalist forces in Russia reportedly disparage as “Gayropa.” The American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer has called Putin “the lion of Christianity, the defender of Christian values, the president that’s calling his nation back to embracing its identity as a nation founded on Christian values.” Anti-gay activist Matt Barber has said Putin is being allowed to “out-Christian our once-Christian nation.”

Religious Right figures have especially rallied around Russia’s anti-gay “propaganda” law, a tool for silencing LGBT advocates and media coverage of LGBT issues—and the inspiration for copy-cat legislation popping up in Russia’s sphere of influence. The World Congress of Families’ Larry Jacobs praised the law and gushed that “the Russians might be the Christian saviors to the world.”

The World Congress of Families is a global collection of culture warriors that oppose legal abortion, legal recognition of LGBT rights, and comprehensive sex education. The WCF has a long relationship with Russian politicians, oligarchs, religious leaders, and “pro-family” politicians, what one reporter has called “a Bible Belt-to-Kremlin collaboration around its anti-choice and anti-gay agenda.” The vilification of the European Union and its human rights policies was at center stage at this year’s global WCF summit, held in Tbilisi, Georgia, in May.

It is no accident that the WCF met in Georgia, where this Russia vs. the West dynamic has been keenly felt in recent years. The event’s chair, Levan Vasadze, had led opposition to Georgia’s adoption of an EU-supported nondiscrimination law in 2014; a WCF regional conference in Georgia that year released a declaration calling the law “an unnatural and an artificial imposition of pseudo-morality upon Georgian traditional society.” Vasadze goes even further, calling the law part of “an international agenda” to “destroy the family.”

In advance of the gathering, the WCF home page featured this quote from Vasadze:

The West is attacking our Christian culture with atheism, new forms of socialism and sexual radicalism — worse than what we saw during the last 25 years when we were part of the Soviet empire. This is why we need you to come to Tbilisi and work with us.

In the U.S., just before the WCF meeting, the Christian Broadcasting Network ran a story titled “Western Invasion: Inside Georgia’s Battle Against the Gay Agenda,” in which televangelist and CBN founder Pat Robertson complained that “the fact that the European Union and the U.S. is trying to impose this lifestyle on a little country like Georgia that wants to stay Orthodox is incredible.”

This portrayal of the EU as a cultural bully is echoed by anti-LGBT advocates in Africa, including WCF’s Africa representative Theresa Okafor, who supports harsh anti-gay laws in African countries as necessary to protect the family against the “Trojan horse” of the sexual revolution. At last year’s WCF gathering in Salt Lake City, Okafor denounced “the West” for pressuring African nations to legalize abortion and “yield to sexual orientation and gender identity and what-have-you.”

Conservative Catholic and Orthodox church officials and activists find common ground in their opposition to international agreements that support a woman’s right to abortion or legal equality for LGBT people and families. Last June, Orthodox Church officials met with secretary general of the European Federation of Catholic Families Associations Anna Maria Hildingsson to strategize resistance to a report on EU strategies for promoting the equality of men and women, which the Russian Orthodox Church’s news service called “a serious attempt to exert political pressure on European countries with the aim to destroy the traditional notions of marriage and family and to legalize surrogate motherhood and abortion.” Hildingsson decried those who she said seek to “use the European Union as a lever for exerting pressure on Central and Eastern Europe whose people seek to preserve the age-old traditions and spiritual values.”

American Religious Right groups like the Alliance Defense Fund, the American Center for Law and Justice, and the National Organization for Marriage are among those who take a global approach to the culture war, and work closely with their counterparts in Europe through overseas operations and alliances like the WCF. Many Religious Right groups are supporting the Mum, Dad & Kids initiative, which would define “family” in European law in a way that would eliminate part of an EU directive on freedom of movement that requires member states to recognize as a person’s family member a person in a registered partnership that one of the countries treats as the equivalent of marriage.

Europe’s far-right nationalist parties, like France’s National Front, saw the Brexit vote as a boost for their anti-immigrant and anti-EU politicies. The National Front has been getting big cash loans from Russia for several years; not so surprisingly, perhaps, it backed Putin’s annexation of Crimea. Its leader Marine Le Pen has been calling for an EU exit referendum in France for three years and nationalist parties across the EU are doing the same.

Hostility toward progressive, secular Europe has a long history on the American Right. Austin Ruse, who has worked for years to keep abortion and LGBT rights out of international agreements, complained back in 2003 that Justice Anthony Kennedy, in his opinion overturning laws criminalizing consenting sex between adults, referred to an amicus brief submitted by former UN High Commission for Human Rights Mary Robinson. Ruse fumed, “If the Supreme Court continues to be guided by the decisions of the UN and the EU, US recognition of same-sex marriage could eventually follow suit.” It is probably of little consolation to Ruse that the Supreme Court’s 2015 marriage equality decision was grounded in the U.S. Constitution.

During the Obama administration, conservatives have frequently accused the president of wanting to turn America into, as Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas said in 2014, “a European socialistic state.” A few years earlier, then-Sen. Jim DeMint told the Christian Broadcasting Network, “It’s no coincidence that socialist Europe is post-Christian because the bigger the government gets the smaller God gets and vice-versa. The bigger God gets the smaller people want their government because they’re yearning for freedom.”

The EU certainly didn’t make any friends on the American right when in May it denounced the passage of anti-equality legislation by several U.S. states, arguing that the laws violated the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The statement said that “cultural, traditional or religious values cannot be invoked to justify any form of discrimination, including discrimination against LGBTI persons.”

So it was no surprise to see right-wing politicians, including Donald Trump, praising the Brexit vote even as financial markets tanked on the news. Newt Gingrich said the Brexit vote gave Americans “fresh hope that they, too, can shrug off a radical and heavy-handed Obama administration, whose goal is to ‘fundamentally transform’ or nation into just another liberal neighborhood in the global community.” Ted Cruz said the British people “will no longer outsource their future to the E.U.,” and said the U.S. can learn from the referendum.

Similarly the anti-LGBT Family Research Council celebrated Britain’s decision to leave “the suffocating authority of the European Union” where people “see their individual needs vanish in a multicultural pot, as the E.U. consolidates more power.” The American Center for Law and Justice called the vote a rejection of globalism and unelected elites and “a rebirth of nationalism.”

The right-wing Catholic Vote called the vote a victory for the principle of subsidiarity, the idea that problems are best handled as locally as possible, which is often cited by conservative American Catholics opposed to federal spending on social programs. Catholic Vote’s Brian Burch connected the vote directly to the 2016 election in the U.S. “In some ways, Margaret Thatcher’s shocking win in 1979 foreshadowed an electoral shift in the United States a year later,” he wrote. “Perhaps history is repeating itself.”