Pence Meets With One of Putin’s Top Clerics: Strange Bedfellows at BGEA’s World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians

Metropolitan Hilarion meets Vice President Pence, with Franklin Graham presiding. From Pence's twitter feed: "It was humbling to join people of faith at the first-ever World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians."

Yesterday, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence made headlines for his appearance at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians, where he proclaimed Christians to be among the most persecuted people in the world.

While there are parts of the world where the persecution of religious minorities, including Christians, is a real problem, the United States is not one of them. Russia, on the other hand, has enacted laws that bar Protestant groups from proselytizing on penalty of fines, and has even gone so far as to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses entirely.

At first blush, then, it might seem odd that one of the Russian Orthodox Church’s leading hierarchs, Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) of Volokolamsk—who was staying at the Trump International Hotel—not only participated in BGEA’s summit yesterday, but also, as first reported by Time, met privately with the vice president. Curiously enough, a key talking point from their meeting was that America and Russia should work together to fight international terrorism, a hallmark of the Trump campaign’s election season foreign policy rhetoric.

Metropolitan Hilarion heads the ROC’s Department of External Relations, and in this capacity he has worked tirelessly in recent years to cultivate relationships with Catholic and Protestant supporters of “traditional values” abroad, in order to work with them to promote Christian supremacy at the expense of women’s and LGBTQ rights—an example of what I call “bad ecumenism.” Such efforts are coordinated with the Kremlin’s foreign policy, which seeks to foster relationships with anti-democratic forces outside Russia. While Moscow made similar efforts during Soviet times, Russian President Vladimir Putin has rebranded post-Soviet Russia into the global standard bearer for “traditional values conservatism,” and in this capacity attracts primarily right-wing fellow travelers.

On the one hand, this policy would seem to make President and CEO of BGEA Franklin Graham a natural partner for Putin and the ROC, and, indeed, Graham has warmed considerably to both in recent years. In October 2015, Graham met with both Putin and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and all Russia, after which Patriarch Kirill declared Christians of all confessions who oppose marriage equality to be “confessors of the faith.” Graham reminded his followers on social media of his connections to Russia last month:

On the other hand, Russia’s legal restrictions on Protestants should be a sticking point for American Christians. There is more than a little hypocrisy in Graham’s allowing a leader of the Russian Orthodox Church to play an important role in his World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians—particularly considering that conservative Christians in America cry “persecution!” over far less than Protestants in the Russian Federation face.

Indeed, Graham did initially balk. BGEA’s summit was initially slated to take place in Moscow last fall, with the ROC as a cosponsor. However, last spring, the ROC quietly tabled the plan at least for the time being, and in summer Graham spun this series of events as if he had made the decision to move the event to Washington, D.C., in part in response to Russia’s anti-Protestant actions.

The Yarovaya Laws—the so-called anti-terrorism measures that contain the relevant provisions on religious activities—went into effect that July, and immediately began to be enforced. Despite coverage in Christianity Today, however, there seems to be relatively little outcry among American Evangelicals (Russell Moore and Michele Bachmann are exceptions).

What, then, are we to make of Graham’s sudden rapprochement with his erstwhile Russian partners in the global culture wars?

Graham has been an ardent supporter of President Donald Trump, who welcomed Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak (and a Russian state photographer) to the White House on May 10, a day before the start of BGEA’s summit. This oddly timed photo-op, paired with Pence’s meeting with Metropolitan Hilarion, would seem to herald a turn toward normalization of relations between the U.S. and Russia.

Evangelical leader Franklin Graham, for his part, seems happy to play his role in order to advance his agenda of Christian supremacism in the United States and worldwide—even if it comes at the expense of certain rights of Russian Protestants and other religious minorities.