Allies in Hate

08.01.13

Why American Social Conservatives Love Anti-Gay Putin

Thirty years ago, American conservatives declared Russia the enemy. But now that Putin has declared war on gays, the religious right is in full support of its freedom-limiting tactics. By James Kirchick.

During the Cold War, there existed a no more reliably anti-communist constituency than that of religious social conservatives. The Soviet Union did not pose merely a national security threat to the United States, they argued, but “godless communism” endangered the very moral fabric underpinning of Western society. Opposition to religious liberty is inherent in communist doctrine (religion, Marx wrote, being the “opiate of the masses”) and communist forces and regimes have everywhere and always trampled upon religious freedom; from civil war Spain, where communist militias burned down churches and murdered priests, to the Soviet Union, which heavily restricted religious practice (churches were the “organs of bourgeois reaction,” according to Vladimir Lenin) and restricted Jewish emigration.

But now, in a strange twist of historical fate, many of those self-same religious conservatives who cheered wildly when Ronald Reagan denounced the “Evil Empire,” are citing Russia as the world's foremost defender of traditional values. Their turnaround is oblivious to the country's broader political climate; after all, Russia today under the heel of President Vladimir Putin is arguably less free than it was in the late stages of the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev. Rather, their newfound enthusiasm for the men inside the Kremlin has everything to do with the Russian government’s anti-gay crackdown, a crackdown they relish seeing take place here in America.

On June 30, Putin signed into law a now infamous measure banning “non-traditional relationships propaganda,” a catch-all term which legal experts say prohibits everything from gay pride parades to gay couples holding hands in public. Earlier this week, one of the leading supporters of the anti-gay bill in the Duma, which passed it by a vote of 436-0, said that the Russian government has no plans to suspend the law for the duration of next year’s winter Olympics to be held in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. This puts the International Olympic Committee, with all of its paeans to international brotherhood and camaraderie, in a bind. Gay athletes, coaches, fans and family members could find themselves arrested, fined and deported on the whims of homophobic Russian bureaucrats. Gay activists have called for an international boycott of Russian vodka and the Olympics itself.

Yet while human rights organizations and democratic governments have condemned the law (which, in the words of American ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul, “contradict[s] the spirit of a democratic society"), several American religious conservatives have expressed support.

"Russians do not want to follow America's reckless and decadent promotion of gender confusion, sexual perversion, and anti-biblical ideologies to youth," Peter LaBarbera, of the outfit Americans for Truth About Homosexuality, proclaimed on his website.

"You admire some of the things they're doing in Russia against propaganda," Austin Ruse, president of the U.S.-based Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, told the Associated Press last month, before lamenting, “on the other hand, you know it would be impossible to do that here.” Ruse recently traveled to Russia, and wrote a piece for the Daily Caller entitled, “Putin is not the gay bogeyman,” in which he defended the draconian legislation.

“Openly gay ambassadors are now placed in largely religious countries,” Ruse complained. “Gay celebrations are now held in U.S. embassies, even in countries like Pakistan where such parties are calculated to deeply offend legitimate religious sensibilities and beliefs.” Of course, Christians are also discriminated against in Pakistan. Presumably Ruse also opposes the U.S. Embassy's Christmas Party, which is similarly “calculated to deeply offend legitimate religious sensibilities and beliefs”?

Ruse defends the bill on the grounds that “there is no human right to teach schoolchildren about sexual practices, neither is there a human right to parade your sexual preferences and practices down public streets.” Like many social conservatives, Ruse cannot distinguish between homosexuality, something that has existed since the beginning of human history and in all cultures, and sex, thus likening the mere mention of the former as akin to indoctrinating children “about sexual practices.”  Nor can the gay pride parades in Russia, which are routinely met with horrific violence, be described as mere displays of lewd behavior. Like other gay pride events throughout the former communist world, they are more accurately described as civil rights marches, like the 2010 parade I covered in Belgrade where a neo-fascist, acting under the blessing of that country’s Orthodox Church, punched me in the face. Perhaps Ruse should take a look at these photos of Russian pride parades and get back to me on whether they represent decent, pious Russians expressing respectful distaste for the "parade" of one’s "sexual preferences and practices down public streets."

Scott Lively, an American conservative activist largely credited for inspiring legislation in Uganda that would impose the death penalty on homosexuals, praised the Russian legislation on his website, writing, “I can’t point to any country of the world today that is a model for the rest of the world, except perhaps for Russia, which has just taken the very important and frankly necessary step of criminalizing homosexual propaganda to protect the society from being ‘homosexualzed [sic].’” In 2007, Lively traveled across Russia on a 50-city tour, during which he recommended the very measures included in the Russian bill. Lively is the author of a book entitled “The Pink Swastika,” which argues that German Nazism was a gay conspiracy.

So supportive of Russia are social conservatives that many of them plan to travel to Moscow next year for the 8th international conference of the World Congress of Families, which proclaims on its website that, “Ideologies of statism, individualism and sexual revolution, today challenge the family's very legitimacy as an institution.” Russia, the organization proclaims, is known for “its historic commitment to deep spirituality and morality.”

Acknowledging the awkwardness of the social conservative turnaround on Russia, Larry Jacobs, managing director of the Congress, told the AP that, “The Kremlin used to be a no-no for conservatives. We're going to redeem that building.”

Social conservative love for Vladimir Putin’s Russia should not come as much of a surprise. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia eventually reverted to an authoritarian system that more resembles the governance of the Tsarist period than a modern liberal democracy. Russia is now heavily influenced once again by the Orthodox Church, which has essentially become a state religion and has openly declared its support for Putin’s gangster regime. Writing in Newsweek last year, Peter Pomerantsev reported that the Church has “been critical in helping Putin recast the liberal opposition’s fight against state corruption and alleged electoral fraud into a script of ‘foreign devils’ versus ‘Holy Russia.’” Shorn of its communist atheism, Russia is now a reactionary’s paradise. Those who sensed authoritarian tendencies lurking within the American religious right have had their suspicions confirmed by such vocal support for the Russian dictator.

This preference for the strong, righteous hand was visible in the saga of Pussy Riot, the Russian feminist punk rock collective whose show trial last year after a “blasphemous” performance in an Orthodox Church became an international cause célèbre. While everyone from Madonna to Amnesty International protested, the Russian Foreign Ministry boasted that the harsh sentencing of the group to two years in prison demonstrated that it was Moscow which today stands for “Christian values” forgotten in the “postmodern West,” a point echoed by American social conservatives. “In an ironic reversal in time, as America has declared war on the church and Christians, Russians have come back to the church,” the Reverend Austin Miles wrote on the website of the Christian Coalition. “While America has allowed itself to be kicked into the gutter, Russia, the former Communist Soviet Union, has picked up the baton, rapped some knuckles and proclaimed sternly: ‘Do not foul religion or the church.’” What he and other defenders of Putin forgot to mention, however, was that the Pussy Riot protest was specifically aimed at the Church’s open and unapologetic collaboration with an undemocratic and oppressive regime.

Social conservatives’ latter-day admiration for Russian authoritarianism has its origins in one of the crucial debates that existed between Cold War-era conservative and liberal anti-communists. At the time, conservatives tended to be more willing than liberals, even enthusiastic, to make deals with nasty regimes in the third world, provided they were not communist. From Pinochet’s Chile to the Greek military junta to apartheid South Africa, anti-communist governments proclaimed their defense of traditional moral values against the threat of Marxist dictatorship. And they often found a receptive audience in a sector of the American right; see, for instance, Pat Buchanan, who lauded Spanish dictator Francisco Franco as a “Catholic savior” and listed him alongside Pinochet as “soldier-patriots.”

While American cooperation with such governments to avoid communist takeovers may have been prudent from a geopolitical perspective, liberal anti-communists were certainly more aware of, and troubled by, the moral concessions that a superpower confronted in a global struggle against a force as malignant as the Soviet Union. Unlike many conservatives, who were explicitly pro-Pinochet or pro-apartheid because they saw such regimes as upholding “tradition,” most liberal anti-communists at least acknowledged such alliances as temporary, even immoral, compromises.

Likewise today, some social conservatives, with their agenda increasingly discredited in the United States, have taken to extolling a far-off dictator as some sort of moral visionary. It is an ironic reversal of the 20th century “political pilgrim,” those Western leftists disgusted with what they took to be the feebleness of liberal democracy and who saw humanity’s bright, new future in the grand plans of Josef Stalin and his Soviet Union. Different as their politics may be, the political pilgrims of yesteryear and those of today are united by a similar aversion to freedom.