50.50: Opinion

Is Hungary’s Viktor Orbán the US Christian Right’s new Vladimir Putin?

The fall of Putin’s star among US evangelicals leaves a void they may seek to fill with another strongman leader devoted to ‘family values’

Chrissy Stroop
Chrissy Stroop
24 April 2022, 6.15am
Victor Orbán meets EU heads of state at Versailles to discuss the Russian invasion of Ukraine
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Abaca Press / Alamy Stock Photo

In the summer of 2013, after my first of three academic years teaching at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration in Moscow, I was back in the American state of Indiana – the Republican stronghold in which I was born and raised, and whence the very evangelical former vice president, Mike Pence, also hails.

That same summer, Russian president Vladimir Putin signed his country’s ‘don’t say gay’ law, which banned the dissemination of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” to minors (known in non-Orwellian language as life-saving information that LGBTQ children need to thrive).

I was at an outdoor concert in a suburb of Indianapolis with some of my evangelical relatives when this topic came up in conversation, and I distinctly remember how dismayed I was when one of them opined on how “refreshing” it was to see a political leader “finally standing up to the gay agenda”.

That was the moment it dawned on me that Putin’s star was on the rise with the American Christian Right, a phenomenon I began to observe systematically, and on which I eventually published commentary and policy research.

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Around the time of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, Franklin Graham, the son of the world-famous Billy Graham and current head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, began to publicly express support for Putin thanks to his crackdown on the LGBTQ community. In 2015, Graham met both Putin and Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, who declared anti-LGBTQ Christians like Graham to be “confessors of the faith”.

While the tendency to look at Putin as an exemplary Christian leader for his willingness to enforce “traditional values” through the state was never universal among American evangelicals, it proved quite persistent among evangelical elites.

Neither Russia’s 2013 ban on the adoption of Russian children by Americans, nor its annexation of Crimea in March 2014, nor its 2016 passage of the Yarovaya laws, which put severe restrictions on the kinds of proselytising activities carried out by American missionaries in Russia, ultimately did much to stem the trend.

As it turns out, however, Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine is proving a bridge too far for many US Christian Right leaders, including Graham. After the initial misstep of tweeting “pray for President Putin” a few days before the invasion, which resulted in widespread criticism, Graham scrambled to clarify that he did not support the war. Nevertheless, he maintained, “There are a few things Putin has done that are right.”

In some ways, Orbán is a more natural political role model for authoritarian evangelicals than Putin

As someone who grew up evangelical and still observes evangelical communities closely, I am unsurprised at these developments.

Numerous US evangelical missionary organisations, including Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse, have a substantial presence in Ukraine, where they can still proselytise freely. Forced to choose between the Ukrainian mission field and a country that is (among other atrocities) bombing Ukrainian civilians indiscriminately, most American evangelicals will choose the former.

This leaves open the question of whether the fall of Putin’s star among evangelical Americans leaves a void they will seek to fill by lionising another foreign strongman leader devoted to a ‘family values’ platform. If this does prove to be the case, a very likely candidate is the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, a thorn in the side of the EU who promotes what he calls “illiberal democracy” and has stifled dissent against his hardline, nativist, socially conservative agenda.

Orbán is already the darling of certain far-Right Americans, such as the arch-reactionary writer Rod Dreher, a convert to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, a cradle Episcopalian. And his brand will likely receive a major boost when the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) meets in Budapest next month.

In some ways, Orbán is a more natural political role model for authoritarian evangelicals than Putin. A Calvinist himself, Orbán’s right-wing populist Fidesz party won another huge majority in the Hungarian parliament earlier this month, while Orbán himself won a fourth term as prime minister. This was thanks in large part to the backing of Hungarian evangelicals who, on the whole, find his anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ platform appealing.

While Orbán is surely Putin’s closest ally among heads of state within the EU and NATO – Hungary is a member of both – those American evangelicals who have commented on him recently seem prepared to give him a pass for this.

For example, the Christian Broadcasting Network, which was founded by notorious culture warrior Pat Robertson and has been unequivocally critical of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has begun to cautiously praise Orbán for harbouring Ukrainian refugees and hosting NATO forces for a show of strength against Russia, while at the same time “making it clear he’s on Hungary’s side, no matter what”.

With this in mind, and given the general right-wing American embrace of Orbán that is well under way, it is likely that the American Christian Right will move to build closer ties to the Hungarian premier, the Fidesz party and Christian structures inside Hungary.

It’s important to keep an eye on these developments for those of us concerned about international coalitions working to oppose women’s and LGBTQ rights, whether or not Orbán comes to loom as large among America’s elite evangelicals as Putin once did.

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