When President Trump stood beside Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki last month and said, “I don’t see any reason why it would be” Russia who attempted to influence the 2016 election, the subsequent firestorm of criticism included liberals as well as prominent Republicans.
“I am a tea party conservative, that will never change. But Trump was a traitor to this country today,” tweeted prominent conservative and former congressman Joe Walsh.
But there was one group that kept uncharacteristically quiet: the president’s evangelical advisers.
“Let’s pray for @POTUS @realDonaldTrump in these key meetings,” Franklin Graham, who heads his late father’s Billy Graham Evangelical Association, tweeted before the meeting. After Trump and Putin’s press conference, Graham declined to critique the president (who would later walk back his remarks), only praising him for “pursuing peace above politics.”
There are good reasons why some Christian right leaders are less than eager to address Trump’s attempts to warm relations between the U.S. and Russia. For years, American evangelicals have cultivated ties with Russia, highlighted by a 2015 meeting between Franklin Graham, son of the late Billy Graham, and Putin in Russia.
Those ties are now facing scrutiny as, the day that Graham tweeted, news broke that the Department of Justice had charged Mariia Butina, a Russian national, for allegedly lobbying without registering as a foreign agent with the U.S. government. Authorities claim religion was a part of her scheme: Among the channels she was attempting to exploit, according to her indictment, was the National Prayer Breakfast.
Founded in 1953, with help from Billy Graham, the prayer breakfast has since become the mother of all Washington power breakfasts, with thousands of attendees packed into a ballroom at the Washington Hilton and a customary address by the U.S. president. Butina had been allegedly using the breakfast as a back channel for contacts between Russian and American faith leaders and politicians.
But it was hardly the only religious connection said to be targeted by Russian actors. Among Butina’s contacts was a Russian politician named Alexander Torshin, and together the pair allegedly attempted to broker a meeting between Trump and Putin before the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The meeting never happened, but its proposed site was a “World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians” in Moscow, organized by Franklin Graham.
Representatives for Franklin Graham said he was unavailable for an interview with Religion News Service, despite multiple requests.
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