Christians often say they are persecuted for their beliefs in modern America. I say, no, for the most part, I don’t believe that’s true. Christianity is privileged in many ways in the U.S. However, listing those ways isn’t the main point of this brief post.
I mainly want to point out actual persecution and hold up the bravery of a Russian citizen who simply held up a blank sign.
Police in Nizhny Novgorod arrested a demonstrator today for protesting with a blank sign. Welcome to Russia in 2022. pic.twitter.com/YprwDqex8V
This woman was taken away simply for holding up a sign with nothing on it. I suppose it was understood that she was protesting the war in Ukraine. However, in a country where the dictator has a history of killing dissidents, this was an act of bravery.
Yesterday, Eric Metaxas tweeted this defense of admitted Russian agent Maria Butina (see my post about her case):
It was a forced plea agreement. Totally shameful that they did this to her, threatening her with another YEAR in solitary. Wait till the whole story comes out if you care about the truth. The only good thing is her faith has gotten much stronger as a result of her sufferings. https://t.co/tOPf5OoNTn
Butina was charged in July with attempting to advance Russian interests via the development of contacts within the Christian right, the National Rifle Association and the Republican party. Last week, she struck a plea agreement in which she admitted her guilt in exchange for a reduced sentence. About 97% of such cases end up in a plea agreement.
In 2015, Metaxas interviewed Butina on his radio program. With the two tweets shown above, he has come to her defense. In doing so, Metaxas has adopted the position of the Russian government over his own. The only people espousing the view that Butina was kept in or threatened with solitary confinement and forced into a plea are Russian authorities and their sympathizers. According to the Voice of America fact checking website Polygraph, Butina and her attorney said in court that she was allowed visitation and time out of her cell.
During the hearing for the change of plea Butina and her lawyers denied any physical or psychological pressure telling the judge the decision to enter the plea deal was voluntary.
Butina’s attorney Robert Driscoll told the court his client is allowed a “time out of her cell, daily activities and visitations, including those from the representatives of the Russian foreign ministry,” and that she is “doing well and competent.”
In addition to her own statement and her lawyer’s statement, we have a transcript of a pre-trial conference call where it is clear that Butina’s rights were respected. Not only did Butina get counsel about the nature of her right to a plea agreement, she had another attorney advise her when her own attorney thought there might be a conflict of interest. In the transcript, it is clear that Butina had been talking to other inmates and had been allowed to talk to others, including journalists, on monitored phone calls.
Metaxas’ tweet is interesting in that he implies he has information that isn’t public. “Wait until the whole truth comes out,” he pleads. Somehow he knows something about her faith he tells us. Has he spoken to her? He should enlighten us about his sources. The only sources I can find for the story that she has been kept in solitary confinement or threatened with any unusual treatment is Russia Today and the Russian Foreign Minister.* As noted above, those claims fly in the face of what Butina and her lawyer told the judge in the plea agreement hearing (although in November her attorney did claim she had been in solitary confinement at least some of her stay in jail. The U.S. Attorney’s office did not confirm or deny it).
Given what we have learned over the past year about Russian disinformation campaigns in the U.S., it doesn’t seem prudent or wise to trust the word of Russian authorities. While I don’t accept everything anyone tells me without examination, I reserve the highest level of skepticism for Russian claims. There is a high likelihood that these stories of torture and threats of unusual solitary confinement are aspects of an ongoing disinformation campaign the Russians have cultivated among conservative Christians (see this Christian Post article). Sadly, without providing any evidence, Metaxas is helping the Russians promote their position.
*(UPDATE: In November 2018, Butina’s attorney Robert Driscoll claimed in court that Butina had been held in solitary confinement for 22 hours at a time for a combined 67 days. There was no confirmation of this claim by the Justice Department. In her plea agreement hearing, Driscoll and client told a different story.
Having come across this media report, I am prepared to revise my position. I will wait to get more information now that Maria Butina’s gag order has been lifted and her plea deal becomes clearer. I would also like to hear from the Justice Department. When I contacted the DOJ, the answer was “no comment.”
Importantly, the sentencing has not yet occurred, and the government holds in its sole discretion the determination of whether the defendant has offered “substantial assistance” to other investigations and will evaluate, as will the court, the defendant’s acceptance of responsibility. Thus, the defendant and her counsel have no incentive to publicly contradict the Statement of Offense or her guilty plea or otherwise take issue with the plea, nor to discuss any aspect of possible cooperation.
In other words, Butina isn’t going to debate or dispute the governments account of her treatment or whether or not she was forced to enter a plea deal. She and her attorney already said she did so voluntarily.
On July 18, Ruth Graham wrote in Slate “Mariia Butina’s cozy relationship with the Christian right makes total sense.” Butina is the Russian national who was recently indicted on charges of conspiracy and acting as a agent of the Russian government.
Much of the Christian right views contemporary Russia with a surprising fondness, and it’s a coziness that predates the Trump administration.
Graham then mentions Pat Buchanan, Bryan Fischer, and Franklin Graham as evangelicals who have praised Putin’s hard line on gay and abortion rights. Despite Putin’s authoritarian tactics, some Christian nationalists like the morality he legislates.
Enter Scott Lively
Although there have been many influences on the development of current policies in Russia toward gays over the years, one simply cannot overlook the role of current GOP candidate for governor in MA, Scott Lively. In 2006 and 2007, Lively toured 50 cities in seven former Soviet bloc countries, including Russia spreading his anti-gay message. In a 2013 blog post, Lively celebrated the passage of a Russian law which banned teaching about homosexuality in schools.
On January 25th of this year the Russian State Duma, its highest legislative body, voted to prohibit homosexual advocacy to children, following the enactment of similar legislation in a number of Russian cities including St. Petersburg, and Novosibirsk (the capitol city of Siberia).
I am personally very pleased to see this development, having called specifically for legislation of this sort in my speaking tour of the former Soviet Union in 2006 and 2007. During that tour, which began in the Russian Far East city of Blagoveschensk and ended in St. Petersburg, I lectured in a variety of venues including numerous universities, churches and conference halls, and met with numerous government leaders at various levels of influence. The entire tour spanned approximately 50 cities in seven countries: Russia, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Ukraine, and Belarus (we also passed through Kazakhstan but didn‘t speak there).
Toward the end of the tour I published, from St. Petersburg, A Letter to the Russian People (see below) which summarized my central message that I had shared in well over 300 lectures, sermons and media interviews during the prior year.
My pro-family message was warmly welcomed by the people of each of these countries, and to varying degrees the homosexual agenda has been slowed in all of them. To my knowledge the only two Eastern European countries to pass pro-family legislation designed to curtail the spread of homosexuality are Russia and Lithuania, which are coincidentally, the only two countries to whose people I wrote an open letter. My Lithuanian letter can be viewed online at www.defendthefamily.com.
Here you can watch Lively in action speaking in a Russian church. Notice how the audience begins to clap when Lively says a gay man dies.
He also appears in this Russian documentary.
Although it might giving Lively too much credit, he certainly deserves some responsibility for giving Russian leaders a wedge issue to use to compete with the West. In an interesting twist, American evangelicals who have excused Donald Trump’s moral failings have had practice by praising ruthless Putin for his support for traditional morality in Russian law.
Those waiting for an uprising of Christian leaders to condemn Donald Trump for softness toward an authoritarian dictator in Putin can keep waiting. Many evangelicals of the Christian nationalist persuasion think evangelical morality can and should be legislated, even if you have to overlook some things.
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In March of this year, one of the organizers of the National Prayer Breakfast Doug Burleigh joked about Russian collusion with Jesus prior to delivering a sermon at a church in Tacoma, WA. Then last week, in a federal indictment, it was alleged that Russian national Maria Butina used her connections with the NPB to carry out conspiracy activities. Although the prayer breakfast organizer was not named in the indictment, Mr. Burleigh is the NPB member responsible for coordinating with the Fellowship’s representatives from Russia.
Prior to his sermon, Burleigh told his audience that MSNBC talk show host Joe Scarborough found out the number of Russians attending the NPB in 2018. However, Burleigh dismissed any concerns about that as “fake news.”
Burleigh told the group that he had 61 Russians and 52 Ukrainians at the event this year. Then at 1:02, he said:
Thursday was the breakfast, the 8th of February, and I started getting texts from all over the country. ‘What’s the deal with the Russian collusion?’ Well, I’m going to personally share with you a little fake news okay that I ran into is the morning guy on MSNBC who hates Trump Joe Scarborough, he goes, ‘I hear that there’s more Russians than have ever come to the prayer breakfast before and that’s true. But what he didn’t know is that a lot of them were young professionals we invited to lift up Jesus and we had six wonderful times with them. He said, ‘there must be collusion, obviously there’s something going on, so I got friends from around the country going what’s the deal with the Russian collusion. And I said, ‘boy there’s big time collusion: it’s the Russians and Jesus, that’s the collusion.
In the July 14 indictment it is alleged that in 2017 two of the Russians who were supposed to be “colluding with Jesus” at the prayer breakfast were Maria Butina and Alexander Torshin. In fact, both Butina and Torshin may have been working the religious group on behalf of the Russian government. Because Butina asked, according to the indictment, the NPB organizer offered to give Butina 10 Russian spots for the 2017 event. It is not clear if that happened or if there were any requests for the 2018 event.
His Tacoma speech wasn’t the first time Burleigh expressed a dim view of the U.S. media. At a Russian prayer meeting in May 2017, Burleigh spoke to a group affiliated with the American Fellowship. After the meeting, he spoke to writer Andrei Tyunyaev.
At about 2:25, Tyunyaev asked Burleigh a question:
Tyunyaev – The fact that you are present here after a few years of a going down relationship between Russia and America and growing tension and so just for us it’s a good thing so what’s your impression, what’s your hope for the future?
Burleigh: I’m very hopeful. The reason I’m hopeful is Mr. Trump is a relational person. He’s a negotiator. He’s going to sit down with Putin and they’re going to talk. And I think, we have an expression in America – win-win. I think he wants a win-win situation. I’ll bet Mr. Putin wants a win-win situation. In other words, both sides win. So how’s that going to happen? When they get together and talk. You know in our country, it’s always strange to in divorces, the attorneys tell the husband and wife not to talk to each other. How can you possibly reconcile with somebody you can’t talk to? The real estate agent tells the seller not to talk to the buyer. You know why that is? He’s worried about losing his commission. He doesn’t care about them getting the best deal they can get.
So the reason I’m hopeful is I think our president really wants to talk to your president. I think they’re both intelligent people. Neither of them wants war. I know that. People always tell me Americans want war. No we don’t. And the reason I know you don’t is I’ve been coming here for 52 years. War to an American is going to Vietnam or Afghanistan. War to a Russian is the tanks coming down the streets of your house. You understand war far better than we do. And I tell my American friends that all the time, you don’t want war. So I’m hopeful.
By the way, some of my best friends are Russian. They’re loyal, faithful and loving. So some of my best friends are American, and they are loyal, faithful and loving. So we just gotta get them together.
Tyunyaev: So when we learned after the prayer breakfast that Mr. Trump would become the president of America, we were pretty cheerful and supportive of that fact. We can see the difficulties that he has to overcome to change the structure. We believe in Mr. Trump’s intelligent and smart approach to the issues, walking toward each other and not away from each other.
Burleigh: Yeah, and the problem in our country is press hates Trump, okay? And I think the press is so biased that you don’t get a true story from them. Let me give you an example from last week is the president said he would be honored to meet with the president of North Korea. I thought, ‘that’s the first time anybody’s ever said that.’ All the press could focus on was the word ‘honored.’ He said he be honored to meet with him!?
Tyunyaev: That’s a step of friendship
Burleigh: Of course it is. He went the extra mile to affirm him. What’s wrong with that?
National Prayer Breakfast: Non-Partisan?
Those close to the Fellowship Foundation that I have spoken to insist that the organization is non-partisan. In fact, one recently told me that if the Fellowship and NPB were perceived as pro-Trump (or pro anybody), the “group would self-destruct.”
In contrast, Burleigh portrays a positive stance toward Trump in these and other public statements. His criticisms of the press are startling and parrot the Trump talking points. In fact, the press coverage of Trump’s announcement in May 2017 about meeting Kim Jong-un was straightforward and only reported what Trump said. In reaction to Trump’s words, many pundits and experts criticized Trump which the press also reported. Furthermore, some raised the observation that conservatives criticized Obama when he offered to meet with our enemies without preconditions.
Has the Fellowship taken a pro-Trump, pro-Russia position? Not uniformly. However, it does appear that Doug Burleigh seems gullible when it comes to the Russian interest in the religious aspect of the NPB.
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It has been fascinating to watch the differences of perspective play out in the controversy over possible improper links between Donald Trump’s campaign and people associated with Vladimir Putin. Two illustrations follow. First, listen to Evelyn Farkas described her efforts to alert colleagues in the Obama administration about the need to preserve information pertinent to possible Trump collusion with Putin loyalists.
The Trump supporter who tweeted this video claims Farkas’ statements establish that she helped Obama spy on Trump. Her statements are being played on right wing outlets this morning as evidence that Obama really did spy on Trump. For instance, Hugh Hewitt played the video for White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and tweeted this:
Getting @Reince45 on the record re Evelyn Farkas statement should oblige every MSM outlet to cover story and this aspect of #RussiaStory
Farkas didn’t say she or anyone spied on Trump. In the context of discussing Russian interference in our election, she said there was intelligence about possible connections between Trump’s staff and Russia. Farkas didn’t say how they got the information but she was clear that she didn’t want Trump’s people to keep it from seeing the light of day. Trump supporters are focusing on the possibility that Trump was being surveilled. However, what I think is much more important is the core of Farkas’ claim. She said intelligence exists which ties the Trump campaign in some manner to the Russians. Is the leaking of such information a problem or is it whistleblowing?
Second, watch Speaker of the House Paul Ryan explain Devin Nunes’ decision to brief President Trump about information he received from a “whistleblower-type person.” Keep in mind that Nunes and the Republicans have been quite critical of those who have leaked intelligence to the press. Apparently, whistleblowing is fine but leaking is bad, even though one must leak to blow the whistle.
Ryan: Nunes told me whistleblower gave him info & “he was going to brief others”
Trump apologists see in Farkas’ words an admission of spying and vindication for Trump’s claims of being “wiretapped.” They seem more outraged about Trump surveillance than the possibility that Trump’s people colluded with Putin’s people. In contrast, if there was collusion between Trump and/or his campaign staff with the Russians, then I am glad the previous administration found out and preserved the intelligence.
When Barack Obama was president, evangelicals and conservatives cared about Ukraine. They believed Obama was weak and unwilling to confront Vladimir Putin’s expansionism into Ukraine.
Now, evangelicals are largely silent about President Donald Trump’s warm words toward Russia’s leader and confusing rhetoric about Ukraine.
An early signal of this shift was obvious at the GOP National Convention when Trump’s supporters watered down a key pro-Ukraine plank in the party platform. I was told by a GOP delegate that the only proposal Trump’s observers spoke up about was the one which encouraged the U.S. government to arm Ukrainians against Russian aggression. Trump’s people in the room succeeded in significantly softening the proposed language with little if any resistance from the large contingent of evangelical delegates.
Now, despite Trump’s assurances that Russia would leave Ukraine alone, Putin’s forces are again bombing Eastern Ukraine while Donald Trump defends Putin and even compares his Russia to the U.S (see the recent Bill O’Reilly interview).
On this point, the following tweet caught my attention.
My evangelical extended family in Ukraine getting bombed today by Putin has been sold out by American nationalist evangelical leaders.
@wthrockmorton Knowing what the “Russian World” means, Ukraine’s evangelicals are stunned US evangelicals support Trump who supports Putin.
— Michael MacKay (@mhmck) February 6, 2017
Do evangelicals leaders still care about Ukraine?
If they did, I hope they will use their clout with Trump in order to educate him about the dangers of trusting the Russian leader, especially given his recent actions. If anything, Trump’s rhetoric is more in lines with a desire to Make Russia Great Again than #MAGA.
According to my Grove City College colleague Paul Kengor, Trump is heading down the dangerous road first traveled by FDR with Stalin and then by Obama with Putin. In a 2016 article, Kengor wrote:
Stalin showed that “like” of FDR by rolling over Eastern Europe, hammering everything from the Ukraine to Poland. He abused the hell out of FDR. Not until literally days before he died, just weeks after Stalin preyed upon his trust at Yalta, did FDR finally learn and admit he had been wrong about Stalin.
“Averell [Harriman] is right,” FDR sighed to Anna Rosenberg on March 23, 1945, less than three weeks before he died. “We can’t do business with Stalin. He has broken every one of the promises he made at Yalta.”
FDR’s tragic mistake was thinking that the Russian leader liked him and thus would “work with me for a world of democracy and peace” (yes, FDR actually said that about Stalin).
The “Putin-likes-me” attitude of Trump is a fatal conceit, and it’s something that Donald Trump should have learned from watching two terms of Barack Obama’s naïve statements and attitude toward the Russians. It is also the polar opposite of Ronald Reagan’s statements and attitude toward the Russians.
The latest news to hit involving Donald Trump is potentially the most troubling. A leaked report (available to read at Buzzfeed) from a retired intelligence operative claims Vladimir Putin authorized a scheme to cultivate Trump as an ally and conspired with Trump’s campaign to undermine Clinton. There are accusations of sex tapes involving Trump and treasonous behavior. At least, it will function like the Trump-fueled birther conspiracy. At most, the document reveals treason and impeachable offenses.
There are so many distractions about the story on social media. A major distraction is Trump who earlier this morning went on a major tweetstorm.
Trump’s denials are disturbing because they fly in the face of other information coming from credible sources. I recommend an article by Benjamin Wittes, Susan Hennessey, and Quinta Jurecic and published at the Lawfare blog which provides a dispassionate analysis of the situation. Trump claims the document was leaked by “intelligence agencies” whereas Wittes and associates say that the document has been in wide circulation for weeks and isn’t even classified.
And this material, in fact, does not come from the intelligence community; it comes, rather, from private intelligence documents put together by a company. It is actually not even classified. (source)
Trump did not win the election easily and didn’t win the popular vote. We don’t know that these stories are true but we don’t know if they are totally fake either. The point of Wittes, Hennessey and Jurecic is that the intelligence is unverified. It may be true or it may be false. Clearly, it is in Trump’s interests to deny and reframe the report as an attack piece. However, it is not in our interest as citizens to look the other way. There is circumstantial evidence to make some of the claims seem quite credible. Instead of believed or disbelieved, the claims should be investigated and since Trump won’t do it, Congress should.
Since Trump won’t release his personal and business tax returns, he does not deserve the benefit of the doubt when the security of the nation is at stake. The report alleges shady dealings around the world but not necessarily in Russia. A release of those tax documents could provide insight into the allegations. On Russian investments, Trump and the report agree – he wasn’t able to score a big deal. The Trump Campaign and Russian Opposition Research
During the election, we know that Trump recited false information about Kurt Eichenwald which would have been available via Russian sources. From Eichenwald’s Newsweek report dated 10/26/16:
Updated | I am Sidney Blumenthal. At least, that is what Vladimir Putin—and, somehow, Donald Trump—seems to believe. And that should raise concerns not only about Moscow’s attempts to manipulate this election but also about how Trump came to push Russian disinformation to American voters.
An email from Blumenthal—a confidant of Hillary Clinton and a man, second only to George Soros, at the center of conservative conspiracy theories—turned up in the recent document dump by WikiLeaks. At a time when American intelligence believes Russian hackers are trying to interfere with the presidential election, records have recently been fed to WikiLeaks out of multiple organizations of the Democratic Party. But now that I have been brought into the whole mess—and transformed into Blumenthal—there is even more proof that the Russians are not only orchestrating this act of cyberwar but also really, really dumb.
Eichenwald’s report (read the whole thing) demonstrates how Russian sources placed disinformation into the Russian press which was used by the Trump campaign. It was almost as if the campaign had the information before it was published in the Russian press.
Regarding the credibility of the current Buzzfeed document, Eichenwald’s report cuts both ways. On one hand, it lends credibility to the charge that the Trump campaign had a working relationship with Russian intelligence sources who sought to undermine Clinton. On the other hand, Russian disinformation efforts could also be behind some of the more salacious aspects of the Russian intel memo. Given the relevance to national security, Congress should investigate.
Sitting here as a citizen, I am worried about the implications of this story. To me, it is obvious that Trump is stretching the truth to defend himself which doesn’t inspire confidence. I am worried that Republicans are going to roll over just to make nice with the incoming administration. I am thankful for Republicans like John McCain who seems to be taking this matter seriously. Given the consequences, we should be able to agree that an investigation is warranted.
I first saw this posted over at Little Green Footballs…
Matt Drudge says Vladimir Putin is leader of the free world.
This is same Vladimir Putin who is leading the charge against various freedoms in Russia (speech, assembly). And the same Putin who leads a government which persecutes religions other than Russian Orthodox (including Christians). Despite some efforts to limit abortions lately, Russia subsidizes legal abortion and has one of the highest abortion rates in the world.
Even a cursory analysis of Russia’s problems makes it clear that Russia’s leaders must do something to address their many problems. However, stigmatizing gays and limiting freedoms is unlikely to do much to help. It is certainly bizarre to see conservatives here rally around the former KGB officer.
LGF tipped the hat to the New Civil Rights Movement.