Ministers detained by police. A secret service that searches sanctuaries, questions clergy with polygraphs, and puts church leaders under house arrest. A president who threatens to ban any religious organizations with ties to a neighboring country.
For American evangelicals concerned about international religious freedom, these reports would be enough to raise alarms about any country. But they’re even more alarming when they’re coming from a nation their government is backing in a war.
These were likely the kind of stories former Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson had in mind in July when he asked former vice president Mike Pence whether Christian voters could, in good conscience, continue to back US support for Ukraine and Volodymyr Zelensky in the war with Russia.
“The Zelensky government has raided convents, arrested priests—has effectively banned a Christian denomination,” Carlson claimed, referring to the Ukrainian branch of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The exchange, at a gathering of conservative Christians in Iowa, quickly got testy. And Carlson was roundly criticized by supporters of Ukraine. The Orthodox Public Affairs Committee, a US-based group, accused Carlson of spouting “Russian propaganda.”
But a growing number of American evangelical voters appear to be asking the same questions Carlson is asking. Many are expressing growing doubts about US support for the war.
American evangelicals backed Ukraine pretty vigorously at the outset. In fact, when Russia invaded Ukraine last February, they were more likely than other Americans to support Ukraine. According to an Economist/YouGov poll in March 2022, 77 percent of American evangelicals said they were sympathetic to Ukraine, compared to 73 percent of the general US population.
Some Americans’ support is as strong as it ever was. Brent Hobbs, a Southern Baptist pastor from Virginia Beach, Virginia, sees the issue as a litmus test of who he would vote for in an election. For him it’s a question of good and evil. And he believes that because of its geopolitical implications, the war is the
No. 1 issue facing the US.
“I would not support someone who is saying, ‘We’re supporting Ukraine too much,’ or ‘We need to stop funding the war’—like, that’s off the table,” Hobbs said.
Others, however, seem to be having second thoughts. By the end of July 2023, 55 percent of Americans told CNN that they thought Congress should not authorize more funding for Ukraine. The exact amount of evangelicals isn’t broken out, but among Republicans, more than 70 percent said too much money has already gone to the international conflict.
There are other signs of a sea change. At a July event put on by Turning Point USA, the conservative political organization asked the 6,000 people who had come to see former president Donald Trump how they felt about Ukraine. Should the US continue to be involved? Ninety-six percent said no. It is unclear how many of those in attendance were evangelical, but the group has been hosting many events at churches and pitching its political vision to evangelicals in particular.
Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk, who identifies as evangelical, read the results on stage and urged Republican candidates to pay attention.
“When will politicians learn that you can’t tell voters what to believe?” he said.
Views of Russia’s Vladimir Putin seem to be shifting too. Evangelicals, like most Americans, have largely held a negative view of Russia during the conflict, but some have expressed warmer feelings toward Putin, who has positioned himself as a defender of traditional family values. A recent survey found that people who believe the US should be a Christian nation were more likely to support him.
Eschatological expectations might prompt some evangelicals not to want to get involved in the conflict, too. Before his death, televangelist Pat Robertson said Putin was “compelled by God” to invade Ukraine as preparation for war against Israel, which some believe will be a precipitating event, foretold by the prophet Ezekiel, at the start of the end times. Popular preachers Greg Laurie and Tony Evans have said similar things.
But mostly, evangelical sentiments on Ukraine seem to reflect the shifting views of politicians.
Some Republicans, such as Pence, who dropped out of the race in October, vowed to continue supporting Ukraine. Others, notably Trump, who once called Putin a “genius,” have expressed mounting skepticism. Presidential candidates Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy said they would stop sending money to Ukraine.
According to the CNN poll, most Americans believe the US has sent enough aid. And at least some seem concerned over reports of the Ukrainian government cracking down on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
Last year, the church voted to cut ties with Moscow, though due to the complexities of canonical law, it has not been a clean break. Tetiana Kalenychenko, a sociologist who wrote her doctoral dissertation on religious aspects of the war in Ukraine, said the church has split into three factions. Zelensky proposed a law that would criminalize the one that has ongoing affiliation with Moscow.
“These actions are not the actions of a democracy, as many within the international media have tried to portray Ukraine,” Charisma magazine staff writer James Lasher argued. “Instead, these actions are reminiscent of Vladimir Putin, who is known for his crackdowns on political and religious opposition and the one whose hunger for power led to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.”
The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights also warned the law would violate protected freedoms. The bill was ultimately tabled.
But Ukrainian authorities insist this isn’t about opposition to Orthodox priests but opposition to people inside Ukraine who are using religion as a cover to aid the invasion and support Russia. Some priests have been accused of spying, sending geolocations of troops to the Russian military. Ukraine’s secret service has raided churches and monasteries and found Russian propaganda.
Taras Dyatlik, regional director of the United World Mission’s Overseas Council, says some of the allegations may be valid, but people outside Ukraine should not be too quick to judge people living in a war zone, facing an existential threat. The details are complicated. There are extenuating circumstances.
“Western media try to judge and assess the religious situation in Ukraine from the normalities under your peaceful skies where you do not have the ongoing full-scale war and you are protected with NATO and nuclear weapons,” he said, “but living in the country during the war gives you [a] different reality.”
Voters, however, will have to judge one way or another. In the Republican primaries, candidates are making their cases. In front of an audience of 2,000 evangelicals at the Family Leadership Summit in Iowa, Pence said supporting Ukraine was in American interests.
“Anybody that says that we can’t be the leader of the free world and solve our problems at home has a pretty small view of the greatest nation on earth,” he said. “If Vladimir Putin overruns Ukraine then I have no doubt that the Russian military will cross the borders of a NATO country that our military will have to defend.”
There was a smattering of applause at the Iowa gathering. But there were boos, too, and right now it’s hard to tell which are louder.
Jonny Williams is a reporter based in Rhode Island.
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