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Rev. Jennifer Butler Addresses the Crisis Plenary

Rev. Jennifer Butler addresses the Crisis Plenary at the 2023 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, USA.

Good afternoon. Thank you for hanging in with this tough topic, but I am so glad we’re in here in such great company, in such inspiring leaders. Transformative nonviolent movements have galvanized millions in the last century and a half to bring about apartheid segregation, to bring an end to apartheid segregation and repressive regimes around the world. And religious beliefs that are rooted in the concept of universal human dignity and freedom were inspirational in these movements.

These are testimonies to the power of religious principles driving progress for humanity and the planet. But today, aided by social media, autocrats are manipulating religion to shore up power and control. And religious nationalists are capitalizing on such exploitation by teaming up in surprising ways across national boundaries to erode human rights and democracy.

Autocrats are weaponizing religion to amass power and maintain control from Russian Orthodox nationalism to Catholic nationalism in Hungary and Poland, to Hindutva and India, to Jewish nationalism and the New Ruling Coalition in Israel, to evangelical and Pentecostal forms of Christian nationalism in the United States and Brazil. Religion is being manipulated to give moral sanction to hideous acts of violence that run contrary to our moral teachings. And the U.S. Christian right is one of the more disruptive and globalized religious nationalist efforts. In the late ‘90s, they began exporting the American culture wars under the guise of something called the World Congress of Families.

I was among the first to write about them when they flooded a UN meeting on women’s rights in the year 2000. I wrote a book called Born Again Christian Right Globalized and I began to lead interfaith coalitions to mount a feminist faith-based argument for women’s rights. I then went on to found and lead faith and public life from 2005 to 2022. And you can imagine my horror when in 2016 on the heels of the election in the U.S. that came across an article by Casey Michael in Politico. It was called How Russia Became the Leader of the Christian Right. The same world Congress of Families that I had written about had helped turn the American right’s greatest foe into an ally. 

What happened? Around 2012, Putin began embracing Russian orthodoxy to build a unifying national identity that would replace communism, working closely with Metropolitan Bishop Carill, who had an affinity for the World Congress of Families agenda. Using legislation drafted in the United States by the Christian Right, Putin began cracking down on LGBTQ freedoms, abortion access, and Muslim rights. This made him a hero to many on the Christian Right in the United States.In fact, in 2014, Putin’s actions earned the praise of the three-time presidential contender and famous Christian nationalist culture warrior, Patrick Buchanan. 

In a watershed town hall blog post, Whose Side is God on Now, Buchanan suggested that God had abandoned the U.S. and was now on Russia’s side because Putin was banning homosexuals, abortion, and sacrilegious insults to religious believers. He called Moscow the godly city of today and the command post of the counter-reformation against the new paganism.

Since 2014, the relationship between Christian Right groups and the Kremlin, as well as other autocratic, ultra-nationalist world leaders, has only deepened. The World Congress of Families has now held over 15 conferences around the globe sponsored often by autocrats in just about every region. And after each meeting, there is a fresh barrage of anti-LGBTQ, anti-child and anti-women’s rights legislation. Make no mistake, underneath the focus on issues of sexuality is a xenophobic agenda.

This illiberal movement blames declining birth rates and what they see as a potential demographic collapse on abortion and LGBTQ people. But a close look at the rhetoric of their speakers reveals that their truth here is that whites are demographically being replaced by immigrants and refugees. This line of thinking is known as replacement theory and it is rooted in white supremacy and historically tied to anti-Semitism. 

Just to illustrate the depth of this tectonic shift, in 2014 a conservative evangelical lawyer and a righteous American found his way into supporting a former KGB agent turned Russian president. That man was my dad. I was in Atlanta for Christmas. He came through the door and I wasn’t surprised to see him in his motorcycle riding jacket covered with travel badges. But I was surprised to hear one of my brothers ask, “Dad, is that a Russian pin on your lapel?” My dad could be eccentric. He just chuckled and changed the topic. I figured if my dad was wearing a Russian pin it must be a joke.

He passed away in 2014 but in 2016 I thought about that moment and I searched his Facebook page and his belongings where I found more badges. One that wore the crest of the Russian Ministry of Interior riot police and one that read military branch of the Moscow Patriarchate. 

Unfortunately, my dad is not an outlier. He’s a window into tectonic political shifts, as well as a testimony to the success of Christian right organizing globally and Russian disinformation. A recent examination of polling data led by Dr. Samuel Perry revealed that since 2016, American attitudes toward Russia and Vladimir Putin have shifted, with Republicans becoming far more supportive of both. And though condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 remains bipartisan, many Christian right leaders still support Putin and Russia. Samuel Perry’s data revealed that American warmth toward Putin and Russia is reinforced by an ideology that seeks to institutionalize America’s mythical Anglo-Protestant Ethno-Culture, Christian nationalism. These sympathies are even expressed by high-profile political leaders and top Republican presidential candidates. 

So what can we do? First, it is so critical that we speak boldly from our specific faith traditions to counter the rhetoric of religious nationalists, even as we model respect for all faiths. We cannot cede the language of faith to autocrats who perpetuate this outrageous lie that human rights and democracy are antithetical to faith rather than the fulfillment of our religious values. And to accomplish this, we need to better understand and use global communication strategies. We need to be able to shape a global narrative and imagination about what is morally possible.

Second, recognize that autocrats concentrate power and control by creating social hierarchies and in and out groups based on sex, gender, race, religion, and  class. We cannot let them divide us, no matter our stance on issues of sexuality or religion. We have to link hands far and wide, as you possibly can, support groups that are under attack, and build relationships across ideological divides where possible. 

Phyllis began by reading the words of German pastor Martin Niemuller, who at first supported the Nazi regime because he was opposed to the leftist politics of his time. He later repented when he realized the Nazis had tapped his phone. He realized that he too needed to resist, and he went to jail because of it. His quote is on the wall of the U.S. Holocaust Museum, and it of course begins “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out.”

In our time, this might look a little different. 

Maybe first they came for the LGBTQ people, and I did not speak out because my community was not comfortable with it. Then they came for the women, they came for the women, and I did not speak out because there were more pressing issues to deal with. Then they came for the immigrant and the refugee, and I said nothing because it was not politically expedient. They came for black voters, and I did not speak out. They came for the Jews and the Muslims and the Sikhs, and I did not speak out because I was in the majority. Then they came for me, and we know what happens. 

This is about all of us together, and we must urge our communities to never criminalize or discriminate in the name of faith. An attack on one is an attack on all. 

Our faith traditions were born out of great times of tyranny and oppression. Each tradition has within its sacred texts and histories a radical vision of dignity and equality for all of us and for care for creation. In these troubled times, may we light up the world with the true expressions of our faiths that others may look at us and say they did what their faith required of them. 

Thank you.

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