Are Trump and the Russians in a Family Way?

President Trump delivers remarks at last year's National Prayer Breakfast on February 8, 2018 (Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian)

When professor, journalist, and author Jeff Sharlet tweeted, “#TheNationalPrayerBreakfast is all over the affidavit for Russian spy Maria Butina,” he raised the obvious question: How did Butina and a number of her Russian colleagues obtain invitations to attend an event with such a US-centric Christian focus?

Extensive reporting by Sharlet has well documented how, for decades, the Family (also called the Fellowship or the International Foundation), which hosts the National Prayer Breakfast, has enabled those like Butina to utilize this breakfast as a backdoor to American diplomacy. In his 2008 book The Family, Sharlet reported, “During the 1960s, the Family forged relationships between the US government and some of the most oppressive regimes in the world, arranging prayer networks in the US Congress for the likes of General Costa e Silva, dictator of Brazil; General Suharto, dictator of Indonesia; and General Park Chung Hee, dictator of South Korea.” More recently, news reports connected the Family to David Bahati and the anti-gay legislative efforts in Uganda.

This recent embrace of Russia appears to be confusing at first glance given the religious right’s decades-long fight against the evils of communism, and President Putin’s pedigree as a KGB man in the Soviet regime, a dedicated party member presumably opposed to all religion. However, as Rob Boston observed in a recent Americans United blog post (“To Russia, with Love: Why the Religious Right is Rootin’ for Putin”), “Like Trump, leaders and followers of the religious right admire Putin and the country he is building. They want the United States to be more like Russia.” Boston cites developments in Russia including attacks on LGBTQ rights, mandatory religious classes, the retreat of women’s rights, bans against certain religions, and the rapid disappearance of the freedom of the press.

As evidence of the Family’s ongoing interest in establishing relations with Russia, a report by The Young Turks points to federal records that show

the Fellowship has reported sponsoring thirty-seven trips abroad by individual members of Congress in the last eighteen years. Fourteen of those trips have been by Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL), co-chair of the 2016 National Prayer Breakfast. Since 2008, Aderholt took eleven out of seventeen trips sponsored by the Fellowship.

In a July 21 article for The New York Post, Sharlet noted, “At a 2017 prayer breakfast in Moscow, Doug Burleigh—a current Fellowship leader and lifelong Russia hand—appeared alongside Butina’s handler, Alexander Torshin, to declare ‘a breakthrough in relations between Russia and the US is about occur.’” At Religion News Service, Jack Jenkins notes that the aforementioned affidavit

cites a 2017 email from Butina to a prayer breakfast organizer in which she thanks the person for allowing her group to attend “and the very private meeting that followed.” The organizer in the affidavit is unnamed, but the de facto director of the prayer breakfast is Doug Burleigh, who effectively took over after the death of its previous leader (and Burleigh’s father-in-law) Doug Coe, in February 2017.

A video showing Burleigh joking about Russian collusion with Jesus prior to delivering a sermon at a church in Tacoma, Washington, was posted this week on Warren Throckmorton’s blog. While the Family claims to be non-partisan, Throckmorton observes how Burleigh portrays Trump in a positive stance and parrots his talking points such as Trump’s disdain for “fake news.”

Trump’s 2018 National Prayer Breakfast speech may have been more subdued than his 2017 fiery address. Trump made no policy pronouncements favoring the religious right, such as the pledge he made at last year’s prayer breakfast to abolish the Johnson Amendment. Nor did he curse, hurl insults, or make lewd sexist comments. But the story of Maria Butina and the sudden spike in Russian attendees at this year’s breakfast does make you wonder what Trump’s calmer veneer could have been hiding. Has The Family’s fundamentalist but nonpartisan theology turned treasonous? As Jenkins observed, “If the charges against Butina are true, it shows how the fusion of the foundation’s influence and dedication to anonymity may have allowed it to become a target for political exploitation and potential international espionage.”