Who would have thought that religion could be used to conceal illegal activities?
You may have seen the news about Russian agents being arrested for spying on the U.S. One of those alleged spies is Mariia Butina, a Russian gun activist who actually used the National Prayer Breakfast — and religion more generally — to influence American politics. The thinking was: If she could get close to powerful people through a more informal event, she’d have a better chance of influencing the government.
Jack Jenkins of Religion News Service reports that, in addition to the annual Christian celebration, Butina did something similar with the National Rifle Association (NRA) — also known for its immense political power and devout followers.
According to the affidavit, Butina intended to use the 2017 prayer breakfast as a way to gather a group of influential Russians in the U.S. to “establish a back channel of communication” with Americans. She allegedly described the list of Russian attendees to the prayer breakfast as “populated by important political advisors to Russian President (Vladimir) Putin, university presidents, mayors, and substantial private businessmen.”
She also reportedly discussed with a colleague the possibility of bringing Putin to meet President Trump at the event, although that meeting did not ultimately occur.
Using a religious event to broker unsanctioned political communication may seem like an unorthodox ploy. But evidence suggests sustained links between Russian officials and the National Prayer Breakfast that potentially opened the gathering up to exploitation.
This may seem like something out of a James Bond movie, but it makes some sense. Considering how religion is often used by bad actors to justify actions that fit with their ulterior motives, the National Prayer Breakfast is a perfect target. So is the NRA, whose more vocal members will let anything slide in the name of gun rights.
But it turns out it wasn’t all about the National Prayer Breakfast. Religion, in general, was used by the Russian spies to impact American politics. And it’s not just her cozying up to various well-known people on the Christian Right.
Glenn Simpson, co-founder of the investigative firm Fusion GPS, noted the possibility of Russian efforts to infiltrate American religious groups during his appearance before the House Intelligence Committee on Nov. 14, 2017. (Fusion GPS has become a controversial organization in its own right because of a dossier it produced that included salacious claims about Trump and his alleged connections to Russia.)
These interactions alone do not inherently imply nefarious intent, but they do provide context as to why Russia would target faith groups to influence American politics.
Prosecutors say the National Prayer Breakfast was specifically chosen because it’s organized by a super-secret organization called the International Foundation, or “The Family.” The clandestine nature of the organization, along with its influence, created the perfect spy storm.
Religion has been used since the dawn of time to carry out political aims, so it’s not surprising that Russian spies would do the same. But the fact is that, if there was a little more transparency surrounding these groups and events, and if the organizers were more discerning about who was at their event instead of being blinded by those paying lip service to Jesus, the National Prayer Breakfast might never have been compromised.
This story is still developing, but it suggests that Russian infiltration went far beyond one political campaign or a handful of bad actors. A lot of people may have been involved, whether they knew it or not, and blind devotion to a cause (or at least the perception of it) may have shielded Christian leaders from making better decisions.
(Screenshot via YouTube)