The religious right has long been enamored of Russia. Vladimir Putin places a close second to Donald Trump in esteem for the likes of Franklin Graham and Brian Brown, almost entirely because of Putin’s campaign against LGBTQ people.
So when a 29-year-old Russian woman shows up at the National Prayer Breakfast, proclaiming her affinity for the group, she was quickly embraced by organizers as one of their own. Trouble is, according to an indictment handed down this week, Maria Butina was actually a Russian spy.
Butina was able to make such inroads into conservative religious groups as well as the National Rifle Association because she knew how to play to her audience. She talked about her love of weaponry as the founder of group in Russia called Right to Bear Arms. The overlap between the NRA and the religious right made for an easy transition.
So did the sex.
Butina’s boyfriend was Paul Erickson, a political operative who has been bouncing around the fringes for while. He worked on Pat Buchanan’s virulently anti-gay campaign in 1992, and then somehow segued into representing John Wayne Bobbitt, who became famous because his wife cut off his penis, on Bobbitt’s Love Hurts tour. (It was subsequently reattached.)
Besides his right-wing politics, Erickson also tried to parlay religion into a business proposition, in this case a Christian-based chain of Alzheimer’s care facilities. It flopped.
Butina and Erickson apparently met at a conference in Moscow in 2013. Butina ended up living with Erickson as his girlfriend, though he is 27 years older. According to the indictment, this was part of the job Butina didn’t much care for, treating it as “simply a necessary aspect of her activities.” (Erickson has not been charged with any crimes.)
Those activities didn’t stop with Erickson. The indictment says that on at least one other occasion, Butina offered sex “in exchange for a position in a special interest organization.”
None of Butina’s sexual escapades stopped her from cozying up to the family-values brigade. She appeared on the radio show of Eric Metaxas, a prominent Christian conservative and Trump supporter, in 2015 to talk about guns and religious liberty. “We forget that the fight for liberty goes on all around the world in different guises,” Metaxas enthused.
Butina also attended the National Prayer Breakfast, with her Russian sponsor Alexander Torshin, a crony of Vladimir Putin’s. (Torshin has close ties to the Orthodox Church in Russia, which is a force behind Russia’s anti-LGBTQ policies.) She offered to have Putin speak at the Breakfast at a future date and in the meantime rubbed elbows with many conservative Republicans, like Rick Santorum and Bobby Jindal. (For the record, the National Prayer Breakfast is not an innocuous non-denominational event, but is instead organized by a powerful conservative Christian clique.)
You could say in retrospect that it was all very suspicious. But it would be more accurate to say that it was always very suspicious. Here was a young woman, backed by an oligarch pal of the Russian president, the former head of the KGB, suddenly expressing her adoration of guns and Christ. What were the odds that this wasn’t a Russian effort to gain influence in American politics?
Yet religious right leaders and conservative activists were more than happy to swallow the bait. It’s not like Butina even had to work at convincing them. They were primed to be fellow travelers, even if they didn’t know it. If you need a definition of the phrase “useful idiot,” look no further than anyone Butina had contact with.
Butina’s indictment may end up being a big, big headache for the NRA. The group spent heavily on Trump’s campaign in 2016, and the FBI is reportedly investigating to what extent laundered Russian money was part of that spending.
As for the religious right–conservative Christian leaders have shown that they can excuse virtually anything President Trump does. It’s unlikely that they will apply a higher standard to their own conduct.