Politics & Government

The End of the City on a Hill

A burgeoning alliance with Europe’s far right is radically altering the Christian right's view of American democracy.
George Wylesol

Last fall, in the imposing Republican Palace in Chișinău, Moldova, the capital of this small former Soviet republic wedged between Ukraine and Romania, the World Congress of Families, an American initiative that promotes “family values” worldwide, gathered under the theme “Uniting East and West.” The opening ceremonies, held in the palace’s high-ceilinged ballroom, with its lush, caramel velvet draperies lit by ornate crystal chandeliers, featured a performance by Moldovan women and girls in virginal white dresses, along with videos projected onto a jumbo screen of couples frolicking in the verdant countryside.

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Over the course of the two-day conference, a nearly annual event in which politicians and activists from around the world gather to forge relationships, this rural, natalist vision was repeatedly described as under attack by the threat of decadent liberalism—a global menace imposing “gender ideology,” “aggressive feminism,” and “death culture” on “the natural family.”

Key Findings

  • The U.S. Christian right, which long promoted American exceptionalism as a "shining city on a hill," is now turning its gaze toward the rising autocrats of eastern and central Europe as models of "pro-family" policy.

  • The Soviet bloc was the arch-enemy of the U.S. Christian right, framed as hostile to freedom and democracy. Now Christian right leaders are supporting regimes in places like Hungary that are aggressively dismantling democratic institutions.

  • The World Congress of Families, a gathering of international Christian right activists, has recently partnered with such autocrats as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Moldovan President Igor Dodon to host conferences.

  • The World Congress of Families' next conference will be hosted by Matteo Salvini, the Italian deputy prime minister from the far right League party.

  • The embrace of these European autocrats is part of an effort by the U.S. Christian right to form international alliances against "gender ideology" and "death culture,” in other words, reproductive and LGBTQ rights.

Accompanied by military pageantry, Moldova’s president, Igor Dodon, a stone-faced ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin, made a grand entrance. Dodon governs a country sharply divided over whether to strengthen ties with the European Union or tilt toward Russia. He made his stance clear in a grimly delivered speech in which he railed against “an anti-family ideology, which is artificially propagated all over the world.” He called for a comprehensive national program whereby the government would enlist the Orthodox Church, mass media, and civil society to jointly “promote family values in the society.” He warned that any “festivals and other events that promote immoral principles”—a broadside against gay pride parades, which Dodon has consistently opposed since becoming president in 2016—could be outlawed.

Back in the United States, the World Congress of Families’ home base, Dodon’s proposals could run afoul of the Constitution, because they would ally church and state in imposing religious moral standards and suppressing free speech and association. As the weekend progressed, it became clear that “Uniting East and West” was not about exporting American-style freedoms and Constitutional protections to the nascent democracies of post-Soviet central and eastern Europe. Instead, it was about Western social conservatives embracing the rising right-wing authoritarianism in Eastern countries. Indeed, many in the US Christian right believe America has failed as a role model for the rest of the world—that liberalism, unrestrained, has brought a once great nation to its knees. To them, the “illiberal” autocrats across the Atlantic are fast becoming the new standard-bearers in a global battle for traditional values, an antidote to what they see as rising decadence and moral relativism in the West.

“Around the world there are those who don’t wish for unity, who don’t have the same vision of truth and of family,” said Brian Brown, the president of the International Organization for the Family, the parent organization of the World Congress, in his opening speech. Moldova, by contrast, “is blessed with a president that is willing to stand for truth.”

Such discontent with America’s sway marks a sea change for a movement with roots in opposing communism, long seen as an authoritarian ideology that crushed religious freedom; indeed, many no longer see the US as uniquely positioned to champion “biblical values.” So, as the global political power centers shift toward rising authoritarianism—away from American-style liberal democracy—significant players on the Christian right are gravitating to where the power is.

Beginning with the rise of the Christian right during the Cold War, the movement’s leaders mythologized America as a “city on a hill”—a nation with a divine mission to be a beacon of freedom and democracy to the world. In this telling, America’s founding by Christians seeking to escape religious persecution gave it a special status, a nation with the moral authority to act as an exemplar of individual liberty and a defender of democracy and religious freedom against the forces of totalitarianism.

The phrase comes from the Sermon on the Mount, a pivotal passage for evangelicals, in which Jesus tells his disciples, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.”

John Winthrop, the future governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, used the phrase in an address titled “Model of Christian Charity,” delivered to colonists who sailed from England in 1630. In the speech, he challenged his followers to act with Christian virtue once they arrived in the New World. “The eyes of all the people are upon us,” Winthrop warned. “If we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.”

George Wylesol

Centuries later, as right-wing Christian activists took up anticommunism as an existential crusade, Ronald Reagan resurrected Winthrop’s words, this time in the service of American exceptionalism. Reagan began using the phrase in 1969, as governor of California, adding the theatrical “shining” in a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference in 1974. Six years later, in his successful run for president, Reagan enlisted the support of young Christian right organizations like the Moral Majority, and “shining city on a hill” became a mantra and the centerpiece of his campaign’s final, memorable speech. According to Daniel T. Rodgers, a historian emeritus at Princeton University and the author of As a City on a Hill, Reagan turned the phrase into “one of the most widely recognized building blocks in the culture of American nationalism.”

Reagan’s oratory and cultivation of the religious right as a decisive electoral force helped fix this origin myth in the minds of many Christian right activists. To them, the “shining city on a hill” represented a nation that protected the “traditional family” and the “unborn” by ensuring that government was guided by biblical rather than secular values. The phrase saturated books, sermons, political speeches, Christian summer camps and schools, homeschool textbooks and curricula, and political propaganda films. Even years after the Iron Curtain fell, during the 2000 presidential campaign, George W. Bush, another candidate who depended heavily on the conservative evangelical base, described America as “chosen by God and commissioned by history to be a model to the world.”

The election of Barack Obama in 2008 was a shock to the system. Under Obama, the federal government took steps to protect the rights of trans people, required employers’ health insurance plans to cover contraceptives, and Obama appointees to the Supreme Court helped make marriage equality the law of the land. Republican leaders and Christian-right activists not only stoked fear that America was losing its treasured “city on a hill” status. They began to assert that American democracy actually was stifling the freedom of conservative Christians, and therefore was slipping as a beacon to the world. David Green, the founder of the Hobby Lobby craft stores, became an icon to the Christian right after his company sued the government, claiming the contraception rule violated his company’s religious freedom—a battle that Hobby Lobby won at the Supreme Court in 2014. As that case made its way through the courts, Green pointed to the regulation as evidence of the erosion of America’s divine status. “If there’s any hope for our government, it will be via Christians declaring that our foundation is in going to God’s Word to define our laws,” he wrote in 2013. “This is how we began as a nation and, if we hope to once again be a ‘city on a hill,’ it’s what we must return to.”

With its inaugural Congress in 1997, Allan Carlson helped found the World Congress of Families to respond to what he called a shared crisis of declining marriage and fertility rates in the United States, Europe, and the former Soviet bloc. More recently, Carlson suggested that transgender rights, too, could be undermining America’s status, asking, in a 2017 cover story in the conservative monthly Chronicles, “A City on a Hill—With Transgender Toilets?” Carlson, a historian who has taught at Hillsdale College, a Christian college in Michigan, may be an obscure figure to outsiders. But his academic research, most notably his stark warnings that secularization, urbanization, and family planning will lead to a fertility crisis in the West—what the World Congress has called a “demographic winter”—has provided an air of legitimacy to Christian-right arguments against contraception. The academic journal Carlson edits, The Family in America, influential on the Christian right, has called federal funding of family planning the “US War on Fertility.”

George Wylesol

Now, for Carlson, America had a new role model: Viktor Orbán, the autocratic prime minister of Hungary, who hosted the 2017 World Congress. “If we want to make America great again,” Carlson wrote in 2017, we should follow Orbán’s lead. For several years, human rights organizations, the European Union, and the US foreign policy establishment had been sounding alarms that the powerful central European leader was not only undermining democracy in his own country, but developing a template for enacting across Europe what he infamously labeled, in a 2014 speech, “an illiberal state.”

As Orbán consolidated power in the wake of his Fidesz Party’s 2010 election victory, he moved to control the media, redraw voting districts to his party’s advantage in future elections, and erode the power of an independent judiciary. He demonized immigrants and asylum seekers, paving the way for his later closure of Hungary’s borders. But most significant, to Orbán’s admirers in the American Christian right, were the constitutional reforms put in place in 2011 by the Fidesz-controlled parliament—changes that were made, according to Human Rights Watch, while “civil society and opposition groups in Hungary were largely excluded from the process.” The reforms created a “right to life” from the moment of conception, which some human rights advocates said could be a step toward tightly limiting abortion or outlawing it entirely, and defined marriage as the union of a man and a woman. In 2013, Hungary further amended the constitution to give recognition only to traditional families.

Fidesz’s and Orbán’s subsequent victory in 2014 was criticized by the US State Department as having been the result of “restrictive campaign regulations, biased media coverage and the blurring of the separation between a ruling party and the state.” Orbán was reelected last year after campaigning against migrant “invasions,” claiming that Hungarians opposed immigration because they didn’t want their “own color, traditions and national culture to be mixed by others.”

Orbán is now emboldened to further flout his critics. After his reelection, which was cheered by Trump, Orbán moved quickly to suppress NGOs that received foreign funding and provided assistance to migrants. In 2018, Orbán cemented his vision of Hungary as a Christian democracy, presenting himself as the political and spiritual leader of “a new constitutional order based on national and Christian foundations.”

Tony Perkins, the influential president of the Family Research Council, the leading Christian-right political advocacy group in Washington and a partner of the World Congress of Families, praised Orbán as “a strong conservative that literally has championed biblical values in Hungary” on his radio program last year. After interviewing a Hungarian government representative about his country’s immigration restrictions and NGO crackdown, Perkins—who was appointed by Trump to a post on the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom—said, “I, for one, appreciate the strong stands that Prime Minister Orbán has taken.”

This growing affection toward autocrats like Orbán is reflected in the World Congress of Family’s recent choices of venues. The Congress once held gatherings in major western European cities like Geneva, Amsterdam, and Madrid. But in recent years, the Congress has increasingly set its sights eastward, even participating in a gathering in Moscow in 2014, shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The 2016 conference was held in Tbilisi, Georgia, where organizers promised it would “establish a beachhead in the region” and that “sexual radicals have targeted these countries.” In 2017, it was held in Budapest, a watershed event: Conservative or far-right parties had often played host, but for Orbán to host as a sitting prime minister was something new.

In a speech some months later, Orbán struck a chilling note, one that captured the ideological shift now underway. “Thirty years ago we thought that Europe was our future,” he said. “Today we believe that we are Europe’s future.”

For Brown, the World Congress leader, a 44-year-old father of nine who said he was “raised in Orange County, California, as a rock-ribbed anti-Communist,” turning to the former Soviet bloc for inspiration was an unexpected development. In an interview in the Chișinău palace, as plenary sessions were underway, he told me that for his type of conservative, “the notion that now Russia can be doing good things, it can be a tough turn.”

Brown spoke with more enthusiasm of Europe’s far-right leaders than even of Trump, who is widely admired by the American Christian right. Brown, a longtime opponent of LGBTQ rights, conceded that Trump has been strong on the “life” issue, but lamented Trump’s statement that marriage equality had been settled in 2015 by Obergefell v. Hodges. “We don’t believe it’s settled,” Brown said. “We’re working to overturn it. It doesn’t matter that that seems impossible.” In 1973, he noted, it seemed impossible that Roe v. Wade could ever be overturned. But with Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court, replacing Anthony Kennedy, the court’s swing vote on abortion, such an outcome now seems distinctly possible.

While human rights organizations, pro-democracy NGOs, Obama’s State Department, and even Republican foreign policy veterans have criticized Fidesz’s constitutional changes as antidemocratic, Brown insists that it’s the US that didn’t democratically enact same-sex marriage. “This was forced from above” by the Supreme Court, he claimed. Hungary, by contrast, “allowed their people to speak on this,” he added, because Orbán and Fidesz were democratically elected. “It is absolutely absurd to say that Hungary is not a participatory democracy.”

George Wylesol

But that’s the insidiousness of illiberal democracy. Authoritarians can dismantle democratic institutions like a free media, an independent judiciary, and a robust civil society, and compromise election integrity, while still ostentatiously holding elections in which the people vote. After all, last March, after the Russian election that prompted a national security memo to Trump with the warning“DO NOT CONGRATULATE,” Putin won 77 percent of the vote. (Trump congratulated Putin anyway.)

Peter Sprigg, an official with the Family Research Council who spoke in Chișinău, similarly downplayed concerns about Orbán’s autocratic moves. “It seems like the Western media likes to focus on some of these sort of procedural things,” Sprigg told me, instead of how Orbán “talks about defending Western civilization rooted in Christianity. I mean that’s where we see that we have common cause with him.”

In recent years, this common cause has more and more explicitly involved the rejection of liberal democracy. “There are great experiments in postliberal political and economic life occurring right now in real places,” Carlson wrote in 2018, “in Poland’s Law and Justice Party; in the Hungary of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán; and—yes—in the land of the Great Russians led by Vladimir Putin.”

It is particularly striking that David Barton has also said Americans should admire the Polish trend. Barton was a central architect of the Christian right revisionist history that the founders intended America to be a “Christian nation,” a mythology that formed the basis of his regular seminars for pastors and elected officials.

According to the US pro-democracy organization Freedom House, Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party has “appropriated a vocabulary similar to that of Fidesz” and “embarked on a course of change that places it solidly in the illiberal camp, with many of the initiatives mirroring those enacted by Fidesz in Hungary.” Yet after a 2017 trip to Poland, Barton rhapsodized on his radio program that Poland is “a Christian nation in the old school sense of the word.” “The progressive media in the United States always portrays Poland as kind of backward people,” he said. “It’s the same way they treat Christians in America.”

Blaming elites for criticizing rising autocrats like Orbán is no longer rare on the Christian right. In 2017, the Heritage Foundation, the powerful conservative think tank, ran an editorial on its website complaining that Orbán has been “vilified” and “rebuked” for opposing the EU’s “overly permissive migrant policy” and fighting against the influence of “left-wing billionaire George Soros.” In a news segment last year on the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), a network with an estimated one million viewers, the correspondent Dale Hurd claimed, “Hungary has been treated like a pariah in the Western media over its position on open borders, but Hungary’s leaders are smart enough to know that their national values will never please the global Left.” Even Chuck Norris, the martial arts actor and pop-culture hero to the Christian right, boasted of his “bromance” with Orbán after spending a day with the prime minister, who drove Norris and his wife on a personal tour of Budapest.

The ideas propagated at the World Congress of Families often echo the political theorists whose ideas undergird the far right in Europe and Russia. Chief among them is the Russian philosopher Aleksandr Dugin, who argues that the three chief political ideologies of the 20th century—communism, fascism, and liberalism—are defunct, and must be replaced with a fourth theory, emerging from Russia and rooted in “tradition.” (Dugin’s book, The Fourth Political Theory, is widely read by the alt-right in the United States.) Dugin titled a 2015 speech broadcast at Texas A&M University “American Liberalism Must Be Destroyed.” (He could not give the speech in person because the US government had imposed sanctions on him for his role in fomenting instability in Ukraine.)

One Dugin acolyte, Levan Vasadze of Georgia, the American-educated CEO of a Moscow-based private equity firm, served as chair of the 2016 World Congress of Families in Tbilisi. In his 2018 speech in Chișinău, he warned that “continuous erosion of differences between a man and a woman” could lead to dire consequences—even men in high heels and skirts. Vasadze urged conference attendees to return to the countryside, where he claimed families could better multiply, thus saving the “great cultures” of Moldova, Georgia, or France.

In the lead-up to the World Congress in Chișinău, Vasadze attended a Dugin-sponsored conference, where he called Dugin “a great philosopher” and argued that “liberalism kills more people than fascism and communism” because of its tolerance for abortion. “ Egalité,” Vasadze said, using the French word for equality, “is the biggest lie of liberalism brought upon the planet.”

George Wylesol

Previously, just before Vasadze chaired the 2016 World Congress in Tbilisi, he was interviewed on CBN and asked whether, a quarter century after the fall of Communism, Georgians still viewed America as “that shining city on a hill.” Vasadze didn’t miss a beat: “Look, when we grew up in Soviet Union, we longed for the West,” he said, and the “light” that was freedom of speech, free enterprise, and private property. Only now, he said, “in our quest towards the West, we sometimes hardly recognize it, because sometimes we feel like freedom of speech is much more under danger in the West than in our parts of the world. You can no longer freely express your opinion about what’s shameful”—in his view, homosexuality—“and what is disgraceful, and you are crucified for that.”

Here he likely struck a chord with his American viewers. For the US Christian right, as for rising European authoritarians, human and civil rights protections for LGBTQ people, as well as hate crimes legislation, amount to persecution of “traditional” Christians and “suppression” of free speech. And the more the US protects those rights, their reasoning goes, the less it is a shining city on a hill.

As their faith in that city fades, the Christian right’s European allies are looking to break the liberal democratic institutions the US helped build and maintain in Europe since the end of the Second World War. These efforts extend beyond the European Union and NATO, a frequent target of Trump’s antipathy, to lesser-known bodies like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, the intergovernmental body that promotes human rights, fair elections, and civil society within its 57 member states.

Claudio D’Amico, an Italian delegate to the World Congress in Moldova, is an adviser to Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini and an official with Italy’s far-right League party, formerly the Northern League, which gained power in 2017 on an anti-EU, anti-immigrant, pro-Putin platform. During a panel discussion in Chișinău, D’Amico said he had created a new caucus within the OSCE to counteract the “strong majority” of liberals within the organization, and the group has met three times for a “family lunch” on the sidelines of OSCE’s parliamentary assembly, first in Tbilisi in 2016, then in Minsk in 2017, and in 2018 in Berlin. He said that he had not only convened representatives from Russia, and far-right parties like Hungary’s Fidesz, Austria’s Freedom Party, Germany’s Alternative for Germany, Switzerland’s Christian Democrat Party, and Sweden’s Swedish Democrats, but that Republican lawmakers were also brought into the fold. Members in attendance in 2017, he said, included Representative Steve King of Iowa, recently under fire for his comments about white supremacy, and in 2018 included Representative Chris Smith of New Jersey, who has strong ties to the US Christian right.

D’Amico, also a close Putin ally, praised the presence of both Russian and American lawmakers at the event. After his panel in Chișinău, D’Amico told me he would be “very happy” if the “pro-family” movement he helped launch in the OSCE could help bring the US and Russia together. “I think it’s important because we’re going from an NGO movement to also a political movement,” he said.

Later this month, Salvini himself will continue the World Congress trend started by Orbán when he cohosts the 2019 World Congress of Families in Verona under the theme “The Wind of Change.” Salvini was criminally investigated on charges arising from his decision last summer to block 177 refugees aboard a coast guard ship from disembarking and entering the country. Still, as with Orbán, Brown and other American admirers herald Salvini primarily as a “pro-family” hero.

Two months after the World Congress of Families meets under Salvini’s auspices in Verona, voters in EU member countries will go to the polls to elect their representatives to the European Parliament, another institution in the sights of the autocratic right. Orbán has urged Hungarians to use the elections as a way to upend the dominance of liberal democratic values within the EU. “The European elite is visibly nervous,” Orbán said in a speech last year calling on Hungarians to put a halt to “the great goal of transforming Europe and moving it toward a post-Christian and post-national era.”

Salvini, too, on a recent visit with Poland’s Law and Justice Party, vowed that the two countries “will be the heroes of the new European spring and the renaissance of true European values” and play a pivotal role in breaking the “Germany-France axis.”

A turn against the liberal democratic values of the EU is exactly what many on the American Christian right are hoping for. In an essay last year, Carlson, the World Congress founder, scoffed at fears about Orbán’s autocratic rule and the eclipse of Enlightenment values. Instead, Carlson countered, “May it be so!”

This article was reported in partnership with Type Investigations, where Sarah Posner is a reporting fellow.

About the reporter

Sarah Posner

Sarah Posner

Sarah Posner is a reporting fellow with Type Investigations and author of God's Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters

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