RELIGIOUS Americans often have mixed feelings about Russia. In recent times, many have waxed  indignant at the way Russia curbs most forms of religious practice and preaching, apart from the ones that enjoy an official stamp of approval: Russian Orthodoxy and established forms of Islam, Judaism and Buddhism. In its most recent annual report, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan agency, placed Russia on the list of egregious violators of religious freedom, arguing that its record had worsened in every recent year, not only within its own territory, but also in Russian-dominated parts of Ukraine.

But that isn’t the whole story. On America’s religious right, and in particular on the isolationist right, a powerful groundswell of opinion applauds Vladimir Putin on at least two grounds: the Russian president’s self-appointment as an international guardian of traditional values, with respect to marriage, sexuality and reproduction, and his advocacy of the rights of persecuted Christians in the Middle East, a Russian concern that goes back to Tsarist times.

Consider this extraordinary reversal. It was at a gathering of America’s National Association of Evangelicals in 1983 that, with his famous denunciation of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire”, President Ronald Reagan implied that the cold war was a moral contest rather than a misunderstanding in which both sides bore blame. Some 30 years later Pat Buchanan, a conservative pundit, noted with some approval that Mr Putin was turning that accusation on its head by denouncing Barack Obama's America as a realm of sinfulness, where decadent ideas like same-sex marriage were on the march. At a minimum, the Russian president had a point, said Mr Buchanan, who likewise shared Mr Putin’s disapproval of the “barbarity and blood” caused by ill-advised American military actions round the world.

No evangelical has been as defensive of Russia, and of American relations with Russia, as Franklin Graham, a preacher and White House confidant. As a previous Erasmus post has noted, last year he urged Americans to pray for the success of a meeting between Mr Putin and President Donald Trump. Mr Graham also gave a warm welcome to Russian Orthodox grandees at a conference in Washington on religious freedom in the Middle East. The conference was originally due to happen in Moscow but the venue was switched after some American evangelicals protested over the persecution of their co-religionists in Russia.

A determination to keep channels of communication to Moscow open, even when political and religious friends urge otherwise, is a trait Mr Graham shared with his father, the great preacher Billy Graham, who died this week.

In a rare act of defiance of the Republican establishment, Billy Graham accepted an invitation to a peace conference in Moscow in 1982 (where he is pictured, above) at a time when the cold war was entering its final, bitter phase. Critical friends, including the then vice-president, George H.W. Bush, said his visit could be a propaganda gift to the Soviet authorities. It would mean colluding with the Soviet regime’s claim to respect religious freedom, and with the politically subservient Russian Orthodox church’s insistence that there was no real persecution.

This week, after Graham’s death, an American writer on religion and pacifism, Jim Forest, recalled a conversation he had with the famous preacher in which Graham stoutly defended that journey. The conversation took place in Kiev in 1988, when Graham was making yet another Soviet visit, this time to attend ceremonies marking the millennium of the Slavs’ Christian conversion.

Graham said that in 1982, “I had been briefed at the Pentagon about what would happen if there was a nuclear war. I had been to Auschwitz and seen how limitless is our capacity for evil. And I was thinking about the [Christian apostle] Paul saying in his first letter to the Corinthians that he was called to be all things to all people. I realised I had closed myself to the people of the Soviet Union.”

Perhaps one conclusion from that arresting statement is that however close religious leaders get to political ones, the moral calculus made by the former is never exactly the same as that of their more earthly-minded friends. To be worth the name, spiritual leaders will sometimes follow a different imperative.