Yeah, to everyone who wrote – I saw the National Public Radio article that had this headline: “Orthodox Christian Churches Attract Far-Right American Converts.”
It would be hard to imagine a more vicious and one-sided propaganda piece than this and, if you want to see a blow-by-blow breakdown, read this article by Orthodox convert Rod Dreher: “The Cathedral Vs. The Orthodox Church.
Rod uses the term “cathedral” as a reference to a particular set of elite media and cultural institutions on what was once called the “left”. Needless to say, NPR – like the editorial pages of The New York Times — plays a crucial doctrinal role in this cathedral. Dreher (a close friend of almost 30 years) notes, at the very top, regarding this NPR sermon:
… I concede that it is based on a kernel of truth: some foreigners are finding their way to orthodoxy, thinking it will be the far right praying. A friend who attends a large parish told me last year that he saw young men come with this in mind, only to find out otherwise. Let me be clear at the beginning of this essay that I admit that this phenomenon is not invented from scratch.
In my own small parish, we have seen a surge of young seekers, but they come not with far-right politics in mind, but because they are looking for something more stable and deeper than the churches that they frequented. And yes, it is true that some come because they rightly feel that orthodoxy is far less likely to yield to the awakening that plagues many Protestant and Catholic congregations. Note, however, that for NPR, it’s all “extreme right”.
Veteran GetReligion readers will know that I am also a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy – coming from a Baptist family in Texas with several members at the center of Southern Baptist life. If you want to learn more about my own journey, check out this 2006 lecture/essay: “What Do Converts Want?
When people ask why I converted, my short answer is that I was looking for a nice, conservative, ancient form of Christian tradition that didn’t include ties to American fundamentalism. Since my conversion 23 years ago, I have spoken – conservatively – to several hundred converts in various settings, including my own parishes.
I would like to focus on the most obvious errors of omission and commission in the NPR article – an important detail or two about the actual history of the “era of conversion” in “American” Orthodoxy, which began in the 1980s (click here for the link to a crucial book). But first, here’s the opening:
When Sarah Riccardi-Swartz moved from New York to a small Appalachian town in West Virginia in the fall of 2017, she was looking for an answer to a puzzling question. Why did a group of conservative American Christians convert to Russian Orthodoxy?
“It’s typically an immigrant religion, so I was really interested in that experience and why it spoke to converts,” said Riccardi-Swartz, postdoctoral fellow in the Recovering Truth Project at Arizona State University.
Riccardi-Swartz’s study focused on a community made up mostly of former Evangelical and Catholic Christians who had joined the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR). The West Virginia location, in addition to having a parish church, was also home to the largest English-speaking Russian Orthodox monastery in the world.
Over a year of research, Riccardi-Swartz learned that many of these converts had become disillusioned with social and demographic changes in the United States. At ROCOR, they felt they had found a church that has remained the same regardless of place, time and politics. But Riccardi-Swartz also found strong strains of nativism, white nationalism and pro-authoritarianism, as evidenced by a strong admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
If you know anything about trends in Orthodoxy these days, it’s obvious that the roots of this article run deep into a strategically located circle (New York, for example) of Orthodox and near-Orthodox activists who are pushing to change centuries of Orthodox teachings on moral theology. This camp sees decades of Orthodox converts as its main enemy in this doctrinal struggle and the existence of some genuinely alt-right converts has provided a chance to slam the era of converts, in general.
Here’s another crucial part of this transition from the narrow, valid story hook to the larger, ridiculous thesis.
Aram Sarkisian, a postdoctoral fellow in the history department at Northwestern University, said this new growth in converts has helped some branches of Orthodoxy offset the decline of multigenerational families in the church. Sarkissian said these converts often find their way to Orthodoxy because they seek refuge from what they see as the most important cultural issues of the time.
“They’re drawn to what they believe to be conservative views on things like LGBTQ rights, gender equality. Abortion is a really big issue for these people, culture war issues, really” , Sarkisian said. “And so they’re leaving other religious traditions that they don’t believe are so strict on these issues anymore.”
Sarkissian said he started seeing white nationalist and nativist views popping up in Orthodox spaces online just as these changes started to happen.
“I started noticing this around 2010, 2011 on orthodox blogs, where I started seeing language and rhetoric that was subtly racist and subtly engaging in what we would now call alt-right,” Sarkisian said. “They bring it with them into the church because they see Orthodoxy as lending itself to those purposes, those views.”