The Cathedral Vs. The Orthodox Church
NPR is such an absurd organization these days. I cannot wait until some future Congress and president remove all federal funding from it, given what it has become. As far as I know, this major player in the Cathedral (the neoreactionary term for the informal system of American elites) have never paid a bit of attention to Orthodox Christianity in America. But now they’ve come out with a hit piece on how Orthodoxy is attracting far right converts.
Here’s how it appears on the website:
This is a biased article, even by NPR’s standards. Reporter Odette Yousef begins by talking about right-wing converts to ROCOR (the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia — the exile church, though it reconciled in recent years with the Moscow Patriarchate) in a single West Virginia congregation. More:
The case study that Riccardi-Swartz provides adds detail and color to a trend that a handful of historians and journalists have documented for nearly a decade. In publications mostly targeted toward an Orthodox Christian audience, they have raised the alarm about a growing nativist element within the church. Despite Orthodoxy’s relatively small imprint in the U.S., they warn that, unchecked, these adherents could fundamentally alter the faith tradition in the United States. They also warn that these individuals are evangelizing hate in the name of Orthodoxy in ways that could attract more who share those views.
“It’s an immigrant faith. It’s now being sort of colonized by these converts in many respects,” said Riccardi-Swartz. “They’re vocal in their parishes. They’re vocal online. They’re very digitally savvy and very connected to other far-right actors in the United States and across the globe. And that’s really changing the faith.”
Now, before I begin to deconstruct this ridiculous propaganda piece, I concede that it is based on a kernel of truth: some outsiders are finding their way to Orthodoxy, thinking that it will be the far right at prayer. A friend who attends a large parish told me last year that they are seeing some young men showing up with that in mind, only to find out otherwise. Let me be clear at the start of this essay that I concede that this phenomenon is not invented out of whole cloth.
In my own small parish, we have seen a surge of young inquirers, but they are coming not with far-right politics in mind, but because they are looking for something more stable and deeper than the churches they had been attending. And yes, it is true that some come because they correctly sense that Orthodoxy is much less likely to surrender to the wokeness that is infesting many Protestant and Catholic congregations. Note well, though, that to NPR, all of this is “far-right.”
This Riccardi-Swartz talks about how these people are “really changing the faith.” Are they? In my experience of being within Orthodoxy for sixteen years, these leftists — like those quoted in Yousef’s story — are angry at converts like me because they want to change the faith to make it more compatible with American liberalism. Converts like me come into the Orthodox Church warning the unsuspecting cradle Orthodox what people like these activists within the Church are really doing — and how if the Orthodox congregations don’t wake up, they will find themselves turned into Baklava Episcopalians.
The NPR story focuses mostly on ROCOR, which is a tiny jurisdiction in America. There are single megachurches in Texas with more members. From the piece:
“This is in line with American mainline religion, [where] everyone is shrinking in size except nondenominational churches,” Krindatch said. But ROCOR, which Krindatch estimated in 2020 to have roughly 24,000 adherents, experienced a striking shift. While the number of ROCOR adherents declined by 14%, Krindatch found that the number of parishes grew by 15%.
“So what it means [is], we have more parishes, but which are smaller in size. And if you look at the geography, those parishes were planted not in traditional lands of Orthodoxy,” said Krindatch. The growth occurred in less populated areas of the Upper Midwest and Southern states, places with fewer direct links to Russia.
“So for me, those are a bunch of new ROCOR communities which are founded by convert clergy or by convert members,” Krindatch said.
OK, but why should we assume that these converts are far rightists? I worshiped in a ROCOR church from 2012-16, and my priest, a convert, was especially vigilant against far-right infiltration of Orthodoxy. He was a former cop, and understood that this was a potential threat. He was instrumental in educating Orthodox bishops, who were clueless. Again: this was a ROCOR priest who took the lead to fight racist infiltration of the Church by radical converts. And in our church, we founded a mission within ROCOR because it was the only Orthodox jurisdiction willing to send a priest into a mission in south Louisiana. Nobody cared about politics at our parish — well, except for this one elderly man, who seemed perpetually disappointed that nobody wanted to talk politics with him. My experience is subjective, of course, but I have had nothing but warmth, kindness, and normality in my interactions with ROCOR people.
Anyway, these tiny little ROCOR mission parishes within a small and shrinking jurisdiction so alarmed NPR that it decided to do a big story on it. And by implication, the bullying liberals of NPR — who just love “diversity,” as long as diversity goes one way — smear all of American Orthodoxy, as you’ll see if you read the whole thing.
Aram Sarkisian, a postdoctoral teaching fellow at Northwestern University’s Department of History, said this new growth from converts has helped some branches of Orthodoxy offset a decline in multigenerational families in the church. Sarkisian said these converts often find their way to Orthodoxy because they seek a haven for what they consider to be the most important cultural issues of the day.
“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 folks, the culture wars issues, really,” Sarkisian said. “And so they leave other faith traditions that they don’t believe to be as stringent about those issues anymore.”
That’s true. If you want a more traditionally Christian church, you’ll want to investigate Orthodoxy. But look, Sarkisian is a left-wing smear artist, as I wrote last year when he attempted to demonize Southern converts to Orthodoxy as neo-Confederates.
He focused in part on my praise for the proposal that St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary relocate from Yonkers, NY, to Dallas — this, because Orthodoxy is dying in its historic American heartland (the Northeast), but booming in the South. And, unlike in New York state, legal protections for actually orthodox institutions are likely to be greater than in a hostile woke state like New York. I wrote:
The historic regions where Orthodoxy was first planted in the United States are turning away from God. Nobody can deny that. You might want to make an argument that a seminary should be in a place where the need for proclaiming the Gospel is greatest, but that fails to address the concern that St. Vladimir’s board has over “the legal and regulatory environment in the New York area.”
It is a very, very serious concern for any faithfully Orthodox Christian institution, particularly when it comes to LGBT-focused legislation and cultural norms. For now, the First Amendment protects the rights of seminaries to teach according to religious orthodoxy, even if it contradicts the law governing homosexuality and transgenderism (of which New York is one of the most progressive states). But that says nothing about rules for academic accreditation. It is entirely possible that if SVOTS remains in New York, or another deep blue state, that it could face uphill accreditation battles that could put the very existence of the seminary in jeopardy. Relocating to a red state would mean going to a place that is both more culturally conservative, and, being more religious, better understands the importance of religious liberty.
Naturally this upsets the people at Public Orthodoxy, who are eager to liberalize — including to queer — the Orthodox churches in our country. It appears that these theological progressives fear that they are losing influence over the direction of Orthodoxy in America, and are resorting to neo-Confederate smears to justify their anxiety. The Fordham Orthodox guys helped lead the charge to get my Schmemann lecture at SVOTS cancelled, but they failed. I talked about Live Not By Lies, and the crisis all small-o orthodox Christians — and especially Orthodox Christians — are facing in this post-Christian culture. I know exactly why they hated having me speak there: because I have their number. You rarely if ever hear progressive Orthodox voices complain about the rising soft totalitarianism against moral and theological conservatives because they themselves think oppression of the orthodox Orthodox by the state and by other institutions is a good thing. What these people can’t do within the institution — move it leftward — they are hoping that the state will do for them.
You want to talk about those trying to “change the church”? NPR quotes Inga Leonova, a straight-but-pro-LGBT activist I believe is trying to queer the Orthodox Church in America. [Note: I at first said she was lesbian, not as any kind of insult, but because I thought it was true; turns out she’s not, she only favors LGBT inclusion and affirmation in the church; I apologize to her for my mistake, and have rectified it — RD] It quotes the militantly leftist academic Aram Sarkisian. And it quotes one of the two founders of the Orthodox Study Center at Fordham, the most important center of the attempt to liberalize and queer American Orthodoxy.
The frustrating thing about this NPR piece is that most people in America have never heard of Orthodox Christianity, or if they have, associate it with Greek food festivals. Now, though, NPR has brought all of us Orthodox under suspicion. From the piece, way down:
Those who have followed the influx of extremists into American Orthodoxy agree that those individuals are fringe within the church and are mostly concentrated in newly founded ROCOR parishes. But they also warn that it would be foolish to ignore them.
They are fringe people in one of the smallest jurisdiction of American Orthodoxy, representing only three or four percent of all Orthodox in the US! But NPR devoted ten minutes to sounding the alarm about their supposed threat. Sarkisian told NPR:
“This is how people are finding Orthodoxy now. They’re finding Orthodoxy through these YouTube shows. They’re finding it through these podcasts. They’re finding it through these blogs,” said Sarkisian. “They’re being radicalized by these folks on the internet, and that’s really dangerous.”
Is that really how people are finding Orthodoxy now, through far-right videos? I hear all the time from people who have found Orthodoxy through reading my blog or my Substack, where I talk not at all about Orthodoxy and politics. Undoubtedly, some people do find Orthodoxy through extremist videos. But the idea that the people coming into Orthodoxy through this narrow gate is significant is not demonstrated at all in this article.
So what is its point, other than to tar a Russian church, in a time of Russophobia, as an anti-American menace? Let me give you a little more background on the kind of Orthodox people Odette Yousef quotes. The two Fordham Orthodox guys are George Demacopoulos and Aristotle Papanikolaou. Back in 2014, the Orthodox theologian Vigen Guroian wrote a negative review of a book about Orthodox political theology by Papanikolaou. Excerpts:
In the end, The Mystical as Political is not about theology. The book makes much of theological concepts like theosis but deploys them as tropes or gestures to smooth the way for the Orthodox faith to be put in service of a distinctly American religious project, one launched principally from within the academy.
In a telling admission, Papanikolaou writes that, when it comes to political theology “I do not think the transcendent referent need be to the divine, but can take the form of a common good.” In other words, whatever conduces to democracy and justice is of God. The sacramental realism and eschatological maximalism of Orthodoxy evaporates and is replaced by a consecration of the democratic “communion” of the secular liberal state.
Papanikolaou asserts that “in relation to the democratic form of the common good, the church must accept its own limits and recognize that the goal is not the formation of a eucharistic community through persuasion.” This is an astounding pronouncement. The Church must renounce not only the use of the state’s coercive power, something Orthodoxy often depended on in past centuries, but also her ambition to draw the world into the eucharistic celebration.
In the place of this ecclesial vision of transformation, we are served the claptrap of diversity and political correctness. The goal of Orthodoxy, according to Papanikolaou, is “the construction of a community in which diversity and cultural difference must be affirmed and protected and in which the recognition of such diversity must be enforced if they are not voluntarily accepted.” Enforced? Does this not imply that the liberal state has a responsibility and right to coerce the Church when the Church does not affirm “diversity and cultural difference”? Surely, Papanikolaou knows that these terms are the property of the progressive left that insists on same-sex marriage, among other things Orthodoxy refuses to “recognize.”
We’ve sadly seen this within contemporary mainline Protestantism and liberal Roman Catholicism. In those contexts, talk about justice (or social justice) has displaced the language of holiness. This has been accomplished at immense cost to the eschatological dimension in both Protestant and Roman Catholic social ethics. In the effort to insinuate the Church’s mind into public policy, we’ve seen the Church’s singularly biblical and Christian speech stripped away. Papanikolaou would do the same for Orthodoxy.
None of this is meant to minimize the “threat,” such as it is, from a handful of far-right nativists infiltrating a tiny jurisdiction of Orthodoxy. But it is to point out for non-Orthodox readers that NPR aligns itself with an academic faction within American Orthodoxy that really and truly does want to change the Church to make it more like, well, NPR.
I do give the Fordham guys credit, though, for publishing this essay from Sister Vassa Larin, a well-known Russian Orthodox nun who explains why she’s not leaving ROCOR. Excerpt:
In conclusion, let me say a few words in support of “sticking it out” within one’s own church community, at this Time of Troubles. I, for one, am not going anywhere, from my “jurisdiction,” which happens to be the ROCOR (the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia), also known as ROCA (the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad). Why am I not leaving, even while we commemorate Patriarch Kirill, and many of our clergy sympathize with Putinism? Because I love my Church. That’s my best answer. And as I’ve said jokingly, you can’t take the “broad” out of the Russian Orthodox Church A-broad, just like you can’t take the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad out of the “broad.” I do feel quite devastated by the whole situation, and I do feel betrayed by the utter failure of some of my “fathers” to discern the truth of this horrible war in Ukraine. I have not been able to post my usual reflections on Scripture on social media, nor have I updated our coffeewithsistervassa.com website, since the war began. I have been at a loss for words, frankly, and instead I’ve been focusing on helping a Ukrainian refugee family here in Vienna, which has been a great blessing to me; this opportunity somehow to help the situation has been healing to me. And as I move forward, I see my now more-difficult vocation as witnessing to the truth within my beloved Church, however insignificant that witness is, or how uncomfortable for me, or whether it matters to anyone. I could just leave, but I don’t think, in my case, that leaving my “marriage” to this Church is warranted. I think that God calls me to love, and to truthful witness, to my church family, and that’s where I will remain. I also embrace the promise of St. Paul, quoted at the beginning of this post, that I might become one of the “approved” or in Greek the dokimoi, if I stand in truth at this time of divisions. Thank you to those of you who have read this to the end. “Let us love one another, that we may with one mind confess, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit!”
I wonder if NPR has any interest in ROCOR people like Sister Vassa who deplore Russia’s war on Ukraine, and the feeble response of many Russian hierarchs to it, but who stay anyway. Do they think Sister Vassa is a closet Putinist? Actually I don’t think NPR cares. I think they’re just slinging snot at the Orthodox Church to see what sticks.
Well, look, if NPR hates an institution, that might be a recommendation for it. I hope you will go find an Orthodox Church this weekend and see what it has to offer. You will almost certainly not find politics, far-right or otherwise, despite what you’ve heard on taxpayer-funded state radio. Allow me to finish by quoting once again this line from Odette Yousef’s report:
Those who have followed the influx of extremists into American Orthodoxy agree that those individuals are fringe within the church and are mostly concentrated in newly founded ROCOR parishes.
So by NPR’s own admission, these menaces to society are a handful of people who are even on the margins within their marginal Orthodox jurisdiction (our word for “denomination” within Orthodoxy). Yet they gave ten minutes on Morning Edition to this story. How do you think NPR would have handled it twenty years ago if a fringe number of Islamic extremists were attending mosques belonging to a tiny conservative Islamic fellowship of mosques in America? I think we all know the answer to that question.
Y’all better all get used to it, you Christians from non-tame churches. This is what it’s going to be like going forward. Dig deep, pray hard, and never surrender.
UPDATE: From the Facebook page of Orthodox Christian Melissa Naasko, commenting on the NPR story:
1. I’m a mixed race brown woman in a further mixed marriage. No clergy or monastic in ROCOR has EVER made my race an issue. I’m in [the ROCOR monastery at] Jordanville 2-4 times a year and sent all my brown sons to Summer Boys. I have son studying at Holy Trinity as we speak. I have taken all my teens to St Herman’s conferences with Holy Cross monks. My own HUSBAND is a ROCOR priest.
2. Last Western Christmas, the Midwest ROCOR St Herman’s Youth Conference had two speakers. They had a black man who serves as a priest for the Serbs and me. The institution isn’t racist even if there are racist faithful. There are also red heads and left handed people and even those who like pineapple on pizza. That’s because Orthodoxy is for everyone. That’s where salvation is.
3. I have a super low tolerance for racists. I should be a kinder and more forgiving person but, if we are being honest, I’m more often a “catch these hands, bro” kinda mujera. I also run my mouth. If ROCOR was packed with racists, both my lips and hands would be chapped.