About a year ago I ran into an article by Dr. Katie Kelaidis at Orthodox Christian Laity on the growing specter of White Nationalism within the Orthodox Church in North America. Below, I provide a brief summary of her article and a critique. Needless to say, I was a bit surprised to find that Uncle Screwtape had become Hellenized.
I. Bourgeoisie Fear Finds a Home
I don’t pay much attention to OCL as I find that they tend to not represent Orthodox Christian laity but rather represent certain left leaning political groups and views.[i] But this article caught my attention because of the wild eyed narrative Kelaidis has spun.
The article sets out to explain why Orthodoxy has allegedly became a “bastion” for “far-right” groups and viewpoints. She’s concerned that the way that we present Orthodoxy to the world might “suggest” that it is a safe haven for White Nationalism and such, though she never actually names any “far right” identity groups actually known to be operating within the walls of the Orthodox Church.Tipping the credibility card, she informs us that her “work” specifically focuses on Orthodox identity in the American far right. She trots out the poster child, the duly excommunicated Matthew Heimbach, to claim that the Church has not gone far enough in addressing far right identity groups within the Orthodox Church.
She thinks their continued presence is explained by the fact that their bigotries, when writ large, are found to be acceptable and that we are either reluctant or unwilling to challenge them. Here she has in mind “misogyny, homophobia, and anti-Semitism.”
II. The Dissenters “F” Word
But how did this supposed substantial invasion of covert Nazi’s into the Orthodox Church happen? According to Kelaidis, there are two sources for this reactionary D-Day. The first source has been Protestant fundamentalism’s influence on the Orthodox Church. She notes that over that last number of decades that there has been a growing number of converts from Protestant fundamentalist bodies as well as Protestant mainline bodies due to the influence of “reformist or progressive impulses” within those bodies. She gets in a jab at Ancient Faith Radio, noting that the “aesthetic of the network mimics that of American Protestant Christian media.”
But her chief target is Rod Dreher. In her telling, Dreher did not convert because he was convinced of Orthodoxy’s theological claims, but rather because he viewed Orthodoxy as a bulwark against cultural rot. This view, she claims is only plausible when Orthodox history is transformed into some unsullied past which never existed. As Alvin Plantinga noted, Fundamentalist here means that “summ-bitch” whose opinions are to the right of mine. It seems she doesn’t like people who think her religion is true, and feels they should go elsewhere.
III. Demonizing Ex-Episcopalian Old Ladies
Kalaidis sees in Western Rite Orthodoxy an example of this ahistorical reality which creates a context for White Nationalists to exist. Because in her telling Western Rite Orthodoxy emerged, not out of internal historical practices and theological reflection within Anglicanism but rather out of an engagement and countering of modernity out of a fictional past, it is therefore essentially “radical.” Furthermore, the kinds of concessions made for converts such as those noted above, she thinks, allows space for Protestant or fundamentalist impulses to be introduced into Orthodox belief and praxis. Here her knowledge and familiarity with Anglicanism in the US over the last century is less than stellar. It isn’t difficult to see why people actually left ECUSA.
IV. Bullwinkle’s Boris
The second stream is of course those dastardly Russians, the Moscow Patriarchate and Vladimir Putin. These two towers have crafted Russian society into a fundamentalist far right utopia pushing “hardline” positions on abortion to LGBTQ rights. Russia now has a narrative similar to that of far-right groups with the twin specter of western “progressivism” and Islamic expansion threatening Christian civilization. She notes that the resulting viewpoint attempts to distance itself from white supremacy while melding nationalism with “anti-global agrarianism and reactionary religious conservatism” under the title of “traditionalism.”
V. The Token’s token
Her example of how these two streams feed into each other in actual practice is that of Matthew Raphael Johnson, a sometime member of some fringe Old Calendar sect, from which he was defrocked for phyletism, (That’s Greek for racism.) Apparently, Johnson has an earned doctorate in history and an initially credible work on Russian history. He runs a rather small podcast of which is either promoting some form of racism or is utilized by those who do.[ii] Because his initial work was sold at a single OCA parish this shows how Agent Boris and convert Pastor Jim Bob have gotten married, according to Kalaidis. Right.
VI. Maple Street in Athens
Her second example of this blending of fundamentalism and Russophilia is an alleged “upheaval” at a single ROCOR parish in Lenoir, Tennessee. Members of an “anti-fascist Orthodox Facebook” group “believed” that certain members were known white nationalists, neo-Confederates and neo-Nazis. Facebook group members are competent judge, jury and executioner, all rolled into one after all, especially “anti-Fascist”, ergo Totalitarian Show Trial Communist ones. After apparently leaving “negative” remarks on the parish’s social media platforms, the parish responded, denying any such claims. While Kalaidis believes the claims are false, she writes that there is “much to suggest” that the clerics of the parish are too tolerant of those who are. Apparently, her graduate education didn’t include the difference between suggesting and demonstrating, let alone implicature. One would think a classics scholar would know the difference between a single swallow and a Spring, but do Classics departments still teach Aristotle?
VII. Uncle Screwtape Goes Greek
It doesn’t take too much grey matter to see how absolutely feeble this piece is. There is no real data, nor any substantial attempt to offer any. Her account of the apostasy of other bodies like the Episcopal church are dismissive and laughable. The piece reads like a left-wing version of a hyper Dispensationalist gloss on some political trend, stringing together bits of unrelated information into a hysterical specter. Frankly, I was a bit disappointed that there was no flow chart to go along with it. Now I want to ask, what is this piece for? What is it attempting to do?
Here I recall a section from Lewis’ famed Screwtape Letters where the ever-affectionate Uncle Screwtape instructs the junior tempter Wormwood in the use of fear.
“The use of Fashions in thought is to distract the attention of men from their real dangers. We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under. Thus we make it fashionable to expose the dangers of enthusiasm at the very moment when they are all really becoming worldly and lukewarm; a century later, when we are really making them all Byronic and drunk with emotion, the fashionable outcry is directed against the dangers of the mere ‘understanding’.”
Screwtape Letters XXV
Kalaidis paints a picture of a veritable invasion of Neo-Nazi’s into the Church and that this is a substantial and persistent problem. One thing the piece aims to do is to breed suspicion, particularly of converts and so draw lines of suspicion within the Church itself. Who knows what those former Baptists actually believe? And those Western Rite people, well, you can’t ever be sure what is going on in their heads. After all, they have a different liturgy than everyone else. By Kalaidis’ telling, you’d think that these White Nationalist Neo-Nazis occupied endowed chairs at major universities across disciplines, controlled entire swaths of the media and of course, held various episcopal thrones or clerical seats in the U.S. As she writes it, we most certainly should be concerned, perhaps even afraid and definitely suspicious. According to Kalaidis, we live in a time and a Church where we should all be worried about White Nationalism, and probably quite fearful as well.
VIII. Birds of a Feather
So, what else is this piece doing? To see that, we need to take a look at Dr. Kalaidis own apparent affiliations. She is on the advisory board for The Wheel which styles itself as a journal of Orthodox thought and culture. It is run by Inga Leonova, a well-known and open advocate for normalizing homosexuality and other forms of fornication within the Orthodox Church. Kalaidis’ vita provides her dissertation topic as well as a number of activities, which tend to bend to the left, politically speaking. As I’ve hinted at previously, while I may disagree with her political positions, those really aren’t my target here. Reasonable people can disagree about the means to an end, assuming that they have the same end in mind. Her own pieces over at “Public Paganism” (the blog that shall not be named) express dissent from the Church’s teaching on closed communion as well as eschatological matters, a la Hartian Deterministic Universalism. She also publicly dissents on the Church’s teaching on moral matters related to sexuality and abortion. It isn’t difficult to see that she’s on the dissenting side of the ecclesial line just as Heimbach is. Apparently Dr. Kaladis was being ever so coy and humble about Orthodoxy’s extremist appeal.
IX. The Diversity of Extremism
By Orthodox standards historically speaking, those are all quite extreme positions and ones that fall outside of Orthodoxy, just as Matthew Haimbachs views do. The comments of low church Anglican theologian Peter Toon here seem apt. This is another religion. It seems not a little ironic that Dr Kalaidis writes about Orthodoxy’s extremist appeal and yet she left out her own extremist positions. In fact it turns out that there are more than a few documented cases of such extremists in the Church, occupying teaching and ecclesial positions. One has only to look over at Public Paganism (the blog that shall not be named) to see constant and regular evidence or at the “St. Phoebe Center” list of members. Frankly, I am shocked that Dr. Kalaidis missed all these other extremists in the Church who seem to be far more numerous and in positions of influence than Mr. Heimbach, including herself. Apparently ocular lumber is a real problem when writing about the extremist appeal of Orthodoxy. If we should be concerned about “extremism” then we should be just as concerned about extremism among ethnic cradles like herself. After all, the standard for what constitutes extremism here is the teaching of the Church.
X. Hellenizing Pots and Kettles
So, in addition to the Left Wing extremism exemplified by Dr. Kalaidis, there is plenty of racist extremism among ethnic cradles in the GOA about which she remains silent. (Following Sir Thomas More, silence is consent.) Waxing anecdotal again, my own experience well over a decade in the GOA shows this to be true. In my experience there is a constant presence of soft racism among some American Greeks. They are akin to Irish Catholics who worry that they may not be Catholic enough and so overcompensate. But with the Irish their overcompensation is in the domain of religion, not ethnicity. Greek superiority is regularly heard, especially near the time of Oxi Day. (I admit I have to chuckle at the yearly assertions that the Greeks played a decisive role in defeating Hitler. Fall Russian rains and a bitter winter? Cracking the Enigma Machine? Daylight Allied bombing? Stalingrad? D-Day? Nah, it was the Greeks who held out for a whopping three days!) It doesn’t take too long to hear about the superiority of the Greeks with respect to antiquity as well, leaving out the fact that they were conquered by the Romans who put Greek learning to actual use. (I am Italian after all.) On not a few occasions I’ve been asked why I was present at a Greek Church if I am not Greek as if Christians don’t belong there. (I usually reply that I am just here for the Jewish guy and the Jewish services. I have yet to meet a Greek who can figure this out.) My wife gets asked what village she is from and she responds in Spanish (she’s Cuban so she can pass for lots things I suppose.) Amid denials, they inform her that she must be Greek. I’ve been told that the Church is for Greeks and they only “allow” non-Greeks to come. One has to wonder how Jesus makes it to the Eucharist with such racism. And then there are clergy who tell inquirers that they should go become Catholic or Protestant because that is their ethnicity.
In addition, there are camps and activities only for children of Greek descent. Others need not apply. If you plan to go to Holy Cross Seminary to study for the ministry, well, you are going to have to learn modern Greek. Not Koine or Byzantine Greek, which might be of actual use in teaching people in your parish about Christianity. No, modern Greek because everyone speaks English at your parish after your family has been in the US for multiple generations. And if you don’t learn modern Greek sufficiently well, then you get sent to live in Greece for a few months. And then there is Greek School to teach kids modern Greek when they don’t even know the basics of Christianity. (I know, I’ve taught kids in more than one Greek parish. I’ve taken survey’s of what incoming Sunday school students of high school age believe. On average, their parents weren’t any more knowledgeable either.) I had to constantly remind parishioners in discussions at parish council meetings and other venues when they spoke of being Greek that we’re here to be Orthodox because they kept talking as if they were the same thing and explicitly so. One parish council member kept asserting I was Greek and I kept telling him I was Italian, German, Irish, Scottish and English (a bit of Jewish for good measure too). The cognitive dissonance on his face was quite apparent. If ethnicity mattered to God, we’d all be in line for Jewish circumcision. Oi!
It is therefore astonishing that Dr. Kaleidis ignores not only her own extremism, but the widespread Greek racist extremism in her own backyard. People in glass houses and all as the saying goes.
XI. On Floods and Fire Extinguishers
So, is White Nationalism a substantial problem in Orthodoxy, particularly among Western Rite Orthodox or converts in general? Such is not the case, not even close. This is not to say that there aren’t some individuals who are cracked pots, but such people are laity, do not occupy teaching or ecclesial positions and such. If it were a substantial problem, Kalaidis would be able to rather easily provide some actual data and an argument, rather than tokenism, innuendo, and fear mongering suspicion. Since Kalaidis only has anecdotal evidence to offer, here is my anecdotal trump card. In my twenty years within the Church, I have met a single bona fide White Nationalist out of all the converts I have met or known, and this person eventually left the Church after a collage of parishioners complained about their openly racist remarks. Here I do not mean to pick out what I would dub “casual racism” such as “Asians drive slow” and other such things, but rather a genuine racism that sees race as a kind of essence which picks out superior aptitudes and such race has to be kept “pure” from genetic mixture.
This is not to say that there might not be others around. I am sure in any gathering of humans you end up with fruits and nuts. Such has been my consistent experience. I’m not a Humean, but with respect to regular and consistent experience, Hume, like Aristotle, has a point. It goes without saying that persons who express racist views believe contrary to the teaching of the Church with respect to the imago dei, the consubstantiality of the human species and a host of other points. And this covers anti-Semitism as well, just so we’re clear. Again, this is not about politics, but theology. So, I really can’t see that the evidence warrants the belief that White Nationalism and such are the substantial problem she claims they are. I could be mistaken, but since we are trading anecdotal evidence, I am quite happy to favor my own over hers.
Rather what we do seem to have in apparent abundance, are people within the Church who foment dissent from the Church’s moral teaching, focusing on matters of human sexuality, as well as women’s ordination, parroting the wider culture. I’m not a devote of Luther but it seems that the big cultural dog has barked and the little ecclesial dogs have set to yapping. We have lower clergy and some bishops who actually do or appear to dissent from the Church’s teaching on matters of sexual ethics and do what they can to promote said dissent. On Public Paganism (the blog that shall not be named) as an organ of the Fordham’s Orthodox Christian Studies Center, there is no shortage of academics (and pseudo-academics) who regularly promote such dissent, badly.[iii]
What Kaladis is offering is fear and suspicion to thereby create opposition to converts because converts have a higher fidelity to the Church’s moral teaching. They there form a bulwark against the heterodox dissent she and others support and foment. The fear and suspicion she casts functions as a tool to marginalize and delegitimize converts upholding the Church’s teaching on sexual ethics and other areas. In short, Kalaidis provides us with a propaganda power grab. It is a way of shifting the framework of the debate away from her dissent from biblical teaching on sexual ethics and human value. This is why her account is fundamentally fictional and has no substantial data. (All propaganda is fiction after all.) Her piece is aimed at moving our attention away from a real and substantial Trojan horse which now occupies some of the higher ecclesial real estate and that seeks to position itself to further promote dissent from the Church’s teaching. Her article then directs us to strain out the gnat while swallowing the camel. So that is all this piece is, is smear. She’s handing out fire extinguishers during a flood.
XII. Race is a Useless Fiction
As far as Orthodoxy having a substantial presence of racists and White Nationalists, such is not the case, not by a long shot. While there has been an upswing in the number of such racist groups in the U.S., from what I can tell from the FBI and other such agencies their actual numbers remain relatively small. Though the number of groups doesn’t tell us the number of net members. Some of these groups fold after a short time. They burn out and then reform under some new local leader. While some may have thousands of members, such as the KKK, they are still relatively small potatoes given that there are over three hundred million people in the U.S and the KKK and the like isn’t anywhere near the size or influence it once was. This does not imply that such groups can’t be dangerous and inflict great harm. They can. And they deserve the due attention of law enforcement for that reason. But as the old German proverb goes, “Fear makes the wolf look bigger than he is.”
I would offer that a real measure of racism in America would be something more concrete than the anecdotal evidence and suspicion that Kalaidis offers. Something like the rate of “inter-racial” marriage or procreation. That doesn’t measure people who say “I have a black friend” but rather what people actually believe. They put their marriage where their mouth is, as it were. And of course, “inter-racial” marriage and procreation have been on a steady increase year after year since Loving v. Virginia. This is due to many reasons, but socially speaking, American hedonists don’t care about your skin pigmentation. What matters in American social life and pop culture is whether you’re “hot.” But I am not a sociologist or a cultural anthropologist and of course, neither is Dr. Kalaidis. That said, “inter-racial” marriage is a hard fact the cuts against the narrative she and others provide.
XIII. Please, Sir, Can I Have Some More?
It seems to me that Dr. Kalaidis has no lived experience with converts to Orthodoxy nor any when it comes to the apostasy of the mainline Protestant bodies in the US. As myself a refugee from the Episcopal church I am well acquainted with the great suffering and loss that millions of others have experienced as they watched the Christian body that they grew up in and that generations of their families supported becomes a devotee of Molech and Artemis. Converts from such bodies have a legitimate desire to seek escape and refuge from the very rejection of Christianity that Dr. Kalaidis advocates. That’s the irony. She castigates and dismisses converts from those bodies when they are fleeing the very same apostasy she foments. They are only here because of what Kalaidis and others are supporting in the first place. That said, what converts generally want is just Orthodoxy, pure and undefiled. They are zealous, perhaps sometimes overzealous but understandably so for Orthodoxy. They want more Orthodoxy, not less. And what Dr. Kalaidis is offering is less than Orthodoxy. She is therefore in the same category as Matthew Heimbach, the only difference being the content of their dissent from Christianity.
Now there is one point on which her article rings true. It is true that many converts have an idealized picture of church history, but to be fair, this is true of many cradles as well. Idealized histories are not the special province of converts. Be that as it may, the solution to such an idealization is a proper education, one which is not constructed on the basis of a secular viewpoint created and promulgated by white colonizing European males, like oh, Critical Theory. Besides, doing the latter only pushes converts back into an idealized view of church history. Rather the way forward is an education that presents both the noble and the base so that church members, cradle and convert alike can see that history is indeed a messy affair. This does not imply a kind of theoretical neutrality can be had in doing history. I remain convinced that it can’t be had. But it also doesn’t mean that the truth of Christianity can’t be known either. Thinking that Christianity is true is not fundamentalism.
Apart from the terms’ usage as a cudgel, I take it to pick out a set of dispositions and fallacious forms of reasoning which are exemplified apart from any distinctive theological, philosophical or political content. As a form of stupidity, fundamentalism knows no special allegiance. It is in an anti-intellectual coping mechanism against various forms of insecurity in this world. And the human condition makes us very insecure. The irony with the “fundamentalists” as Kalaidis uses the term, is that what “fundamentalists” look back to, dissenters such as Kalaidis look forward to, namely to some Edenic state that they think is attainable this side of Sheol. If they only work hard enough, it can be had. The problem is that such and so group over there is impeding us from having it. The two only differ on the content of the Edenic state and which temporal direction they are looking. The two sides use the same propagandizing methods and betray the same ideological dispositions.
I am of the confirmed belief that there is no secret backdoor to Eden. There is no escaping suffering in this world to my dying day. We are to some degree stuck with the wheat and the tares, like it or lump it. There are no simple answers. This does not imply that the truth cannot be known. It can, but it is usually takes more work than most people are willing to do to meet the conditions on knowledge.
XIV. Be Christian
Lastly, what Dr. Kalaidis, as well as the many other contributors of Public Paganism (the blog that shall not be named) need to do is decide whether they think Christianity is true or false. Either they side with the likes of bishop Pike and Spong, and think it false or with the saints think it true. If the former, they should be honest enough to join whatever association whose beliefs they think to be true. That is what honest people do. But it is my hope that they will abandon their alien religion and simply profess the truth of Christianity, lest they remain extremists like Matthew Heimbach and suffer his ecclesial fate. Repentance is most desirable, because God is a lover of mankind.
[i] Of course, I recognize that in matters prudential, people of a fair mind can and will disagree about the means to an end, assuming that they agree on the end. But when an organ appears as a sock puppet for one viewpoint in such matters, I tend to ignore it. All propaganda is, after all, fiction. And there are far better fiction writers out there to learn from or enjoy.
[ii] Honestly, I didn’t take too much time to work through his material. A romp through it though seemed to confirm the assessment.
[iii] To wax aesthetical, the dissenting authors there present us with the well-rehearsed propaganda and rhetoric taken from the Presbyterian Church USA, Episcopal Church USA, et al. The former pieces are thus repetitive, monochromatic and unimaginative. It is all so very boring. But I should not expect theological evil to be anything other than banal. Word to the wise. If you are going to be heretical, at least be clever and have some style.