Like many of us who have closely followed the increasingly depressing saga of white supremacists co-opting the Orthodox Church in recent years, I processed the news a while back about Matthew Heimbach’s arrest and the presumed downfall of his neo-Nazi Traditionalist Worker Party with some skepticism. Heimbach might have been the guy in the room who yelled the loudest, but there are a host of others just like him, and some of them will be standing next to you during Liturgy this Sunday. That fact should concern you. There is absolutely no good reason why it shouldn’t concern you.
Orthodoxy in Dialogue has played a constructive role in raising awareness of the neo-Nazi/white supremacist/“alt-right” problem by posting articles, news stories, and open letters to Church hierarchs and seminaries over the past several months. This has not been enough, unfortunately. The problem is too great now, the inaction too widespread, for these kinds of solutions. Even still there are those within the Church who refuse to admit that we have this issue in the first place. We’ve waited far too long to be able to swiftly stem this tide. Parishes across the country are being affected. Social media is overrun with a brand of Orthodoxy that sees zero contradiction in posting Paschal greetings alongside racist tirades and clickbait links praising Putin or Assad. Where do we go from here? What can be done?
As an academic, I’m inclined to assume that knowledge of the problem and its roots will somehow remedy everything. This, of course, is naive at best. No crash course in identifying white supremacy is going to magically fix this. But because this is so pervasive a problem, because it continues to grow and spread through a myriad of sources with no sign of slowing down (despite Heimbach’s own personal humiliation), we all have to take steps toward actively fighting it in the most effective way we can. This article is the first of what will likely be many attempts on my part to do just that.
So why, we must ask ourselves, are people who adhere to explicitly racist beliefs being drawn into Orthodoxy in the first place? There isn’t a convenient one-size-fits-all answer. The rise of the “alt-right,” particularly in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, has indisputably emboldened white supremacists, neo-Confederates, neo-Nazis, fascists, etc., to feel far more comfortable expressing their hateful views publicly. They aren’t relegated to commiserating with one another on Stormfront message boards anymore. They believe that their message has become more attractive and acceptable to white Americans nowadays. They invoke fears of “multiculturalism,” of immigrants causing whites to become a minority, of rampant “political correctness” destroying free speech, and of the forced decline of “Western civilization.” Around every corner there is a new threat, ready and willing to subjugate the “white race.” This isn’t a problem that exists solely within Orthodoxy, either. White supremacist ideology has already carved out a presence within neo-paganism, and as “alt-right” rhetoric continues to trickle into mainstream conservatism, evangelical and Roman Catholic churches will have to deal with it more frequently, as well.
Before we go any further, let’s get our terminology straight. I use the term “alt-right” in this article only because it’s become part of the accepted cultural lexicon. People know, or at least assume they know, what the “alt-right” is. I am hesitant to throw around that descriptor. Let’s be perfectly frank: the “alt-right” is white supremacy, plain and simple. No attempt to rebrand itself as something different or somehow better than old school white supremacy is going to change that fact. The self-proclaimed “alt-right” might be technology savvy, they might employ different means of spreading their message, but they’re still white supremacists. Calling them the “alt-right,” the “alternative right,” is normalizing them, it’s allowing them to control the message by referring to themselves as a perfectly legitimate form of right wing political and cultural ideology. It’s just racism with a new name.
I don’t need to give a full-fledged history lesson in order to demonstrate how whiteness has dominated the story of America. White privilege is real, it has always been real, and the only people who can easily afford to deny that fact are, shockingly enough, white. When one group wields power over others, their biggest fear tends to be the loss of that power, that they’ll be relegated to the ranks of the powerless someday themselves and will no longer be in charge. The battle cry of racists throughout American history has gone something like, “White American Christians are in danger of becoming minorities in their own land!” You’ve heard that before, haven’t you? Seems white people are always dangling precariously on the edge of cultural extinction, if the racist narrative is to be believed.
The so-called “alt-right” uses the same fears as all the other white supremacist movements of the past. They feel disaffected by the supposed decline of white hegemony in American society in favor of “multiculturalism,” “political correctness,” “cultural Marxism,” “social justice warriors,” and various other buzzwords. The idea that whites can simply separate themselves from these perceived evils sounds quite enticing to someone who honestly believes that their way of life is in danger of being destroyed, their children’s well-being threatened, their legacy in jeopardy. White males are particularly susceptible to this rhetoric, and there are numerous factors that go into explaining that susceptibility: the economy, a dismal job market adversely affecting young people, lack of access to proper healthcare, the increasingly volatile political climate, the internet and social media’s role in propagating information from extremist sources, to name just a few. The problem is growing rapidly coast to coast. It extends well beyond our borders. And it has become a very real and disturbing presence within the Orthodox Church in the US.
Have these folks listened to the Divine Liturgy, you might ask? Have they researched the Church at all? Do they not understand how beautifully multicultural the Orthodox faith is and has always been? I asked the same questions. But the more I thought about it, the more I researched these groups, the more convinced I became that we, the Orthodox Church within America, are the perfect target. We’ve made them comfortable. When they visit our parishes, they see predominantly white congregations. They go online and see Orthodox Christians praising Putin and his brand of political Orthodoxy, as well as the romanticization of majority-Orthodox countries like Russia. For a group of people pushing for the idea of a separate, whites-only society where everyone looks and worships the same way, this sounds like heaven on earth.
This new generation of white supremacists, like the ones before, wants a society in which they are placed toward the top of the class hierarchy by virtue of being white. They’ll explain their reasoning for this in many ways, ranging from arguments that “whites are genetically superior to other races” to “every race inherently prefers to be with its own kind.” This makes the idea of democracy, where everyone theoretically gets a say, far less enticing to them than fascist or even absolute monarchist ideologies. A dictator like Putin, who has notoriously used the Church as a prop for his political machinations and has reveled in discriminating against religious, racial, and cultural minorities, easily earns their admiration. Putin is preserving Russian culture, “Holy Russia,” after all. He’s a leader who looks after “his people,” the ones who look and worship like him, to the exclusion of others. This is the system white supremacists prefer. The Orthodox Church in the US is a breeding ground for this type of rhetoric, and thus they feel safe among us. They wouldn’t suffer under a Putinesque regime here in America. The natural order in which they believe would instead be reinstituted, white Christians would take their rightful place as leaders of the racial theocracy, and everyone else can (preferably) leave.
Anti-Semitism cannot be understated when speaking of the Orthodox Church and white supremacy, either. An article from 2014 about Matthew Heimbach and his Traditionalist Youth Network links Heimbach and other racists’ entrance into Orthodoxy with the belief that Orthodox countries have remained more “racially pure” and free from Jewish contamination than other countries. The sad history of Orthodoxy and anti-Semitism is far too long and too vast to delve into here, but suffice it to say that their arguments will not always fall upon unsympathetic ears. Additionally, an unintended consequence of the interest in early Anglo-Saxon and Celtic Christianity within the Orthodox Church in the West is that white supremacists, who obviously revere such cultures, are using that interest for their own ends. They view Orthodoxy as part of their white Anglo-Saxon cultural heritage, and thus they appropriate Anglo and Celtic saints and traditions into their racist ideology. One need only browse through some of the statements by white supremacist groups like the neo-Confederate League of the South, which is poised to pick up disaffected members of Heimbach’s former Traditionalist Worker Party now that it has folded, to see how easy the link between Orthodoxy, “tradition,” and “Anglo-Saxon/Celtic heritage” can be made.
It is also important to note that, beyond the realm of ideology, white supremacists are acutely aware of the Church’s lack of organization in America. We are a hodgepodge of various jurisdictions, all with different hierarchs and standards, and they have taken full advantage of this weakness. If one priest in a single parish learns of a parishioner posting neo-Nazi images on social media, for example, that parishioner can easily go across town to another Orthodox parish, in another jurisdiction, with another priest, and continue on as if nothing has happened. The fear of stepping on another jurisdiction’s toes will likely result in silent acceptance. That silence breeds more extremism, as friends who sympathize with the neo-Nazi parishioner begin to attend the new parish as well. Before you know it, that parish has become hostile territory and a culture of fear emerges. What do the other, presumably non-white supremacist parishioners do?
I want to take the opportunity now to ask Orthodox Christians who are reading this to do something. Pay attention. Do not be afraid to say something. If you overhear someone during coffee hour making a blatantly racist or hateful statement, talk to them, tell them you disagree. Don’t be hostile, but make it clear that what they are saying is not acceptable. Show love and pray for them. Discuss concerns openly with your priest and other parishioners. This isn’t a witch hunt. This is a call for honest and straightforward conversations about a real threat that exists within our Church today. There’s an opportunity here, a chance for the Church to potentially change the hearts and minds of people who are in desperate need. We won’t convince every white supremacist that walks through our doors, but we might help some, and that’s worth the effort. Whatever is being done within the jurisdictions to address the problem of white supremacy in the Orthodox Church isn’t enough. We need everyone to be willing to take charge of the narrative, to not allow our parishes to be havens of extremism and hate.
The time is now. Don’t be complacent. Don’t deny the problem. Do something.
See the White Supremacy and Racism category near the top of our Archives by Author for our full listing of articles, editorials, and letters on this topic. See also Letters to the Editors, January 24, 2018.
Kari Edwards is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Mississippi and an editor at Orthodoxy in Dialogue. She holds a BA in Religious Studies from the University of Tennessee and an MA in Southern Studies from the University of Mississippi. She attends St. Maria of Paris Orthodox Church (OCA) in Cleveland TN with her husband.