In 2018, NPR conducted an interview with a former neo-Nazi, Christian Picciolini. In the interview, Picciolini discusses how terms like “alt-right” and “white nationalist” were invented by white supremacists to sound more palatable to average Americans, and points out the prevalence of these words in the news today. He goes on to discuss how there was a specific push in the 1980s and 90s to give the movement a face-lift, including encouraging members to wear business suits, recruit college students, and join law enforcement and the military. Picciolini believes that efforts like this have been successful, and that this is how some white supremacists are able to fly under the radar and enter political office today.
It is my belief that some of these young men are joining the Orthodox Church in increasing numbers as well, and if believers are not awake to the way theology and church history can be twisted to accommodate their views, they may continue to fly under the radar, shaping the direction the Church takes in the US and beyond.
Michael Sisco is a young Orthodox Christian who is engaged in many of the activities described by Picciolini. I have not had the opportunity to interview Sisco, but he created and writes for Sts. Edward Media [where he describes himself as “an Orthodox Christian, a nationalist, and traditionalist”], and he has a podcast from which we can gather some of his views, Many of these, in my opinion, are harmful for Americans in general, but for Orthodox Christians specifically. Readers of Orthodoxy in Dialogue will remember Sisco from a November article about his petition to the U.S. Assembly of Bishops to carry on conducting in-person services in defiance of state and local restrictions. It is concerning that he does not believe that COVID-19 poses a serious threat to humankind, and he is an anti-vaxxer.
Of equal or greater concern is his burgeoning career in politics. He was hired in 2019 by Iowa congressional candidate Bobby Schilling as a campaign coordinator. In early December of that year, Sisco allowed white nationalist Michael Fuentes to speak at an immigration forum. Fuentes was not on the program, and only Sisco and one other person knew he would be in attendance. Both Schilling and his opponent condemned the remarks made by Fuentes. Schilling fired Sisco soon after.
Sisco was next picked up by his ex-girlfriend, Lauren Witzke, then a Republican candidate for one of Delaware’s two Senate seats. Like Sisco, Witzke identifies as Orthodox Christian, but she has also been flagged as a white supremacist, antisemitic, and QAnon follower, among other beliefs. Sisco appears to have had some influence on Witzke’s positions on some issues. For example, Sisco identifies as a monarchist and has blogged in favor of a Trump kingship. On his podcast, he and his anonymous co-host interviewed Witzke and asked whether she would support this position, and she agreed. Witzke eventually lost her run for Senate, but Michael Sisco is still at large in American politics.
It matters that Michael Sisco is a monarchist and an Orthodox Christian, especially in the current political moment in the United States. The Orthodox Church has a history of enmeshment with nationalist regimes, as many readers will be aware. Sisco’s rhetoric is reminiscent of Corneliu Codreanu, for example, in his call for a New World Order which excludes Jewish people and non-white people. When our last president expressed admiration for groups such as the Proud Boys and regimes such as Vladimir Putin’s, it is not surprising that some Orthodox Christians who share a vision of the Orthodox Church as a fundamentalist institution should look to Trump as a monarchic figure. Though I do not know definitively whether or not Michael Sisco himself is a QAnon supporter, he certainly associates with them, and his wish for Trump to be an American monarch echoes the QAnon ideology that he is a messianic figure.
Sisco is part of an alt-right network of individuals who have actively been recruiting alt-right types to the Orthodox Church. This network includes Sisco, Jay Dyer, David Patrick Harry (who also hosted Witzke on his podcast), and Michael Witcoff, among others. For example, Witcoff and Sisco have been guests on each other’s podcasts, Witcoff has a YouTube video in which he alludes to a plan to eradicate “Communist” or “Marxist” clergy, clergy who support Black Lives Matter, and “revolution” (see minutes 34-37 of the video in particular). This is reminiscent of Sisco’s threatening letter to the Assembly of Bishops; in the original version of this letter, he described creating a list of “non-compliant parishes,” which was later toned down.
We know why the Orthodox Church is appealing to people with extremist, nationalist views, like Michael Sisco. However, a person in general, and an Orthodox Christian in particular, does not have to be an extremist to fall prey to conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories find fertile ground in times of great uncertainty, and a diverse array of people can succumb to them–from some members of Congress to Orthodox clergy. I do not know whether or not Father Mark Hodges is himself a QAnon supporter [see the Mark Hodges: The Scandal section in our Archives 2020-21], but he has, in my opinion, been duped by misinformation spread by both Donald Trump and conspiracy theorists. The rhetoric he has used in his social media posts have included links to “news” long since disproven by reputable sources. It is not my opinion that Michael Sisco and Father Mark Hodges share all of the same beliefs; indeed, I suspect they would disagree about quite a few things. We must ask ourselves instead what it takes for Orthodox Christians, including at least one priest, to stand shoulder to shoulder with avowed Neo-Nazis for the same political event. There was, after all, diversity among those who attended Donald Trump’s rally on January 6th as well as the segment of that group who stormed that US Capitol. Did every member of that crowd come for the same reasons, convinced of the same narrative?
The answer to this, I believe, lies in how all of us filter and prioritize information, both on the Internet and in our loyalties. There is a wonderful article by someone in my field, Robert Glenn Howard, called “Vernacular Media, Vernacular Belief: Locating Christian Fundamentalism in the Vernacular Web” (2009). He studied two couples who befriended one another on a Christian site despite some divergent beliefs; one couple firmly believes demons built a civilization on Mars after the Fall and the other are more “mainstream” Protestant Christians. What unites these couples are shared beliefs in the End Times and Biblical literalism. Because these couples are only connected by one particular website and they live in separate states, they do not have to meet in person or engage deeply on other topics around which they might have disagreement. In fact, as Howard argues, the way we use search engines like Google means that we can filter out ideas contrary to our own. Each one of us does this any time we use the Internet; we filter our search results by means of keywords. We can also do this by limiting our sources of influence in the world by means of which news sources we trust and which people we trust.
QAnon represents an extreme version of this filtering, so much so that it isolates its followers from their communities and even their families. Beyond QAnon, I believe that Donald Trump has been so successful in using his brand, that he may have a similar effect on some of his followers. He is famous, after all, for his emphasis on loyalty, both with his staff and with his broader voting base.
This same behavior is visible in some Orthodox circles. I am reminded of the courage of Archbishop JOB of blessed memory, who was the only bishop in the Holy Synod of the OCA to question some of his brethren about laundering millions of dollars. Their loyalty to one another above the interests of their congregations allowed for financial mismanagement to go unchecked for decades. I am reminded, too, of such figures as Father Josiah Trenham [see the Josiah Trenham: The Scandal section in our Archives 2020-21], who commands a similar loyalty among his fan base. For example, I found an excerpt of one of his lectures in which he blames unbelieving Christians for losing faith over scandal in the Church. All of these are examples of unconditional loyalty. When loyalty is at play, it can encourage a deliberate blind eye among those who might otherwise disagree with financial misconduct, white supremacist attitudes, and discrimination against LGBTQ+ Christians, to name a few examples.
I think we should not be surprised by far-right extremism in the Orthodox Church. I also think we should not be surprised to find white supremacists, monarchists, and fascists there. Historically, the Orthodox Church has been a rallying point for nationalism, and before that, for cultural identity. In the right hands, these can be used as weapons of blind loyalty; they have certainly been used as excuses to make outcasts of and even to kill nonconforming citizens (Michael Sisco himself admires Vladimir Putin, who makes use of some of these strategies). What Orthodox Christians need to decide for themselves is what the Church is. What behaviors will (and won’t) believers tolerate in their communities, and how will they resolve these conflicts? What are the limits of loyalty? How do we deal with uncertainty? How do believers reconcile inconvenient facts and intense feelings?
I will close with an inconvenient fact: white supremacists are the number one domestic terror threat in the United States today according to a recent report by Homeland Security. It may well be the number one threat to the Orthodox Church in the United States, as well.
See the White Supremacy and Racism section in our Archives 2017-19 and Archives 2020-21.
Lydia Bringerud holds a PhD in folklore from Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John’s and an MA in folklore from Indiana University in Bloomington. Her doctoral research focused primarily on American converts to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, as well as attitudes toward authority, obedience, cultural conflict, and the position of women. Her dissertation is entitled Whose Tradition? Adapting Orthodox Christianity in North America. She has written previously for Orthodoxy in Dialogue and co-moderates Orthodoxy in Dialogue’s Facebook group. She currently works at a public library in San Diego CA.