My concern is that anti-Russian propaganda can lead to anti-Russian actions, and any people or institutions associated with Russians could easily become targets of unhinged people . . .
Sarah Riccardi-Swartz is an Orthodox anthropologist who has written extensively about her studies of the ROCOR (Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia) community in and near the Holy Cross Monastery in West Virginia. She has been identified in academic forums as being a member of ROCOR, but if she has ever written about how she came to convert to the Orthodox Faith, I have not seen it, and she is at least currently not affiliated with ROCOR.
She began her study not long after the election of Donald Trump, and it is clear that her analysis of ROCOR converts is entirely viewed through a political lens that is colored by her own left-wing politics. Her observations are entirely improbable -- and I speak as someone who is a ROCOR convert, and after having been in ROCOR for most of my life at this point.
ROCOR does not represent millions of people. Alexei Krindatch's data had the membership of ROCOR estimated to be about 27,700, within the United States. I have been in ROCOR since 1990, and so in this relatively small world, while I may not know everyone in ROCOR, there are probably not many members in North America that I don't at least know someone who knows them.
In the case of Holy Cross Monastery, I have a former parishioner who is a monk there, whom I have known for decades, and his mother is still a very active member of my parish. There are others in the monastery and in the nearby parish that I know on one level or another, and I simply do not believe her descriptions have any relationship with the reality on the ground there.
For example, in the following video presentation, Sarah speaks of "converts" (in the plural, as if this is common) who are "willing to take up arms for Russia if they invaded the United States," who speak "of the revolutionary day when Vladimir Putin would invade the United States and restore moral order in order to avoid God's wrath."
In my 31 years in ROCOR, in which I have traveled all over the country, I have never encountered anyone in ROCOR that I have ever heard say such things, nor could I imagine anyone I have known ever seriously saying anything of the sort. I can imagine someone speaking this way in jest, or someone who is mentally ill speaking this way... but I rather doubt Sarah has heard more than one mentally ill person saying such things in earnest, who thought they were speaking of a realistic scenario. After all, in the age of nuclear weapons, who thinks Russia would ever attempt to invade the United States, much less that they could do it successfully?
She also speaks of a man named "Reynolds" whom she describes as a mid 50's business man, who is ex-military, and regarding whom she makes the following comment:
"For Reynolds, converting to Russian Orthodoxy was more than sitting on the back porch of his priest's cabin drinking vodka and shooting rifles into the night's air, although he admitted to thoroughly enjoying those moments."
I frankly do not believe that anyone with the slightest idea of gun safety, much less someone who had been in the military, sits on anyone's back porch, and fires guns into the night air. People who use guns that I have known will never point their gun, even when they believe it is unloaded, at anything they are not trying to destroy, and they certainly would not be firing a gun into the air, with the knowledge that they could accidentally kill someone by doing so. I could imagine someone shooting at a target from a back porch, but not into the "night's air." But I am sure that many liberal academics get a kick out of having their stereotypes of toothless rednecks confirmed by such assertions.
She also makes some rather unlikely comments about "typical" converts in ROCOR:
"While statistical data has yet to catch up with the influx of converts in ROCOR, primarily because of its geographical diffusion across the US, clerics and laity consistently offer examples of a typical convert, which aligns quite readily with the folks I have encountered during my research. A composite rendering of a likely convert often paints them as a single or married male between the ages of 20 and 60, typically with a college degree or more often then not a more advanced degree from a seminary or graduate training in theology, philosophy, or history. On the whole their political leanings are conservative at least, and sometimes far more radical, including but not limited to far and alt-right affiliations, and monarchism. Religious backgrounds of typical male converts, often run the gamut from non-denominational to Southern Baptist, to Pentecostal, to Catholic, but the largest number generally hail from Evangelical backgrounds. Crucial to the political concerns of converts were fears over social and moral issues, such as abortion, same sex marriage, human rights -- gay, trans, and women's right primarily, and restrictive access to legal fire arms. These fears are not new, but an embedded part of the religious rights platform, that came to rise during the early years of the cold war, and spread through the latter half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century. The language of moral evil that came to prominence during the Cold War, and helped spawn the religious right, and eventually the moral majority, is re-emerging with unabashed vigor among far right Christians today. And those iconic cold war marketing images, of Russia as the red menace, and the United States as the salvific global figure robed in nationalistic -- which we can read as White Christian pride -- have seemingly been inverted for the typical far right convert."
I have not seen Sarah allude to any scientific surveys that she has conducted to find out what the typical views and demographics of ROCOR converts are. Apparently, she is basing her comments on her limited observations in one community, and supplementing this with anecdotal evidence from conversations she has had. This hardly seems like the basis a real scholar would use to make these kinds of sweeping comments. In my experience, I have found converts vary rather widely in terms of their backgrounds and how and why they became Orthodox.
She also is very much off the track in terms of her knowledge of the history she alludes to. There were no culture war issues in the early years of the Cold War. I am old enough to remember when Democrats and Republicans didn't differ very much on issues of morality. In fact, the first presidential race I was old enough to pay attention to, was when Jimmy Carter ran against Gerald Ford in 1976, and I remember a Southern Baptist preacher, whom I think was Adrian Rogers, saying "I'm not going to tell you who to vote for, but he has the same initials as Jesus Christ." Jimmy Carter ran as an Evangelical, and he won the Evangelical vote by a big margin.
Well into the 80's, many mainstream Democrats ran as being Pro-Life, including Bill Clinton and Al Gore -- in fact I well remember Al Gore's wife waging a mini-culture war against x-rated and violent music lyrics, and she was joined by a lot of Republicans and Democrats. Barack Obama ran for president twice, taking the position that he opposed same-sex marriage, and only after the mid-term elections of his second term did Joe Biden float the trial balloon of supporting it.
This is not ancient history, we are talking about here. So to act like it is the lunatic fringe who oppose abortion and gay marriage, when most people still oppose abortion on demand, and when 20 years ago, almost no one was seriously talking about gay marriage as anything other than as a joke, only shows the youth, inexperience, and ignorance of recent history of the person making these comments.
The idea that concerns about the moral issues she mentions have anything to do with "White Christian pride" is also both slanderous and ignorant. It is slanderous, because the implication is that these concerns are driven by racism, when there is nothing in evidence to support such an assertion. It is ignorant, because only someone who has not spent much time around non-elite Black people could make such an assertion. I am sure that, these days, tossing around accusations of racism in an academic context is common, but in the real world, people should be more careful about such things.
When I first began working for the State of Texas, I was part of a training group for six months that consisted of about eight Black women, two white women, one black man, and one Hispanic man, and myself. We were also trained by a team of three Black women. I remember one day when we were eating lunch together we somehow got on the topic of abortion, and it was me and the eight Black women, against the two liberal White women, with the other two men staying out of it.
Over the 27 years that I worked with the State of Texas, I discovered that Black people generally are far more socially conservative than most White people. This was also evident in California when they had a constitutional amendment on the ballot to ban same-sex marriage. Had only White people voted, the amendment would not have passed. It was Blacks and Hispanics that swung that vote.
Here in Houston, when they had an ordinance that would have allowed men who think they are women to use women's restrooms, the ordinance was voted down... and this is in a city in Which white people represent about a third of the population. It was Black and Hispanic Churches that led the push to overturn this ordinance, and it was voted down by an overwhelming majority of voters.
This past October, I agreed to be interviewed by Sarah, and I was a bit hesitant because I had read some questionable things Sarah had written before, but when I asked the monk I know from Holy Cross about her, he told me that he thought she was sincere, and so I did the interview. I could be wrong, but I am fairly certain she quoted me in her most recent article about the suspension of Fr. Mark Hodges: "After Orthodox Priest Suspended for "Stop the Steal" Activity, A Renewed Spotlight on the Orthodox Far-Right." She wrote:
"Many far-right Orthodox Christians I’ve encountered are gripped by the conviction that progressives have shifted the social ethos of the United States so far left that they are in danger of being persecuted for their moral ideologies. As one convert priest told me, “I don’t know what the future is gonna hold, if this thing doesn’t change and it keeps getting worse, I don’t know what that’s going to mean for us as Russian Orthodox Christians, as American converts to the Russian Church.” His apocalyptic worries are echoed online among far-right Orthodox folks, who suggest that persecution looms on the horizon. [See image below left]"
And here is the image the article refers to:
If memory serves, and she is in fact quoting me, I was speaking specifically about the anti-Russian drumbeat that we have been hearing ever since the 2016 election, when the left tried to say that the Russians stole the election (back when we still had the freedom to think an election might be stolen). My concern is of course that anti-Russian propaganda can lead to anti-Russian actions, and any people or institutions associated with Russians could easily become targets of unhinged people.
I have spoken with many Russians about what it was like to be a Russian in the US during the Red-scares of the 50's and 60's, and it was not easy. The older ROCOR parish in Houston, up until the time I talked them into changing their listing in the 90's, was officially "The Eastern Orthodox Church of St. Vladimir," which made finding them in the phone book difficult. This parish was founded in the 50's, and it was because of this anti-Russian sentiment that they made sure to avoid using "Russian" in their name for the public to see.
What Sarah probably does not know about the picture the article included is that it is a picture from a book published in the early 1980's, at a time when Ronald Reagan was president, and few could imagine America ever harboring any sympathy for Marxism. This book based this inscription on the prophesy of a Russian Elder (the Elder Ignatius), who was living in Harbin, China in the 1930's, who said "What began in Russia, will end in America." He obviously did not say this because he was a Trump Supporter, or because of anything to do with the current culture wars of the United States. And so to use this, as evidence that ROCOR converts are a fifth column force for Russia in the United States is ridiculous, slanderous, and based on an ignorance of what she is talking about.
I can't remember if I mentioned this to Sarah when I spoke with her or not, but this past June, my parish was the subject of a terrorist threat from a local Antifa supporter, who was trying to gin up a group of like-minded terrorists to burn my Church down. He made a point of referring to my parish as "St. Jonah Russian Orthodox Church." This is despite the fact that we nowhere use "Russian" in the name of our parish -- not on our sign, and not on our parish website.* I had to get the FBI and local law enforcement involved, and our parish subsequently had to spend well over ten thousand dollars to beef up security. So I don't think my concerns are unfounded. We have much better uses we could have put that money towards.
When I entered ROCOR, the Cold War was still going on, and certainly no one in the Church was talking about the Soviet Union as anything other than an evil. When the Soviet Union collapsed, we rejoiced that the Church was once again free, and we have welcomed the growing strength of the Russian Church. I do not, however, think of myself as being a Russian, nor do I want Russia to invade the United States, nor would I encourage anyone to take up arms against the United States on Russia's behalf.
I would also suggest to Sarah that she spend some time talking with people who have experienced Communism. I am married to one, and have talked to many such people over the years. In fact, I have a professional relationship with a Chinese man that has been ongoing for about two decades now. We have often made small talk about our families, but after this past election, he cautiously asked me about it, because he was wanting to make sure I was a safe person to talk to, and then he began expressing his concerns about the rise of Marxism in the United States, as well as the stifling of dissent and the control of the flow of information.
He was raised and educated in Communist China, and he told me this was too much like what he had seen there for his comfort. And after seven months of riots across the country, conducted by people who identify themselves as Marxist, you can't seriously argue that there is no reason to be concerned. He has very grave concerns about where things are headed, and he is certainly not a White convert to ROCOR. I certainly hope that these concerns turn out to be unfounded, but eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, and if we are not concerned about keeping it, we will certainly lose it. In fact, there is no doubt that we have lost a lot of freedom in this country already -- but someone in their 20's would probably be too young to have noticed.
What seems to be behind all of this nonsense is sort of the left-wing version of Q-Anon conspiracy theories. We had many on the left spend four years asserting the Russia had taken over the United States in 2016, and that Donald Trump was Putin's puppet. Evidently Sarah either has bought into such conspiracy theories, or she is at least willing to feed them with her work, and doing so has certainly garnered her a lot more attention than she otherwise would likely have gotten.
The idea that ROCOR converts are not loyal to their own country is offensive and baseless. I was baptized in ROCOR the same week I enlisted in the United States Marine Corps, right as the first Gulf War was on the horizon. ROCOR actually worked with the US government during the Cold War, in its efforts to bring down the Soviet Union, and was thanked by Ronald Reagan for doing so. One can want the best for Russia without hating America, and one can also be concerned about the direction America has been heading in, and be motivated by love of both God and country.
If Sarah doesn't believe that immorality could spell the end of the United States, she should open up her Bible and read it. God certainly does judge nations for immorality, and especially for the shedding of innocent blood. In the Bible, she will find, for example, that God destroyed the kingdom of Judah because they engaged in child sacrifice:
"And he [Manasseh] made his son pass through the fire [a form of child sacrifice], and observed times, and used enchantments, and dealt with familiar spirits and wizards: he wrought much wickedness in the sight of the Lord, to provoke him to anger" (2 Kings 21:6).
"Surely at the commandment of the Lord this [the destruction of Judah by the Babylonians] came upon Judah, to remove them from His sight because of the sins of Manasseh, according to all that he had done, and also because of the innocent blood that he had shed; for he had filled Jerusalem with innocent blood, which the Lord would not pardon" (2 Kings 24:3-4).
And also, that God drove out the inhabitants of the land of Canaan because of their immorality (see, for example, Leviticus 18:24-30).
Of course, I hope God will be merciful to this country, and that our country will be given time to repent. I live here, and so naturally want the best for the country, for my parishioners, and for my family, but being concerned about God's judgment is not a fringe idea for a believer who takes the Bible at all seriously.
Sarah, also in her most recent article, wrote:
"The Orthodox far-right in the United States are caught up in the global Culture Wars; whatever political ideology they align themselves with—fascism, populism, monarchism, and many of the other isms—they are typically homophobic, transphobic, anti-intellectual, and, more often than not, white supremacists—whether avowed or in spirit."
I would ask Sarah to define what she means by "homophobic" and "transphobic," but I would also ask her why she thinks those "phobias" are bad, why she feels the need to stoke Russophobia, and whether she thinks that this is any way a Christian ought to treat those she claims to share the same faith with. Stoking Russophobia has real-life consequences for those who either are ethnically Russian, or who belong to the Russian Orthodox Church, and if people like Sarah continue to stoke it, it is not hard to imagine lives being lost as a result.
*We do not hide the fact that we belong to the Russian Church, but we do not want people to think that our parish is only for Russians.
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