There is a small movement of US evangelicals toward Orthodoxy. I get both the theological and liturgical appeal (especially in contrast to the vacuity of white evangelicalism today), but I’m concerned about the risks of ethnonationalism, white supremacy, and anti-democratic impulses that circulate in some of these circles. While it’s not uncommon for new converts in any religion to display a kind of zeal unfamiliar to long-term believers, Orthodoxy sometimes brings it out in particular ways. In an essay titled “Between Utopia and Escape” in 1981, Father Alexander Schmemann shared this story (Italics are mine):
Today… a man whom I knew many years ago, approached me and said, “Hello, Father Schmemann.” And I said, “Who are you?” because he was dressed in a kind of black robe and was nearly stepping on his beard. Everything about him was peculiar, from his hair, to his strange hat… He was probably playing a monk from Mt. Athos or something of that nature, but I knew he was born in Brooklyn. I know many converts to Orthodoxy who think that when they become Orthodox, they have to also become Russian monarchists, and think that the restoration of the Romanovs in Russia is the only condition for the world’s salvation.
There are a lot of reasons why even evangelical Christians in the US who don’t convert to Orthodoxy love Russia: on the one hand, the Soviet Union was one of the world’s harshest oppressors of Christianity, and they love that, in time, Christianity won. (Not really: just 36% of Russians think religion does more good than harm, and 23% think it does more harm than good. This is a much more negative view of religion than Russians held at fall of the USSR.) And the stories of Christian resistance to the brutality of Soviet oppression ARE inspiring.
Russian conservatives often criticize western culture in ways that resonate with their counterparts in the US: moral decadence, homosexuality, feminism, multiculturalism, and Islam are the enemies of the faithful. In 2015, Franklin Graham visited Putin in Russia and praised him for promoting homophobia and criticized Barack Obama in the same breath–kind of a foreshadowing of the Helsinki press conference. Janet Shaw of Concerned Women for America (Phyllis Schlafly’s outfit) praised Russian enforcement of anti-blasphemy laws and the imprisonment of members of Pussy Riots after a sham trial. Numerous US-based “pro-family” Religious Right organizations seek connections to Russia around just these issues. Feminism, birth control, and small family sizes are especially worrisome–not just because they suggest that women are controlling their fertility but because they mean that white Christians will be outnumbered.
But it’s not just a shared hatred of modernism that joins white American evangelicals to Russia. What they love about Putin is also what they love about tsarist Russia: anti-democratic, authoritarian leadership. Within Russia, Putin is very popular with evangelicals, who find his power–as evidenced in his takeover of Crimea and meddling in Ukraine. Within the US, white evangelicals are also attracted to powerful leaders making powerful moves. Evangelicals’ sense of time has something to do with this, I think. They love to insert themselves into a cosmic history, envisioning the whole world in a battle of good v. evil from creation to End Times. When that is your scope, the invasion of Crimea is part of God’s plan. This thinking is how you get people like South Carolina evangelist Rick Joyner arguing for a “military takeover” of the US. (Joyner’s Oak Point Initiative has gotten support from characters like retired Lt. General Jerry Boykin and Lance Wallnau. Who else does Joyner have connections to?)
Above, South Carolina evangelical voice Rick Joyner tells viewers of his TV show: “I believe our only hope is a military takeover. Martial law–and that the most crucial element of that is who the marshal [martial?] is going to be.”
White evangelicals’ support for Trump is well-documented. To make sense of him, they called him a King David, then a King Cyrus. The important thing here is that they want a king. A king is a strong authority–but monarchy is also a rebuke to modernism. It rejects equality in favor of “bloodlines” and equality in favor of feudalism. That impulse–the monarchial impulse–fits some white evangelicals’ ideas of Trump-as-ordained king frighteningly well.
And this thinking is becoming more and more obvious:
There are some doubts that these emails were composed by Trump. The language is… well, it sounds a bit like it’s been run through a Russian-to-English translator (“retribution” should be “amends” or “compensation” or “reparations”). Also, there aren’t enough spelling errors.
The words are chilling: we see someone (if not Trump, at least someone he was willing to give the Twitter feed to) imagining a situation in which a nation “gives” the leader of another nation in repayment for “sins and evils” the nation committed. (And then, while his base cheers for their monarch, he attacks a free press. This move from a real enemy to an imagined one is a typical Trump rhetorical maneuver, so the Russian who wrote this got that right, at least.)
That’s not how leaders of free nations think. It’s how dictators who plan on annexing other nations think. It’s how kings act–demanding tribute from the peasants. It’s a pre-modern way of thinking. We see in it, again, the monarchial impulse. The desire for a king makes us especially vulnerable to foreign influence. It’s easier to control a king than a president.
I don’t want to overstate the case: this tweet isn’t how evangelicals talk, exactly. But thinking of Trump like a king gives him space to make a lot of terrible choices. I don’t think we’re at risk of annexing anyone–but I do think this thinking makes space for Russian aggression against Belarus, eastern Ukraine, South Ossetia in Georgia, and parts of Moldova. I don’t think that the US is going to invade Nova Scotia or Sonora, but I do fear that Trump’s continued effort to restructure global power toward authoritarian regimes and away from more democratic nation means we will ignore attacks on our allies, including South Korea, Japan, and Lithuania.
I’d love to hear more of what folks think about these bizarre tweets, especially those who know more about the rhetoric of rightwing Orthodoxy.