American Conversions to Russian Orthodoxy Amid the Global Culture Wars

By: Sarah Riccardi-Swartz

December 18, 2019

Responding to: The Culture Wars Today

American Conversions to Russian Orthodoxy Amid the Global Culture Wars

In the past few decades, the post-Soviet “new” Russian state has seen the resurgent power of the Orthodox Church, alongside increasingly anti-Western rhetoric and socially conservative legislation found in Vladimir Putin’s administration. Together these forces of church and state are shaping new forms of Russian nationalistic conservative moral ideology that seemingly finds appeal with some groups in the United States. Moral conservatism in the United States is often associated with the religious right, evangelicals, and Protestant fundamentalists, with scholars of American religion showing how the rise of a dominant religious voice in the GOP, fueled by right-wing activists of the 1960s, allowed conservative ideologies to take hold especially during the late 1970s through the early 2000s. However, the new forms of (Christian) conservatism, galvanized during the 2016 presidential election, are different in many ways from the ideologies that helped elect Reagan. With the increasingly quick shift to the far right, Christians are often anything but conservative in terms of their political ideologies, which are often caught up in the larger global circulations of conservatism that are on the rise in various parts of the Global South, Western Europe, and Russia.

My work on Christian moral conservatism in the context of the global culture wars is focused on the American side of things. As an anthropologist of American religion and politics, I am interested in what ways socially conservative views of morality factor in to the decision process for American converts to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR). The long history of Soviet and Russian conservatism, the deep ties that various political leaders and groups have had with the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Orthodox Church over the years, and the reinvigorated ideological focus on morality that we see under Putin’s long tenure, are shaping the positionality of Orthodox believers in the U.S. context. At the same time, much of the understanding of Russian conservatism in the United States, particularly among converts to the ROCOR, is part and parcel of their previous affiliation with American evangelicalism. 

For 12 months (2017 to 2018), I conducted ethnographic fieldwork with a ROCOR convert community in the Appalachian Mountains that was home to approximately 150 Orthodox Christians divided between a parish and a men’s monastery. Predominately from evangelical protestant backgrounds, these converts, who found in Russian Orthodoxy a spiritual home, also found a politically conservative ideological haven in Vladimir Putin’s illiberal regime. War between Russia and the United States was often on the minds of converts, many of whom owned guns and talked about their potential positionality in the coming war. They highlighted Putin as a god-inspired leader, who not only would fight for moral values, but would also embody the ideas of monarchic governance that could perhaps save them from the devilish forms of Western secularism. Putin seemed to be an answer to believers’ prayers, for he has the potential to not only make Russia great again, but also make America, by extension, holy again. 

Converts’ desire for Russia to restore moral order in the United States (by any means possible) might be a projection of American Christianity’s complicated history with not only conservatism but also secularism onto Russia’s own difficult political past. This is not to say that the ideas believers have are simply imaginings based on American religiopolitical conservative ideals. Many converts are intellectually engaged with the history of Russian conservatism. In everyday conversations, believers might bring up the works of Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitsyn with the same consideration they might give religious saints. At the same time, Orthodox conservatives seemed hesitant to engage actively with American actors who have helped shape their former value systems—such as Focus on the Family or the GOP. Perhaps this is because any whiff of affiliation with Protestant groups smacks of ecumenism to them. Or perhaps it is because they are seemingly done with American conservative politics and the Republican party—there’s nothing left for it to offer them, most claimed. 

Members of this community believed moral conservatism is missing in the United States and the around the world, save for Russia. In a reactionary, perhaps even alt-right, move, they were not interested in the history of American moral conservatism. In fact, they had all but given up on U.S. politics because they believed the United States is morally bankrupt. This is an interesting turn for conservative American Christians. What then does the idea of moral conservatism mean to these ROCOR converts? Appalachian converts were self-proclaimed conservatives on moral issues, fearing an impeding decline, even end, of the United States, and hailing more “traditional” social policies on women’s and LGBTQ+ rights in Russia as ideal. Religious fundamentalism tied to apocalyptic fears of the other (in this case liberal secularism) is not new in the history of American religion. What is new here is the nostalgia-drenched fear of losing family values because of ongoing culture wars that compelled converts to support the ideologies found in a foreign (and historically hostile) power. 

The idea of converting wholesale to a religious belief system that seems to be intimately tied to the political structure of country often viewed by U.S. government as somewhat of a threat leads one to wonder about the political loyalties of these converts. What does it mean to reject American values of democracy and embrace the ideas of a foreign government that seemingly offers a better vision of conservative morality? Given the tightly linked relationship between the Russian government and the Orthodox Church—at least in the minds of many converts I have spoken with—it seems that conversion is a political act through which believers not only take up the spirituality of the Orthodox faith, but also the ideological platforms that Putin’s party projects.

However, it is not just American converts who appreciate Putin’s well-marketed piety and his socially conservative policies, as Peter Henne has noted. Putin’s appeal in far-right communities seems to be part of the new expressions of conservatism. Fears over the loss of “traditional” culture, religious—often Christian—social identification, and a homogenous society are, in many respects, the language of global formations of power, such as nationalism, neocolonialism, and empire. These new religiopolitical projects allow us to see how moral panic pushes particular communities to embrace foreign powers, blurring the lines of citizenship and national loyalty. As religiopolitical conservative rhetoric and policy in Russia increases, it seems very likely that American fundamentalists, such as the Appalachian discontents with whom I worked, will continue to convert and assert their imaginative understandings of Russia’s place in the culture wars.

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