Orthodox America Has a Lost Cause Problem

by Aram G. Sarkisian

confederate battle flag

For more than a decade, researchers have excavated the fascinating story of Philip Ludwell III, an Anglo-American convert to Orthodox Christianity who lived in colonial Virginia during the mid- to late-eighteenth century. A friend to Benjamin Franklin, cousin to Martha Washington, and a member of one of Virginia’s most established and well-connected planter families, Ludwell was also a distant relation of Robert E. Lee. Recently, a group of Orthodox Christians from the American South have drawn on this story to establish the Philip Ludwell III Orthodox Fellowship, a group devoted to “nurturing the roots of Orthodoxy in Dixie’s land.”

What is interesting, but troubling about the rise of the Ludwell Fellowship is its appropriation of an eighteenth-century story to fit a twisted and ahistorical agenda of the twenty-first. Scholars and other observers are noting the growing links between Orthodox Christianity and the American alt-right. This includes, but is not limited to the rise of Orthodox political candidates Michael Sisco and Lauren Witzke, the rhetoric of white supremacist leader Matthew Heimbach, and the participation of OCA priest Fr. Mark Hodges in the January 6th insurrection at the United States Capitol. Normalizing a conservative strain of Orthodoxy rooted in the farthest reaches of the political right, the Ludwell Fellowship poses their namesake as a spiritual antecedent to a convert-driven Southern Orthodoxy that neatly maps onto neo-Confederate ideologies of a redeemed Dixie. In this way, the fellowship is but one aspect of a larger movement within some Orthodox communities in the United States to draw on these developments to help shift the fulcrum of Orthodox America into the heart and history of the American South, and in turn, normalize white supremacy.

The Ludwell Fellowship is one of many examples of recent attempts by the American right to normalize and mainstream the myth of the Lost Cause. A product of the post-Reconstruction white South, the Lost Cause reframes the Civil War as a noble fight for states’ rights, deemphasizing the central role of slavery in driving secession and southern rebellion, and lamenting both the victory of federal troops and postwar Reconstruction as affronts to white southern autonomy, traditions, and Christian gentility. In truth, the Lost Cause was a means for former secessionists to preserve white supremacy, providing a false, pseudo-historical narrative to undergird the systematic unraveling of the incremental gains freedpeople made during Reconstruction. These measures included Jim Crow laws, racial segregation, mass incarceration, political disenfranchisement, and extrajudicial racial terror.

Vestiges of the Lost Cause have long circulated within Orthodox social media circles and internet communities. On the Orthodox blog Monomakhos (One Who Fights Alone), Oklahoma pharmacist George Michalopolus often describes himself as a “Southron,” an archaic term for a person from the South. Historically, it was also used by white southerners who identified with the Confederacy. Michalopolus has published essays extolling the Lost Cause, celebrating Robert E. Lee (who he calls “one of the greatest Americans who ever lived”), even suggesting that at the end of the “War for Southron Independence,” “the wrong man surrendered at Appomattox.”

Among the most active contributors to the Monomakhos community has been Fr. John Whiteford, an Orthodox priest from Texas and one of the co-founders of the Ludwell Fellowship. Another frequent commenter is fellowship co-founder, Rebecca Dillingham. Under the pen name “Dissident Mama,” Dillingham blogs about Stonewall Jackson and the “noxious deification of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” and interviews alt-right and neo-Confederate figures for her podcast. Her upcoming fiftieth episode promises an interview with Michalopulos. It is perhaps no surprise, then, to see these same Lost Cause ideas parroted by the newly-formed Ludwell Fellowship, with its articles on “Orthodox Saints for Dixie” and invitations for “our Southron brothers and sisters” to “Come home, y’all!”

It’s possible to trace these developments in other, more established corners of Orthodox America. In November, St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary announced its intentions to relocate from suburban New York City after more than eight decades in the metropolitan area. This unexpected announcement has garnered calls for the seminary to re-establish itself in the South. American Conservative blogger and Orthodox Christian Rod Dreher maintains that the only future for the institution is in Texas. As Dreher argues, “The future of American Orthodoxy lies primarily in the region of this country most open to the Gospel.”

Observers like Dreher see such moves as essential to the survival of Orthodoxy itself, suggesting that “blue states” are bound to legislate and regulate the Orthodox Church out of existence and drive its adherents into the catacombs. Echoing a common conservative trope, Dreher portends the systemic persecution of “traditional” American Christians by what he calls the “soft totalitarianism” of a “woke left.” He outlined some of these ideas in January when he delivered the seminary’s annual Fr. Alexander Schmemann Memorial Lecture, a controversial talk which began with Dreher’s defiant acknowledgment of “my Orthodox Christian brothers and sisters who tried to get me deplatformed.” Many of these arguments are also deftly implied in the seminary’s press release, which notes that a primary rationale for relocation is “the legal and regulatory environment in the New York area.”

For proponents of an “Orthodox Dixie,” the reality is clear: Orthodoxy is best, or perhaps only suited to “red states” thought more aligned with conservative views on Culture Wars issues like abortion and LGBTQIA rights. These proponents point to late-twentieth transformations in the national economy which shifted industries, jobs, and people from the Northern “Rust Belt” into the South and Southwest. In voicing this claim, adherents like Dreher demand that the historical strongholds of Orthodox Christianity in the continental United States—dwindling parishes in the Northeast and Upper Midwest, many established by working-class immigrants in the shadows of factories, foundries, and mines more than a century ago—must now give way to emerging communities elsewhere. Found in this one-dimensional, monolithic South is what they boast as a more orthodox Orthodoxy, a traditionalist expression driven by the conversions of conservative  Christians from the Bible Belt.

The emergence of the Ludwell Fellowship and debates over the relocation of St. Vladimir’s Seminary speak to widespread challenges to what is proving to be a very fragile American democracy. Fears of “soft totalitarianism” and the rise of a more diverse, multicultural, and inclusive United States are driving calls for the regionalization and fracturing of Orthodox America, sharply divided along the same politicized lines drawn across virtually every other aspect of American society today. This also comes at a moment when state legislatures nationwide are attempting to restrict what public school instructors can teach about race and racism—including the historical fact that the Civil War was fought over the “peculiar institution” of slavery. This is especially relevant in that as a wealthy Virginia planter, fellowship namesake Philip Ludwell III enslaved the Black laborers who tilled his fields and kept his family’s homes.

Data shows us that Orthodox America is both shrinking in size and shifting in its geographical reach. The lived experiences of that process lay bare that Orthodox America has a Lost Cause problem, one which distorts both United States history and the tenets of the Orthodox Church in order to marginalize, exclude, and even to endanger members of its own flock. Whether explicitly stated or cloaked in syrupy, coded gentility, the safe harbor given white supremacy by groups like the Ludwell Fellowship is a dangerous threat to the integrity of democracy in the United States, and also to the moral integrity of the Orthodox jurisdictions found in this country.

Dr. Aram G. Sarkisian is a postdoctoral fellow in the History Department at Northwestern University.