What Happens When Scholars of Orthodoxy Write about White Christian Nationalism

by Aram G. Sarkisian

Statue of Robert E. Lee

In December of last year, I wrote for Public Orthodoxy on the Philip Ludwell III Orthodox Fellowship, an effort that uses myth of the Lost Cause to evangelize the American South. Responses to my piece were robust and diverse. I enjoyed learning from many of the readers who engaged with my work. Yet some of this response was distressing, even threatening, a reaction common to this kind of public scholarship on Orthodoxy. In a recent New Yorker profile of conservative radio host Dan Bongino, the firebrand Trump ally boasts to his interviewer that “there’s nothing you can write I can’t write back even worse. It’s asymmetric warfare. You never win.” This is what scholars of Orthodoxy endure when they write about white Christian nationalism in the church. And it happened to me.

To publish this work means initiating a rapidly-escalating pattern of hate and derision not so much about your work as it is about you. First comes a predictable flurry of angry tweets resembling other far-right coordinated online attacks, such as GamerGate. These Twitter users present as young, devout Orthodox men, usually from the United States. Some list their jurisdictional affiliations (usually ROCOR or OCA), and occasionally the ecclesiastical ranks they hold. Their avatars frequently incorporate Pepe the Frog, which is recognized by the Anti-Defamation League as a hate symbol. To a man, they tweet COVID-19 denialism and anti-vaxxer conspiracies, brag of being “red-pilled,” voice displeasure with democracy, and broadcast explicit anti-Semitism, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia. They also post Orthodox icons, quote elders and saints, and sometimes express aspirations of becoming monks or priests. Their responses snowball quickly into a tangled web of tweets and retweets venting anger and hate. This is almost always done beneath the familiar purple-and-white emoji of an Orthodox cross.

These tweets use details gleaned from the internet to attack scholars. Where do they live and work? What is their religious affiliation? What is the ethnic origin of their name? Have they supported a political candidate or cause? Do they display their pronouns on social media? Inevitably, these young men reclassify scholars as journalists. After all, a sitting president never proclaimed humanities researchers as “the enemy of the people.” Within hours, Ludwell Fellowship co-founder Rebecca Dillingham scrubbed my social media for personal details, filling her Twitter feed with every image of me that she could find. On Facebook, a reader sent a private message calling me “a vile and slanderous individual” and “the worst sort of bougie filth.” If you know the markers of white supremacist and anti-Semitic hate speech, these words speak volumes. Their message closed ominously: “I hope to meet you one day. Have a good day.”

Then come more targeted and personal attacks. As an identifiable Armenian-American who studies Eastern Orthodoxy, I have received ethnic and religious harassment online in the past, usually benign theological polemics against the Armenian Church. On an episode of her “Dissident Mama” podcast, amidst a conversation riddled with anti-Semitic tropes and white Christian nationalist rhetoric, Dillingham and a guest placed me alongside Anita Sarkeesian, the Canadian-Armenian media critic targeted by the vicious online misogyny of GamerGate, asking “why are these people always so subversive?”

Michael Sisco, an Orthodox Christian and white nationalist named in my piece, lobbed similar attacks. Sisco frequently allies with white Christian nationalists, America Firsters, and Holocaust deniers. In mid-December, he boasted on a white nationalist podcast that he had named his cat after Eva Braun. Sisco was an early booster of the Ludwell Fellowship, allowing at least three of its co-founders to promote it on his eponymous YouTube show/podcast. Sisco took issue with my essay and hastily recorded an angry response episode. Seven hundred people have watched it on YouTube, and the audio is available on major podcasting platforms. On Twitter, which he uses to boost his candidacy in a West Virginia Republican congressional primary, Sisco wrote that he was “looking forward to legislating policies that flood [Sarkisian]’s ancestral home with Turkish refugees.” He echoes here “America First” views on US border policies. Given recent military escalations in the Caucasus, however, his words struck me as welcoming another Armenian Genocide.

I wrote about the Ludwell Fellowship because my academic training and expertise helped me to easily recognize its historical lineages and ideological motivations. Its leading voices offer Orthodoxy as a time machine to a mythical and ahistorical Lost Cause Dixie. Co-founder Fr. John Whiteford explained on the Michael Sisco Show in October, after all, that racial harmony in the antebellum South was such that the concept of segregation did not exist there—until it was exported from the North. Fr. John too asserted that post-Reconstruction Jim Crow segregation wasn’t all that bad for Black southerners—just misunderstood and misremembered.

There is little I could do in this brief essay that might even begin to dismantle such staggering historical falsehoods, nor do I think Fr. Whiteford would care to hear it. He and his colleagues fail to understand their inherited privilege as white southern Christians and the harm their words can inflict. They were never dehumanized to the status of property, never barred from schools and universities on account of their race, were never asked to count bubbles on a bar of soap so they could vote, never had to hold their bladder until they found a “colored” bathroom, and knew they would never experience the terror of the lynching tree. The last Black Americans liberated from slavery died in the 1940s. These and other racial injustices are within living memory—and as recent events like the murder of George Floyd demonstrate, they still pervade nationwide.

To be clear, no one is saying that racist ideas are held by all Orthodox Christians in the American South, or that American racism has been, or is now limited only to that region. And there is nothing wrong with Orthodox evangelism to the South. But if evangelism draws on racist Lost Cause mythology and iconography of the failed Confederate rebellion, especially at a moment of renewed Confederate nostalgia, it is important that these ideas are stopped from becoming mainstream. When a group bears witness to Orthodoxy using an image of Stonewall Jackson in uniform with his hand upon a Bible, as is found on the Ludwell Fellowship website, could the message be any clearer? And it’s just as alarming that one of its primary voices is Fr. Whiteford, who has appeared on the “Dissident Mama” podcast, and who promoted the Fellowship alongside another co-founder, Dr. Clark Carlton, on the Michael Sisco Show. One loses plausible deniability when they repeatedly seek and out and accept these kinds of platforms to spread harmful historical falsehoods, especially when they wear a cassock.

Ludwell Fellowship members and online commenters write in the spirit of Bongino’s “asymmetric warfare,” assuming that their aggrieved anger, petty insults, and attempts at deflection will make the truth disappear. It will not. As a scholar, being denigrated, threatened, and doxxed for weeks on end is difficult. Yet all of this pales against the feeling when a reader responds that they have witnessed these kinds of racist ideologies in the Orthodox Church, and that for some, it was the reason why they left the church. They admit that it scares them. It scares me. It scares my colleagues. And I hope that it scares you, too.

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