Rod Dreher Brings His Culture War to Orthodoxy

This won’t be an extended or especially thoughtful post. I’m writing to track a conversation that is underway today on Twitter. This conversation involves the recent invitation of Rod Dreher by St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary to deliver the 38th Annual Father Alexander Schmemann Memorial Lecture. If you’re not familiar with Fr. Alexander Schmemann, click here and here. The title of the talk, “Living the Truth: How the Communist-Era Suffering Church Can Prepare Us To Be Dissidents,” indicates that Dreher plans to offer insights similar to those found in his most recent book, Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents. Dreher’s book predicts that a left-wing/Woke-ist/LGBTQ hegemony will soon impose (in Dreher’s words) a “soft totalitarianism” on Christians in the West comparable, in kind if not degree, to the totalitarianism imposed by, uh, Joseph Stalin. The invitation of Dreher by St. Vladimir’s Seminary provoked some outcry among Orthodox Christians who identify as political liberals or leftists, including some St. Vladimir’s alumni.

The announcement came yesterday afternoon:

This inspired a thread from Fordham University theology professor George Demacopoulos, who wrote (please click the tweet below to read the entire thread):

Demacopoulos carefully indicated at the outset, “Let me be clear. I think it is good for academic institutions (seminaries included) to invite speakers who represent diverse demographics and whose ideas challenge and provoke students and faculty to think in new ways or to ask new questions.” He went on to summarize the three main points of contention raised by Dreher’s Orthodox critics and those who otherwise oppose the invitation by St. Vladimir’s.

Dreher responded to Demacopoulos in a tweet that seemed to confused: Dreher didn’t seem to realize that Demacopoulos, whatever his personal feelings toward Dreher may be, was merely reporting the story, not endorsing either side:

Demacopoulos responded:

And:

Dreher responded, unsurprisingly, with a blog post at The American Conservative entitled “The Orthodox Left Wails.” In that post, Dreher wrote, “It is no surprise that the Orthodox theological left in this country is wailing and gnashing its teeth over the announcement. I have made it my business for almost a decade to keep my snout out of Orthodox church politics, so I don’t follow the discussion on social media or elsewhere, but I am told by readers that the Orthodox left believes that inviting a louse like me to give this lecture is trampling on the Holy of Holies.” Dreher then summarized the main objections against the invitation by St. Vladimir’s (demonstrating that he does know the difference between summarizing an argument and endorsing it) and wrote:

The first half of my book identifies the nature of the threat, and talks in part about identity politics, woke capitalism, technology, and “the Myth of Progress” as all being threatening to Christian fidelity, to the truth, and to religious liberty. The second half of the book is composed of testimonies from Orthodox Christians, as well as Catholics and Protestants, from that world, who lived through the totalitarian nightmare. They offer advice for what Christians today should do to prepare ourselves to identify the dangers, and to build resistance. At no point does anybody recommend voting for the Republican Party. Rather, this is about organizing prayer groups, and networks of dissidents, about educating our families for resistance, about living counterculturally, and most of all, preparing ourselves to suffer for Christ.

Why would Orthodox Christians like these theological lefties oppose this? Because the book implicitly identifies them as the problem. 

The big project of many of these people is normalizing LGBT and gender ideology within the Orthodox Church. George Demacopoulos, for example, is one of the directors of the Orthodox Studies Center at Fordham, the Jesuit university. Here’s one of the big initiatives the center is highlighting now:

Dreher then posted an image of the initiative, which is called “Bridging Voices: Contemporary Eastern Orthodox Identity and the Challenges of Pluralism and Sexual Diversity in a Secular Age.” If not for the left-wing buzzwords (“identity,” “sexual diversity”), one could mistake this for a conservative initiative—after all, some conservative-sounding phrases are included (“challenges of pluralism,” “a secular age”). Dreher continued:

This is one of those phony “dialogue” things. You may be quite certain that Fordham does not host an Orthodox Studies Center interested in finding out how to defend and to live out traditional Orthodox teachings on sex and sexuality in the modern world. I don’t know where the Orthodox Studies Center stands on the matter of identity politics, but I doubt very much that the people who are shouting loudest for me to be disinvited to St. Vladimir’s are people who are prepared to tolerate a point of view that opposes identity politics, especially from a Christian perspective. (Live Not By Lies talks about how identity politics advocates think and act in ways that parallel Bolshevik patterns.)

The point is, there is no escape from these battles in the world, certainly not in the Orthodox Church. Last week an Orthodox laywoman wrote to say that her priest is telling their parish, especially the young, that Orthodoxy should update itself to modernity, and embrace same-sex marriage and the rest. This is a priest, in a large parish (I looked it up). This is not common, to the best of my knowledge, but it’s not as rare as it should be. My estimation is that many priests and leaders within the Orthodox Church would rather this whole issue go away. It’s not going away — and the clergy cannot always be counted on to teach and disciple others in faithful Orthodoxy.

My guess is that St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary wishes to inform its students of the greatest challenges to Orthodoxy in this modern world, and set them to thinking of what they can and should do to prepare themselves and their flocks to be faithful in what is sure to be a very trying time. My guess too is that St. Vladimir’s, as the heir to a church that suffered horribly under the totalitarian Communist yoke, appreciates the warnings that Slavic Christians and others who know about this suffering firsthand are sounding to the rest of us. And the seminary, in keeping with the spirit of Father Schmemann, who had a gift for communicating to broad audiences, in language they could understand, might well appreciate that an Orthodox journalist (me) amplifies the voices of Orthodox men like Alexander Ogorodnikov, a Russian Orthodox believer who was tortured in prison for confessing Christ.

The kind of Orthodox Christians who are screaming their heads off about my upcoming talk are the kind of Orthodox Christians who would prefer to keep the next generation of priests, as well as Orthodox laymen, in the dark about what they are doing. The world is moving in their direction, and they are laboring to move the Orthodox Church in the same direction, encouraging their fellow Orthodox to live by the modern world’s lies.

I say: No!

If others wish to “dialogue” with them, fine by me. But I hope you will observe what they all reveal by their reaction to this announcement. If I were a PhD or a priest, they would find some other reason to howl their protests. It’s not the man they hate; it’s the message. It is good to get this learned. If people like this ever got control of St. Vladimir’s, you can be confident that Orthodox teaching that conflicts with contemporary mores, especially in terms of sexual orientation and gender identity, would be driven out, or at least underground.

At this point, Demacopoulos’s Fordham colleague, professor of theology Aristotle Papanikolaou, weighed in:

The conversation continues even as I write this post.

Dreher has a habit of behaving utterly charmingly and reasonably in face-to-face interviews and when he appears on podcasts or in videos while coming off, well, completely batshit on Twitter and in his blog. He has praised Viktor Orbán and suggested that he’d rather live in Francisco Franco’s Spain than in a Woke United States. He has cited the 1973 ultra-right-wing, anti-immigrant French novel The Camp of the Saints as a text worthy of study with lessons for the West today. He…isn’t great on race issues. In a now-deleted comment on his own blog, Dreher reportedly suggested in 2018 that migrants associated with the much-ballyhooed “caravan” be gassed or shot in order to keep them out of the United States (the blog post can be found here). He summarized his brand of Christianity in a pithy remark in that blog post: “If everybody is your neighbor, then nobody is.”

This tweet by Steven Hunter makes a provocative claim about Dreher and his relationship to Orthodoxy that, to me, seems plausible:

I’m more than a little disturbed and irritated by Dreher’s frequent use of the Episcopalian Church as a left-wing punching bag, a caricature of how Christianity can liberalize itself into irrelevance and a warning to Orthodoxy…as if an off-shoot of Anglicanism that includes a mere 1.8 million Americans can reasonably predict the fate of a sprawling and dynamic Eurasian creed confessed by some 220 million souls. For as much as Dreher engages with Eastern European émigrés, his view of the world—particularly the theological and political spectra—is frequently parochial and narrowly American. As several of the above posts suggest, Dreher’s culture wars are frequently an odd fit in the varied and diverse political, cultural, national, social, ethical, and theological discourses that define (and at times disrupt) Orthodoxy; contextualizing him within right-wing Catholicism often makes more sense. After all, he’s no Putinista and doesn’t typically romanticize the bygone days of Russian imperialism, but, as I noted above, he has more than once written fondly of Franco’s Spain.

To be clear: I don’t doubt the deep sincerity and commitment in Rod Dreher’s Orthodoxy. I have listened to many, many interviews with him that I’ve found helpful and edifying in my own journey. But his writings on Twitter and in The American Conservative frequently defy sense. Consequently, I’m committed to reading Live Not By Lies in the new year and chronicling my reaction to the book on this blog.

As someone who is deeply interested in Eastern Europe and Russia, politics, and Orthodoxy, I suppose it was inevitable that I’d wind up reading Live Not By Lies. We’ll see whether and to what degree I come to regret that decision. I’m not planning to pan it in advance, and I’ll squeeze out as much edification as I can from it. I can’t promise it a fair shake, though; I know enough about it (and have read large enough sections already) to know I take issue with its central claims. In any event, look forward to that and other posts from me in the new year!

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