The Alt-Right and Medieval Religions by Dorothy Kim

November 9, 2018

The alt-right is a specific political and social ecosystem that has many nodes. The best article that explains this universe is Joseph Bernstein’s Buzzfeed piece from 2017, “Alt-White: How the Breitbart Machine Launched Racist Hate.” With evidence from a trove of leaked emails and documents, Bernstein maps all parts of the alt-right universe; how they are connected; and deliberately take orders from Steve Bannon to infiltrate, normalize, and make racist and gendered hate mainstream. Almost all the major nodes of this universe are attached to specific iterations of the medieval past. Their message is intended to incite violent racism, xenophobia, toxic masculinity, Islamaphobia, and anti-Semitism. The alt-right is interested in using the medieval European past because it sees this historical epoch as a space of pure white religious and racial culture. I will discuss two different examples of how they use, abuse, and exploit ideas of white medieval religions in order to push their violent racist vision.

Odinists and Wolves of Vinland

The Odinists, often called the Wolves or Sons of Vinland, claim their religion is based on a medieval, pre-Christian Scandinavian belief that worships the god Odin and is organized into warrior gangs. They practice a form of toxic masculinity based on their ideas of how the barbaric warriors of medieval Northern Europe functioned as a violent warrior comitatusTheir religion, based on a pagan medieval Scandinavian religion, enacts “group rituals (including animal sacrifice) and hold fights between members to test their masculinity.” They have been regularly connected to Aryan and alt-right violence, such as Jeremy Christian’s May 2017 attack in Portland, Oregon.

Odinists have been identified as violent white supremacists for several decades. Their ideology centers on using a non-Christian religion to claim not only a pure white cultural past that they can link up, vis-à-vis Vinland (the failed medieval Viking settlement in North America described in The Vinlands Saga), but a warrior culture they can align with their visions of toxic and racist masculinity that undergirds men’s rights activism (MRA). They have more recently gotten push back from Swedish live action role-playing groups, including Vikings against Nazis, and academics who point out that the Vikings were not a pure white maritime culture but were much more akin to the practices of multiracial pirate culture of the early modern period.

Odinism and the Sons/Wolves of Vinland are violent white supremacist groups that fetishize and glorify their cherry-picked version of the medieval past and particularly a pagan, Northern European medieval non-Christian religious past. They are not interested in addressing the actual practiced religion of Ásatrú, which Iceland has recognized as a formal, organized religion since 1973. In fact, the current theology and practice of this pagan Viking religion is doctrinally LGBTQIA-supporting, inclusive to all (regardless of culture, race, gender, sexuality, etc.), rejects militarism, and has called out any white supremacist, MRA, genocidally racist version of pagan religious practice based on the medieval Viking past outside of Iceland, as one that does not adhere to their theological and doctrinal interpretation—“Ásatrúarfélagið rejects this as a misreading of Ásatrú.”

#DeusVult

The next medieval religious frame used, abused, and weaponized by the alt-right is the medieval Catholic crusader. The Crusades were an ongoing set of memes during the 2016 election as well as during Brexit, in which #DeusVult has become a rallying cry. The #DeusVult arose from 4chan, meme culture, and video game culture. Video game culture is the gateway for the public to the medieval historical past. The distorted return of the Crusades and the Christian Crusader in imagining the West as the defender of democratic Christian values was redeployed after 9/11 by George W. Bush and his administration’s War on Terror. For a host of different alt-right groups, it specifically evokes an idea of a militaristic and racially-motivated defense of the Christian West against a racist fantasy of Islam and Muslims. All of which is historically inaccurate. The white supremacist use of #DeusVult and a return to medieval Catholicism is to invoke the myth of a white Christian (i.e. Catholic) medieval past that wishes to ignore the actual demographics and theological state of Catholicism today, let alone the doctrinal practices of contemporary Catholicism.

As the Pew Research Center has tabulated that 67 percent of the world’s Catholics in 2010 were not from the Global North, then 67 percent of the world’s Catholics were non-white. That statistic is compounded with the 2014 statistic that 41 percent of the United States’ Catholic population were racial minorities. We can firmly state that Catholicism today has a substantial, if not majority population, of non-white Catholic practitioners in the United States and around the globe. Yet, the alt-right’s vision of this medieval Catholic past is used now to uphold white genocidal and violent hate. For example, in January 2017 Alexandre Bissonnette, a French-Canadian university student, shot and killed six people in a Quebec City mosque. The #DeusVult meme and imagery used became a way for Bissonnette to identify as a violent Islamaphobic white terrorist.

But as this recent tweet shows, the connection between the medieval crusader and alt-right fascist violence is made explicit when a “crusader” dressed in medieval costume deliberately comes to harass and attack the antifascist Black Bloc at Kent State University. He calls himself the “Based Crusader,” and his medieval dress appears to highlight how much this vision is about inhabiting some imagined, white religious medieval past that aligns with the violent xenophobia, toxic masculinity, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and racism of the alt-right.

This alt-right vision of the medieval Catholic past has ignored 50 years of Vatican II, let alone the long history that created a global Catholicism that is made up of over 67 percent non-white Catholics. They have also ignored the consistent statements from Pope Francis that reject Trump and his numerous policies as not “Christian,” let alone aligned with the theological frames or doctrines of the contemporary Catholic Church (on the issue of refugees, fake news, truth, family separation, Jerusalem, etc.).

What the alt-right has done is pull from the medieval past what will align with their vision of a violent white supremacy in order to claim religious space. They are not practicing any form of theologically-informed, doctrinally-sanctioned version of a contemporary religion. They are also deliberately ignoring the majority practitioners of this religion (whether it is the Icelanders or the racially diverse majority in Catholicism). Instead, they are practicing a form of religiously-inflected medievalism that is based on medieval cosplay, video game culture, and internet memes.

Dorothy Kim is an assistant professor of English at Brandeis University who specializes in medieval literature.

This post originally appeared on the Berkley Forum, a blog by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University. The post is a response to a recent conference, co-sponsored by Religion and Its Publics and the Berkley Center, entitled Christianity and the Alt-Right: Exploring the Relationship. Full video of the conference, broken into three panels, is available from C-SPAN here: Christianity and the Alt-Right in the pastChristianity and the Alt-Right in the present, and Christianity and the Alt-Right in the future.

How Does Conservative Evangelicalism Engage Alt-Right Views? By Melani McAlister

November 7, 2018

The official representatives of American evangelicalism have been almost uniformly opposed to the Alt-Right—issuing statements, condemnations, and disavowals. Since the alt-right protest in Charlottesville in 2017, in which one counter-protester was killed, Christianity Today, for example, has had a drumbeat of denunciations of the alt-right, with interviews and opinion from Christian commentators, both people of color and white, who have expressed themselves as appalled in every way. The Gospel Coalition has also repeatedly condemned the alt-right, with long articles explaining what is wrong with its theology, its politics, and its reasoning. Indeed, months before Charlottesville, in June 2017, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution condemning the alt-right—although this only happened after the resolution had initially died in committee.  There are numerous other examples.

But the issue is more complicated, and understanding it requires more than attending to the statements of evangelical leaders. To unpack how the alt-right’s virulently racist politics might seem plausible to white evangelical Christians whose leadership is busily denouncing those very views, we need to understand the development of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim stances that are common today among white evangelicals. (Of course, not all evangelicals are white, and the percentage of evangelicals of color is going up, but I focus on white evangelicals here.) If we want to unpack the racial politics of conservative white evangelicals, we need to understand more about what Paul Harvey has described as the “folk theology” of race and identity. Harvey was referring to the theological arguments that undergirded support for segregation among white American Christians in the mid-century twentieth century, such as the specious notion of the “curse of Ham,” but his approach to the ordinary theologies of race is useful for understanding the appeal of the alt-right today.

For more than 50 years, there has​ been a cultural narrative about the global persecution of Christians that has infused a great deal of evangelical culture and activism. In the immediate post-WWII period, that was largely a discourse about Christians as persecuted by communism. After the end of the Cold War, evangelicals in the United States and globally focused their missionary attention and their political concerns on the “10/40 Window”—an area between 10 and 40 degrees latitude in which it was said that people were “enslaved” by Hinduism, Buddhism, or Islam. That was linked to another development: increasingly, as American believers came to realize that the demographic center of Christianity lay in the Global South, and as they (like everyone else) had increasing access to information about the rest of the world, they paid more attention to news about Christians in the Middle East, Africa, or elsewhere. Often, in Christian media and on evangelical websites like OpenDoors.org, or in the yearly International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, the news focused on the ways that believers elsewhere suffered for their faith.

This recognition and embrace of Global South “persecuted Christians” as part of the global Christian community has a number of effects. It certainly has increased support for Christian communities that are facing violence or threats in the Middle East and Africa. And sometimes it has led American believers to attend to the multiple crises affecting Global South communities, including needs for clean water or healthcare. But it also has the effect of helping Americans to identify themselves, as Christians, as part of a globally oppressed or marginalized group. Thus, we can arrive at the shocking reality that, in 2017, 57 percent of white U.S. evangelicals told pollsters that they believe American Christians face a great deal of discrimination today, while only 44 percent said the same was true of Muslims. That is, the idea of Christians as victims on the international stage encourages a sense of aggrieved marginality among white American evangelicals.

Feeling that one is part of a persecuted community might be a long way from joining the alt-right, but we do know how the alt-right and the populist right in Europe uses this, plays upon it, and amplifies it—with the anti-sharia law campaigns and the attacks on Muslims who are running for Congress.

The alt-right can count on people to find something compelling in narratives of their own victimization. There is a resonance, I’m arguing, between a Christian evangelical embrace of the issue of Christian persecution and the demonization of Muslims that is part of thecommon sense of the alt-right.

We have to look at this reality—and I think conservative Christians need to look at it as well. It is not enough for Christianity Today or the Southern Baptist Convention to condemn the alt-right, as important as that is. It is also important for evangelicals to consider the parts of their own self-conception and their own folk theology that are portable into the logic of alt-right racism and anti-Muslim hostility.

Melani McAlister is an associate professor of American studies and international affairs at George Washington University.

This post originally appeared on the Berkley Forum, a blog by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University. The post is a response to a recent conference, co-sponsored by Religion and Its Publics and the Berkley Center, entitled Christianity and the Alt-Right: Exploring the Relationship. Full video of the conference, broken into three panels, is available from C-SPAN here: Christianity and the Alt-Right in the pastChristianity and the Alt-Right in the present, and Christianity and the Alt-Right in the future.

Taking on the Alt-right: Theological Considerations by Paul Dafydd Jones

November 7, 2018

While others have offered reflections on the alt-right from the standpoints of political science, sociology, and American history, my perspective is perhaps a bit different. While those fields tend in a descriptive direction, the work of the Christian theologian is often unembarrassedly normative in character. Such normativity will be on full display in this short piece. It forms an initial attempt to help Christians, and perhaps some others, formulate a theological response to the alt-right—one that (a) acknowledges that its distinctive combination of anti-Semitism and anti-black/anti-brown racism has precedent in the Christian tradition; (b) reckons with the difficulty of formulating an effective rhetoric and witness in response; and (c) understands the limited potency of ideas in the political sphere.

My first point: Christians shouldn’t succumb to the temptation to think of the alt-right as a baffling, strange, incomprehensible “other”—a political outburst that is entirely alien to the Christian tradition. Christians must instead accept and acknowledge that our religious tradition connects with, and in fact gives intellectual support to, the racial imaginary of the alt-right. To be sure, there are inspirations for the alt-right, and prominent figures within it, who repudiate Christianity. Think of Alain de Benoist and the Nouvelle Droit; think of Richard Spencer’s (painfully sophomoric) reading of Nietzsche. But it would be churlish to ignore the fact that the alt-right draws on a long tradition of Christian anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism. It does exactly that, and sometimes quite explicitly. Furthermore, the way the alt-right blends anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism with anti-black/anti-brown racism finds striking parallel in the history of Christian thought.

Scholars such as J. Kameron Carter and Willie Jennings prove instructive on this point. Carter argues convincingly that the racial imagination of modernity is grounded in the attempt to detach Christian identity from its Jewish roots. Jews being viewed as “racial others” is the fatal cast of the dice: it forms the first step towards a “racialized chain of being” that culminates in an ideology of white supremacism. Jennings’s thought heads in a similar direction. The colonialist and racist currents that swirl within Western modernity are animated by Christianity’s long history of anti-Judaism.

So here’s a hard truth. When alt-right demonstrators chanted “You will not replace us” and “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville, and when similar sentiments are voiced in chatrooms, bars, schoolyards, churches, and government offices—sometimes with deadly effect, as the recent events in Pittsburgh show—we have to acknowledge that it is a tradition forged, at least in part, by Western Christian thought. And inasmuch as Christians, especially those of us who are white, inherit and benefit from this tradition, we have a responsibility to contest it. We have to own a common past, even as we challenge the alt-right in the present.

My second point is the identification of a quandary. Put simply: I don’t know what kind of religious rhetoric and witness is best suited to challenge the alt-right. One option is prophetic denunciation—treating white nationalism, neo-Confederate politics, and neo-Nazism as idols that must be smashed. (If you want inspiration for this stance, Karl Barth is a good bet). Another option is to attempt to out-narrate the alt-right, to overpower them with a celebration of Jewish, Latinx, black, queer, and immigrant voices. Yet another option is to focus attention on figures on the religious left (think of William BarberTraci BlackmonJennifer Harvey, and others) and to work towards changing the theo-political culture of the United States.

Now, none of these options (and there are of course more) are mutually exclusive, and each has its merits. Yet I worry that established modes of expression and action do not have much traction with respect to the alt-right, and that Christians need to develop new forms of rhetoric and witness to contend with this threat. The alt-right, after all, is not a political bloc or party. It stands somewhere between an assemblage, a mood, and a movement; it comprises a mess of neo-Confederate groups, free-floating white supremacists and anti-Semites, old and new neo-Nazis, pseudo-intellectuals, and—last but certainly not least—online trolls. Crucially, too, many who associate or sympathize with the alt-right have no interest in mainstream political or religious life. They’ve taken what Richard Hofstadter famously called “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” to an entirely new level, with “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness … conspiratorial fantasy” and “apocalyptic … expression” forged in the furnace of online chatrooms and boutique websites.

In fact, even though religious critiques of the alt-right are desperately needed, those critiques might well strengthen an entrenched narrative of victimization. Just as some evangelicals thrill to the (false) idea that Christians are a beleaguered minority in the West, so the alt-right entertains the (false) idea that whites live with their backs against the wall. The “war on Christmas” and the “war on whites” form two sides of a paranoid, self-serving, counterfeit coin.

So here’s another hard truth. If contesting the alt-right means something more than outmuscling it—that is, if contesting this assemblage, movement, and mood requires fostering some kind of repentance and conversion among its adherents, so that their message is contested not just from the “outside” but undone from the “inside”—I worry that we don’t yet know how to proceed, either rhetorically or in terms of faith-based organizing.

Third and finally: Christians need to be careful not to overestimate the power of ideas when it comes to the alt-right. It is always tempting to suppose that sharp thoughts can change the world. A bit of consciousness-raising, a nicely turned thesis, deft penmanship: these are assumed to be the drivers of religious and political change. But we mustn’t fall victim to naïveté. Among the various forms of soft power now in circulation, theological arguments are downright squishy, and certainly no match for diverse modalities of hard power. So, granted my first two points, I would encourage Christians—especially Christian theologians, like me—to attend once more to the tradition of Christian realism. Reinhold Niebuhr once wrote that the “preservation of democratic civilization requires the wisdom of the serpent and the harmlessness of the dove. The children of light must be armed with the wisdom of the children of darkness but remain free from their malice.” These are timely words.

Christians can and must reckon with the renewed vigor of the far-right, and Christian theologians can and must do our part to disrupt, undermine, and discredit it. But such work will only have a significant impact when it is complemented with tough-minded, concrete, local contestations of white nationalism, anti-Semitism, so-called “race realism,” and neo-fascism—the whole toxic, ugly mess gathered under the name of the alt-right.

Paul Dafydd Jones is an associate professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia and the co-director of the Religion and Its Publics project.

This post originally appeared on the Berkley Forum, a blog by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University. The post is a response to a recent conference, co-sponsored by Religion and Its Publics and the Berkley Center, entitled Christianity and the Alt-Right: Exploring the Relationship. Full video of the conference, broken into three panels, is available from C-SPAN here: Christianity and the Alt-Right in the pastChristianity and the Alt-Right in the present, and Christianity and the Alt-Right in the future.

Survey Data Indicates a Complicated Relationship between Religion and Racial Attitudes by George Hawley

October 29, 2018

When thinking about the relationship between the alt-right and Christianity, it is worth noting that many theories are plausible. One could make a strong case that the decline of Christianity will benefit the extreme right. It is also possible that the decline of Christianity will have the opposite effect. It is additionally worth considering that there is no substantive connection between the two, or that any such connection is small.

As Professor Damon Berry argued in his outstanding book on the subject, most important leaders of the white nationalist movement have despised Christianity. They have many good reasons for doing so. Although you can make a case that Christianity is inherently intolerant when it comes to religion—and Christian anti-Semitism is well documented—it is very hard to use Christian theology to justify non-religious racial hatred. Christianity has an element of global egalitarianism that is difficult to escape, unless you are willing to distort Christianity to such an extent that it is no longer recognizable. Most important contemporary Christian leaders speak out very strongly against racism.

On the other hand, it would be disingenuous to claim that American Christianity has always been on the side of racial egalitarianism. Well before the culture wars over marriage equality and abortion, the Christian Right was first motivated by the fight against racial desegregation. We should also not forget that in the antebellum South, many people found a biblical justification for racial slavery. Furthermore, public opinion data consistently finds that non-religious whites are more politically progressive than religious whites.

Based on all of this, we could posit several theories with comparable levels of believability. To consider this question, I have spent a lot of time looking at recent survey data and what they show us about the relationship between religion and racial attitudes. My findings below are from the 2016 American National Election Study.

In the scholarly literature, we typically look at three separate components of religion: believing, belonging, and behaving. I and many others have considered how these components relate to racial sentiments. I am particularly interested in survey questions relating to the strength of white racial identity, feelings of white solidarity, and feelings of white grievance, as these are key components of many far-right ideologies.

As I look at how religion influences these attitudes, I see a lot of null results—cases in which religious attributes exhibit no statistically-significant nor substantively-important influence on racial attitudes. For example, I found no connection between feelings of white identity and any religious variable. And in cases where I did see significant results, they are not always in the same direction. High levels of religiosity were related to more tolerant attitudes on some questions, and the reverse on others. For example, white biblical literalists were much more likely than other whites to support reducing immigration; on the other hand, they were also much more likely to support affirmative action for African-Americans.

I found a very similar effect for the importance of religion on the question of whether whites face discrimination today. Compared to those who did not say religion was important to their lives, those who said it was were about 1.6 times as likely to express feelings of racial discrimination.

This is complicated, however, in that we see a different effect for worship attendance. Compared to whites who never attend religious services, those that attended services once a week or more were considerably less likely to say they felt discriminated against on racial grounds—only about 0.7 times as likely.

What is the takeaway from all this? My current view is that the question of religion and racial attitudes, as well as views on policy issues that are entangled with race, is complicated. My own research on this topic is obviously not the final word on this question. There is other empirical work that confirms and challenges some of the findings I just mentioned.

Because I find so many null results, small results, and inconsistent results, I must presently conclude that the state of Christianity is only loosely connected to the state of the racist right. A massive resurgence of Christian identification and practice—which I consider unlikely at the moment—would probably not solve the nation’s racial problems. Nor would the faith’s total collapse. Although I will continue to research this subject, and know others will do the same, at present I do not see Christianity or secularism as a panacea to our many great challenges.

George Hawley is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama.

This post originally appeared on the Berkley Forum, a blog by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University. The post is a response to a recent conference, co-sponsored by Religion and Its Publics and the Berkley Center, entitled Christianity and the Alt-Right: Exploring the Relationship. Full video of the conference, broken into three panels, is available from C-SPAN here: Christianity and the Alt-Right in the pastChristianity and the Alt-Right in the present, and Christianity and the Alt-Right in the future.

Religion and Reactionary White Politics by Damon Berry

October 29, 2018

Race, religion, and politics have long shared a space in American discourse. In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) took advantage of popular xenophobia to form a white fraternity organized to defend Anglo-Protestant America. In so doing, they developed a gospel of their own to support a unified political and social movement. But in less than 10 years the Klan was suffering from scandals and infighting that cost the organization its previously held national influence. Although the Klan of the 1920s declined in the 1930s, it left its mark in its ability to gather popular support for the racialized immigration restrictions of the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 and in a rhetoric of religious and racial nationalism that long outlived it.

The alt-right has been compared to the KKK, often with less attention to the differences in the way the respective movements regard religion. Both movements now indelibly represent a perennial reactionary racism that speaks of white Americans as the true American species under threat from the alleged prolific breeding and predatory criminality of non-whites. But while the Klan of the 1920s was a national organization with established leadership, the alt-right is more of a milieu—decentralized, complex, and diverse. And while the Klan saw itself as a Protestant organization defending white America, the alt-right is not identified with any single religious perspective. In fact, the issue of religion is often handled carefully among those affiliated with the alt-right as a discourse that resembles that of secularized religious tolerance.

Beginning in the late 1960s, the most significant articulators of a new form of white racist activism that came to be called white nationalism have critiqued Christianity as fundamentally anti-white and therefore existentially dangerous to the white race. The fact that Christianity has its roots in Judaism was of course a source of contention, but more importantly, Christianity was seen by them as an alien religious ideology that had poisoned the racial consciousness of Europeans.

Intense debates ensued over the following decades between advocates of new racial religions, and even those who advocated for no religion at all, and racial activists who still held to racist and anti-Semitic forms of Christianity. In time these divisions over religion came to be seen by a new generation of white nationalists as endangering the larger project of securing the existence of their people and a future for white children. By 2010, some white nationalists were arguing that such schisms were counterproductive in pursuing the political goal of establishing an all-white homeland in North America. In addition to this concern, some worried that outright opposition to Christianity would alienate white conservative Christians who might be convinced to join white nationalists in common cause. But if white nationalists were to “red pill” those conservatives they had to present themselves as at least welcoming to those Christians.

More recently, conversations about accommodating racially conscious Christians have continued within the white identity sectors of the alt-right. For example, in a 2017 webisode of Radio 3Fourteen, Lana Lokteff, one of the leading women in the alt-right who identifies as pagan, interviewed Adam and Mary Grey, the hosts of a what they describe as a “pro-white, Christian podcast of the alt-right” titled Good Morning White America. Ms. Lokteff stated at the beginning of the episode that their conversation was making a “middle ground” between racially conscious pagans and pro-white Christians. At the conclusion of the episode she went on to say that debates about the esoteric are “futile at this time,” and that “it’s best to avoid arguing with anyone on our side about their spirituality.” Rather, she argued, the Alt-Right should “seek a happy medium.”

Two points emerge here. First, religion is not secondary to the ongoing development of the alt-right and white nationalism more broadly, but rather an important element in its political strategies. Understanding how various sectors of the alt-right are negotiating this topic is crucial. Second, regarding the longer trend, white Americans have been embroiled in the drama of race, religion, and reactionary politics in many ways throughout American history. Much of the academic work on this topic will need to be historical to make sense of the alt-right—the alt-right is likely history already. But what we need to consider is what form of white nationalism lies ahead of it and what role religion will play in its development and public presentation.

Damon Berry is an assistant professor of religious studies at St. Lawrence University

This post originally appeared on the Berkley Forum, a blog by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University. The post is a response to a recent conference, co-sponsored by Religion and Its Publics and the Berkley Center, entitled Christianity and the Alt-Right: Exploring the Relationship. Full video of the conference, broken into three panels, is available from C-SPAN here: Christianity and the Alt-Right in the pastChristianity and the Alt-Right in the present, and Christianity and the Alt-Right in the future.

The Orthodox Crisis: How Long will the Hostilities between Moscow and Constantinople Last? By Sergey F. Dezhnyuk

October 19, 2018

Lenin once quipped that Russia without Ukraine is a body without a head. Zbigniew Brzezinski echoed the same theme by insisting that Russia ceases to be an empire without Ukraine. Although recent developments in the world of the Orthodox Church cannot be reduced to mere geopolitics, they do reflect the overall applicability of this theory.

On October 15th, the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) announced that it is severing Eucharistic Communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (EP), the “primus inter pares”  – or first among equals – of the Orthodox Church, after the latter granted Ukraine’s Church independence from Russia. According to the ROC synod, the EP’s decision represents an “encroachment of the Patriarchate of Constantinople upon the canonical territory of the Russian Orthodox Church,” and was objected to on these grounds. The ROC also objected to the EP’s decision for more technical theological reasons, claiming that it allows “schismatics” to take communion. (More on this in a moment.)

The Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, is generally viewed as the leading authority for the world’s 300 million Orthodox believers. But the Russian Church is its most numerous, powerful and wealthy global member. The implications of the EP’s action are profound. But reports of a schism in the Orthodox Church are premature.

Four days before the ROC’s October 15th announcement, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, based in Istanbul, revoked its decision, made in 1686, to give Moscow some rights over Ukrainian ecclesial territory. This move severely weakens Moscow’s hold on the Ukrainian Church. The EP also satisfied petitions from Patriarch Filaret of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate (UOC-KP) and Metropolitan Makarii of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC) to restore them to full communion with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Members of the UOC-KP and the UAOC, now able to take communion in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, are the “schismatics” that the ROC synod refers to.

The history of the three major Orthodox churches in Ukraine is complex. Filaret had once been a leading candidate for the position of the Patriarch of the ROC. He lost. As the Metropolitan of Kiev, in 1992, Filaret orchestrated a split within Ukrainian Orthodoxy and established the UOC KP, which now claims to be the largest – by number of faithful – Orthodox Church in the county. For that, Filaret was anathematized by the Russian Church. But that anathema no longer stands after the EP’s October 11th pronouncement.

The story of UAOC is even more complicated. Its existence reflects the long-held desire of a vast number of Ukrainian Orthodox for their own independent (“autocephalous”) Church, which is why they resisted joining the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, whose full name is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) is composed of those who decided to remain within the ROC in 1992, and although technically autonomous, the UOC (MP) was largely subordinated to the ROC, especially under its current head, Metropolitan Onufriy. This is why the UAOC kept its distance from the OUC (MP).  Now that the UOC (MP) is independent, the separation between it and the UAOC makes less sense, and because of the EP’s recent pronouncement, they are now in full communion with one another.

So, the Russian annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Eastern Ukraine in 2014 intensified the process of seeking autocephaly, but it did not initiate it.

The political dimensions and geopolitical implications of these developments are now in the open. Ukrainian president Poroshenko has long advocated for a united Ukrainian Orthodox Church as a means to counter Russian aggression, which was often openly supported by the ROC and by some hierarchs of UOC (MP).

After the Ecumenical Patriarchate granted the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the UOC (MP), independence from Moscow, the Kremlin immediately vowed to “protect Orthodox believers in Ukraine.” President Vladimir Putin quickly called a Security Council meeting on October 12th with an agenda dedicated solely to issues of Ukrainian Orthodoxy. After all, Ukraine is an integral part of Moscow’s – both ecclesial and political – neo-imperial ideology of “Russkij Mir\Russian World.”

What are the ramifications of these developments?  Contrary to some recent headlines, there is neither “split” nor “schism” between Moscow and Constantinople along the lines of the one between Christian East and West in 1054. First, the ROC did not anathematize the EP; there is no charge of “heresy.” Second, the EP did not reciprocate the ROC’s decision to sever Eucharistic Communion. The ROC clergy and faithful are still welcome in the EP parishes.

The history of the Eastern Orthodox Church is full of similar acts that were healed in time. The ROC itself was out of communion with Constantinople for a century following the events of the Council of Florence.

In Ukraine, existing Orthodox Churches will have to dismantle their administrative structures to establish a new one. It is expected that most Ukrainian Orthodox churches will join a new pan-Ukrainian Orthodox Council. Those who do not join the new unified body and choose to stay faithful to the ROC will be able retain their church property, contrary to Russian propaganda designed to scare people into thinking otherwise. When the structures of the unified Ukrainian Orthodox Church are established, which could and probably will occur by the end of 2018, Patriarch Bartholomew will grant this body the Tomos, a founding document for any autocephalous church.

When the dust settles, this move will re-arrange the global balance within the conglomerate of 15 autocephalous Orthodox Churches. Instead of the current bipolarity (Moscow-Constantinople), a new order will emerge. The ROC will probably still be the largest member, closely followed by the unified Ukrainian Orthodox Church. The Romanian Orthodox Church would then be the third largest, and this status might have powerful ramifications for the ROC’s current modus operandi in the West, the Romanians themselves, and the EP.

There is some indication that in time the Belarusian Orthodox Church (BOC), which currently holds the status of Exarchate under the ROC, would also seek autocephaly. If that occurs, the unified Ukrainian Orthodox Church will become the largest Orthodox body.

With the realization of its long dream to become one, united, canonically recognized Ukrainian Orthodox Church, there come dangers. There is still open armed conflict between Ukraine and Russia. Bullets fly every day and soldiers from both sides are buried in Ukrainian and Russian soil. In the context of elevated national loyalty, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church could become the de facto State Church. This could closely mirror the role the ROC plays in Russia, where Patriarch Kirill is a close ally of President Putin.

Besides the political implications of this, there is strong evidence that ethnophyletism would reemerge in Ukrainian Orthodoxy, which was proclaimed to be a heresy by the Orthodox Church in 1872.

Regardless of what happens, something is beyond dispute: Russia could conquer Ukraine by neither bullets nor “hybrid war.” Its use of the Russian Church to keep Ukrainian Orthodoxy in check has failed. Russia, now without Ukraine, is no longer an empire.

Sergey F Dezhnyuk is a Ukrainian-American theologian and vice-president of Independent American Center of Political Monitoring. He teaches philosophy and religion at Tulsa Community College.