American Orthodoxy Has a Lost Cause ProblemRoundup
tags: far right, religious history, Orthodox Christianity, White Nationalism, American Religion
Dr. Aram G. Sarkisian is a postdoctoral fellow in the History Department at Northwestern University.
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.”
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