When Sarah Riccardi-Swartz moved from New York City to a small Appalachian town in West Virginia in the fall of 2017, she was searching for an answer to a puzzling question. Why had a group of conservative American Christians converted to Russian Orthodoxy?
“It’s typically an immigrant faith, so I was really interested in that experience and why it spoke to converts,” said Riccardi-Swartz, a postdoctoral fellow in the Recovering Truth project at Arizona State University.
Riccardi-Swartz’s study focused on a community of mostly former evangelical Christians and Catholics who had joined the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR). The West Virginia location, in addition to having a church parish, was also home to the largest English-speaking Russian Orthodox monastery in the world.
Over a year of doing research, Riccardi-Swartz learned that many of these converts had grown disillusioned with social and demographic change in the United States. In ROCOR, they felt they had found a church that has remained the same, regardless of place, time and politics. But Riccardi-Swartz also found strong strains of nativism, white nationalism and pro-authoritarianism, evidenced by strong admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“For many of them, Putin becomes this sort of king-like figure in their narratives,” she said. “They see themselves as oppressed by democracy because democracy is really diversity. And they look to Putin because democracy isn’t really, as we see right now, an option [in Russia].”
She recently published a book based on her research that’s titled Between Heaven and Russia: Religious Conversion and Political Apostasy in Appalachia.
The case study that Riccardi-Swartz provides adds detail and color to a trend that a handful of historians and journalists have documented for nearly a decade. In publications mostly targeted toward an Orthodox Christian audience, they have raised the alarm about a growing nativist element within the church. Despite Orthodoxy’s relatively small imprint in the U.S., they warn that, unchecked, these adherents could fundamentally alter the faith tradition in the United States. They also warn that these individuals are evangelizing hate in the name of Orthodoxy in ways that could attract more who share those views.