In 1987, pastors from within the heart of U.S. evangelicalism officially incorporated 2,000 American evangelicals into the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. The mass conversion stemmed from White Protestant disillusionment with the freestyle worship, therapeutic ethos and perceived feminine emotionalism of their old church homes — what one influential critic labeled “The Church Impotent.” “Evangelical churches call men to be passive and nice (think ‘Mr. Rogers’),” explained a convert. “Orthodox Churches call men to be courageous and act (think ‘Braveheart’).” Such celebration of masculinity is one reason Orthodoxy is majority male, unlike any other American Christian denomination.
Russian Orthodox leadership in the global family values movement makes Eastern Christianity an appealing symbol for some of the most repugnant representatives of the racist right — again demonstrating the racial subtext of overt sexual conservatism. Neo-Confederates champion Orthodoxy as the spiritual home of white nationalism. Converts have played roles in the Charlottesville riot of 2017 and the Capitol insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021. The terrorist who took nine Black lives in a Charleston church had an Eastern Orthodox priest as a spiritual adviser. At the same time, the American alt-right embraced Russia as the land of unapologetic whiteness and unreformed masculinity. To the concern of many Orthodox believers, such converts are having an impact within branches of Orthodoxy in the United States.
As Russian tanks roll toward Kyiv and AFPAC speakers cheer, Putin can count on the respect many Christian conservatives in the United States have for Orthodox Russia as the international standard-bearer for family values. Certainly not all the ties between American Republicans and Russian interests are based on long-standing religious visions of traditional families and White Christian supremacy. But there is no making sense of them without that context
In 1995, Russian demographers met with the American Howard Center for the Family, Religion and Society, a project of the paleoconservative movement that mixed Holocaust deniers, Neo-Confederates and racist anti-immigrant activists. They agreed that low White birthrates were caused by the decline of traditional family forms and gender roles — and therefore the answer was the official suppression of sexual and gender dissent.
Their efforts produced the World Congress of Families, which combines funding from conservative Russian oligarchs with the organizing know-how of groups like the National Organization for Marriage — a key player in California’s 2008 same-sex marriage ban (which was later overturned in the courts). At its annual meetings, religious traditionalists coordinate policies to promote the “natural family” and combat LGBTQ and reproductive rights around the world.
Q Did you know by that time about the political role played by Moscow Patriarchate and its connection with Putin’s regime?
(Lacey)The interesting thing about the Russian Orthodox Church is that at first I thought it was all about the realm of love, but you later realise, in reflection, that there is actually extremism there — it can be played to evoke extremist tendencies in a cult-like way that damns all outsiders and produces a spirit of pride that, by contrast with the outside, all within is perfect. Russian Orthodoxy (under these current conditions) sucks you in so that you end up going down into a dark rabbit hole and into darkness not into light.
So, by 2008, when Georgia was invaded, I upset a lot of my Georgian friends because I took the side of Russia.
In 2014, because I had been brought up in a very racist area of London I always hated the far right. So I started to believe all of the kind of narratives that RT conspiracy theorists and the church were pumping out: ridiculous narratives such as that Ukrainians are Nazis, that the far right is now in control of the Ukrainian government, that it’s a bipolar world, that it’s an American coup, that Ukraine wants to ban Russian language and Russian culture and that Ukrainians, Belarussians and Russians are one people. So all these narratives were sucking me in
Gradually, I started to come out of the extremist bubble, but it takes a long time to deradicalise. By 2019 I was coming to a more neutral position, but, by “neutral,” I mean I was questioning the essence of truth and believing Western media was biased, while I, by contrast, was avoiding politics. In a way the idea of religion as “the opium of the people” was true in my case — I was zombified and closed my eyes to human rights and dignity believing that it had no place in my life. Also, I still upheld some Russian propaganda narratives — the idea that Russian Orthodoxy needs to be protected and the ridiculous notion that the West wants to destroy Orthodoxy.
(Lacey)I also made videos when I was in St. Elizabeth’s, saying how full of love it was, and generally what a wonderful place it was. Then, when they were criticised on social media, I went on the defensive saying what a great place it was for its love. The convent also asked me to make investigations about Christian Vision, so I found a very loose link with Natalia** and Soros which they used to attack Natalia on social media — for this, I ask forgiveness.
Q How did they treat you on personal level? Did you have close friends there?
(Lacey)I did have close friends there. Without a doubt there are some very good people there, but we have to separate the institution from the people on the ground, that is, the top from the bottom.
Q Did you know about their political position and activities?
(Lacey) Their political position and activities is an interesting question. At the time I was coming out of a more Orthodox fundamentalist position and maybe I was more neutral, so, in many ways, I thought they were in the centre, or on “the Royal path,” as Seraphim Rose would describe it. Therefore, I didn’t associate them with a fundamentalist position — how wrong I was!
I had also read that their concerts had been attacked by those who were more traditionalist, and I felt they were also under attack by liberals and people who wanted a more liberal church. The convent told me the reason they were under attack was because they were a very rich and successful monastery and that people were jealous of them.
The only standout comment I remember from while I was there was when Father Andrew Lemeshonok said he thought Putin was a great leader. At the time I thought this was just a Russian mentality, so I didn’t think much of it then.
I also gave (St Elizabeth's)media advice, which I am quite ashamed of. So, when they were being criticised by Christian Vision, I gave them advice about what Christian Vision would do and how they could counter that using a media strategy.
I also made videos when I was in St. Elizabeth’s, saying how full of love it was, and generally what a wonderful place it was. Then, when they were criticised on social media, I went on the defensive saying what a great place it was for its love. The convent also asked me to make investigations about Christian Vision, so I found a very loose link with Natalia** and Soros which they used to attack Natalia on social media — for this, I ask forgiveness.
When, the war in Ukraine escalated. In the past, I used to go for my Summer holidays in Mariupol. So, when the bombs started falling in Mariupol, I made a little oath of God that I would do anything in my power to try and help the Ukrainian people against this injustice and tyranny. What surprised me was the double-sidedness of St. Elizabeth’s convent: on one hand, they were similar to the Russian Church Abroad, saying, “We don’t do politics — it’s a war between a fraternal people.” However, you know that, underneath this, there is actually strong support for the Putin regime, and we started to see in some of the Sisters’ social media posts a total propagation of Russian Imperialist narratives: the war is the West’s fault; Ukrainians are Bandarists; the Ukrainians shot their own people in Mariupol; the conditions in Mariupol are not that bad; Bucha did not happen; it is a conspiracy; the people of Donbas are the victims; Russia is the victim that the West wants to destroy.
When you then looked at Father Andrey Lemeshonok’s statements, you could see how he was supporting and pronouncing prayers for Putin and for Putin’s regime. This above all was a critical juncture for me, when I realised totally that the convent is a fundamentalist organization — I’ve done research into extremism, studying the Far Right and also exploring Muslim extremism.
Sadly, I could see similar patterns to other extremist organisations. In many ways it reminds me of Hamas and ISIS, who also feed the poor and look after the elderly and the disabled, while their money is being spent on undermining the West, propagating extremism and creating a cult of war.
ou start falling into echo chambers. The echo chamber I was falling into was all RT and Graham Phillips’ tweets.”
Steven Lacey’s fascination with Russia began when he was a teenager and travelled to the country on a school trip. He fell in love with the culture, the history and the people – returning to Russia and the former Soviet Union countries as an adult. He later converted to the Orthodox faith, and by the early 2010s had joined the Westminster Russia Forum – formerly the Conservative Friends of Russia.
“I thought it sounded interesting and that I could be a bridge between faith and politics in the group,” he told Byline Times. “And because I am disabled I hoped I could raise awareness and change attitudes towards disability in Russia.”
Lacey remembers that he saw Conservative Party and UKIP members
“swarming around the Embassy at that time like flies”.
When Russia invaded Crimea and the Donbas region in 2014, Lacey started to fall into the rabbit hole of pro-Vladimir Putin propaganda and disinformation – despite having friends in Ukraine and in the port city of Mariupol in particular.
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On Facebook and Twitter, (Lacey) saw plenty of posts from Russian-supporting accounts accusing Ukrainian people of being neo-Nazis. Having grown up in west London at a time of rising far-right hate, Lacey was primed to take Russia’s side against a force that was increasingly portrayed as being fascist. For Steven Lacey, who is now a fierce critic of Vladimir Putin’s regime, the actions of the disinformation agents are unforgivable.
Having seen the destruction of Mariupol, Ukraine’s besieged city, he said:
“I do not forgive propaganda journalists like Graham Phillips. I do not forgive armchair keyboard warriors. I do not forgive UK politicians who got drunk at Russian Embassy parties. And I do not forgive those who push Putin’s line. I’ll do everything I can in my small power to call-out cruelty, despotism, corruption and their connection to a far-right regime.”
Graham Phillips maintains that he is a journalist who works independently of the Russian regime.