Friday, March 15, 2024

Texas Monthly Hit Piece on Russian Orthodoxy in Texas

Note: The article in question is so over the top that I considered not responding to it directly, but I think the people in my parish, and people who have been part of the parish in the past, or will become part of it in the future will need to understand what happened with this article, and what to make of it.

Sometime last year, Meagan Clark Saliashvili contacted me about whether I would agree to be interviewed for an article she was writing for Texas Monthly on the growth of Orthodoxy in Texas. Meagan is an independent reporter who is a convert to Orthodoxy, married to a Georgian man, and a graduate of Harvard Divinity School. I was not unaware of the liberal bent to her past reporting, but I hoped since she was a recent convert that she would be honest and sincere, even though I had reasons to doubt she would be. However, I figured if she was going to write a hit piece, it probably wouldn't matter whether I spoke to her or not, and speaking to her might help. 

As it turned out, the article was not about the growth of Orthodoxy in Texas at all, but was in fact an extremely biased attempt to paint me, my parish, and other Orthodox Christians as racists, conspiracy theorists, and authoritarians. However, the fact that I did talk to her, and allowed her to visit my parish resulted in her putting in many details that contradicted much of what she was trying to accomplish. I am not sure if these things were included in the original version of the story or not, but I was contacted by a fact checker from Texas Monthly (a first from any news outlet I have ever interacted with) and pointed out to him a number of relevant facts that did in fact appear in the article as published. On the other hand, I did not anticipate how this would negatively impact some people in the parish, and that is my biggest regret about agreeing to this.

The extreme bias of the article did not take long to appear, however. The title of the article is itself one of the most ridiculous titles I have ever seen in my life: 

"Inspired by the Confederacy and Czarist Russia, “Ortho Bros” Are on the Rise: A Houston-area priest is part of a group of religious leaders and media figures who draw followers interested in conspiracy theories and authoritarian government."

Of the hundreds of inquirers I have encountered over the years, most of them would not have known what "Czarism" even was or how to pronounce the word when they first began coming to my parish. And discussing the Confederacy is something I don't bring in at all to my discussions about the Orthodox Faith with such inquirers. What I teach and preach is the Tradition of the Church, what it means to be an Orthodox Christian, and how to draw closer to God -- and that is what is in fact drawing people into the Church.

Apparently, to Meagan, thinking that the COVID lockdowns were a bad idea makes one a conspiracy theorist. But those she cites as authorities on Orthodoxy believe in conspiracy theories, such as the idea that Putin and Trump conspired to steal the 2016 election. And while Orthodox Christians are free to have their own views about how the government ought to be run, most of the people I encounter believe that the government we have right now is already too authoritarian... they are hardly begging for more. 

Why put all of that into the title? To make sure people who just read the titles know that Russian Orthodox Christians are scarry bad people.

Secondly, just look at the photo of me that they used for this article. My Church is a very well-lit Church. When this photo was taken, not only was the Church bright with natural light, the photographer had a lot of additional lights shining in my face. The fact that they made the picture so dark was clearly intended to communicate that this article was about something sinister.

The way words were used throughout the article were consistently designed to paint a negative picture of me and my parish. My parishioners don't walk into Church, they "shuffle" in. I don't wear vestments when serving; I wear a "cape." The Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia did not reunite with the Church inside of Russia in 2007 because the issues that kept us apart were finally resolved; it was "at Russian president Vladimir Putin’s request." 

I lived through the time before, during, and after the reconciliation of the Russian Church in 2007, and it did not happen because Putin requested it. He had no pull over those outside of Russia. This was an issue that had been on the table for years, and it happened because the time for it to happen had come, and both sides wanted it to happen.

Somehow my sermon on the day that Meagan visited, which was about the slaughter of innocent Palestinian civilians, and the Church's traditional understanding of itself as Israel in contrast to Protestant Dispensationalists who are cheering on the slaughter of Palestinians because of their bad theology, but which nevertheless called for us to not hate other people, was portrayed as if it were mere political commentary, to which my parishioners just nodded along to in some unthinking way. I would invite those who haven't heard that sermon to listen to it, and to judge for themselves.

Meagan suggested that I have people in my "orbit" that are "white supremacists." I have asked her to name them, because if she could point me to anyone who actually held such views, I would want to make sure that their bishop knew about it and dealt with them. But so far, she has named no one, but the smear remains.

She described my spiritual journey into Orthodoxy in ways that were dismissive. I would invite anyone interested in the facts to read my article on the subject: A Pilgrim’s Podvig.

I am quoted as saying: "I think the reason there’s been this big influx since the lockdowns is a lot of people have a sense that things are going in a very bad direction quickly, and they’re trying to grab on to something firm." But then Meagan editorializes, and writes "For Whiteford, that something firm is often certain aspects of traditional Southern culture."

This is not at all true. That something firm is the Orthodox Faith. Anyone who has read what I have written and heard what I have said would know that this is what I was referring to, but instead Meagan has to distort what I was saying so she can shift the focus to what she wants to talk about and further distort things.

She writes:

"During a recent talk in North Carolina, he spoke of the spiritual benefits of agrarianism and asserted that the legacy of the Confederacy has been misconstrued—he believes the Civil War wasn’t primarily fought over slavery. “Bad things happened, and we should never defend those things,” he noted. “But it would be the height of ingratitude for me to throw my ancestors under the bus, particularly when I don’t have any reason to believe that they did anything that they understood to be wrong, at least not in a grossly immoral way.”

The talk that I gave was entitled "Southern Agrarianism and Moldova." I think Meagan thinks that "agrarianism" has something to do with the Confederacy or white supremacy, but it doesn't -- it's a much broader concept. When the Texas Monthly Fact checker called me, he asked me about this, and I pointed out that Southern Agrarian writers came to prominence in the 1920's and 30's, but that the best known contemporary Southern Agrarian writer is Wendell Berry, who is often thought of as an environmentalist. Perhaps the article would have been even more distorted if I had not pointed this out, but that still seems to be her underlying assumption. In that talk, I mentioned the Confederacy only once, while talking about the racial diversity in the South, when I pointed out that the last Confederate general to surrender was Stand Watie, the chief of the Cherokee Nation. But as the title of the talk suggests, the focus of the talk was to discuss the lessons we could learn from Moldova, which is an Orthodox country with a largely agrarian culture. I would suggest that those who would like to listen to my talk, listen to it in its entirety.

But when Meagan says that I "asserted that the legacy of the Confederacy has been misconstrued—he believes the Civil War wasn’t primarily fought over slavery. “Bad things happened, and we should never defend those things,” he noted. “But it would be the height of ingratitude for me to throw my ancestors under the bus, particularly when I don’t have any reason to believe that they did anything that they understood to be wrong, at least not in a grossly immoral way," she is again misrepresenting what I said. Fortunately, the comments she is alluding to were from the question-and-answer period, and you can listen to what I actually said in context here:

You can listen to another comment from the question-and-answer period that was along similar lines, by clicking here.

I don't think that the Civil War was fought for the purpose of abolishing slavery, and I say that for historical reasons that I have laid out before. If I am wrong on the facts I point to, I would be happy to have someone correct me and provide me with the evidence to the contrary, but there are many historians who have reached the same conclusions I have. And yes, I don't support destroying historical monuments and artifacts, because that is what Bolsheviks do -- not people who care about history. No one has to agree with me. My position on this is not a matter of Orthodox Dogma, to be sure. I don't hate anyone because they come to other conclusions on the matter. I believe in being tolerant of other people's opinions. 

Further on, Meagan wrote:

"It’s difficult to determine how many of St. Jonah’s congregants are in accord with Whiteford’s ideology and how many are devoted to the church for more traditional reasons. But it was clear that fringe ideas, including conspiracy theories, are welcome, from anti-vax stances to prepping for apocalyptic scenarios."

What is odd about this is that Meagan has not provided any evidence that I have an ideology, much less that I have imposed it on anyone else, nor has she described what that ideology might be. I would be very interested to learn what that ideology is supposed to be, because I believe ideological thinking of any sort is wrong in principle, and is contrary to a Traditional Christian Mindset. People in my parish hold a wide variety of views on a great many topics, and I don't tell them what they can or cannot think as long as they don't advocate for something contrary to the teachings of the Church. I have people who are very conservative, but I also have people who are politically on the left. Again, I believe in being tolerant of other people.

The article suggested that I somehow support the establishment of a monarchy in the United States. I have never suggested any such thing, as you can see from this answer I gave to a question on the subject: Why Monarchy Won't Work in America.

Meagan made mention of an "anonymous Reddit user who in 2020 posted a call to burn down the “misogynistic xenophobic homophobic St Jonah Russian Orthodox Church.” (Nothing seems to have come of the threat, which Whiteford speculates may have been planted by the FBI.)" 

She makes it sound like this terrorist threat against my Church was no big deal. But let me quote from a review I did of Sarah Riccardi-Swarz's book which tried to portray members of ROCOR as being Putin's fifth column in the United States:

"In June of 2020, my parish had a serious terroristic threat from someone who referred to our parish as "St. Jonah Russian Orthodox Church," despite the fact that we never use "Russian" in the name of our parish, though we make no secret about being part of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. When that happened, I called the FBI, as well as the local Constables office. The local authorities were very responsive, but the FBI never called me back. I mentioned what had happened to a Protestant minister I know who is fairly well connected. He contacted our Lt. Governor, and he called the FBI. Only then did I get a call back, but in the end, they did almost nothing to track down the person who had made these threats, though he had an online profile that should not have been hard to track down, and he was certainly living in this area. This year, on Old Calendar Annunciation, I finally received a visit from an FBI agent (nearly two years later), who began by mentioning what had happened in 2020, and who said that they just wanted to make sure everything was OK, given tensions around the war in Ukraine. He asked if I would agree to talk to him, and I did. His line of questioning had almost nothing to do with the safety and security of my parish. It was all about what contacts I may have had with the Russian Consulate in Houston, whether the Russian government had any influence over my Church, and things of that nature. Recent history has shown that you don't have to actually be guilty of anything for the FBI to put you in jail. So obviously, this attention is unwelcome, though it would have been nice if they had been more interested in my parish in June of 2020. 

I have speculated that perhaps the guy who made this threat was an FBI asset that was trolling to see who would respond to his call to burn my Church down. I entertain that possibility only because it would have been shooting fish in a barrel for the FBI to have tracked this guy down, had they any inclination to do so, but they didn't, and so the question is why didn't they? I don't claim to know the truth about what happened, I only know that it is very odd as it is.

Then Meagan talks about a specific family in my parish and introduces that paragraph with "Not everyone who comes to Whiteford’s church is looking to get involved in political or ideological battles." I was told by the family that spent about three hours talking with her, they talked about homesteading and homeschooling, and the Faith, but that Meagan kept trying to get them to talk about politics. They told her that they don't come to Church to talk politics, but it was Meagan who kept bringing the subject up in the first place.

The fact is no one has come to my parish looking to get involved in political or ideological battles, except perhaps Meagan herself, but the way she words this suggests that this family is exceptional. They are not exceptional in why they have come to my parish, nor in why they have stayed.

It is a shame that a person who ostensibly is an Orthodox Christian, and who assured me that she was doing an article to talk about the growth of Orthodoxy in Texas decided to instead use the occasion to attack people she doesn't agree with. 

The day after this article was posted people in my parish were contacted by a scammer claiming to be me, who was wanting to get access to our parish directory. We don't know what this person's intentions are, but we can reasonably assume that the intentions are not good. When you vilify Russian Orthodox Christians, and paint them as Putin stooges, who are somehow associated with white supremacists despite wanting to establish a Spanish speaking parish, co-authoring statements against racism and preaching sermons about how we can't hate people, unhinged people might decide to do something that results in real people getting hurt. I hope that people like Meagan will keep their responsibility for that kind of reaction in mind in the future.