“Beware, O sinful land, beware;
And do not think it strange
That sorer judgements are at hand,
Unless thou quickly change.
Or God, or thou, must quickly change;
Or else thou art undon:
Wrath cannot cease, if sin remain,
Where judgement is begun.”
-Michael Wigglesworth, “God’s Controversy With New England” (Written in the Time of the Great Drought, Anno. 1662)
“Christian faith is in steep decline and a softer form of totalitarianism is on the march. I firmly believe that we American Christians, and in truth Americans of any traditional faith and convictions, that we’re now living in exile. We know from the Hebrew Bible how God deals with His people when they have become unfaithful to Him. He judges them.”
-Rod Dreher, September 13th, 2022
In the United States today, public pronouncements from prominent Orthodox Christians often take the form of jeremiads, grave sermons decrying general social and moral transgressions for which humanity faces imminent persecution from an angry and vengeful God. Jeremiads follow a typical structure: a reference to a doctrinal baseline, ordinarily culled from the Old Testament; an outlining of the covenant between God and His people; and then an explanation of the contemporary significance of that covenant, first through a grave and graphic exposition on how God’s people had so catastrophically failed, and then in an explication of how they may reverse their perilous fate.
From the settler colonialist preachers of seventeenth-century New England to the circuit-riding revivalists of the nineteenth-century to the televangelists and YouTube preachers of the present day, jeremiads have warned that without atonement and correction, God’s people in America were doomed. Many such jeremiads are premised on the notion that the United States is a Christian nation, exceptional and ordained above all to serve God’s plan for humanity, and burdened with that should it fail to retain its covenant with the divine, the nation would fail and its people suffer. A renewed upsurge of Christian Nationalism has caused such rhetoric to swell in recent years, and as we have seen, such ideas too ripple through Orthodox Christian institutions and communities.
In a September 13th speech at the Miami National Conservatism Conference, American Conservative blogger and Orthodox Christian Rod Dreher framed his own jeremiad in such doomsday, millennialist terms. Much as he did in his Fr. Alexander Schmemann Lecture early last year, Dreher draws on his most recent book, Live Not By Lies, to warn of an imminent persecution of Christian conservatives like him. Indeed, there is little in his jeremiad that would be unfamiliar to his ardent readers. With this latest publication, however, many observers have noted with alarm that Dreher’s public politics and personal commitments have turned against liberal democracy. He spends much of his time in Hungary as an ardent supporter of Viktor Orbán’s authoritarian regime, whose nativism and hardline social policies Dreher sees as a model for combating the “woke left” embrace of LGBTQIA rights, multiculturalism, and social justice in the United States.
Framed around the Old Testament story of the three youths in the fiery furnace from the Prophecy of Daniel, Dreher’s recent jeremiad explicates his concern that in the United States risks imminent doom. What drew the most attention from this particular jeremiad was Dreher’s unequivocal claim that these developments resulted from nothing less than the breaking of a covenant between God and the United States. He points to a particular omen, a framed American flag in the home of a New York friend. On September 11th, 2002, precisely one year after the attacks at the nearby World Trade Center, Dreher’s friend noticed the flag was mysteriously torn in two. Pointing to its similarity to the rending of the temple veil at the time of Christ’s death on the cross, Dreher declared it evidence that “God has broken his covenant with America.” “No one,” Dreher says today, “wants to believe that God is passing judgment on His nation.” Yet for him, “that torn flag of September 11th, 2002 was a prophecy.” At the hand of “happy-clappy Christianity and winsomeness-über alles,” and those who support what he calls the “sexual mutilation of little children for the sake of transgender progress,” Dreher warns of an imminent, “wokeness”-driven tribulation of Christian conservatives. “We do not know how much time we have before the persecution starts,” he says, “but we can be confident that it is likely to come… Optimists went to the Gulag just as surely as everybody else.”
Here Dreher weaves several threads of the typical jeremiad. First, he points to an unprecedented disaster felt by all Americans, the attacks of September 11th, as a touchstone of fear and uncertainty. Second is his witnessing of damage to a beloved national symbol, the United States flag, which became an even more powerful talisman of American democracy after September 11thAnd finally there is what he felt all of this meant, that the torn flag was a sign that for moral sin and total capitulation to “wokeness,” God had abandoned his covenant with United States, “His nation.” For their transgressions, Dreher believes, American Christians were being called to account. Their “city on a hill” had become an “American Babylon.”
For Dreher, the solution is simple, and easily recognizable to anyone who knows his personal faith commitments: historical, liturgical Christianity. In the face of what he calls “moralistic therapeutic deism,” Christian conservatives must instead turn to tradition. “A Christianity that is constantly changing morally or aesthetically to fit the latest fashions is going to disappear. A Christianity that primarily about affirming theological propositions and logic is also going to fade,” he says. “Catechesis is important… but we also desperately need to embrace embodied liturgical forms of worship and devotion rooted in the historical past.”
What does Dreher’s jeremiad tell us about the place of the Orthodox Church in the United States today? While he does not explicitly call for fellow conservatives to become Orthodox, it is hard not to read Dreher’s words here through the lens of his own traditionalist Orthodoxy. In embedding Orthodoxy so deeply within conservative “Culture War” arguments, Orthodox voices like Dreher pose the Orthodox Church as a malleable tool for American exceptionalism, yet another vehicle to ensure that God’s perceived covenant with the United States remains intact. It is just as easy to see this same sense of moral panic, say, in the recent OCA statement on gender and sexuality, which itself taps into the same kinds of ideological networks and broad-based fears to which Dreher breathlessly appeals.
It seems to me that today’s jeremiads, almost exclusively (and voyeuristically) focused on gender and sexuality, tell us less about the general state of Orthodoxy in North America than they do those who deliver and amplify them in sermons and speeches, podcasts and YouTube videos. There is a thin line, after all, between ardent exhortation and misguided paranoia. So it is peculiar indeed to consider the congruence of Orthodox Christianity with a message like Dreher’s, that Orthodoxy could really mediate the clash of American Christianity with “the forces of liquid modernity.” What I contemplate is not the supposed persecution of people like Rod Dreher, which seems more likely a convenient appeal to conservative grievance politics will appear even more inane in time. Rather, I fear for those Orthodox Christians whose dignity, humanity, and basic rights are at risk right now when these kinds of jeremiads are aired. The trans kid who frets picking out their church clothes. The teenager who worries about their priest finding out who they love. To Dreher and his fellow travelers, does the sole relevance of Orthodox witness to the United States come in an adaptability to millennialist diatribes on state persecution and divine judgment, at the expense of the vulnerable? Or is it in the hope of the resurrection? I wonder, when a tribulation truly comes, who will be judged. And by whom.
Aram G. Sarkisian is a postdoctoral fellow at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.