Church Life and Pastoral Care, Orthodoxy and Modernity

The Conspiratorial Cleric

Published on: July 19, 2023
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Read part one of this two-part essay

In 2020, Orthodox Church in America (OCA) Archbishop Alexander (Golitzin) of Dallas and the South warned his flock in a diocesan letter about the teachings of Fr. Peter Heers, which His Grace noted were “sanctioned by no canonical jurisdiction.” While the focus on Heers’s canonical status has demanded much attention in the past few years, it is the content of Heers’s digital proclamations that concern me the most. As an anthropologist of Orthodoxy, social politics, media in the United States, Heers has been on my radar for quite some time. He is a popular social media presence in the digital media worlds of the Reactive Orthodox crowd, where folks actively participate in each other’s podcasts and video streams. On the same day the Assembly’s communiqué was released, Heers was a guest on the Church of the Eternal Logos, a YouTube channel with 17k plus subscribers run by David Patrick Harry. During the episode,  in which the two men discussed how transhumanism is “antichrist,” a word that Heers likes to use regularly regarding things he disagrees with theologically, Heers proclaims that the pandemic was “part of the machinations of the enemy.”  Harry, a Ph.D. student at Graduate Union Theological Seminary, has made a career out streaming about a variety of religious and conspiracy theory ideas, and his content is openly homophobic, transphobic, fatphobic, and ableist. Several years ago, Harry came under fire for creating show merchandise in the form of an Orthodox cross and rebel flag mash up. Heers has also appeared on wide variety of politically radical podcasts, including one hosted by Dissident Mama, a Neo-Confederate “Southron” Orthodox member of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) in North Carolina.

On any given day, Heers is mentioned in hundreds of Twitter posts by users who tout highly ideological, often racist and bigoted ideas about the world. While Heers has a wide variety of theological opinions that are not steeped in Orthodox history but in a rigorist approach to the faith, including the idea that reception into the Church should be through baptism only, I want to focus on a pressing topic that highlights why Heers is a problematic and theologically dangerous figure for Orthodoxy: COVID-19. The COVID-19 pandemic was a time of immense digital content production for Heers, and he readily gave his opinion about everything from Church closures, to masking, to vaccinations. While Heers claims to focus his work through the teachings of the Church Fathers, the reality is that his understanding of the Fathers is steeped in elderism. When Heers mentions the Holy Fathers, he is typically referring to more contemporary Greek elders, often obscure ones at that, who have premonitions or foresight about evils in the future. The intellectually adroit Pantelis Kalaitzidis reminds us that in “these critical times when global Orthodoxy is confronted with the waves of gnoseomachy, fundamentalism, anti-Westernism and anti-modernism . . . and gerontism (elderism),” we must embrace the Florovsky model that emphasizes a “necessary synthesis of reason and faith” (Kalatizdis 2021, 267-68). Elderism is not the middle path of Orthodoxy, but a maladaptive emphasis on obedience to obscure figures that does nothing but push down reason, lead to cults of personality, and reify reactionary approaches to pressing social and theological issues.

In 2022, Heers co-edited a volume about COVID-19 with other reactionary figures that focused on putting aside a fear of death in favor of a fear of God. Rather than seeing the Church’s prudent response to public health measures and the urging of religious hierarchs to be cautious as part of theological love and care for one’s neighbor, Heers sees it as “the tell-tale signs of a demonic methodology” and a “spiritual challenge of the greatest magnitude” (Heers 2022, 180).  Heers’s chapter in the edited volume is a written version of his two-part Orthodox Ethos video podcast series titled “The Coronavirus Narrative and its Demonic Methodology.” In the series and the chapter, Heers condemns “clergymen” who have “accepted as fait accompli the light-hearted abandonment of the patristic axiom and the adoption of a utilitarian approach to the taking of these ‘vaccines’—an approach so antithetical to the narrow Way of the Lord” (2022, 196). Elsewhere, Heers, drawing on an monastic elder, suggests that the Covid-19 vaccine might be the mark of the beast, and urges repentance for those who have succumb to the temptation for vaccination.

Heers has continually preached theological objections to public health protocols and expressed concerns about vaccines, proclaiming that “being cut off the Holy Mysteries by voluntarily closing the churches or restricting access to the Holy Things is a loss of the grace of God and its giving rights to the enemy.” Heers has also claimed that “so-called pandemic has been allowed by God as a test for all Orthodox Christians, for a purification as it were, as [sic] separating the sheep from the goats.” These statements were made when Heers was a guest on Craig Truglia’s “Orthodox Christian Theology” channel, in an episode which has now been removed by YouTube because of misinformation. In that same episode, Heers returns to the idea that demonic activity is transforming the world, causing Orthodox “clergy shutting down churches and encouraging people to take untested vaccines,” and he sees all of this as an expression of the eschaton. Drawing on his affinity for elderism, Heers engages with remarks from St. Paisios to suggest that vaccines “will be utilized to manipulate and control the masses.” When Heers claims that government-imposed lockdowns, talk of virus mutations, and the need multiple vaccinations against the coronavirus was demonic, he is ultimately gesturing to conspiratorial ideas about globalism and the Deep State that have no place in Orthodoxy.

During a conversation with the Dissident Mama, Heers offered pastoral advice on how to deal with a bishop or priest who “asks you to mask.” Heers argued, through his understanding of “patristic tradition” and the “elders,” that wearing a mask is a spiritual delusion, especially in Church. Like many among the Reactive Orthodox, Heers has taken to decrying the authority of priests, bishops, and metropolitans he disagrees with about globalism, Covid-19, and a variety of political topics. In the same episode with the Dissident Mama, Heers proclaimed that among the Orthodox clergy there is “mass apostasy from Orthodox ethos and dogma,” specifically “through ecumenism and now through covidism.” While seemingly outside of the canonical Orthodox Church, Heers seems comfortable critiquing Orthodox clergy broadly through his theological conspiracism that is in no way orthodox. Heers links the coronavirus to a wide range of far-right ideologies, including cabals of elites, a one-world government, and Marxism/socialism. This type of rhetoric is indicative not of theological depth but of reactionary, political propaganda that has become part of Orthodox Christianity since the mid-2010s. Heers’s digital reach, through a variety of different platforms, is global, and he is influencing like-minded individuals to convert to the faith, individuals who defend Heers and his ideologies in opposition to the Bishops. This meme, recently posted on the Facebook by Pascha Press, a reactionary Orthodox social media account, is a great example of the type of support Heers receives and why we should be concerned about the trajectory of the Church through the influence of these radicalized digital media personalities. We must certainly take seriously Heers’s canonical standing, but we must also acknowledge and institutionally address (even correct!) him (and others like him) who are part of this reactive movement within Orthodoxy that weaponizes the faith for their own ideological/political purposes.

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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.

About author

  • Sarah Riccardi-Swartz

    Assistant Professor of Religion and Anthropology, Northeastern University

    Dr. Sarah Riccardi-Swartz is an assistant professor of religion and anthropology at Northeastern University, where she is also an affiliate faculty member in the women's, gender, and sexuality studies program. Before joining Northeastern University she was a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Recovering Tru...

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

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