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East of Eden

This spring, a group of about 100 students and others gathered at Indiana University at Bloomington to participate in their local S---walk, an annual protest held in cities around the world to denounce rape culture and victim-shaming. Facing them were a handful of counter-protesters who, misunderstanding the idea of S---walk, heckled the crowd, wielding crude signs decrying “s--- culture.”

This spring, a group of about 100 students and others gathered at Indiana University at Bloomington to participate in their local S---walk, an annual protest held in cities around the world to denounce rape culture and victim-shaming. Facing them were a handful of counter-protesters who, misunderstanding the idea of S---walk, heckled the crowd, wielding crude signs decrying “s--- culture.”

Spiritual warfare? Matthew Heimbach uses an Orthodox cross as a cudgel as he ass
Spiritual warfare? Matthew Heimbach uses an Orthodox cross as a cudgel as he assists former Klansman Thomas Buhls (bald head) in a fistfight with an anti-racist activist. The fight’s main result was Heimbach’s excommunication from the Orthodox Church.

The hecklers at the April 21 event came from the Bloomington-based Traditionalist Youth Network, led by 23-year-old Matthew Heimbach, who was already a veteran of several other white nationalist hate groups. To Heimbach and his TradYouth activists, S---Walk was just one more sign of a “degenerate” culture that celebrates promiscuity, homosexuality and miscegenation. Heimbach led the counter-protest waving a three-barred cross, the traditional symbol of the Orthodox Church, to which Heimbach and his compatriots are recent converts.

At some point, an altercation took place between the TradYouth counter-protesters and a man who appears to have been a member of the IU Bloomington Antifa, a student anti-fascist organization. While the exact sequence of events is unclear, a photograph was taken showing a 31-year-old TradYouth member, ex-Marine and former Klansman Thomas Buhls, holding the man while Heimbach wields his Orthodox cross as a cudgel, bludgeoning his antagonist. TradYouth members later posted it on the Internet, captioned “Good Night, Anti-White.” It went viral among the online Orthodox and white nationalist communities, sparking intense discussions in both groups about the relationship between them. 

Members of TradYouth, as they call their group, promote an idiosyncratic take on an ideology known as “radical traditionalism.” Radical traditionalism represents a fairly diverse spectrum of far-right thought, emphasizing nationalism, ethnocentrism, and a strident opposition to “degenerate” modernity. Drawing on fascist intellectuals like Julius Evola and Francis Parker Yockey, traditionalists promote a kind of mystical, esoteric nationalism of the sort most commonly found among neo-pagan white nationalists and national socialists. One version of radical traditionalism exists among anti-Semitic Catholics who reject the liberalizing church reforms of Vatican II. Heimbach and other TradYouthers, on the other hand, locate their version of traditionalism in their newfound Orthodox Christian faith.

Matthew Heimbach’s sign doesn’t seem to apply to his many enemies, including the
Matthew Heimbach’s sign doesn’t seem to apply to his many enemies, including the anti-racist he bludgeoned with a crudely built version of the Orthodox cross this spring.

TradYouth’s mission statement says it promotes “Tribe and Tradition” and encourages solidarity within ethnic groups without preference or prejudice. It even describes itself as “inclusive.” In reality, of course, TradYouth is simply a new vehicle for the same virulent white nationalism its core leadership has been involved with for years. Its Facebook page reflects that, with one image of the long-defunct British Union of Fascists in Nazi-style uniforms labeled “Real Men Stand Up for Faith, Family, Folk.” The group’s Facebook page also celebrates various European fascists, Confederate leaders, homophobia, racism and violent militarism.

In an interview with the Indiana Daily Student, IU’s student newspaper, TradYouth co-founder Buhls described it as the “national extension” of the White Student Union, which was founded by Heimbach at his college in Towson, Md. Heimbach eventually moved to Bloomington to assist Buhls and Matt Parrott, the third founding member of both the Bloomington White Student Union and the Traditionalist Youth Network, in reaching high school and college students.

All three leaders have deep roots in the white nationalist movement. Heimbach was a member of the neo-Confederate League of the South until he was kicked out of the group after participating in a rally with the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement and the Aryan Terror Brigade, but still promotes “Southern nationalism.” Buhls served as a recruiter for the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (now rebranded as the “Knights Party”). Parrott is a former director of American Third Position (now the American Freedom Party), former host of an anti-Semitic and white nationalist show on the now-defunct Voice of Reason Internet radio station, and a contributor to numerous other racist media outlets. Parrott is also an anti-feminist men’s rights activist and proponent of racist pseudoscience.

What is the attraction to these men of Orthodox Christianity?

Orthodoxy and Nationalism
The move to abandon established groups in favor of setting up their own white nationalist organization, one ostensibly based on Orthodox Christianity and its tenets, seems strange at first glance. Orthodoxy, especially in America, isn’t linked to any particular political ideology. Moreover, in 1872, the Orthodox Church decreed that ethnonationalism was a heresy incompatible with its teachings, issuing a statement saying, “We renounce, censure and condemn racism, that is racial discrimination, ethnic feuds, hatreds and dissensions within the Church of Christ, as contrary to the teaching of the Gospel and the holy canons of our blessed fathers.”

Just three days after the Bloomington assault, Bartholomew, the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople and the church’s most senior bishop, reaffirmed this. “Whenever an Orthodox Church succumbs to nationalist rhetoric and lends support to racial tendencies, it loses sight of the authentic theological principles and gives in to a fallen mindset, totally alien to the core of Orthodoxy,” he said.

Given all of this, it may be hard to see what, beyond an unthinking fetishization of “tradition,” led TradYouth’s founders to Orthodoxy in the first place. But they certainly aren’t alone in their belief that the Orthodox Church is a natural haven for white nationalism. Religious debates flare up frequently on racist sites like Stormfront and the Vanguard News Network (VNN), and while many participants insist that all Christian denominations are equally degenerate, inevitably some will hold up Orthodoxy as uniquely immune to the Jewish influence that supposedly permeates the rest of Christendom. Just last year, Stormfront ran a poll, asking “Can Christianity Save Europe?” The available choices were “Yes,” “No,” “Maybe,” “European man should not be Christian” and “Only Orthodox Christianity.”

The resurgence of fascist groups in largely Orthodox countries across Eastern Europe, from political parties like Greece’s Golden Dawn and Ukraine’s Svoboda to Orthodox ultranationalist groups like Russia’s Narodny Sobor and Romania’s Noua Dreapta, have reinforced the perception among white nationalists that the Church might be an ally in their war against Judaism, homosexuality, multiculturalism, feminism and the other forces of “cultural Marxism.” Even non-Christians in these communities seem to think that Orthodox Christianity is special, leaving comments like this statement from a self-professed atheist on VNN: “At the end of the day, the countries who have Orthodox populations have remained more racially and culturally sound than the nations with no religion or worse, Protestantism. The Orthodox base is a major reason why Greeks, Russians and Serbs understand the Jewish question far better than any member of your college Atheists club.”

On the Dark Side
The most troubling part of this belief is that it’s not entirely unfounded. While official Church teachings, not to mention the overwhelming majority of Orthodox Christians worldwide, condemn racism and far-right ultranationalism, extremist groups in Greece, Russia and across central and eastern Europe do enjoy the support of fringe Orthodox priests and bishops. Some are even highly ranked.

Although the Orthodox Church has condemned racism and ethnonationalism for more
Although the Orthodox Church has condemned racism and ethnonationalism for more than 140 years now, some of its officials have not been on board. Metropolitan Seraphim of Greece has made a series of anti-Semitic claims.

Metropolitan Seraphim of Piraeus, the senior bishop in the region near Athens that includes Greece’s largest seaport, gave an interview in 2010 in which he said that “Adolf Hitler was an instrument of world Zionism and was financed from the renowned Rothschild family with the sole purpose of convincing the Jews to leave the shores of Europe and go to Israel to establish the new Empire.” According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, he also accused an international Zionist conspiracy of attempting to enslave Greece and the Orthodox Church, and of “trying to destroy the family unit by promoting one-parent families and same-sex marriages.”

In September, Seraphim attacked a new “anti-racist” law in Greece, issuing a statement that charged that the law “abolishes freedom of expression” and mandates “legal protection of homosexual orientation, which is a perversion of the human nature and physiology.” He said the law was implemented in “a fascist-like manner” and complained of a “New World Order” where people are being “controlled by the sly and mean conspirators of the financial markets’ global dictatorship.” “New terms have been invented,” he went on, “‘islamophobia,’ ‘homophobia’ and so on. They are aimed at a specific type of person: a citizen who likes the history, culture, and traditions of his or her nation: that is, an interested European Christian.”

Similarly, Russia’s Metropolitan Ioannis of St. Petersburg and Lagoda, who was the second most senior official in the Russian Orthodox Church until his death in 1995, was so extreme that even other Orthodox clergy publicly referred to him as a fascist and the Patriarch of Moscow eventually banned him from publishing in any official church publications. In anti-Semitic speeches, Ioann quoted liberally from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the notorious turn-of-the-century Russian forgery that claimed to expose a Jewish plot aimed at world domination. He also backed canonizing Tsar Nicholas II on the grounds that he died as a “ritual victim” of the Jews who supposedly masterminded the Bolshevik Revolution.

The SOVA Center for Information and Analysis, a Russian nonprofit that researches “nationalism and racism, relations between the churches and secular society, and political radicalism,” has described Ioann as the spiritual leader of what it calls “Orthodox fundamentalism.” It describes that fundamentalism as an ideology of religious and ethnic nationalism that promotes a return to the supposed “Golden Age” of pre-revolutionary Russian imperialism, with an emphasis on promoting “full fledged autocracy, restrictions for foreign believers and … foreigners, the imperial structure for internal and external policy, ruling status for the [Russian Orthodox Church], and a rigorous state-Orthodox paternalism.”

The Orthodox fundamentalism that SOVA describes is the ideological descendant of groups like the Black Hundreds, an early 20th century Russian Orthodox ultranationalist and monarchist movement, and the Iron Guard, an Orthodox fascist group which briefly came to power in Romania during World War II. Both groups were known for their extreme nationalism and virulent anti-Semitism, as well as the deadly violence they committed in the name of these ideologies. And both organizations were responsible for pogroms against Jews in their respective countries, and for numerous political assassinations.

To Russia, With Love

The Traditionalist Youth Network is working to bring Orthodox fundamentalism to the United States. Its leaders routinely point to figures like Corneliu Codreanu, the founder of the Iron Guard, and John of Kronstadt, a Russian saint controversial for his involvement with the Black Hundreds, as figures American white nationalists should celebrate and emulate. Fr. Michael Raphael Johnson — a priest in a schismatic Orthodox sect who, like Matt Parrott hosted a radio show, “The Orthodox Nationalist,” at the Voice of Reason network, and who is now a TradYouth contributor — praises Ioann as “one of the great 20th-century theologians” and lauds his “essays and sermons concerning number one, the place of Russia, number two, the role of the Jews, and number three, the role of the New World Order, or Antichrist, which he considers to be one and the same thing.”

Matthew Heimbach took a three-month hiatus from racist activism after his Orthod
Matthew Heimbach took a three-month hiatus from racist activism after his Orthodox priest took him to task. But then he was back with a vengeance, attacking Jews and singing the praises of an infamous Romanian fascist.

TradYouth’s embrace of Orthodox fundamentalism leads its members to view Russia, especially President Vladimir Putin’s regime, as a model. In a post on the TradYouth website this past January, Heimbach praised Putin for restoring “[t]he strength of Orthodoxy united with Russian nationalism.” According to Heimbach, Tsarist Russia was an ideal state, one that was destroyed by a Jewish conspiracy: “One cannot truly understand the rise of the Bolsheviks without understanding the push behind the coalition of Jews and modernists to overthrow the entire Russian system. Russia at the time of the Revolution was essentially a theocratic monarchy, everything that the Left truly despised. ‘Communism’ and other ‘isms’ were and are simply slogans to be used to advance the agenda of those who are opposed to Tradition and Christendom.” Heimbach ended this essay with what appears to be a pledge to stand with Russia against the “degenerate” United States.

“As America falls deeper into the tar pit of modernity, Russia stands strong,” he wrote. “While in America satanists are preparing to fund a statue to the devil in a state capital, Russia builds churches. While America forces the Church to pay for abortions and spits upon her sacred institutions, Russia is promoting the Church and Christian symbols. As both Republicans and Democrats turn their back on the American faithful and our Traditions, President Putin and the Russian government stand united with the Church. If trends continue and God allows this powerful spiritual revival of the Russian people we will see the coming of the Third Rome.”

“I proudly stand behind Mother Russia and her defense of Tradition,” Heimbach concludes in his paean to Putin’s Russia. “Hail the Third Rome!”

Bringing It All Back Home
Ironically, their continued promotion of white nationalism and Orthodox fundamentalism may cost Heimbach, Parrott and Buhls their place in the Orthodox Church. Shortly after the photo of Heimbach and Buhls assaulting the S---Walker went viral, the priest of the Bloomington church that the three TradYouth founders attend issued a public statement calling on Heimbach to recant his racist ideology, and excommunicating him until he had done so and undergone a period of penance. In response, Heimbach and Parrott announced that they would be taking an “indefinite sabbatical” from TradYouth. (Buhls did not join the sabbatical; although he attends that church and identifies as Orthodox, the priest stated in an E-mail that Buhls was never accepted into membership in the Orthodox Church.)

Parrott’s sabbatical lasted exactly one week before he rejoined the fray, denying that white nationalism is heresy and accusing his priest and the bishop above him of being the real heretics. He quickly resumed regular posting.

Heimbach — who Parrott described as being “too fearful for his salvation to speak out” — went three months before returning in August with an anti-Semitic post lambasting “the governments of America and Canada [which] remain firmly in the hands of the Jews” and decrying “true nature of the Jewish people.” “Victory is simply not enough for the Zionists, they desire to conquer the entire Middle East and eventually the globe,” he wrote. “Through deception, thievery, and usury when they are numerically weak they can corrupt a nation from the inside and engineer the politics of a government. As a people becomes weakened through greed and sinfulness, Jewish power steadily grows. Corneliu Codreanu famously said ‘A country has the Jews it deserves. Just as mosquitoes can thrive and settle only in swamps, likewise the former can only thrive in the swamps of our sins.’”

Despite their prominence in white nationalist circles, Heimbach and his compatriots remain marginal figures in the Orthodox community. Metropolitan Savas Zembillas, chairman of the Committee for Church and Society of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of North and Central America, says that they just don’t understand Orthodoxy. According to Savas, it’s not unusual to encounter “converts to Orthodoxy who came in carrying baggage from other jurisdictions, just barely Orthodox, still wet from their chrismations [the ceremony through which one becomes a member of the Orthodox Church]. But they came to Orthodoxy because they imagined it reinforced their deepest held convictions, which were on the spectrum that would lead to Nazism, although not yet there.”

This perception of the Church as a natural home for far-right ideology is still powerful enough that Heimbach is continuing to promote Orthodox fundamentalism and position himself, along with Parrott and Buhls, as a leader of this movement despite being Orthodox for less than a month before being excommunicated. This suggests that the Church has a problem that goes deeper than a handful of recently converted white supremacists. Fascism, racism and nationalism may be the products of a “fallen mindset, totally alien to the core of Orthodoxy,” but the Church will not be able to rid itself of them until it confronts its own role in their spread.