walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: March 2, 2011
Our Lady of Kazan and American Pluralism

The icon of Our Lady of Kazan (also known as the Black Virgin of Kazan) is one of the most famous in Russian Orthodoxy.  One of the Virgin’s two feast days coincides with the Day of National Unity. This is appropriate. Kazan occupies an important place in Russian history. Its conquest and destruction in 1552 eliminated the last stronghold of Mongol power in what since then has been southern Russia. The Mongols of that region, descended from the mighty Golden Horde, had long before converted to Islam. Thus the conquest of Kazan (which was followed by a massacre of its civilian population) is also a highly symbolic marker of the conflict between Orthodox Christianity and Islam, which still reverberates today along the southern perimeter of the former Soviet Union. The association of the Virgin with national unity is symbolic as well. It evokes the so-called sinfonia—the close unity of church and state—which  characterized Russia from the beginning of its national history to the Bolshevik revolution.  It would be an exaggeration to say that the Putin regime has once again established Orthodoxy as the state religion, but it has come close to doing so. Thus Our Lady of Kazan again bestows legitimacy on the Russian state, including its foreign policy, which has been supported by the Patriarchate of Moscow. The state in turn has supported the policy of the Patriarchate to re-assert its authority over previously independent Russian Orthodox churches abroad. The long shadow of the Black Virgin has extended to America.

According to the Atlas of Global Christianity (a very useful source, edited by Todd Johnson and Kenneth Ross, and published in 2009), there are 6,200,000 Orthodox Christians in the United States. This figure has been challenged. If it holds, the number of Orthodox is more than Episcopalians, still regarded in the media and public awareness as an important denomination, and roughly comparable to the number of Jews, whose cultural influence has been enormously larger. (Can one imagine speaking of the role of Orthodox Christians in Hollywood? Or in American humor?)  Despite its place in the religious demography of America, Orthodoxy is still widely perceived as marginal and exotic. I don’t know just when Orthodox priests, with their black robes and elongated black hats, first appeared with Protestant, Catholic and Jewish clergy at important national ceremonies such as presidential inaugurations. But it would be a mistake to deduce from this some great political or cultural influence.

The explanation of this paradox is simple. It is what one may call the ethnic captivity of Orthodox Christianity in America.

The history of Orthodoxy in America began in 1794, when eight Russian missionaries arrived in Alaska. They converted a number of native Alaskans and set up some churches. After Alaska came under American rule Protestant missionaries did their best to “reconvert” the Orthodox converts. There has been no significant Orthodox presence in Alaska since then. But a significant presence developed in the American mainland due to sizable immigration from eastern and southeastern Europe. Greeks were the largest group of Orthodox immigrants.

The ecclesiastical organization of Orthodoxy in America was complicated from the beginning. The Russian church appointed an archbishop when Alaska was part of the Russian empire. His jurisdiction was wonderfully described as covering “the Aleutian Islands and North America.”  This jurisdiction was objected to, by Greek theologians and others, after the end of Russian rule in Alaska. Those who objected cited canon 28 of the Council of Chalcedon (which met in 451 C.E.), which states that “the Archbishop of New Rome” (later known as the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople) had jurisdiction “over all barbarian lands.” Since at that time this geographical entity covered any territories outside the then existing Roman empire (presumably both known or unknown to the delegates to the Council), Americans and Canadians should certainly be subsumed under the category of barbarians (if only for purposes of Orthodox ecclesiology).

This situation became even more complicated after the Russian Revolution. Orthodoxy in Russia was brutally persecuted and cut off from churches abroad, not in a position to exercise any authority whatever. The authority of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople was (as still is) largely ceremonial. This was not much of a problem for the so-called autocephalous churches, such as the Orthodox Church of Greece. (The term means, literally, churches “with their own heads”—that is, self-governing, not under the authority of any historic patriarchate). It was a big problem in North America (I don’t know whether it was among the undoubtedly vast Orthodox masses on the Aleutian Islands).  The practical consequence, in disregard of the Orthodox principle of one-country-one-jurisdiction, was that Orthodoxy in the United States and Canada came to be split up into homogeneously ethnic churches, each linked to the national church “back home”—Church of Greece, Church of Serbia, and so on. The Russian church in America also split in practice, one segment retaining a (tenuous) link with the Moscow Patriarchate (which, ironically, had been re-established by the Soviet regime, reversing its abolition by Peter the Great). The other segment rejected such a link, because it perceived (correctly) that the Moscow Patriarchate was under the thumb of an anti-Orthodox regime. In 1970 the Russian metropolia of North America was granted “autocephaly” by the Moscow Patriarchate—an act not recognized by many other Orthodox churches, because of the dubious relation of the Russian church with the Soviet government, but also because the right of Moscow to exercise any authority in North America was denied—including the right to bestow autocephaly.  Be this as it may, the metropolia renamed itself the Orthodox Church in America (OCA). No ethnic identity was included in this name, and soon the liturgy throughout the OCA came to be conducted in English. Because of the lingering notion of one-country-one-jurisdiction, the autocephalous status of the OCA was resented by other Orthodox churches in America—notably by the Greek church, by far the “biggest boy on the block”—because it was seen as a claim to exclusive authority over all Orthodox in the territory of the metropolia, and of course because its autocephalous status was deemed to have been illegitimately bestowed. To this day American Orthodoxy is beset by conflicting interests of the ecclesiastical authorities in Constantinople, Moscow and Athens.

An interjection: I hope that I got all these facts right.  The organizational structure of American Orthodoxy is exceedingly complex, intriguing but hard to understand for an outside observer. It is more existentially intriguing for potential converts (who, as the saying goes, want “to swim in the Bosporus”): They have to decide where to look for a place in this (may we call it) Byzantine landscape of religious possibilities. This problem first came to my attention when I asked a middle-aged student with an impeccably WASP name about his occupation. He replied (slightly awkwardly, I recall), “I am an Albanian priest.”

The OCA represents the first intentionally non-ethnic, American Orthodox body. While I suspect that its founders would not have appreciated this term, the OCA took on the quality of a distinctively American institution, that of a denomination—speaking sociologically, a church that participates in the great game of American pluralism. Curiously, its intellectual roots are not in America but in France—specifically, in the St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute, founded in Paris in 1925 by a group of Russian refugees from the Soviet Union. The Institute still exists. I don’t know what goes on there now. But for many years the “St. Serge school” represented the most dynamic engagement of Orthodoxy with Western theology and philosophy. (Note: In recent years, Michael Plekon, a professor at the City University of New York and an OCA priest, has tirelessly commented upon and promoted the distribution of English translations of the considerable body of publications of the school.)  Some of the principal writers from the St. Serge group emigrated to the United States in the wake of World War II—notably George Florovsky, John Meyendorff and Alexander Schmemann.  They were among the founding thinkers of the OCA. Florovsky became the first dean of St. Vladimir’s, the OCA seminary started in New York City and in 1962 relocated to Crestwood, New York. Here the “St. Serge vision” found its American footing. In his many writings and lectures, Schmemann expressed disdain for Orthodoxy as a “sect” or “ethnic museum.” Rather, Orthodoxy should become an organic part of the Western religious scene.

Throughout its long history, Christian Orthodoxy has existed in three institutional forms:  As a state church—first in the Byzantine empire, then in Russia, then in the different national churches in eastern and southeast Europe after their respective countries achieved independence from the Ottoman Empire; As a minority body under Muslim rule, sometimes tolerated, sometimes persecuted—for example, under the Ottoman millet system, which, in good times, allowed a certain autonomy to religious minorities; And as a diaspora institution, founded by Orthodox immigrants to non-Orthodox countries. The relevant point here: None of these institutional forms prepared Orthodoxy for the dynamics of pluralism. And furthermore: What may be called the St. Serge-OCA vision has been a first step—first intellectually, then institutionally—toward an Orthodox engagement with pluralism.

According to probably reliable information I have, this vision of the OCA is now confronted with two challenges. The first is the growth of a fundamentalist understanding of Orthodoxy—dogmatic, intolerant, ipso facto uninterested in engaging with anybody or anything outside a narrowly confined community of faith. This, incidentally, is exactly what Schmemann meant when he spoke of a “sectarian” understanding of Orthodoxy. Much of this fundamentalism may be due to the influence of converts—converts to any faith are very often “more papal than the pope.”  The second challenge is the campaign by the Moscow Patriarchate to return all originally Russian churches abroad to its own jurisdiction. The campaign reputedly has the support of the Russian state, which sees these churches as potential sources of its own influence abroad. I understand that there are voices within the OCA in favor of surrendering its autocephaly and returning to the welcoming embrace of the mother church. Fundamentalists within the OCA may also find this prospect appealing. While there are different voices in the Russian church, the messages coming out of the Patriarchate sound more fundamentalist all the time.

Should anyone care about this, who does not belong to the rather small community of the OCA (with a membership very likely well under a million)? I think so. Orthodoxy represents a rich tradition of piety and reflection, a very distinctive version of the Christian faith. This is a voice that should be heard amidst the vigorous cacophony of American religious pluralism. The voice, obviously, will not be heard if Orthodoxy is confined to various “ethnic museums.” That would be a great pity.

There are many ways of describing the distinctiveness of Orthodoxy, as against both the Roman Catholic and Protestant versions of Christianity. One way is nicely summed up in a statement by Paul Evdokimov, a lay member of the St. Serge school who did not move to America (he played a courageous role during the German occupation of France, among other things helping Jews to escape from the Nazis). Evdokimov suggests that Western Christianity sees the relationship between God and man as taking place in a courtroom—God is the judge, man is guilty, sentence must be pronounced, Christ takes the sentence upon himself, which allows God to forgive man. The entire transaction is judicial and penitential. By contrast, Eastern Christianity sees the relationship as taking place in a hospital—man is sick, sin is just part of the sickness, Christ is the victor over every part of this sickness (including death, which is the culmination of the sickness). The transaction between God and man is not judicial but therapeutic. It seems to me that this is a much more compassionate view of the human condition and its redemption.

show comments
  • John Barker

    Through Mr.Berger’s efforts and other writers’, religion may become a subject of respectable and serious consideration by the intellectual elites. But does talking about theology lead to a faith that gives comfort and resilence in these troubled times? How do we go from the reading about to directly sensing the inner light?

  • Andrew Harris

    I don’t think that the Orthodox Church is out of its element in engaging with pluralism. Throughout the Church’s missionary history, it has sought to make the faith approachable by not only holding services in the spoken languages where it establishes churches, but also in translating its doctrine to be readable to converts. The greatest example of this was the introduction of the Cyrillic alphabet to the Rus Peoples from Byzantine missionaries in the 9th centuries. You can also find Orthodox icons with Mandarin characters from the brief period when the church expanded into China. The OCA is a natural progression in its history.

  • jbay


    St. Augustine “and maybe Lucian” defined the transliteration of religion as re-ligare or le-ligare. To re-read, consider, go over again and meditate on. Augustine “3rd century” also said that if you find something against your rational faculties you should see it as other than an irrational assertion. That the bible tells us how to go to heaven not how the heavens go.

    Eusebius and Arius are also worth reading should you find yourself wanting of perspective.

    “How do we go from the reading about to directly sensing the inner light?”

    ~Read, meditate, reflect and then pray. Read, meditate, reflect and then pray. Read, meditate, reflect and then pray.

  • John Barker


    Thank you for your note. I will follow up on your reading suggestions.

  • Michael Mates

    In many of its manifestations in the West and away from the “mother country,” Orthodox churches have retained the phyletic nature (“We represent and defend our people’s identity”)and sense of entitled monopolism that characterize them in Russia, Greece, Serbia, Romania, and many others. Several such churches that I have encountered in the USA have a sort of imported insularity which refuses discussion with outsiders, and thus isolates them from American religious pluralism despite all the Smiths and Joneses who worship in their chapels.

  • Rev. Larry A Peters

    The transaction between God and man is not judicial but therapeutic…. so you say.

    But could it be that in order for it to be therapeutic, it must first be judicial?

  • Abba Poemen the Ubermensch

    Rev. Peters,

    Would you elaborate on what you mean by suggesting that the relationship with God must first be judicial before it is therapeutic, and why that contradicts the dichotomy present in Dr. Berger’s presentation?

  • Graham

    How did ROCOR fit into the post-Cold War dynamics of Russian Orthodoxy in America?

  • A Morbey

    Berger’s ‘two challenges’ do not bear close analysis. The OCA scarcely knows what fundamentalism might be – it is largely the invention, the bogey-man, of those whose pluralism is simply a shade of denominationalism or even relativism. The actions of the Moscow Patriarchate in bringing church order and administrative unity to factious diaspora need not be seen as naked colonialism and self-interest. And even if it were so, this is not the case with the OCA as the Patriarchate has often stated one way or another. In many ways the Patriarchate is the one Orthodox Church most demonstrably committed to pluralism (of language, liturgy and other forms of expression) within the Church (on the one hand) and in its institutional life vis a vis other Christian bodies.

  • Fr. Timothy Sas

    Thank you for the post, Dr. Berger. I found your written exposition very useful and I’d like to offer a couple of points.

    1) The 6.2 million Orthodox in the US, is really very generous. I believe it is accurate, but it includes a very large percentage of nominal and very unengaged Orthodox Christians. Approximately 5 or 6 years ago, Hartford Institute of Religion published some numbers which were sobering. In addition the (young but serious and reliable) Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute in Berkeley, CA produced some other research just 2 years ago, which also pointed out that the numbers of Orthodox Christians in this country is only about 1.5 million. The two institutions produced research with similar results.

    2) A few comments above Michael Mates says “…sort of isolated insularity which refuses discussion with outsiders…” a very accurate observation. As someone who has lived that exclusive glory/insular dysfunction I can both attack and defend it. The isolation was a result of both fear and pride. Fear of losing a much loved ethnic language and customs. Pride in the cultural and spiritual treasury of that same language and those same customs. In addition, the traditionally Orthodox ethnic communities in the US are much younger “Americans/Canadians” than the two you’ve mentioned. This is also worth noting.

    Lastly, I wonder if pursuit of God on the path of Orthodox Christianity, would necessarily benefit from being fully integrated in the “Hollywood” culture. :-)

    I look forward to reading your blog frequently. Thank You.

  • Jim

    I am disappointed that a scholar would not do more research before mouthing old stereotypes about Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Most Americans can fathom a chairman and board, Orthodox call it a synod, which Lutherans also know something about. Using public statistics, the number of Orthodox come to more like 1+ million faithful participating at least once a month and giving to their parish a couple of times a year. Each jurisdiction puts out listings of parishes, number of full-time priests, etc. times public numbers of average attendance.

    More seriously, the OCA began to use English ideologically after WWII, and it only became the prevailing norm in the 1970’s – after autocephaly. The split with ROCOR began in the 1940’s along with wider movements of American patriotism with roots in the 1920’s and 30’s. See the Greek Archdiocesan organization AHEPA. The struggle over switching all parishes to the Augustan calendar in the 1980’s marked the end of forty years of “Americanization.” Considering that St. Innocent of Alaska moved the headquarters to San Francisco in the 1840’s and it again moved to New York in the 1870’s, it is bizarre to paint the process as simply something the Paris school dreamed up. They weren’t in this country until the mid-1950’s and only really established their position at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in the 1960’s (again, freely available information in books).

    Fr. Andrew Morbey certainly is right that Moscow seems to have little interest in the OCA. You are correct that Moscow seems quite a bit more interested in the parishes of Western Europe. Fr. Andrew is quite charitable in describing the past decade as simply restoring order to the Church in Russia, as a reading of Russian coverage of legal moves makes clear. The Patriarchate has actively inserted itself into the public schools, military and regional cases of Protestants trying to recover property. The WikiLeaks discussion of the American Chancellor with representatives of the patriarch is an instructive brief.

    As for pluralism, you have conveniently omitted the four hundred years of Church organization before the Church became the official religion of the Roman Empire, under Theodosius in the 380’s and not under Constantine. The basis structure of national churches with governing synods can be seen in embryo (although not historically determined) in the First Council of Nicea in 325, well before the state could conceive of the kind of involvement you describe. The Roman Empire was emphatically pluralistic at this point and until the mid-380’s. More details were clarified in the First Council of Constantinople in 381, before the Theodosian laws restricting Hellenic sacrifices and Judaism.

    It is disturbing that an otherwise informed scholar would join a discussion without research for purposes unknown. The Greek Archdiocesan seminary happens to be in Boston, so library resources even of such an inconsequential religion should be handy. The Oxford book for young adults by Rev. Dr. John Erickson certainly is mainstream and relatively recent. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press and Holy Cross in Boston have excellent web sites. You also might want to consider the writings of Ramsay MacMullen and Frank Trombley on Christianity in the Roman Empire for context. It seems a pity simply to spread hearsay.

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  • Catherine Jefferson

    I found this blog after reading the reposted text of it on It’s well written. I don’t agree with everything that Rev. Berger said, but I’ve rarely read anything by a non-Orthodox Christian about an issue inside the Orthodox Church that was this close to right. I doubt that I could write about the Lutheran Church nearly as accurately or perceptively. ;)

    This article reminded me of somebody who was very important to me right at the beginning of my journey to Christianity — another Lutheran pastor. While I wouldn’t say that I owe my Christianity to him, things that he taught me proved crucial time and again at critical points through the years. I blogged about him this evening.

    Thanks for a good article.

  • G Comney

    Chrysustolm Homily I on I Timothy I: “Questioning is the subversion of faith.”

    You guys can try to talk around his anti-Semitism, but this quote
    proves the dark evil inside the man who wrote your liturgy.
    You ain’t nothing but a muslim, spewing crap with slime
    You ain’t nothing but a muslim, spewing crap with slime
    Go crawl into the habit of your abbott, you ain’t no citizen of mine
    They said you all were Christian, buddy that was just a lie
    Called you all Christian, that was just a lie
    Go crawl into the habit of your abbott, you ain’t no citizen of mine
    They said you all were Christian, buddy that was just a lie
    Called you all Christian, that was just a lie
    Go crawl into the habit of your abbott, you ain’t no citizen of mine
    You ain’t nothing but a muslim, spewing crap with slime
    You ain’t nothing but a muslim, spewing crap with slime
    Go crawl into the habit of your abbott, you ain’t no citizen of mine

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