Based on twelve months of fieldwork in the Appalachian Mountains with a community of Russian Orthodox Christians, Between Heaven and Russia examines the transnational, political implications of conversion alongside the social imaginaries of practitioners, paying close attention new far-right, religio-political formations in rural economies.
Russian Orthodoxy is often seen as a highly ideological, insular, and ethnically fragmented form of Christianity that rejects many of the socio-political values associated with the United States. Yet, it is attracting American-born, non-Russian converts at a steadily increasing rate, particularly in rural areas of the American South, Appalachia, and the Ozarks. Orthodoxy, often marginalized as a “Christianity of alterity,” is now being taken up by people from regions and communities that are themselves subjected to stereotypes of closure in the American imagination, thereby rendering these places and spaces as sites of global religio-political encounter.
Between Heaven and Russia complicates what it means to be a rural Christian, highlighting how long-standing political tensions between the United States and Russia are dramatized in the turn to an eastern faith.
Internet Science, Biometrics, and Religious Orthodoxies
The divisive environment of social media, filled with fascist, racist religious propaganda, is not only a virtual experience, but one that expressed in voting booth actions, policy making, pandemic propaganda, and the weaponization of religious beliefs and practices.
“Physiognomy Check?” Far-right Christian Twitter users often the derogatory query in reference to someone they believe should not be part of their group. Blacks. Gays. Jews. Feminists. The lists of “etic” parties seem endless but have a key thing in common: they are most often based on visual verification—a form of digital vernacular biometrics. Through social scanning of individuals’ pictures, an online collective forms gatekeeping opinions that mark a person as inside or outside of the group based on their facial shape, assumed ethnicity or race, weight, height, hairline, and their potential gender, sexual, and religious identification.
Employing the term physiognomy, these actors reinvigorate scientific racism through popular discourse. In doing so, we readily find that physiognomy becomes the basis of an informal biometrics, the use of which, through social media platforms, becomes a fresh form of racial sorting, often filtered through the lens of religiosity.
Drawing on qualitative and quantitative digital research, in conversation with the histories of American racism and European fascism, this project will explore a renewed focus on physiognomy among religiously conservative white men who are self-proclaimed radicals and fascists during the late 2010s and early 2020s. In doing so, it teases out how these intolerant conceptions of the body and personhood, often formulated and mobilized through digital propaganda, are intimately tied to religious philosophies of traditionalism, the history of biologically focused racism, and the disciplinary structures of political authority
“Holy Things are for the Holy:”
Women’s Ordination in the Orthodox Church
Within conservative forms of Christianity, such as Eastern Orthodoxy, women’s roles have historically been monitored and minimized, with institutional hierarchs silencing the voices of women and members of the LGBT community. What does it mean to be a progressive female activist in a church that historically refuses to acknowledge her equality?
Through anthropological study and ethnographic filmmaking, this project will show how Orthodox female activists seek agency in an institution that refuses them access to its holiest rites and practices. Raising questions about female autonomy, the gendering of holiness, and religious purity, her research explores what happens to the socio-theological structures of communities when grassroots initiatives that are seen as synonymous with modernity challenge deep set notions of who can be a priest.
How will conservative Christianity be transformed by women who are leading the way to create a new status quo in the Orthodox Church, one that focuses on inclusivity and intersectionality? This project will reveal how Orthodox feminist activists are pushing back against the hegemony of patriarchal Christianity, seeking not to upend tradition but to transform it, even through socio-religious transgression.