Many American conservatives believe that Western societies have been torn apart by the culture wars. Rod Dreher, a senior editor and blogger at The American Conservative and a convert to Orthodox Christianity from Catholicism — and earlier, Methodist evangelicalism — is one of the most influential voices in the conservative movement who has moved further right in recent years and argued for Americans to look to nationalist examples in Europe, like Victor Orban’s Hungary, for solutions.
Previously, Dreher was most known for proposing “The Benedict Option” in a book by the same title — the idea that Christians who want to preserve their faith from cultural influence should separate themselves from society and live in intentional community with each other. Dreher has written two other New York Times bestsellers: “Live Not By Lies” about Christian dissidents in Soviet times and “The Little Way of Ruthie Leming.”
Dreher recently made headlines with news that he and his wife are divorcing and also for his decision to move to Budapest to work for the Danube Institute, a conservative think tank and a close ally to Orban’s right-wing populist party. A few weeks before his journey to Budapest, Dreher talked to ReligionUnplugged.com contributor Jovan Tripkovic.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Jovan Tripkovic: In your early 20s, you converted to Catholicism, and in your early 40s, you converted to the Orthodox faith. Can you explain your path to Catholicism and eventually to the Orthodox Church?
Rod Dreher: I was raised as a mainline Protestant, but we weren’t very observant. I had a conversion to Catholicism after an experience at the age 17 in the cathedral at Chartres in France. I had never imagined that Christianity could produce a building so beautiful. Being present in this medieval cathedral made me desperately want to know the God that had inspired men to build such a temple to his honor.
I started the search that ended with me six years later becoming a Catholic. I was a Catholic for many years, very devout, almost militant in my Catholicism. But it was a very intellectual Catholicism. When I started writing as a journalist about the sex abuse scandal, a good priest warned me — he said, “If you continue going down this path of investigation, you’re going to go to places darker than you can imagine.” I said, “Well father, thank you for the warning, but I feel that I have to do this as a journalist, as a Catholic and as a new father” because I had my first born child. And he said, “I want to encourage you, and I will help you, but just prepare yourself. This is going to be evil, very dark.”
Well, I was not prepared for what I was about to learn in the scandal. After four years of this, I had nothing left. I just couldn’t believe in the true claims of the Catholic Church anymore. I had enough of my Catholic faith left that I realized Orthodoxy — from a Catholic point of view — had valid sacraments and a valid hierarchy.
My wife and I decided to go visit an Orthodox church in Dallas, Texas, where we were living — not because we wanted to convert but because we wanted to worship Christ in the real presence, even though we knew we couldn’t receive the Eucharist.
When we walked into the Orthodox church, I felt like this is what I thought I was going to get when I converted to Catholicism. After some time, a few months, my wife said: “Look, you can go back to Catholicism if you want. I’m staying here.” I realized I need to stay here too.
I struggled intellectually with papal supremacy and the claims of authority of the two churches, and I couldn’t settle it in my mind. Finally, I said that the truth that saves us is the incarnate God man Jesus Christ and relationship to him. If, for whatever reason, (having) to do with my own brokenness and the brokenness of the Roman Church at this point in history, I can’t find Christ here, I’m going to where I can find it. And that is in Orthodoxy.
Tripkovic: Did you find the Orthodox Church to be initially welcoming? Or oddly unevangelical — expecting converts to do the hard intellectual work on their own?
Dreher: It was very welcoming for us because we came to Saint Seraphim, the Orthodox Church in America Cathedral in Dallas, which was a big convert congregation. There were a lot of cradle Orthodox there, but there were also many, many converts, and they were welcoming to us. Most of the people we became friends with had been on a similar journey.
I’ve heard that some people who are interested in Orthodoxy land in a heavily ethnic church, and they find it very cold. That was not our experience. I try to tell people who are interested in Orthodoxy to make their first visit if you can to an OCA church or an Antiochian church, maybe a Greek Church. Those are the ones that tend to be more open.
Tripkovic: In one interview you talked about having a habit of approaching the Catholic faith with an intellectual, bookish perspective. Listening to your interviews and reading your work, I believe you took a different approach with the Orthodox faith. What changed? Did you come to the conclusion that the Orthodox Christianity has a coherent intellectual worldview?
Dreher: One of the key things I learned about Orthodoxy, when I first began to investigate it, was that even though they place a high value on intellection, the heart — the conversion of the heart — is the most important thing. That’s what I needed to hear as a burned-out Catholic.
I had to make a vow to myself and to God, when I became Orthodox, I was not going to be the same kind of Orthodox that I was a Catholic: someone who was ready to argue about theology and about church and gossip about church matters. I needed to focus on prayer, fasting and repentance and building up my own faith that way.
I found real help within the Orthodox tradition for that: the idea that your prayer is the most important thing, not parsing all the intellectual complications of theology. If you want that, it’s there, but that’s not going to help you know God. The whole idea of theosis and prayer was incredibly helpful to me.
Tripkovic: To truly understand the Orthodox Church and Christianity you have to believe in the idea “come and see” rather than turning to Orthodox literature. However, on your journey to Orthodoxy, have you been reading Orthodox authors and early church fathers — and which ones left a lasting impression on you?
Dreher: The most important book I read in that journey was a book called “The Mountain of Silence” by Kyriacos Markides. He is a sociologist of religion at the University of Maine who was raised Orthodox in Cyprus. However, he had sort of abandoned the faith. He only came back to it later in life when he realized that the intellectual topic that interested him — shamanism, Eastern religion — that Orthodoxy had its own shamanic tradition, or Christianity had a shamanic tradition within itself in the monks of Mount Athos.
I picked this book up when I first got interested in Orthodoxy. I went to a bookstore looking for “The Philokalia,” which would’ve been a really bad idea for a brand new Orthodox. They didn’t have the Philokalia, but they did have this Markides book, and it was so helpful. It was about basic Orthodox spirituality and talking about the primary importance of prayer and theosis. That is the book that I recommended more than any other to Orthodox inquirers. It’s set at a very basic level, but it gives you a real sense of the way Orthodox think about prayer and spirituality.
The star of the book — that’s the right word — is a monk that Markides calls Father Maximos. He’s actually now the bishop of Limassol in Cyprus, Bishop Athanasios. I visited him earlier this summer, to interview him for the book I’m working on. It was a real treat to thank him for helping bring me to Orthodoxy. He said, “But I’ve just met you.” I said, “Yes. But you gave a testimony with Markides’ book, and I’m grateful for it.”
Tripkovic: Traveling across the United States, I have met dozens of Orthodox converts. A fair number of them told me that they came to Orthodoxy reading works of the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. Many Orthodox theologians argue that if we want to understand the Russian and Orthodox soul, we need to read his work. What kind of role did Dostoevsky or other authors have in your Orthodox journey?
Dreher: That’s a good question. There is a book by a contemporary Russian Orthodox writer named Evgheni Vodolazkin. The book is called “Laurus.”
It’s a novel set in the Russian Middle Ages about a man who is a great sinner who becomes a holy man. I was already Orthodox when I discovered that book. I think it was in 2013. It is illuminated from within the entire world of Orthodoxy and the disenchanted world, a world where God is everywhere present and fills all things.
I’ve passed that book out to a lot of people. Jesus Christ is never mentioned in that novel, but he’s everywhere in the novel. This is what it means to live in an enchanted society from a point of view, Christian enchantment.
When I went to St. Petersburg a few years ago doing research for my book “Live Not By Lies,” I was able to stay in the home of Evgheni Vodolazkin and his wife. That was a really special gift. They’re such kind, hospitable people and very faithful Orthodox Christians.
Tripkovic: You are a great admirer of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. You even used his quote for the title of your new book: “Live Not By Lies.” I found out that you read “The Gulag Archipelago,” six years ago, while you were thinking about writing your new book. How did this book help you better understand the Orthodox faith and bring you closer to Christ?
Dreher: It illuminated the redemptive value of suffering. Solzhenitsyn has this very strange quote in “The Gulag Archipelago” in which he says, “Bless you, prison.” He suffered immensely in prison and “The Gulag Archipelago” talks about that.
He says at the very end the prison was a blessing because it brought him to Christ. That is so profoundly Russian, the redemptive value of suffering, and it’s so profoundly un-American.
I strongly believe that we Americans and all of us in the West are going to have to reacquaint ourselves with the value of suffering if our Christianity is going to survive what’s coming.
That is one of the reasons that I am so grateful for the opportunity to tell Westerners about the experience of people in the East — Christians of the East under communism.
When I was in Moscow in 2019 doing research for this book, I spoke to a Russian Baptist pastor (there are not many Russian Baptists), but he told me to go back to America and tell the Christians, “If you are not prepared to suffer for Christ, your faith is meaningless.” He’s not Orthodox, but he’s Russian, and he’s right.
Tripkovic: There is a perception in intellectual circles in America that the Orthodox faith is as an ethnocentric religion: Greek Orthodox or Russian Orthodox. What is your perspective on the issue? Do you think the Orthodox Christianity is compatible with American public life, and if so, what is the role in the culture?
Dreher: There’s so few Orthodox in America. I think we only have 1 million in a country of 350 million. We are very minor. It’s also true that Orthodoxy is historically very ethnically centered. It’s more like the tribe at prayer.
When the evangelicals began to discover Antiochian Orthodoxy 20 or 30 years ago, that opened the door. Now we see Americans who are so frustrated with the shallowness of most American Christianity. They want something deeper and more lasting and more beautiful.
Orthodoxy is on nobody’s radar because there are so few of us. When people hear about Orthodoxy, or they know somebody who is Orthodox and they get invited to come and see, it really changes people, especially young men.
When COVID hit, in my little parish in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, we started seeing more and more young people — especially young men — coming to visit. We asked them why? They were all evangelicals. They said that we know that hard times are coming, and evangelicalism does not have what it takes to get us through that. We want to know more!
I think that, as we in America live through the great winnowing of Christianity, that there will be not a lot of people but a certain number of people and more and more people who are seeking something more serious and more grounded. They may not be able to find it in Catholicism. A lot of American Catholicism is deeply Protestantized. I want them to come find Orthodoxy.
Orthodox are going to have to get better at evangelizing. We’re terrible about that! Not all of us, but many of us are. I think that we have something so valuable to offer to people here in liquid modernity, but we have to not be ashamed of it. We also see that some Orthodox academics are trying to push to liberalize American Orthodoxy. That would be the death of American Orthodoxy if they ever succeeded. It has killed all the mainline Protestant churches. Wherever you see liberal Catholicism, Catholicism is dying. I’m not talking about political liberalism, I’m talking about theological liberalism. We cannot let that happen here!
Tripkovic: Some political conservative and libertarian Americans might balk at Orthodox Christianity for lacking a “theology of work” and for de-emphasizing American ideals such as materialism, capitalism, hustle and success while emphasizing decidedly un-American ideals such as patience and asceticism. They might worry that Orthodox Christianity, in practice, could lead toward socialism politically and economic decline for nation-states. And they might point to the Soviet Union, Greece and other Orthodox countries as evidence. What would you tell folks with those kinds of questions?
Dreher: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world but lose his soul?” Christ said that. I think if you look around at our country, the United States and our civilization, the West, we’ve become very rich and very powerful, but we’ve lost our soul.
I’m not going to accept that Orthodoxy makes you more poor. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. But if it is true, then let’s embrace poverty! Because the real poverty is the poverty of the soul, the poverty of morality, loss of moral sense, loss of family and community. Orthodoxy upholds all of that.
It’s true that Orthodox countries aren’t paradise. There aren’t paradises on Earth. They’ve been through the Islamic rule, and many of them have been through communism. We have to be fair to them. They really suffered. We shouldn’t look for an earthly paradise.
To be a good Christian, it’s not the same as being a good bourgeois. That’s something that’s profoundly un-American. It’s something that people are going to have to learn here in our country.
Now to be a successful middle-class professional is going to require us to renounce Christianity and fundamental Christian beliefs: what a man and a woman are and things like that. People are going to have to decide, Do I want to be a successful, middle-class professional, or do I want to be a faithful Christian? Orthodoxy knows what the answer is and is prepared to help you be faithful.
Tripkovic: Some scholars believe Orthodox Christianity also has a problem with nationalism and human rights. National Public Radio recently published the story about Orthodox Christianity and far-right American converts. Did those topics contribute to ethnic and religious wars in the former Yugoslavia? Or do the scholars calling for the Orthodox to embrace human rights merely resent the pro-family and anti-gender ideology of the Orthodox Church?
Dreher: I think that’s mostly it. That NPR story was incredibly bad and dishonest. These so-called human rights advocates have a very limited definition of what human rights are. The whole idea of human rights comes out of Christianity itself.
Tom Holland, the historian, in his book “Dominion” talked about this. We wouldn’t have the things that all liberals value today about human rights if it had not been for Christianity.
These modern people want to divorce the concept of human rights from a transcendent divine source. We can’t do that! For a Christian, what is human and what rights we have as humans comes out of the Bible and of the teachings of the church. We can’t get away from that.
I think on the matter of nationalism, it’s perfectly fair for people to criticize Orthodoxy for being too often the tribe at prayer. That’s true.
In the former Yugoslavia, the Catholics in Croatia were as nationalist as Serbs were. I don’t think nationalism is always a bad thing! I think it’s good to be proud of your nation. It’s more important to be faithful to Jesus Christ. When Orthodoxy encourages people to identify as a member of a nation above their Christian duty, then it goes wrong, it’s disordered. I think that anybody who says Orthodoxy has a special problem with nationalism has never been to a Southern Baptist church in America on certain Sundays.
Tripkovic: The Benedict Option is the perfect example of a strategic retreat from modernity and the zeitgeist — to live in the world, but not of the world. What do you think Orthodox Christianity has to offer to America and to people who are ready for a retreat from current social and cultural trends? Do you see signs that more Americans are embracing this concept?
Dreher: If you find your way into Orthodox Christianity, it requires such a leap into a counter-cultural mind set. By the time you have become accustomed to worship as an Orthodox Christian, it gives you a certain perspective on American life. It helps you to understand what you will have found in Orthodoxy is so important, so moving, so meaningful and so eternal. It makes it easier, I find, to stand outside of the mainstream of American life and be comfortable with that.
Orthodoxy is so counter-cultural in America! Simply by being a faithful Orthodox Christian, going to the liturgy, praying, fasting and all that puts you on the outside. That’s not a bad thing.
I think Orthodoxy in that sense can help Americans become used to living a Benedict Option lifestyle also because it is a whole way of life. Orthodoxy is just not something that you do on Sunday morning. It is a way of life, with an institution attached to it. I heard it said, jokingly, that Catholicism is an institution with a way of life attached. Orthodoxy is a way of life with an institution attached. I found that to be largely true actually.
Whether you’re Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox, if you’re living a Benedict Option life, you have to make your faith the whole life. There’s a lot for Protestants and Catholics to learn from Orthodox in this way.
Tripkovic: Do you see signs of more Americans embracing the concept of strategic retreat?
Dreher: I don’t know. I am seeing anecdotal signs, but I don’t really know how wide it is. I don’t have enough evidence to say for sure.
Tripkovic: Many on the right argue that the future of American conservatism is traditional Catholicism. However, you disagree with that. Do you think that the future of the American intellectual conservative movement might be Orthodox Christianity?
Dreher: No, I don’t, in short. I hope it is, but I don’t think it is because Orthodoxy still has such a small presence in American life. I think we’re seeing more and more intellectually serious Christians, who are dissatisfied with mainstream American Christianity. They’re becoming curious about Orthodoxy.
I think it’s going to be a while before we get a critical mass of them within the American conservative intellectual life. We’re seeing more and more move that way. I hope we see even more, but to think like an Orthodox Christian requires a deep reordering of one’s life and one’s categories.
I remember when my wife and I came into Orthodoxy, her godmother told us that morning at church: “Welcome to the Orthodox faith. It’s going to take you 10 years to learn how to think like an Orthodox.” I thought that’s crazy. Well, she was right! It’s not really about a set of propositions that you have to master and answer back on a test. It really is a way of life. It’s a demanding way of life if you do it right.
I think that’s going to always be a hard sell to a lot of intellectuals. On the other hand, 30 years from now, things might look very different. I think as our country goes the way of Europe, becomes more and more aggressively secular, the only forms of Christianity that are really going to hold on or those that have deep roots in the past, that are liturgical and that are demanding. That’s Orthodoxy! In my lifetime, I don’t think we’ll see a huge number of people, conservative intellectuals, move into Orthodoxy. But I think in the lifetime of my children things could be very different.