On a recent Sunday morning, parishioners shuffled into St. Jonah Orthodox Church, a beige clapboard building topped by a blue onion dome. Tucked down a wooded lane far from road noise in the Houston suburb of Spring, the house of worship drew a crowd of congregants, many of them sporting floral headscarves, chest-length beards, and cotton or gingham dresses that fell past the knee. Beeswax candles flickered in a blast of air-conditioning
that dispersed an invisible cloud of incense. 

As the Reverend John Whiteford, wearing a ceremonial cape, stood with his back to the congregation, a small choir chanted three times, “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.” Parishioners crossed their foreheads, shoulders, and chests with three fingers and then bent down to touch the ground. As the service continued, the crowd swelled to one hundred or so worshippers, who stood shoulder to shoulder. 

The choir sang “Glory to thee, O Lord, glory to thee,” and then the music tapered off into a reverent silence peppered with the coos of babies and the impatient fussing of toddlers. Elderly parishioners and pregnant women seated themselves on benches lining the walls. Everyone else sat on the wood floor, looking up as their priest approached the altar and began his sermon. Whiteford, who doesn’t shy away from speaking about
contentious current events, directed their gaze to the war in Gaza. 

“Bad theology leads to bad actions,” he told his congregants. “And people wind up getting hurt.” The notion that the U.S. must support Jews and Israel to receive God’s blessing is, he said, new to Christianity, unfolding from dispensationalist theology that became popular in the early twentieth century. “Most evangelicals think that the modern state of Israel and the Israel they read about in the Bible are the very same thing,” he said. 

This, he argued, is a mistake. The majority of Jews in Israel, he explained, are unbelievers, and it’s Christians who will inherit the blessing that God bestowed on Abraham. Heads nodded in the crowd. Today’s Palestinian Christians, he said, are descended from the earliest Jewish converts to Christianity. More nods. Then he warned his flock not to hate unbelievers. “Christians are called to have a supernatural reaction, not a natural reaction. We cannot hate people. And we do not hate the Jews. We’re told by Saint Paul that one day they’re going to all repent.” 

At the end of the ceremony—virtually the entire sermon was about Israel and Gaza—the congregants bowed to the altar and exited to the yard, some stopping to greet Whiteford, kissing a cross in his hand. 

St. Jonah is part of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, an organization that serves hundreds of thousands of congregants across the globe. ROCOR was founded in the early 1920s by Russian exiles and officially split from the central Russian Orthodox Church in 1928, after the mother organization declared its loyalty to the Soviet Union’s Bolshevik regime. Those ties were reestablished in 2007, reportedly at Russian president Vladimir Putin’s request.  

A parishioner at St. Jonah Orthodox Church.
A parishioner at St. Jonah Orthodox Church.Photograph by Brian Goldman

In the United States, ROCOR is a relatively small organization, with only about 24,000 members in 2020. That’s a tiny fraction of the country’s estimated 1.2 million Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Christians, which include congregants in various Arab, Greek, Russian, and other jurisdictions. Yet at a time when many Americans are turning away from churches, ROCOR is showing signs of growth. Though its U.S. membership dropped by 14 percent from 2010 to 2020, ROCOR’s parish count increased by 15 percent during the same period. And a 2022 survey suggests that during the COVID-19 pandemic, churches that emphasized in-person worship, as St. Jonah did, attracted many converts. St. Jonah has nearly doubled its congregation since 2020, from about 80 to more than 150 worshippers in regular attendance, and it plans to open a second parish, for Spanish speakers. 

Much of this growth has a distinctive cast. Other than cleaving to a fierce anti-communism, Russian Orthodoxy in America has long been a relatively apolitical force, and most of its congregants have been ethnic Russians—
families who follow the faith that has been handed down to them. Whiteford and many of his peers, by contrast, are converts to Orthodoxy, and though Whiteford says he stays out of purely political discussions, others in his orbit have used their faith and online megaphones to further the cause of far-right politics. Some of them have found common cause with the Confederacy, fascism, monarchism, and white supremacy.

Some longtime members of ROCOR parishes and other Orthodox jurisdictions are alarmed by this shift and have begun to push back. And many of their antagonists are in Texas, which is home not only to Whiteford, but to a handful of men often referred to as “Ortho Bros”—a loosely
connected group with far-right views who are fluent in the languages of social media and podcasting.  

John Whiteford grew up in California, Kentucky, and, from the time he was ten, in Houston. He was raised in the Church of the Nazarene, but as a teenager he delved into Eastern mysticism and the occult and practiced kung fu. After he twisted an ankle and his girlfriend broke up with him, he grew depressed and even suicidal. He blamed this despair on his having turned away from God, and he found a new purpose: to become a minister.

Whiteford studied theology at Oklahoma’s Southern Nazarene University, but in 1990, before graduating, he began the process of converting to Orthodoxy after encountering an Orthodox priest who, like him, was active in the antiabortion movement. Whiteford had already begun to question some of Protestantism’s core beliefs, especially the notion that the Bible is Christianity’s only infallible source of authority. He embraced the idea that church traditions handed down over the centuries are also binding and shouldn’t change. 

Kids playing outside St. Jonah Orthodox Church.
Kids playing outside St. Jonah Orthodox Church.Photograph by Brian Goldman

More than three decades later, he’s convinced he made the right choice. “If you’d told me back in 1990 that I would see the day when people will be pushing for the acceptance of homosexuality in the Church of the Nazarene, I wouldn’t have believed that,” he said. “But they’re doing it now.”

In 1998, Whiteford started St. Jonah, the first English-language Russian Orthodox church in the Houston area. About fifteen members, including Whiteford as a deacon, met for worship in his home, with occasional visits from priests. Whiteford was ordained as a priest three years later, and over the next few years the church grew; in 2008 it purchased its current property. Whiteford built a following by blogging and speaking on podcasts and radio shows about how to be Orthodox in contemporary America. Homeschool your children, he suggested to his listeners, stand firm against LGBTQ influences, and prepare for an era of government persecution. On X, formerly Twitter, he posts and reposts content that is critical of Israel, expresses skepticism of U.S. support of Ukraine in its war with Russia, and pushes various reactionary talking points. 

At times, upward of two hundred people pack into his church on Sunday mornings, Whiteford said. “I think the reason there’s been this big influx since the lockdowns is a lot of people have a sense that things are going in a very bad direction quickly, and they’re trying to grab on to something firm.” 

Reverend John Whiteford at St. Jonah Orthodox Church, in Spring, on December 10, 2023.
Reverend John Whiteford at St. Jonah Orthodox Church, in Spring, on December 10, 2023. Photograph by Brian Goldman

For Whiteford, that something firm is often certain aspects of traditional Southern culture. During a recent talk in North Carolina, he spoke of the spiritual benefits of agrarianism and asserted that the legacy of the Confederacy has been misconstrued—he believes the Civil War wasn’t primarily fought over slavery. “Bad things happened, and we should never defend those things,” he noted. “But it would be the height of ingratitude for me to throw my ancestors under the bus, particularly when I don’t have any reason to believe that they did anything that they understood to be wrong, at least not in a grossly immoral way.”

Though Whiteford coauthored a pan-Orthodox clergy statement against racism and has publicly condemned neo-Nazi figures, he also believes that Confederate monuments shouldn’t be removed from public places. “I just don’t like the idea of, number one, people being told, ‘Hate your ancestors,’ and, number two, ‘Let’s erase all historical memories, because all these people were evil.’ Because I don’t believe that they were evil.” 

In recent years Texas has become a magnet for influential right-wing and right-adjacent figures. Glenn Beck set up shop in the Dallas–Fort Worth area; Alex Jones, Elon Musk, and Joe Rogan have put down roots in the state’s capital; and Christian nationalism has prominent exponents here. Joining them, somewhat under the radar, are the Ortho Bros—a term deployed by their critics to describe a network of converts to Orthodoxy who use modern technology to promote Orthodox traditionalism and critiques of secular democracy. 

Whiteford is arguably the most prominent, but Buck Johnson, a tattooed Gen X firefighter who lives in Lockhart and hosts the podcast Counterflow, has also gained a significant following. Johnson, a vaccine and lockdown skeptic, was drawn to Orthodoxy four years ago after hearing like-minded podcasters tout the faith, and he learned that St. Andrew, a ROCOR church in his town, remained open during the pandemic. (St. Andrew’s priest, the Reverend Ignatius Lozano, has denounced the removal of Confederate statues, claiming—misleadingly—that “Other than Black Lives Matter, the only group actively engaged in destroying monuments is ISIS.”) Counterflow explores the usual Ortho Bro subjects: the horrors of modernity, the dangers of Zionism, and how to protect kids from all things transgender. Last year Johnson, who has advocated for Texas secession, emceed the launch of a new “Southern Orthodox” group in North Carolina that was cofounded by Whiteford.

Nearby, in the Austin area, 25-year-old Conrad Franz cohosts the far-right podcast World War Now and cowrites a Substack newsletter with the same title. Franz, who converted to Orthodoxy in 2020, hopes a revitalized Orthodox monarchy will replace “secular globalism.” In an episode recorded after the October 7 Hamas attack in Israel, he and his cohost tied Zionists to the rise of communism, the collapse of Russia’s monarchy, and the decline of Christians in the Holy Land. 

Michael Sisco, a 36-year-old member of Whiteford’s parish, grew up Pentecostal and then dabbled in the occult, Islam, and Mormonism before converting to Orthodoxy, in 2014. In recent years he has acknowledged being friends with the white supremacist Nick Fuentes; boasted that he named his cat after Eva Braun, Adolf Hitler’s wife; and stated that the terms “Christo-fascist” and “Christian nationalist” are “cool”—though he told me via direct message on X that some of the things he says are“obvious jokes.” In recent months Sisco, who has called Texas Republicans “gay” for opposing antisemitism, has begun advocating for Jews in Israel to move to the Russian Far East. Whiteford, who has appeared on Sisco’s podcast for friendly conversations, says these comments are “an example of [Michael’s] humor. . .
[He] is working on a book appealing to non-Christian Jews to convert, and so clearly he doesn’t hate them as people or as an ethnicity.”

Though the Synod of Bishops of ROCOR in New York declined to comment for this story and the ROCOR Diocese of Chicago and Mid-America, which oversees Whiteford, didn’t return calls or emails, the organization has given no indication that it’s uncomfortable with his message. After Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, ROCOR leaders refused to allow individual parishes to stop commemorating Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church, who has demonized Ukrainian nationalists as schismatics. (ROCOR has, though, raised money and material assistance for Ukrainian refugees, who are also largely Orthodox.)

ROCOR members who have objected to these stances have been met mostly with silence. Andrew Fedosov, a television producer and ROCOR parishioner in Toronto, wrote an open letter asking hierarchs to loudly condemn Russian aggression in Ukraine. Dozens of parishioners across the world signed it, but, he says, his own priest didn’t respond. “What I’m seeing at a parish level is a sleepwalk and an unwillingness to stand up to that which is wrong, which can be irksome, because ROCOR was founded on standing up to what was wrong,” Fedosov said.

Representatives of other branches of Russian Orthodoxy have been more vocal with their concerns. “There is nothing bad about being a conservative person,” said Bishop Gerasim, the rector of St. Seraphim Orthodox Cathedral, in Dallas, and administrator of the Diocese of the South, which is part of the much larger Orthodox Church in America jurisdiction. “But to oppose antifa to the extent that you look to Putin as a hero—this is all really weird. It’s absolutely dangerous. The Confederacy is not a model for Orthodox Christians in any way, shape, or form. . . . We ought to instead read stories of the Underground Railroad. These are the real heroes.”

Not all recent converts to Orthodoxy are far right, but ideological conversions have become more prominent over the past two decades, said Sarah Riccardi-Swartz, an assistant professor of religion and anthropology at Boston’s Northeastern University who researches Orthodoxy in the U.S. She traces much of the problem to online platforms where many converts seek out education and stumble into radical Orthodox forums. 

The fusion of Orthodoxy with right-wing politics sometimes aligns with other populist movements, Riccardi-Swartz said, but is a largely distinct phenomenon. Its adherents find greater inspiration in czarist Russia,
contemporary Russia, and the Byzantine Empire than in Donald Trump. “They are reactive in ways akin to populism, but they are not interested in the will of the people but rather the will of God, particularly as expressed through authoritarian political frameworks, such as monarchism, czarism, and a symphonic cooperation of church and state.” She also believes that one reason Ortho Bro content has proliferated is that authority figures in ROCOR haven’t pushed back on these trends; they’re either unaware of the extent of radical rhetoric, she says, or simply appreciate the surge in membership. 

It’s difficult to determine how many of St. Jonah’s congregants are in accord with Whiteford’s ideology and how many are devoted to the church for more traditional reasons. But it was clear that fringe ideas, including conspiracy theories, are welcome, from anti-vax stances to prepping for apocalyptic scenarios.

After the Sunday morning service, parishioners gathered around banquet tables for a light meal. Whiteford invited questions and spoke about the different ways some Orthodox bishops botched their handling of Communion during the pandemic. Some churches used plastic disposable spoons rather than allowing lay people to share the chalice. “We had a test,” Whiteford said. “If you did die . . . what’s a better way to go than that?”

“There are people who don’t like him because he tells the truth,” said Rosa Bennett Mahand, a member of St. Jonah for eighteen years who told me that Satan was in Washington, D.C., and attacking the church. A Honduran immigrant who converted from evangelicalism to Orthodoxy, she prays for Whiteford’s critics, including the anonymous Reddit user who in 2020 posted a call to burn down the “misogynistic xenophobic homophobic St Jonah Russian Orthodox Church.” (Nothing seems to have come of the threat, which Whiteford speculates may have been planted by the FBI.) 

James Powell on his homestead, in Alvin, on December 18, 2023
James Powell on his homestead, in Alvin, on December 18, 2023. Photograph by Brian Goldman
The Powell family at home.
The Powell family at home. Photograph by Brian Goldman

Not everyone who comes to Whiteford’s church is looking to get involved in political or ideological battles. James and Katie Powell, parents of seven sons whom they homeschool on their farm, joined the church, converting from Baptist and Episcopal backgrounds, after learning about Orthodoxy in part through Whiteford’s radio appearances. James works in ship maintenance and told me his family homesteads, keeping bees, chickens, goats, rabbits, and more, as a way to avoid society. “For me, getting engaged with the things of the world is almost painful,” he said. He regards Orthodox and political online debates as toxic. “I would rather just raise vegetables and children.”

Cody Bornejko, an administrative coordinator for the City of Houston and a former Baptist who converted to Orthodoxy twelve years ago, told me he tries to ignore Whiteford’s occasional talk about the Confederacy. Bornejko appreciates the rites of Orthodoxy—the candles, incense, prostrations, and sacraments. “He is a phenomenal priest. I can tell he really cares about stuff,” he said. 

Still, in 2020, when political discussions at the church became more heated, Bornejko thought about leaving. He decided to stay, partly so he could act as a resource if someone else felt the same way. Now he quietly volunteers in the bookstore after services to avoid political discussions in the banquet hall.

“I find a lot of people who think the media is fake just find the wildest sources that confirm their biases,” he said. “I don’t try and directly confront anyone, because I don’t see it going anywhere.” Reflecting on the extreme views of some fellow believers in Orthodoxy, he was even more blunt: “Fascism is not Orthodoxy. It’s just fascism.”  

An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of Reverend Ignatius Lozano.

North Texas native Meagan Saliashvili is an independent journalist with a master’s in religion and public life from Harvard Divinity School who is completing a master’s in religion and journalism at NYU.

This article originally appeared in the April 2024 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Rise of the ‘Ortho Bros.’” Subscribe today.