Abp. Chaput: The American Experience and Global Religious Liberty

Roman Catholic Apb. Chaput

Read the essay below and you will understand why Orthodox Triumphalism is a dead end. The author is a Roman Catholic Archbishop and has an incisive grasp of American cultural and political history that applies as easily to American Orthodox as it does to American Catholics. We Orthodox don’t really grapple with what it means to be Orthodox in America, not much anyway. Instead we substitute ideas about ethnic affiliation or Orthodox supremacy or other impoverished notions thinking that that they will be enough to sustain the Church in the end. They won’t.

Affirming the good where ever we find find it is a fundamental tenet of Orthodox thinking and that includes the positive good that Protestants in particular and Catholics after them have contributed to American culture. And there is much good worth considering in Abp. Chaput’s analysis below.

Source: Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Denver | Archbishop Charles J. Chaput

March 1, 2011 – Most Rev. Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., Archbishop of Denver, addressed the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University.

A friend once said – I think shrewdly — that if people want to understand the United States, they need to read two documents.  Neither one is the Declaration of Independence.  Neither one is the Constitution.  In fact, neither one has anything obviously to do with politics.  The first document is John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.  The second is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Celestial Railroad

Bunyan’s book is one of history’s great religious allegories.  It’s also deeply Christian.  It embodies the Puritan, Protestant hunger for God that drove America’s first colonists and shaped the roots of our country. 

Hawthorne’s short story, of course, is a very different piece.  It’s one of the great satires of American literature.  A descendant of Puritans himself, Hawthorne takes Bunyan’s allegory – man’s difficult journey toward heaven – and retells it through the lens of American hypocrisy: our appetite for comfort, easy answers, quick fixes, material success and phony religious piety.

Bunyan and Hawthorne lived on different continents 200 years apart.  But the two men did share one thing.  Both men – the believer and the skeptic — lived in a world profoundly shaped by Christian thought, faith and language; the same moral space that incubated the United States.  And that has implications for our discussion today.

In his World Day of Peace message earlier this year, Pope Benedict XVI voiced his concern over the worldwide prevalence of “persecution, discrimination, terrible acts of violence and religious intolerance.”i   In reality, we now face a global crisis in religious liberty. As a Catholic bishop, I have a natural concern that Christian minorities in Africa and Asia bear the brunt of today’s religious discrimination and violence.  Benedict noted this same fact in his own remarks.

But Christians are not the only victims. Data from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life are sobering.   Nearly 70 percent of the world’s people now live in nations — regrettably, many of them Muslim-majority countries, as well as China and North Korea — where religious freedom is gravely restricted.ii

Principles that Americans find self-evident — the dignity of the human person, the sanctity of conscience, the separation of political and sacred authority, the distinction between secular and religious law, the idea of a civil society pre-existing and distinct from the state  — are not widely shared elsewhere. In fact, as Leszek Kolakowski once said, what seemed self-evident to the American Founders “would appear either patently false or meaningless and superstitious to most of the great men that keep shaping our political imagination.”iii   We need to ask ourselves why this is the case.

We also need to ask ourselves why we Americans seem to be so complacent about our own freedoms. In fact, nothing guarantees that America’s experiment in religious freedom, as we traditionally know it, will survive here in the United States, let alone serve as a model for other countries in the future.  The Constitution is a great achievement in ordered liberty.  But it’s just another elegant scrap of paper unless people keep it alive with their convictions and lived witness.

Yet in government, media, academia, in the business community and in the wider culture, many of our leaders no longer seem to regard religious faith as a healthy or a positive social factor.  We can sense this in the current administration’s ambivalence toward the widespread violations of religious liberty across the globe. We can see it in the inadequacy or disinterest of many of our news media in reporting on religious freedom issues. And we can see it especially in the indifference of many ordinary American citizens.

In that light, I have four points that I’d like to share with you today.  They’re more in the nature of personal thoughts than conclusive arguments.  But they emerge from my years as a Commissioner with the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), and I believe they’re true and need to be said. The first three deal with the American experience.  The last one deals with whether and how the American experience can apply internationally.

Here’s my first point: The American model of religious liberty is rooted in the thought-world and idea-architecture of the Christian humanist tradition. We cannot understand the framework of American institutions — or the values that these institutions are meant to promote and defend — if we don’t acknowledge that they grow out of a predominantly Christian worldview.

Obviously our laws and public institutions also reflect Jewish scripture, Roman republican thought and practice, and the Enlightenment’s rationalist traditions.  But as Crane Brinton once observed with some irony, even “the Enlightenment [itself] is a child of Christianity – which may explain for our Freudian times why the Enlightenment was so hostile to Christianity.”iv

Whatever it becomes in the future, America was born Protestant.  And foreign observers often seem to understand that better than we do.  As many of you know, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran scholar and pastor murdered by the Third Reich, taught for a time in New York City in the 1930s. He came away struck by the differences between the American and French revolutionary traditions, and the Christian character of American ideals.

“American democracy,” Bonhoeffer said, “is not founded upon the emancipated man but, quite on the contrary, upon the kingdom of God and the limitation of all earthly powers by the sovereignty of God.”v 

As Bonhoeffer saw it, the American system of checks and balances, which emphasizes personal responsibility and limited government, reflects fundamental biblical truths about original sin, the appetite for power and human weakness.

Jacques Maritain, the French Catholic scholar who helped draft the U.N.’s charter on human rights, said much the same.  He called our Declaration of Independence “an outstanding lay Christian document tinged with the philosophy of the day.” vi 

He also said: “The [American] Founding Fathers were neither metaphysicians nor theologians, but their philosophy of life, and their political philosophy, their notion of natural law and human rights, were permeated by concepts worked out by Christian reason and backed up by an unshakeable religious feeling.”vii

That’s my point. At the heart of the American model of public life is a Christian vision of man, government and God.

Now, I want to be clear about what I’m saying here — and also what I’m not saying.

I’m not saying that America is a “Christian nation.”  Nearly 80 percent of our people self-describe as Christians.  And many millions of them actively practice their faith.  But we never have been and never will be a Christian confessional state.

I’m also not saying that our Protestant heritage is uniformly good.  Some of the results clearly are good: America’s culture of personal opportunity; respect for the individual; a tradition of religious liberty and freedom of speech; and a reverence for the law. Other effects of Reformation theology have been less happy: radical individualism; revivalist politics; a Calvinist hunger for material success as proof of salvation; an ugly nativist and anti-Catholic streak; a tendency toward intellectual shallowness and disinterest in matters of creed; and a nearly religious, and sometimes dangerous, sense of national destiny and redemptive mission.

None of these sins however – and yes, some of our nation’s sins have led to very bitter suffering both here and abroad — takes away from the genius of the American model. This model has given us a free, open and non-sectarian society marked by an astonishing variety of cultural and religious expressions. But our system’s success does not result from the procedural mechanisms our Founders put in place. Our system works precisely because of the moral assumptions that undergird it.  And those moral assumptions have a religious grounding.

That brings me to my second point: At the heart of the American model of religious liberty is a Christian vision of the sanctity and destiny of the human person.

The great Jesuit scholar, Father John Courtney Murray, stressed that: “The American Bill of Rights is not a piece of 18th-century rationalist theory; it is far more the product of Christian history. Behind it one can see, not the philosophy of the Enlightenment, but the older philosophy that had been the matrix of the common law. The ‘man’ whose rights are guaranteed in the face of law and government is, whether he knows it or not, the Christian man, who had learned to know his own dignity in the school of Christian faith.”viii

I believe that’s true.  It’s a crucial insight.  And it’s confirmed by other scholarship, including Harold Berman’s outstanding work in the history of Western law, and his study of religious liberty and America’s founding.ix   My point here is that the institutions and laws in what we call the “Western world” presume a Christian anthropology; a Christian definition of the meaning of life.  In the American model, the human person is not a product of nature or evolution. He is not a creature of the state or the economy.  Nor, for that matter, is he the slave of an impersonal heaven.  Man is first and fundamentally a religious being with intrinsic worth, a free will and inalienable rights. He is created in the image of God, by God and for God. Because we are born for God, we belong to God. And any claims that Caesar may make on us, while important, are secondary.

In the vision of America’s Founders, God endows each of us with spiritual freedom and inherent rights so that we can fulfill our duties toward him and each other. Our rights come from God, not from the state.  Government is justified only insofar as it secures those natural rights, promotes them and defends them.

And this is not just the curious view of some religious shaman. Nearly all the men who drew up our founding documents held this same belief. Note what James Madison said in his “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments” in 1785:

“[Man’s duty of honoring God] is precedent both in order of time and degree of obligation to the claims of civil society. Before any man can be considered as a member of civil society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governor of the universe.”

That is why religious freedom is humanity’s first and most important freedom. Our first governor is God, our Creator, the Governor of the universe. We are created for a religious purpose.  We have a religious destiny. Our right to pursue this destiny precedes the state. Any attempt to suppress our right to worship, preach, teach, practice, organize and peacefully engage society because of our belief in God is an attack not only on the cornerstone of human dignity, but also on the identity of the American experiment.

I want to add one more thing here: The men who bequeathed us the American system, including the many Christians among them, had a legion of blind spots.  Some of those flaws were brutally ugly – slavery, exploitation of the Native peoples, greed, and ethnic and religious bigotry, including a crude anti-Catholicism that remains the most vivid religious prejudice this country has ever indulged.

But the American logic of a society based on God’s sovereignty and the sanctity of the human person has also proven itself remarkably capable of self-criticism, repentance, reform and renewal.

This brings me to my third point: In the American model, religion is more than a private affair between the individual believer and God. Religion is essential to the virtues needed for a free people. Religious groups are expected to make vital contributions to the nation’s social fabric.

For all their differences, America’s Founders agreed that a free people cannot remain free and self-governing without religious faith and the virtues that it fosters. John Adams’ famous words to the Massachusetts militia in 1789 were typical: “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” 

When the Founders talked about religion, they meant something much more demanding and vigorous than the vague “spirituality” in vogue today.  Harold Berman showed that the Founders understood religion in a frankly Christian-informed sense. Religion meant “both belief in God and belief in an after-life of reward for virtue, and punishment for sin.”x  In other words, religion mattered – personally and socially.  It was more than a private preference.  It made people live differently.  People’s faith was assumed to have broad implications, including the political kind.

From the beginning, believers – alone and in communities – have shaped American history simply by trying to live their faith in the world.  As Nathaniel Hawthorne saw so well, too many of us do it badly, with ignorance and hypocrisy.  But enough believers in every generation have done it well enough, long enough, to keep the animating spirit of our country’s experiment in ordered liberty alive. 

Or to put it another way, the American experience of personal freedom and civil peace is inconceivable without a religious grounding, and a specifically Christian inspiration.  What we believe about God shapes what we believe about man.  And what we believe about man shapes what we believe about the purpose and proper structure of human society. 

The differences among Christian, atheist, Hindu, Jewish and Muslim thought are not “insurmountable.”  But they are also not “incidental.”  Faith, sincerely believed or sincerely refused, has consequences.  As a result, theology and anthropology have serious, long term, social and political implications.  And papering those differences over with a veneer of secular pieties does not ensure civil peace.  It ensures conflict — because religious faith touches on the most fundamental elements of human identity and destiny, and its expression demands a public space.

This brings me to my fourth and final point:  I believe that the American model does work and that its principles can and should be adapted by other countries. But with this caveat. The Christian roots of our ideals have implications. It’s  impossible to talk honestly about the American model of religious freedom without acknowledging that it is, to a significant degree, the product of Christian-influenced thought. Dropping this model on non-Christian cultures – as our country learned from bitter experience in Iraq – becomes a very dangerous exercise.  One of the gravest mistakes of American policy in Iraq was to overestimate the appeal of Washington-style secularity, and to underestimate the power of religious faith in shaping culture and politics.

Nonetheless, I do believe that the values enshrined in the American model touch the human heart universally. We see that in the democracy movements now sweeping the Middle East and North Africa.  The desires for freedom and human dignity live in all human beings. These yearnings are not culturally conditioned, or the result of imposed American or Western ideals.  They’re inherent to all of us.

The modern world’s system of international law is founded on this assumption of universal values shared by people of all cultures, ethnicities and religions. The Spanish Dominican priest, Francisco de Vitoria, in the 16th century envisioned something like the United Nations. An international rule of law is possible, he said, because there is a “natural law” inscribed in the heart of every person, a set of values that are universal, objective, and do not change. John Courtney Murray argued in the same way.  The natural law tradition presumes that men and women are religious by nature. It presumes that we are born with an innate desire for transcendence and truth.

These assumptions are at the core of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Many of the people who worked on that Declaration, like Jacques Maritain, believed that this charter of international liberty reflected the American experience.

Article 18 of the Declaration famously says that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief; and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

In a sense, then, the American model has already been applied. What we see today is a repudiation of that model by atheist regimes and secular ideologies, and also unfortunately by militant versions of some non-Christian religions.  The global situation is made worse by the inaction of our own national leadership in promoting to the world one of America’s greatest qualities: religious freedom.

This is regrettable because we urgently need an honest discussion on the relationship between Islam and the assumptions of the modern democratic state.  In diplomacy and in interreligious dialogue we need to encourage an Islamic public theology that is both faithful to Muslim traditions and also open to liberal norms.  Shari’a law is not a solution.  Christians living under shari’a uniformly experience it as offensive, discriminatory and a grave violation of their human dignity.

A healthy distinction between the sacred and the secular, between religious law and civil law, is foundational to free societies.  Christians, and especially Catholics, have learned the hard way that the marriage of Church and state rarely works.  For one thing, religion usually ends up the loser, an ornament or house chaplain for Caesar.  For another, all theocracies are utopian – and every utopia ends up persecuting or murdering the dissenters who can’t or won’t pay allegiance to its claims of universal bliss. 

I began this talk with John Bunyan for a reason.  To this day his major work — The Pilgrim’s Progress — is the second most widely read book in the Western world, next only to the Bible.   But the same Puritan spirit that created such beauty and genius in Bunyan also led to Oliver Cromwell, the Salem witch trials and the theocratic repression of other Protestants and, of course, Catholics.

Americans have learned from their own past.  The genius of the American founding documents is the balance they achieved in creating a civic life that is non-sectarian and open to all; but also dependent for its survival on the mutual respect of secular and sacred authority.  The system works.  We should take pride in it as one of the historic contributions this country has made to the moral development of people worldwide.  We need to insist that religious freedom – a person’s right to freely worship, preach, teach and practice what he or she believes, including the right to freely change or end one’s religious beliefs under the protection of the law – is a foundation stone of human dignity.  No one, whether acting in the name of God or in the name of some political agenda or ideology, has the authority to interfere with that basic human right.

This is the promise of the American model.  The Founders of this country, most of them Christian, sought no privileges for their kind. They would not force others to believe what they believed.  Heretics would not be punished. They knew that the freedom to believe must include the freedom to change one’s beliefs or to stop believing altogether. Our Founders did not lack conviction.  Just the opposite. They had enormous confidence in the power of their own reason — but also in the sovereignty of God and God’s care for the destiny of every soul.

America was born, in James Madison’s words, to be “an asylum to the persecuted and oppressed of every nation and religion.”xi  Right now in America, we’re not acting like we revere that legacy, or want to share it, or even really understand it. 

And I think we may awake one day to see that as a tragedy for ourselves, and too many others to count.


+Charles J. Chaput is a Capuchin Franciscan and the Archbishop of Denver.  He served as a Commissioner with the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), 2003-06.  In 2005 he served as part of the official United States delegation to the Cordoba, Spain, conference on “Anti-Semitism and Other Forms of Intolerance,” sponsored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation Europe (OSCE).

i. Benedict XVI, “Religious Freedom: The Path to Peace,” January 2011

ii. “Global Restrictions on Religion,” Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, December 2009

iii. Leszek Kolakowski, Modernity on Endless Trial (U. of Chicago, 1997), 146

iv. Clarence Crane Brinton, Ideas and Men: The Story of Western Thought (Prentice-Hall, 1963), 295

v. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (Macmillan, 1978 edition), 104

vi. Jacques Maritain, Man and the State (U. of Chicago, 1951), 183–184.

vii. Maritain, Reflections on America (Scribner’s 1958), 182–183.

viii. John Courtney Murray, S.J., We Hold These Truths (Image, 1964), 50.

ix. Harold Berman, Law And Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition (Harvard, 1983); Law and Revolution II: The Impact of the Protestant Reformations on the Western Legal Tradition (Harvard, 2006); “Religion and Liberty Under Law at the Founding of America,” Regent University Law Review 20 (2007): 32–36; “Religious Freedom and the Modern State,” Emory Law Journal 39 (1990): 149–164.

**Note that Berman does not deny or diminish the role of Deism and the Enlightenment in the modern legal tradition, nor their influence on American institutions.  As he acknowledges, Jefferson and Franklin were Deists, while Adams, Wilson and Madison were practicing Christians.  What Berman does do is relocate the roots of Western law to their real origin in the Papal Revolution of the 11th and 12th Centuries, the Catholic Code of Canon Law, and the various Protestant Reformations.  For Berman, the seminal role of Christian faith in the development of the Western legal tradition cannot be ignored.  See also his essays, "Judaic-Christian versus Pagan Scholarship," "The Crisis of Legal Education in America," and "Is There Such a Thing — Can There Be Such a Thing — as a Christian Law School?”, all collected in Faith and Order: The Reconciliation of Law and Religion (Eerdmans, 1993).

x. Berman, “Religion and Liberty,” at 32.

xi. James Madison, “Memorial and Remonstrance,” 9.


  1. Fr. Hans: I am not sure what do you mean by Orthodox Triumphalism.
    The blood of the martyrs is the seed by which the Church grows. The Holy New Martyrs and Confessors were mainly Orthodox Faithful who suffered during the atheist communist period. Certainly, we should be affirming the good and there is much good worth considering. However, the state of the world is alarming and there is little cause for optimism.
    This is an awful long article. Since you’ve read it, maybe you want to point out some ideas that you found particularly interesting.

  2. Archbishop Chaput is a wonderful example of leadership for Orthodox Christians. I have been following him since he arrived in Denver well over a decade ago and my faith has always been enriched by his work. The guy is also one hard working bishop who is a model for bishops everywhere. Many years ago, I sent him a brief note thanking him for his work and saying how much it meant to me as an Orthodox Christian. Two weeks later, I found a hand written note in my mail box from him. I will always remember that he took the time to respond personally to this Orthodox Christian with charity and fatherly love. It really is the simple things that make a difference sometimes.

    He gave another talk in Paris in memory of Cardinal Lustiger recently on March 4th. I have yet to see the whole address online but from the quotes it sure looks like another classic.

  3. Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

    What I mean by “Orthodox Triumphalism” is the tendency to reflexively dismiss everything that isn’t referenced directly in Orthodox thinking as not worthy of deliberation. That does not work in America because, as the article points out, much in American culture was incubated in a religious soil to which the Orthodox have made no direct contribution. (One could make a strong historical argument that Orthodoxy has made an indirect contribution but I deliberately passed over that in my comments. It’s a different question.)

    My point is not that all faiths are relative, although I understand some people will read it that way. Rather, my point is rather than assume the defensive posture that the triumphalism position actually represents, we should instead take on the Orthodox missionary imperative that instructs us to affirm the good where ever we find it. I’m arguing for the engagement of, rather than retreat from, the larger culture. The article points where some of that good lies.

    • I used to listen to denouncing sin sermons by catholic priests and found them inspiring. We must affirm the good where ever we find it and denounce sin where ever we find it.

      I believe that “the tendency to reflexively dismiss everything that isn’t referenced directly in Orthodox” comes from the fact that there are many long-established Vatican teachings they have to repudiate and reject. It is not triumphalism, rather some sort of prudence.

  4. cynthia curran :

    I think that the Orthodox are such a minority in the US unlike Greece or Eastern Europe that its hard to relate to the country that you are in. Roman Catholics have been a sizable minority for years:and therefore relate to the country more.

  5. This is an extraordinary article and spot on. It should be required reading for highschoolers. It’s not as long as some polemical cites on this site.

    Further, our Orthodox triumphalism is a sin and festering disease that in it’s most primitive form is revealed in the xenophibic ethnocentrism in our parish and diocesan lives.

    Once you set aside the chasm of ecclesiological differences, we have to admit that many Roman Catholic clergy – from priests to Ratzinger – are more Orthodox in their perspective and writing than putatively Orthodox bishops.

    • Alexander: I do not know what your past experiences are but you sound so bitter!
      “My soul will boast about the LORD” and I boast about the Saints, no matter what their ethnicity, because “God is wonderful in His Saints”. Jesus was very angry at what he had seen taking place in the house of God. He overthrew the tables of the money changers and He said that “My house shall be called the house of prayer”. The first thing we must do is to seek to become better Orthodox and to dramatically improve the quality and depth of our faith. St. John Chrysostom knew too well that the corruption is inherent in men who want power. It is true that in our time some bishops have nothing profoundly Christian or religious in them. What they have is political life only.

  6. Scott Pennington :

    “Principles that Americans find self-evident — the dignity of the human person, the sanctity of conscience, the separation of political and sacred authority, the distinction between secular and religious law, the idea of a civil society pre-existing and distinct from the state — are not widely shared elsewhere. In fact, as Leszek Kolakowski once said, what seemed self-evident to the American Founders ‘would appear either patently false or meaningless and superstitious to most of the great men that keep shaping our political imagination.’iii We need to ask ourselves why this is the case.”

    I would be interested to read a commentary on the religious liberty enjoyed under the Byzantine or Russian Empires as well as on what the Fathers’ thoughts were on the separation of religious and “secular” authority. I recall that the decisions of EC’s were immediately written into imperial law.

    “Here’s my first point: The American model of religious liberty is rooted in the thought-world and idea-architecture of the Christian humanist tradition. We cannot understand the framework of American institutions — or the values that these institutions are meant to promote and defend — if we don’t acknowledge that they grow out of a predominantly Christian worldview.”

    Perhaps, but so did Marxism. If you look at the trajectory that Marx projects upon history, it is a story of primal innocence (primitive communism), a “fall” into sin (early versions of empire and private property), further descent (capitalism) and redemption through socialism and eventually an eschaton of true communism where the state largely disappears.

    No doubt Enlightenment Liberal thinking came out of a Christian world view. It just did not remain there.

    “Our rights come from God, not from the state.”

    To the extent Christianity teaches that we have “rights”, I’m sure that this is correct. However, classical Christianity also taught that the state is an agent of God, and that its authority came from God. It most certainly did not teach that the state’s authority came from the consent of the governed. Now, a state can abuse this prerogative, to be sure.

    “That is why religious freedom is humanity’s first and most important freedom.”

    Actually, this idea may destroy us. It presupposes the inherent value of all religious expression. It is implicitly contradictory to the following quote that the author relates:

    “John Adams’ famous words to the Massachusetts militia in 1789 were typical: ‘Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.'”

    The problem is that there is no uniform morality or belief system that characterizes “religion”. Europe is coming to this realization as we speak.

    “And I think we may awake one day to see that as a tragedy for ourselves, and too many others to count.”

    Christians will indeed see the present state of America as a tragedy, but for a different reason. If all of this really were compatible with Christianity, it would have been set out by the Apostles and practiced, sometimes more perfectly than at other times, in the government of Christian peoples from the time that Christianity first emerged from persecution. It did not. I do not recall any extensive passages from the Fathers regarding the “rights of man” or religious liberty. I do recall passages, for example St. John Chrysostom’s advice regarding slavery, that directly and emphatically contradict the above. (I am not advocating slavery, btw, just stating that this article presupposes a mindset which is foreign to traditional Orthodoxy. There is nothing in Orthodoxy that requires slavery either.)

    There is an attempt, because of the perceived value of American democracy, to try to read Christianity into it and to read Christian values as emanating from it. It is wishful thinking. It also pollutes Christianity. And it is a prescription for losing the cultural struggle with Islam and with liberal secularism. Accepting the American paradigm regarding rights and liberty has led to the de-Christianization of the United States and has led Europe to become colonized by Muslim immigrants who have little intention of accepting their new societies’ premises. It has led us to wars of conquest to spread the “disease of liberty”, as Kennedy described it. Too often, “liberating” countries also destabilizes them and causes them, in the end, to become less “liberal” and a greater threat to the interests of the United States. Moreover, when we are successful at spreading liberalism, the moral effect on the society we “convert” should give serious pause to any Christian witnessing the process. Feminism, including abortion rights, becomes part of the set of “rights” to be implemented. With some considerable justification, many traditional Muslims use this as a rallying cry to inspire opposition to our efforts. It’s actually ironic and tragic.

    If you want to further emasculate and eradicate Christianity, this is a prescription for doing so.

    • Scott,

      Accepting Christ is a choice, permitted to us by the omni-benevolent God with the exercise of the gift of free will. We Orthodox pride ourselves on contending that we force no one to accept Christ — as others may do. It is a door that we open to others through our witness. The prospective believer is to willingly step across the threshold, or not at all.

      True, the Fathers do not speak in terms of “the rights of man,” and “religious liberty.” But they do talk about an individual coming to God willingly, with an open heart, and without coercion. (And certainly not because yia-yia and papu or baba and deda told them this is the way it is or else.)

      I’m not sure what you mean by “classic Christianity.” But, we are coming up on the 1700th Anniversary of the Edict of Milan (312) proclaimed by that first Christian Emperor, Constantine. That Edict was all about a free choice. It guaranteed Christians, along with others, “freedom to follow whatever religion one wished,” “a public and free liberty to practice their religion or cult” and recognizing the rights of Christian groups to property and places of worship. For one, the Belgrade Patriarchate is preparing a celebration of this historic event because Constantine is widely believed to have been born in Nish, which these days is a part of Republic of Serbia and within the territorial jurisdiction of the Serbian Chuch.

      But, our Orthodox triumphalism, along with its selective memory, gets us into trouble. A short 68 years later, the religion or “cult” of Christianity would become the state faith. So, in addition to trying to resolve raging theological questions and heresies, Gratian, Valentianan II and Theodosious II indeed proclaim the state faith on 27 February 380. But they do so much more than that …

      “There is one Godhead, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in an equal Majesty and Holy Trinity. We order that those who follow this doctrine to receive the title of Catholic Christians, but others we judge to be mad and raving and worthy of incurring the disgrace of heretical teaching, nor are their assemblies to receive the name of churches. They are to be punished not only by Divine retribution but also by our own measures.”

      Not so sure anyone is going to be celebrating much of what comes after, “but …” but one thing is for sure, “Classic Christianity’s” hands are not exactly clean in the centuries that follow Gratian and pre-date the Great Schism when it comes to “punish[ment] … by our own measures.” (And, just plain forget about what happens post-1054.)

      America’s founders — the grossly imperfect, slave-owning, rationalists, nominally “protestant,” humanists they were — recognized the pernicious perils a state religion that purported to be God’s agent presented and its threat to that very freedom of choice given to us by God. Hundreds of historical examples — Christian West, Christian East, Judasim, among the “Mohammetans,” “Hindoos,” or otherwise — made them fear the wholel “state as God’s agent” schtick.

      Whether the Founders truly believed that God permitted humanity the choice to accept or reject Him, or whether the idea is born of a logical and rhetorical necessity to trump the claims of the Divine Right, English throne as Head of the Anglican Church as God’s agent, is of no moment. They created for us (perhaps accidently as it relates to Orthodox) an unprecedented forum, a political place, where we and others can exercise that free will — as understood by the Orthodox Fathers — to of our own hearts, minds and souls accept Christ and live in accord with His precepts. That others use that same forum as a place to reject Christ, bastardize his teachings, or persecute those who believe is of no moment.

      America gets itself into great trouble when it seeks to export its “democracy,” or “republicanism,” without question. And the UN Declaration on Human Rights is a decidedly Western, “rationalist,” and “statist” construct that in the end may do much to harm the right to willingly accept or reject Christ. But, this much is certain, there is absolutely no historical instance other than America where the state came into its existence with the intent to allow its citizens to exercise that choice, without coercion.

      In my view, among the beauty of the Archbishop’s piece — despite all the heresy he himself willingly embraces — is that he contextualizes “Christianity’s” place and role in the formulation of this great Republic in a manner purposefully overlookedm or flatly rejected, in much of contemporary discussion. He demonstrates, in my view, in spades the challenge we — as Americans — confront with those who reject our Free Will and seek to annihilate our existence.

      I think that if you want to eradicate or emasculate Christianity, reject the brilliant American Experiment on religious liberty. Because what you get is Spanish Inquisitions, Czarist Russia, the whole of Papal political history, and walk into the nuclear powered buzz saws that are communism, fascism, and Islam.

      (PS Your discussion of Marxism may be better left for later.)

      • Scott Pennington :


        “We Orthodox pride ourselves on contending that we force no one to accept Christ — as others may do.”

        The largest Orthodox country on earth was christianized initially by an edict of Prince Vladimir which stated that anyone who didn’t present themselves for baptism would become an enemy of the state. As I have explained (in vain) to Fr. Johannes many times, the fact that God gives us the freedom to choose to accept or reject Him is a totally different matter than that of whether the state allows us to practice any religion we choose or follow any moral code that pleases us. If God were infatuated with religious tolerance, He would be a different God than is presented in both Testaments of the Bible.

        “I think that if you want to eradicate or emasculate Christianity, reject the brilliant American Experiment on religious liberty. Because what you get is Spanish Inquisitions, Czarist Russia, the whole of Papal political history, and walk into the nuclear powered buzz saws that are communism, fascism, and Islam.”

        You will notice that once there was a thing called “Christendom”. It is not a coincidence that its extinction has occured over the same period as the adoption of Western democracy. Sounds like an eradication and emasculation of Christianity to me. And it’s quite obvious.

        I do emphatically reject the “brilliant American experiment” which has led to the destruction of the family as an instution and the murder of over 50 million unborn children (more murders than Hitler or Pol Pot ever committed). It is not true that you will necessarily get communism, fascism or Islam if you reject the American experiment. Communism and Fascism were totalitarian philosophies fundamentally incompatible with Christianity because they, in effect, deified the state. Czarist Russia and the Byzantine Empire (from which much of the writings of the Fathers emanated and which they seem, broadly speaking, to have endorsed) were authoritarian/autocratic but not totalitarian. Islam is a different matter altogether. My earlier post makes it clear how the democratic values of the West encourage the spread of Islam rather than inhibit it.

        Protestants somehow delude themselves into believing that true Christianity was only discovered, or rediscovered, in the 16th century. We should not delude ourselves that a truly Christian form of government was not discovered until the 18th. If you have an argument based on Orthodox Tradition, that is, quoting the Fathers and using examples of Orthodox government from the past, I’d love to hear it. Either that or you are left with a Church that seems to have never seriously considered liberal government until very recently.

        Constantine was not baptized until he was on his deathbed and he flirted with paganism for quite a while. Your example is instructive though. Our own country’s attitude toward religious pluralism originates from the doctrinal chaos of the Reformation. Different states had different established religions. The Constitution prohibits an establishment of religion at the federal level so that no one state’s religion would be imposed on the rest. This has been twisted into “separation of church and state”, a phrase used by communists as well. To them, it meant the eradication of religion. For us in America, it means the eradication of Christianity in the public realm – – the result of our “brilliant experiment”.

        My point is that Enlightenment Liberalism has resulted in an evil society which twists human nature, kills its unborn, destroys the institution of the family and results in great disharmony, suffering and disgrace. We have not created a society hospitable to Christianity. We have created a society which only tolerates a watered down version of Christianity for the moment and whose dominant social and political culture holds Christianity in contempt. Human freedom to choose Whom to worship is not the same thing as political freedom to embrace any moral paradigm we might choose. The law necessarily has a moral dimension.

        • Scott,

          Your discussion seems circular to me.

          I’ve never been sure what “Christendom” was, when “it” was, who was in charge of “it,” who decided “it” was a good idea, and am not clear whether you assert that that “Christendom” whatever and whenever it was, happened to be a model of “Orthodox government.”

          I’m not trying to be snarky here, but exactly what is — theoretcially or historically — a “model of Orthodox” (or “Christian”) government? (Neither Byzantium nor Czarist Russia can be fairly described as “model Orthodox” governments!) I largely believe that the Church Fathers do not speak affirmatively of “government” because government is irrelevant to their understanding of Orthodoxy as a way of living and theosis. Put overly simply, who needs government if everyone lived according to the Lord’s Prayer and the Golden Rule? But, even more so, Christ himself told us to render to Caeser what is Caesar’s.

          Vladimir’s edict proves my point. It, like any other effort to massively convert people, did nothing to “Christianize” Russia beyond giving it some historical designation. Forcible conversion is useless to the salvation of the “converted” and a sin by the converter, Vladimir included.

          “Doctrinal chaos of the Reformation?” There are 1500 years of doctrinal chaos before we ever get to the Reformation! And don’t sell Madison, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin and the others quite so short. Their fear of state mandated religion was not limited to protestant fragmentation.

          God given freedom is not equated with touchy feely political freedom — and I do not intend to suggest that it is. But, God given freedom may physically exist with the blessings of political freedom, as understood and defined in the West. Absent political freedom, exercising God given freedom fast manifests itself as martyrdom. Indeed, that’s largely Christianity’s “political” history of the first 300 some odd years.

          And, I’m not suggesting that the brilliant American Experiment on religious liberty is perfect in its application. Its role — at least in theory –is not to be “hospitable” to Christianity, Orthodoxy, Islam, Zoroastrianism, or witchcraft. Its role is to permit practice without proscription and prescription and not persecute it. As a political authority it guarantees no “winners.” Now, for a trillion and one reasons, the body politic — including putatively Orthodox Christians — have strayed and distorted the structure and intent of the Republic – from abortion to the dozens of other tolerated horrors.

          We have to admit a cold, hard reality. We are losing — if we have not already lost — the contemporary discourse because we do not properly and effectively witness. PERIOD. And yes, American democracy allows and to use your words, encourages, Islam. Why? Because the state does not force faith. To be sure, the political and cultural institution that is Islam (like communism) will hoist, if it can, Western democracies on their own petards. That’s the modus operendi. Our political correctness secrets this fact and may well be its ultimate demise.

          There is a tinge of paternalism in your discussion. I firmly BELIEVE that Orthodoxy shines in the right and proper path to my salvation. But, I for one cannot cloak myself in judgment to speak FOR God and conclude that he will be merciful upon me because I believe myself to be Orthodox, that government must be “Orthodox,” and will (or should) damn the preacher on State and Main because he is not.

          That’s not relativism — that’s Orthodoxy.

          Indeed, I think part of what the Archbishop is suggesting is that the foundation of the experiment have become twisted and ignored in political discourse. And that we need to reengage on that level.

          • Scott Pennington :

            “There is a tinge of paternalism in your discussion.”

            If you mean paternalism toward you, that was not my intention. If you mean paternalism as to government, there’s more than a tinge in my thought. I am not a democrat. I do not believe that democracy, whatever its form, is the best form of government.

            I admit that this country’s Constitution, as it was understood at the time of its inception, is not a bad document. If the states had continued with state establishment, it might have worked. I do not believe, however, that a state can govern well unless it is somehow tied to Christian morality in such a way that the popular will could not pull it away except with monumental difficulty. Establishment of Religion in an empire or other authoritarian type state serves that purpose.

            This does not mean that those who run the state will necessarily govern wisely. It simply means that the voice of the people is not the voice of God.

            “But, I for one cannot cloak myself in judgment to speak FOR God and conclude that he will be merciful upon me because I believe myself to be Orthodox, that government must be “Orthodox,” and will (or should) damn the preacher on State and Main because he is not.”

            Someone’s version of morality will be imposed by law. Some aggregate of the popular will and the will of nine justices is the morality that is imposed by law at the present moment. I would prefer it to be Orthodox morality. The alternative is . . . unorthodox morality. It really is zero sum and we lose sight of that when we engage in Western relativism.

            I am not interested in forcing anyone to be baptized and chrismated into Orthodoxy. But freedom of religion is a bit broader than that. In Russia after the fall of communism, for example, the Russian Federation essentially approved any religion that had been recognized for the last 10 or fifteen years and restricted all others at the discretion of the government. That allowed Orthodoxy, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism to operate with state approval. Everybody else needed permission. Effectively, this allowed a traditionally Orthodox country to regain its Orthodox heritage in spite of the fact that Protestant missionaries tried their darndest to do there what they’ve done in Latin America.

            I have no problem with that. I have no problem with a government saying that Christianity in general or Orthodoxy in particular should have a favored status. The Founders, in general (with the exception of Jefferson and some of the Deists), apparently did not have a problem with the establisment of religion at the state level. They most certainly allowed it.

            Viewpoint neutrality as it is practiced here in the USA is myopic and self defeating. It is a replacement of an imposition of Christian morality with the imposition of a progressive liberal (im)morality – – nothing more. The fact that the public allows this is more evidence that their is no longer a “moral majority” in the US. Thus, good representative government is not even theoretically possible here at this time.

            They could vote consistently for conservative morality at the presidential level and in the Senate. This would have the effect of putting originalists firmly in charge of the high court. They could rise up and amend the constitution to reflect Christian morality. They refuse to do either of those things.

            If you want to continue the “experiment”, by all means proceed. You will get similar results as have obtained in the recent past – – or worse. One of the definitions of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

            I am done with it. Orthodox thinkers really should devote some brainpower to what comes next instead of desperately defending a failed system that is on moral “life support”, vitals fading.

    • Nick Katich :

      “Our rights come from God, not from the state.”

      To the extent Christianity teaches that we have “rights”, I’m sure that this is correct. However, classical Christianity also taught that the state is an agent of God, and that its authority came from God. It most certainly did not teach that the state’s authority came from the consent of the governed. Now, a state can abuse this prerogative, to be sure.


      I’m not sure to what you refer. It is true that the Church, once it married the State, in the time of and post-Constantine, did suggest that the Emperor’s authority came from God. But that was because the Church enjoyed a special priviledge from the State (at least when apostate Emperors were not on the throne). But, that was pure, cold-blooded politics on the part of those leading the Church at that time. I would hardly characterize it as part of our dogma.

      The Lord only once directly spoke of the State when He said that we should render unto Ceasar what is Ceasar’s. Before doing that, He asked for a coin and asked whose picture was on the coin. What can we discern: the coin is his, his picture is on it, give it back to him so he can engage in self-adulation, but we are not permitted to keep it and give him adulation. It seems to me that what the Lord was saying was that no due respect was due to the State except to give them back what they try to force upon us — in that case, the Emperor’s currency.

      The Lord never taught that the State was an “agent of God or that its authority came from God”. In fact, his whole ministry was totally and unequovically opposed to the Empire, its injustice and its oppression.

      Do rights come from God? That depends on what right you are talking about. We were made “in the image of God”. Has anyone ever pondered what that means? Do we look like him? No. Our physical being is not like his ineffable subtance. What does it mean?

      The one thing that we can all say as a certainty about God is that He does what he pleases. In other words, He has total, unfettered free will. When He made us in His image, the image that He passed on to us was unfettered free will. That is what we share with God. That is what the Church ultimately teaches. Given that we have unfettered free will, we have the absolute, unfettered right to exercise that free will. Given that fact, any human authority that tries to contrain the unfettered exercise of that free will is acting contrary to and destructive of the image that He gave us. And that, my friend is the State in all its manifestations. The only contraint on the unfettered exercise of our free will is that we not affect another’s exercise of their unfettered free will. In other words, my unfettered exercise of my free will ends where your nose, so to speak, begins.

      That is the utlimate concept behind “Classical liberalism”, behind the American system as devised by the founding fathers, by Adam Smith, by unfettered free markets.

      • Scott:

        The Lord never taught that the State was an “agent of God or that its authority came from God”.

        There is this cursed sect that has appeared, which is very dangerous to the country and the Church, called “Jehovah’s Witnesses”. These are the staunchest opponents of government and Church. Run away from them like from the devils, like from Satan! Not only that these folks aren’t Christian, but they are worse than all pagans – because they neither recognise the Church, nor the government, and they do not believe in Christ.

        Watch out for every sect, remain sons of the Church of Christ, just as your parents and your grandparents and your ancestors have been from times immemorial.Elder Cleopa

        The Apostles taught so:

        Romans 13
        Submission to Governing Authorities
        1 Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

        6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
        Love Fulfills the Law
        8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,”[a] and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”[b] 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

      • Scott Pennington :


        Eliot did a nice job of replying before I had the opportunity.

        “Given that fact, any human authority that tries to contrain the unfettered exercise of that free will is acting contrary to and destructive of the image that He gave us. And that, my friend is the State in all its manifestations. The only contraint on the unfettered exercise of our free will is that we not affect another’s exercise of their unfettered free will. In other words, my unfettered exercise of my free will ends where your nose, so to speak, begins.”

        And that has nothing whatsoever to do with Christianity. No man is an island and all of our actions and omissions affect our neighbors.

      • Michael Bauman :

        Wow, Nick, I never knew that Jesus was a libertarian.

        What Jesus taught was submission to Him, in love, and submission to one another because of that love. That is not possible in a world of sin. Neither is it possible as a goal outside of Christ and His Church. God has consistently called us to community which necessarily involves fettering our free will as long as we have sin and are not moving from glory to glory.

        St. Paul articulated the logical out come: the state is necessary to restrain, even punish sin. For Paul, such authority does come from God. It is the authority of the state to restrain sinful behavior, not our rights that come from God. We have fettered our free will by our choice to sin. Death is the ultimate fetter.

        Any theory of government or polity that posits that we can exercise our freedom without fetters is delusional. The belief that the polity itself will provide appropriate fetters by selecting the good over the not-so-good without conscious decisions by authority, is also delusional.

        Fr. Seraphim Rose quite astutely pointed out that the philosophy reflected in your post was that of nihlism, not of freedom.

  7. Father, good point that for the Church to thrive here in the U.S., American Orthodox need to more thoughtfully and productively engage intellectually and theologically with American culture, and that means understanding it for what it is–including what is good and can be affirmed. I think Scott’s critique of the article is a good one, though. I will be interested to see how others engage both the article and comments.

    • Scott Pennington :


      I did not mean to sound uniformly negative regarding the article. The author does make some good points, including your observation about engaging American culture. I also think that Orthodox Triumphalism, to the extent it means gloating or any other arrogant attitude, is a bad idea. We should confess the Truth that has been entrusted to us in all humility. We do make an exclusive truth claim though. All “traditional” forms of Christianity do as well. To step away from that would be to step away from Orthodoxy. That is my concern with ecumenism as well as with Chambesy.

  8. Fr. Seraphim Rose & Orthodox triumphalism?
    Vatican astronomer cites possibility of extraterrestrial ‘brothers’…

    The strange “Christian” spirit of the “charismatic revival” is clearly identified in the Holy Scriptures and the Orthodox patristic tradition. According to these sources, world history will culminate in an almost superhuman “Christian” figure, the false messiah or antichrist. He will be “Christian” in the sense that his whole function and his very being will center on Christ, Whom he will imitate in every respect possible, and he will be not merely the greatest enemy of Christ, but in order to deceive Christians will appear to be Christ, come to earth for a second time and ruling from the restored Temple in Jerusalem.

    Let no one deceive you by any means, for that day shall not come except there come a falling away (apostasy) first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition, who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God… even him whose coming is after the working of Satan with all lying wonders, and with all deceivableness in them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved. And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie: that they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness (2 Thess. 2:3-4, 9-12).

    The Orthodox teaching concerning antichrist is a large subject in itself and cannot be presented here. But if, as the followers of the “charismatic revival” believe, the last days are indeed at hand, it is of crucial importance for the Orthodox Christian to be informed of this teaching concerning one who, as the Saviour Himself has told us, together with the “false prophets” of that time, shall show great signs and wonders, insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect (Matt. 24:24). And the “elect” are certainly not those multitudes of people who are coming to accept the gross and most unscriptural delusion that “the world is on the threshold of a great spiritual awakening,” but rather the “little flock” to which alone our Saviour has promised: It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom (Luke 12:32). Even the true “elect” will be sorely tempted by the “great signs and wonders” of antichrist; but most “Christians” will accept him without any question, for his “New Christianity” is precisely what they seek.

Care to Comment?