August 23, 2014

Obama and Moral Imagination

Newly elected President Obama, writes John Couretas, Executive Director of AOI in his essay “Obama and the Moral Imagination” frequently makes use of the phrase “common story.” This phrase “may sound strange to the ears. But it is impossible to understand the new president unless his brilliant use of narrative is first grasped,” Couretas says.

It’s a page taken from the Reagan playbook and masterfully executed. Couretas writes:

Reagan biographer Lou Cannon told the Chicago Tribune last year that Obama has “a narrative reach” and a talent for story telling that reminds him of the late president. Reagan “made other people a part of his own narrative, and that’s what Obama is doing,” Cannon said. “By doing it, it expands his reach because he isn’t necessarily just another partisan Democrat.”

A “common story” is a smaller narrative that ties into a larger one. This larger narrative reaches into, draws from, and informs the moral imagination — the place where values, morals, purpose, resolve, all the constituents that direct the individual, and bind communities and societies together, reside. American philosopher Russell Kirk, in his essay “The Moral Imagination” described moral imagination as, “the bank and capital of the ages, the normative knowledge found in revelation, authority, and historical experience.”

Couretas challenges Obama’s appropriation of the narrative even while acknowledging Obama’s facility in employing it. It’s a fair challenge. The radical social agenda of the hard left, while soft-pedaled during the campaign, has been moved front and center the first day Obama took office, including the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (go to the White House web site, scroll to “Support of the LBGT Community”). Social philosopher Dennis Prager implicitly makes the same point in an essay published today, “An Uninspiring Inaugural” although touching on different issues.

More directly, Couretas challenges cultural conservatives to recover the moral narrative in ways the affirm, rather than supplant, the enduring institutions and relationships. Couretas writes:

If religious conservatives…are to oppose Obama on those issues where there is fundamental disagreement, they will have to craft their own counter-narrative to “change the trajectory.” No small task.

When Obama invokes, as he did in his inaugural address, Washington’s inspiring words at Valley Forge about “hope and virtue,” it is not merely a matter of the new president finding a politically expedient way to link current troubles to the American revolutionary struggle. The story is, first of all, filled with truth. In telling and retelling the Valley Forge story, we understand ourselves as a nation. But it is not Obama’s story to do with as he pleases, one he can freely make use of without anchoring it to how Washington understood “hope and virtue.”

Couretas concludes by asking:

Will those who work in the tradition of the moral imagination provide a counter-narrative on those questions where there is a fundamental clash? Do they understand, as Kirk did, the need for “the renewal of our awareness of transcendent order, and the presence of the Other”? Will they find their voice?

(Readers interested in how the moral imagination shapes culture may benefit by reading Dr. Vigen Guroian’s “Moral Imagination, Humane Letters, and the Renewal of Society.”)

Comments

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    Scott Pennington says:

    Look folks, it’s over.

    I’m forced to agree with Michael Bauman’s observations during election that the American political scene has departed so far from Christianity that it is absolutely hopeless to participate in it. Conservatives, who were by no means that conservative, and certainly not traditionalists, soundly lost the culture war. The late Paul Weyrich observed during the late nineties that he did not believe that there was any longer a moral majority in America. That’s a rather polite way of saying what has been confirmed by the last election: Americans have become predominantly an evil people and America is, as a direct result of this, evil. A radical left wing President and a radical left wing Congress will not allow even the moderate conservatism of the Republicans to have any voice in govenment for the foreseeable future. Abortion, the killing of a million plus unborn each year – - get real used to it because nothing but direct divine intervention can stop it for as far as the eye can see. Social decay? Expect it to get worse than ever and progress more quickly.

    Yes, those Christians who choose to stay in America have a duty to proclaim the Gospel together with Christian morality. But the context has changed to one similar to the Church in the former Soviet Union. And all the deep thinking in the world about “narratives” won’t change it one bit.

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    Michael Bauman says:

    It may also be that the jurisdictional diversity we have here in the United States might be used by God to keep the Church more robust should Scott’s predictions come to pass, especially should genuine, direct persecution arise.

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    Wesley J. Smith says:

    Well, it was worse in the year 250–and look how that turned out.

    It may get worse before it gets better, but that just obligates us to greater efforts at telling the truth. Literally at stake in these matters of great public import, quite literally, are the very concept of universal human equality and the moral importance and relevance of being human. We will be held accountable not for failing to carry the day–that is out of our hands–but for not giving it our all.

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    Scott Pennington says:

    Wesley,

    Yes, you are quite right that it was worse in the year 250, in a sense. It was also worse in the Soviet Union, in a sense. But consider this: In pre-Christian Rome and the former Soviet Union it was only a very small clique that ruled and were actually responsible for the moral decisions and moral climate. Rome was an empire, nuff said. In the former Soviet Union, at it’s height of membership, the Communist party only had 15-16 million members out of a population of 320 million. My point here is that, in a sense, the culture that governs America and Western Europe may well be the most evil ever because it is actually a popular representative government which has degenerated into a moral abyss, not an autocracy or an oligarchy. The people themselves, the majority, are actually morally responsible for the evil in our society. This was not true with the Nazis (at least the most heinously evil things they did), it was not true of the Khmer Rouge, it was not true of the Soviets or the Chinese.

    Moreover, your comment raises another point. Although Christianity may have had a plurality of the population at the time of Constantine’s embrace and legalization of it, don’t ever forget that the rise of Christianity was seldom democratic. It was first a religion without political power and then an imperial religion.

    You can see the steady erosion and decline of Christendom over the same period as the Western world was becoming more representative. I believe that democracy inevitably degenerates into government at the whim of the passions. Christians should really in all seriousness consider whether it is even theoretically possible for a democratic society to remain Christian for any length of time.

    “Literally at stake in these matters of great public import, quite literally, are the very concept of universal human equality . . .”

    I have never bought the modernist notion that traditional Christianity is somehow an egalitarian faith when it comes to political power or class. History is a very powerful witness against this proposition.

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    Fr. Johannes Jacobse says:

    Scott writes:

    Christians should really in all seriousness consider whether it is even theoretically possible for a democratic society to remain Christian for any length of time.

    Democratic societies are not “Christian,” they are democratic. But a functioning democracy must rest on a substructure of individual moral virtue, and Christian virtue at that, it or morphs into tyranny (often in the name of freedom). The American Founding Fathers understood this explicitly.

    Moreover, your comment raises another point. Although Christianity may have had a plurality of the population at the time of Constantine’s embrace and legalization of it, don’t ever forget that the rise of Christianity was seldom democratic. It was first a religion without political power and then an imperial religion.

    Kind of…but not really. The transition of Constantine (actually the entire medieval period — West and East) was also the transition from a pagan to Christian worldview. In pagan times, the Emperor was chosen by the gods (victory validated the favor of the gods), but since Constantine’s God was the God of Abraham, his ascension to the throne revealed that a new God — the God above all gods, a monotheistic God – “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one God” — had revealed Himself in the universe and the affairs of men.

    Constantine, in other words, was the hinge between classical antiquity and the Christian era. This changed how people comprehended how the universe was structured and how it functioned including all the constituents that the change implied: human value, the organization of societies, responsibility towards others, etc. Hence his title, “Equal to the Apostles.” (Of course it took centuries for the ramifications of this change to manifest themselves.)

    This is very difficult for moderns to grasp because we think that the dynamics that shape our culture were the same throughout history. They weren’t. The older civilization drew from a completely different well (it was organized by a different narrative that drew from and informed a different moral imagination). Constantine’s legitimacy drew from the moral imagination informed by the pagan narrative, yet he supplanted that narrative by proclaiming the existence of only one God. It was a change that worked from the inside out and not a revolutionary overthrow, even though it overthrew classical antiquity in revolutionary ways.

    Thus, the implied critique that the Christianity of Constantine was tainted in the sense that it had a political and imperial dimension, is a modern sentiment read back into history. The early and medieval periods would not have regarded that sentiment as legitimate. They may not have even comprehended it. And it took centuries to play out. It is where notions like “the divine right of kings,” came from, and in some areas still exist today, for example. (This is not to say that there is no such thing as a divine right of kings, by the way.)

    Thus, Wesley Smith’s comment that the “very concept of universal human equality and the moral importance and relevance of being human” is at stake is absolutely true. It draws from the moral vision that has its roots in Judaism and its flourishing in Christianity (and “contained” in scripture). It’s the “fruit” if you will, of this tremendous change in moral vision that Christianity brought into the world.

    Putting it a finer touch on it: The deep penetration into the nature of creation, particularly the nature of man, reveals it has a moral character that also imposes a responsibility. The commandment to love God and neighbor is not just a moralistic truism in other words, but resonates within the very fabric of creation. That responsibility is defined in scripture as living “according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:7), which means that the work is a co-laboring with Christ that can be redemptive in nature. It’s the kind of work that releases creation from it’s bondage and why the creation waits for the manifestation of the sons of God (Romans 8:19).

    Solzhenitsyn said the next stage (and I think you can look at the transition from paganism to Christianity as a stage) will be more inward–an anthropological leap. This is what Wesley Smith is getting at too I think. He fights against dehumanization because of the violence it unleashes, especially against innocents. If this light goes out, only darkness will ensue. It’s combat, but it’s the kind of combat that is not against flesh and blood, but principalities and powers in high places. This is also why Smith’s exhortation that, “We will be held accountable not for failing to carry the day–-that is out of our hands–-but for not giving it our all” is accurate and correct.

    This discussion also ties into to what John Couretas wrote about the moral imagination and how narrative informs it. In some ways, the slide into post-modernism is also an opportunity because the primary and foundational narrative — the Gospel of Jesus Christ — just might be heard again with open ears and heart. Nothing is more powerful than the spoken word of truth. (I wonder sometimes if the ancient pagans were closer to the notion that narrative is the gateway to meaning, purpose, and value, than us moderns who get lost in increasingly complex metaphysical structures.)

    When God spoke, the world was created out of nothing. When He speaks again it is through his prophets and apostles. Yet it is the word of a recreating truth. How? When the Gospel is preached, Christ, who is Truth, is revealed. And while the first “speaking” created the world (words spoken through Christ — the pre-incarnate Logos/Word), the second speaking is the apostolic word — the Gospel, that redeems that fallen world.

    It happens through us, when we are made new — “born again of water and spirit.” Again, this is not a proposition, a theological maxim, a metaphysical construct. It deals with the way the universe is oriented and structured, the way light and life flows into it, the way man ontologically is.

    Fr. Seraphim Rose was right: the slide into nihilism is the struggle of the age. But light shines more brightly in darkness and we are called to bring forth light. So yes, was very dark in 250AD, and yet out of the chaos and the depravity it engendered, the light flooded forth.

    The people themselves, the majority, are actually morally responsible for the evil in our society. This was not true with the Nazis (at least the most heinously evil things they did), it was not true of the Khmer Rouge, it was not true of the Soviets or the Chinese.

    There is no such thing as “the people.” There is only you. The line between good and evil exists in our hearts as individuals. There is however, a world of difference between a democracy and tyranny — between the relative freedoms we still enjoy in the United States and the terror regimes of, say, a Stalin or Pol Pot. Democracy can function as individual virtue flourishes. This makes our obligation in the present calamity all the more pressing.

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    John Couretas says:

    I am grateful for these comments and the opportunity to discuss the “moral imagination” here at AOI. I want to respond to this comment by Scott:

    My point here is that, in a sense, the culture that governs America and Western Europe may well be the most evil ever because it is actually a popular representative government which has degenerated into a moral abyss, not an autocracy or an oligarchy. The people themselves, the majority, are actually morally responsible for the evil in our society. This was not true with the Nazis (at least the most heinously evil things they did), it was not true of the Khmer Rouge, it was not true of the Soviets or the Chinese.

    If Scott is saying that the “people” who lived under these murderous totalitarian regimes were not responsible for the government they got, then he is utterly mistaken. Russians like Solzhenitsyn and other prominent dissidents, even under the Soviet regime, were harshly critical of their own. This is from my review of the Solzhenitsyn Reader (ISI, 2006):

    In a chapter of the Gulag Archipelago that looks at the history of the Soviet political police, one of the interrogators tells a condemned man: “Interrogation and trial are merely judicial corroboration. They cannot alter your fate, which was previously decided. If it is necessary to shoot you, then you will be shot even if you are altogether innocent. If it is necessary to acquit you, then no matter how guilty you are you will be cleared and acquitted.”

    The chapter closes with the narrator discussing the just punishment for evildoers. He talks about the vigorous prosecution of Nazi war criminals in West Germany—by one count some 86,000 convicted by 1966. And he compares that with the almost total lack of any justice served for the architects of Soviet terror: “Someday our descendents will describe our several generations as generations of driveling do-nothings. First we submissively allowed them to massacre us by the millions, and then with devoted concern we tended the murderers in their prosperous old age.”

    We are all responsible for the sort of government we get and we are all called to be faithful, no matter if we think that evil is somehow in control of our nation. As Scott puts it, “get real used to it because nothing but direct divine intervention can stop it for as far as the eye can see.” To me, that is simply raising the white flag of surrender, a completely defeatist attitude. Did God create us to be quitters? St. Paul, that great persevering Apostle, commands us to “take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in evil day, and having done all, to stand.” (Eph. 6:13)

    Did the Founders throw up their hands and say, “What can we do? It’s madness to fight the British Empire with our puny resources.” No, they saw the Revolutionary cause as their own working out of God’s plan, a realization of our freedom as bearers of the “image and likeness.” And they were willing to sacrifice all.

    Worse yet is the notion that the Orthodox Church can dismissively stand apart from the evil we see in the culture and not be touched by it. Passivity is not an option, in my view.

    This is from an essay by theologian Savvas Agourides published in a book titled The Orthodox Ethos (Holywell Press, 1964):

    The question before us is whether or not Orthodoxy is actually — as her doctrine emphasizes and as she appears to the heterodox by reason of her wealth of ritual — a mystical, static ‘communion of worship,’ without dynamism, without prophetic breath, without any wish to take part in the reshaping of the social environment in which her faithful live. Is Orthodoxy really cut off from the roots of prophetism? This question becomes even more serious when we remember that there are Orthodox intellectuals who maintain that the essence and the glory of Orthodoxy is that it raises man from earth to heaven in an atmosphere of mystical exaltation. For them, every social declaration and every effort by the Orthodox Church seriously to concern itself with the great social problems of our time constitutes deviation and adulteration. They express a fear that the Church’s interest in worldly matters will diminish her interest in the heavenly; that her concern for the material, intellectual, and social needs of her flock will be to the detriment of prayer, the life of worship, and the practice of and delight in devotion. For this group of Orthodox, social concern on the part of the Church means the secularization of Orthodoxy.

    Today, that is still “the question before us.”

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    Scott Pennington says:

    It will take a few paragraphs to defend what I wrote above in light of the observations of Fr. Jacobse and Mr. Couretas.

    Regarding Fr. Jacobse’s comments:

    “Democratic societies are not “Christian,” they are democratic.”

    Well, I would agree with that statement in a very technical sense. Indeed, that was one point of my observations. However, for some period of time, I think a democracy can remain Christian. I do have to insist that it is possible to categorize a society as Christian in the sense of it being ruled by general Christian principles of morality. This society is no longer.

    I wrote – ” . . . don’t ever forget that the rise of Christianity was seldom democratic. It was first a religion without political power and then an imperial religion.”

    Fr Jacobse wrote – “Kind of…but not really.”

    Yes, really. Show me an early democratic Christian government. While your observations about the transition from pagan to Christian are valid to a large extent, you have offered nothing to indicate that “the divine right of kings” is less Christian than modern democracy.

    “Thus, Wesley Smith’s comment that the “very concept of universal human equality and the moral importance and relevance of being human” is at stake is absolutely true.”

    I cannot agree with your vision or revision of what Christian history has been. Christianity as the basis of society was strongest in Christendom, an unequal and by modern terms unfree society, and much weaker in a free society. You seem to want to impose a model of a Christianizing evolution in human civilization which has simply been derailed by modern philosophies like progressive liberalism and Marxism. When people are guaranteed the freedom to believe or not to believe anything at all, the passions over the generations lead them to vote in secular unchristian laws, elect secular unchristian leaders and to create a secular unchristian society. Freedom is the problem.

    “There is no such thing as ‘the people’. There is only you. The line between good and evil exists in our hearts as individuals.”

    I was waiting for someone to wheel out this observation. I have heard it repeated many times by those eager to ignore the evils of their own or other societies. If we are to be able to converse in some logical fashion, I think we have to agree on the existence of such a thing as a society. If not, there’s nothing to talk about because one of us is being disingenuous.

    Regarding Mr. Couretas’s observations:

    “If Scott is saying that the “people” who lived under these murderous totalitarian regimes were not responsible for the government they got, then he is utterly mistaken.”

    No sir, I’m not, and in truth you tarnish the reputations of countless millions of Russians, Cambodians, etc. who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when monsters took over their country. If they had voted to engage in genocide or to impose a militant atheist police state then you could make that observation. Now, I will admit that many people were guilty of complacency or being intimidated by regimes they could not hope to topple and therefore collaborating. But that was under extreme duress. No, they, relatively speaking, are innocent and we, at least those of us who ushered in our own era of abortion, perversion and the destruction of the family life by voting for those who support these evils, are guilty.

    Now, as to the critique about “throwing up the white flag”, nothing I’ve suggested should prompt you to take that meaning. My observations were a purely pragmatic assessment of the present political situation in light of Christian morality. The majority of the public (and they are not figments of my imagination) have chosen evil over good in such a habitual manner that it is fair to characterize them as “evil”. The policies of the new government they have elected are also, to a disheartening degree, evil. If one has Christian values there should be nothing controversial in those statements. I do not for a second deny the evil in my own heart. I just have to observe that it is possible to make distinctions in degree of depravity.

    The question is what to do about that situation. As I have also said, I am certainly in favor of evangelism. I can no longer support participation in the electoral process. Also, I think that in the Church we could use a kind of “fundamentalist” revival. By this I mean that the Church can no longer afford to be so tolerant of anti-Christian behavior in its members. The Catholics, to our shame, are at least beginning to exercise eucharistic discipline regarding those who publicly support abortion “rights”. In the early Church, miss three liturgies and you were lapsed. O, how the mighty have fallen! Now we have the Patriarch of Constantinople recognizing pro-abortion Senators as outstanding Orthodox Christians. If you want to change society, forget about voting for a progressive liberal vs. a centrist or moderate conservative, it’s meaningless. Slow death or quick death. Those are the choices the parties allow. Instead, teach children and adults traditional Orthodox morality. Build churches without pews where the genders are separated and women cover their heads. Insist on male headship in the family and be loathe to grant divorces except under rare circumstances. Refuse the chalice to those who engage in notorious misbehavior and refuse to repent. Yes, you will lose large numbers of parishoners at first. That is why the hierarchy of most of the jurisdictions refuses to consider it. But at least then your congregations would actually be Orthodox and Orthopracticing, wholeheartedly. That might change the country and the world. Certainly it would change the hearts of the faithful. But if we’re not willing to do that, then what kind of kingdom are we actually bringing people into? One with suggestively dressed women and girls, easy divorce, disregard of traditional morality, etc. In that context, does evangelism really matter? Not everyone who cries, Lord, Lord will be saved. Only those who do His will.

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    Wesley J. Smith says:

    Father Johannes put it extremely well.

    But I think another point needs to be made. If there is no male and no female, no Greek and no Jew, no master and no slave, and if God is not a respecter of persons, how can we all be anything but morally equal?

    As I see it, we are each responsible for our own conduct and attitudes regardless of our society’s circumstances. Whether we live in a relatively benign society, as still exists in the West, or a brutally repressive one, our core obligations to God, to the Church, and to humankind do not change. The holy martyrs understood that. The people who hid Anne Frank’s family understood that. “Righteous gentiles” like Oscar Schindler understood that. Bonhoeffer understood it, as did the people who associated with and helped Fr. Arseny, etc.

    Moreover, in a free society we have a much greater chance to prevent a slide into darkness making, if anything, our moral accountability even greater. We have no right to quit even if only five of us remain in sack cloth and ashes yelling, “Repent,” in front of the city gates.

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    Fr. Johannes Jacobse says:

    Scott, are you implicitly arguing for a restoration of monarchy? Some idea of social order is driving your critique but you don’t indicate what it is.

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    Fr. Johannes Jacobse says:

    Scott, I edited my comment a bit to clarify some ambiguities. Some of them you noted:

    While your observations about the transition from pagan to Christian are valid to a large extent, you have offered nothing to indicate that “the divine right of kings” is less Christian than modern democracy.

    Agreed. I think the notion of a “divine right of kings” reflects something true and real.

    I cannot agree with your vision or revision of what Christian history has been. Christianity as the basis of society was strongest in Christendom, an unequal and by modern terms unfree society, and much weaker in a free society.

    My point is that there is no such thing as “Christian history,” just as there is no such thing as “Marxist history” or “Feminist history,” etc. In other words, history is narrative, a story, and crafting a grand narrative through these categories is reductionist — the elevation of identity politics and thus ideology on one hand, or the reduction of the Gospel to a principle of social organization on the other.

    Now, if you want to reframe the point as, say, a history of the European people, or a history of the American people, or the history of the Orthodox Church, or even the history of Christendom (where “Christendom” is understood as the people whose culture is shaped by Christianity, ie: Western Civilization), then we can do business.

    You see, culture, and thus societies, are fluid. The values, beliefs, ideas, etc. that shape them are not fixed in stone. That’s why they change (and change does not necessarily imply progress — look at the Bolshevik Revolution for example). Christianity does not really form the “basis of a society,” at least in terms of laying out its organizing principles. It’s deeper than that.

    My hunch is that you see Christian monarchy as the preferred form of government. I don’t know this, but it’s a conclusion I draw from your critique of the moral corruption in modern democracies (a concern I share, by the way).

    Your reply to my quote about Solzhenitsyn and the line between good and evil resting in the human heart…

    I was waiting for someone to wheel out this observation. I have heard it repeated many times by those eager to ignore the evils of their own or other societies. If we are to be able to converse in some logical fashion, I think we have to agree on the existence of such a thing as a society. If not, there’s nothing to talk about because one of us is being disingenuous.

    …doesn’t deny the existence of society or the evils within it. It just affirms that the health of any society (including monarchies) depends ultimately on how the individuals within it choose to live. My point is that speaking of society in terms of a singular unit (the “people,” the “masses,” etc.) opens the door to large scale ideological manipulation that always ends up in some kind of Jacobin terror. Christians can fall into this habit of mind too (I am not implying that you have, but only explaining why I resist those categories).

    Christ said, “Love thy neighbor,” not “Love the masses.”

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    Scott Pennington says:

    “If there is no male and no female, no Greek and no Jew, no master and no slave, and if God is not a respecter of persons, how can we all be anything but morally equal?”

    First of all, I have no idea what your point is with this. I have heard the above quote used and abused. It has been used to justify women’s ordination. Note that neither Paul nor the other Apostles forbade slavery, Jesus ordained no women, Jews didn’t cease to be Hebrew and Greeks didn’t cease to be Greek, so it makes more sense to interpret that passage as saying that there are not different classes of Christians (in contradistinction to, for example, the Hindu castes). If your point is that we are all morally equal then, while I am willing to consider myself first among sinners, I have to disagree with that statement if it means that we cannot make moral distinctions between this or that person’s habitual actions.

    But my point in challenging your statement above about universal equality was not along either of these lines actually. I just think that egalitarian political arrangements have shown themselves incompatible with maintaining Christian social values.

    “As I see it, we are each responsible for our own conduct and attitudes regardless of our society’s circumstances. Whether we live in a relatively benign society, as still exists in the West, or a brutally repressive one, our core obligations to God, to the Church, and to humankind do not change. The holy martyrs understood that. The people who hid Anne Frank’s family understood that. “Righteous gentiles” like Oscar Schindler understood that. Bonhoeffer understood it, as did the people who associated with and helped Fr. Arseny, etc.”

    My point was not that people in the Soviet Union were not responsible for their own moral conduct. That is a canard you have created along with the stuff about “waving the white flag”. What I meant was that the moral crimes of the purges, the actions of Cheka and the KGB, and the general evil nature of the government were not the product of the popular will but of the moral depravity of a relatively small clique. Here, our depravity is a product of the will of the people, the majority. My observation is that the evil of our whole society is attributable to at least a majority of Americans. That is in sharp contradistinction to the evils of the Soviet empire, the Khmer Rouge, etc. That is why I stated that “in a sense” our society takes the prize for the most evil. That “sense” is that the people, the majority, are directly morally responsible for our evil policies.

    “Moreover, in a free society we have a much greater chance to prevent a slide into darkness making, if anything, our moral accountability even greater.”

    I would rephrase that as the following: “In a free society, since we could, if we wished, prevent a slide into darkness, our moral accountability is even greater.”

    Because, regardless of what you or I would like, the people in a democracy, because they are free to define morality and responsibility any way they choose, will, due to enslavement to the passions, choose evil and destroy the moral health of the society. If you show me a democracy where this has not happened, I will be glad to reconsider my convictions on this point.

    “Scott, are you implicitly arguing for a restoration of monarchy? Some idea of social order is driving your critique but you don’t indicate what it is.”

    I am not sure what the best form of government is and I think it always has a lot to do with the morality of (not to irritate you, but I’m not going to change my language to suit your pet semantic preferences) the people.

    What I am arguing emphatically, not implicitly, is that democracy is, by it’s very structure, antithetical to Christian values – - at least in the long run.

    Monarchies and empires can work. Autocracies, oligarchies, etc. – - they might end up as relatively moral societies or end up in awful abuses of power. However, democracy, because it relies on the morality of the people free from religious obligation, ends up in moral squalor because there is no effective counter to the aggregate effect of the passions of individuals upon the political process.

    “. . . if you want to reframe the point as, say, a history of the European people, or a history of the American people, or the history of the Orthodox Church, or even the history of Christendom (where “Christendom” is understood as the people whose culture is shaped by Christianity, ie: Western Civilization), then we can do business.”

    We’re not doing business. We’re having a conversation. And if you want to understand my comments about Christian history as being about the history of Christian peoples because it fits your particular model of understanding history and semantics, then feel free. But I’m not going to translate what I say into whatever model you wish to come up with. If that means we can’t “do business”, then so be it.

    “Your reply to my quote about Solzhenitsyn and the line between good and evil resting in the human heart . . . doesn’t deny the existence of society or the evils within it. It just affirms that the health of any society (including monarchies) depends ultimately on how the individuals within it choose to live.”

    I understand your point. However, bad company corrupts good manners. Government and society as a whole has a profound effect on what people perceive as right and wrong. Were the current legal regime in this country one that severely restricted abortion, and were the culture and media adamant about abortion not being an “option” or “right” for women, then we would not have so many pro-choice Orthodox. Were the current legal regime predisposed to establish and enforce more conservative standards of public decency, we would not have girls wearing miniskirts to church, even if the church had no dress code (which it should). Context matters a lot. So when you write as you did above:

    “There is no such thing as ‘the people’. There is only you. The line between good and evil exists in our hearts as individuals. There is however, a world of difference between a democracy and tyranny — between the relative freedoms we still enjoy in the United States and the terror regimes of, say, a Stalin or Pol Pot. Democracy can function as individual virtue flourishes.”

    I have to observe that there is not “only me”. No man is an island. There is a line in the human heart between good and evil. There is also a line in society between good and evil. Furthermore, while I would certainly prefer to live here in the United States than in the former Soviet Union, it is also true that the greatness of the evils here are all the more scandalous because they were not foisted upon the American people by a small ruling clique but voted in or tolerated by the majority of Americans. And if I haven’t made it clear yet, I believe that democracy is the enemy of individual virtue.

    “Christ said, ‘Love thy neighbor,’ not ‘Love the masses.’”

    Cheap rhetorical point. The term “masses” was not in use then, or not used as a translation of biblical terminology, I should say. Instead, terms such as “the people”, “the multitude”, etc. were used:

    “And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.”

    “Be it known unto you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom ye crucified, whom God raised from the dead, even by him doth this man stand here before you whole.”

    “Then Jesus called his disciples unto him, and said, I have compassion on the multitude, because they continue with me now three days, and have nothing to eat: and I will not send them away fasting, lest they faint in the way.”

    You have a strange fascination with trying to control the way other people use language.

    By the way, gentlemen, if my tone at any point seems combative, I apologize. When I perceive I’m being condescended to I tend to respond to that by sharpening my points. There is no ill will intended.

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    Wesley J. Smith says:

    Scott: If I sounded condescending, it was inadevertent. Forgive me.

    The point of that quote is that Christian social values are radical precisely in that they do accept that each of our life’s value as equal regardless of our political arrangments. The intrinsic worth of the Orthodox Emperor would be no greater than that of the least begger in the Empire. Indeed, a truly Orthodox Emperor would be the most humble servant of all, wouldn’t he?

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    Fr. Johannes Jacobse says:

    Scott, yes, your tone is combative, but that’s OK. I like points sharpened so no offense taken, and none given on my end either.

    What I am arguing emphatically, not implicitly, is that democracy is, by it’s very structure, antithetical to Christian values – - at least in the long run.

    Dostoevsky warned of the coming tyranny long before Lenin emerged. He saw the signs in the cultural decay around him. That was a monarchy. No one believed Germany would sink to the depths that it did, not before it happened anyway. A chief reason for the decline was that the Church had become indistinguishable from the rest of culture. The seeds of decay were sown long before the tyrant emerged.

    However, democracy, because it relies on the morality of the people free from religious obligation, ends up in moral squalor because there is no effective counter to the aggregate effect of the passions of individuals upon the political process.

    If you are arguing that Democracy has no intrinsic mechanism to control the conscience, I agree. If you are arguing that the legal and political structures have been subverted to sanction license in the name of liberty, you find no argument from me either. I’ll even take it one step farther: The Church has been complicit in some of this decline as well by refusing to chastise their own (Senators Sarbanes and Snowe Betray the Moral Heritage of the Orthodox Christian Faith). But it is not true that democracy relies on a people free from moral obligation.

    The American Founders taught that the American Republic can only survive on the bedrock of morality. I touched on this in my article “Orthodox Leadership in a Brave New World:”

    No one has really been comfortable with the arrangement, except perhaps the activists. Adding to the discomfort is our characteristically American way of adjudicating moral conflict. American culture has no institution of moral judgment. We have no national Church, no council of legislative elders, and no final court of arbitration that can definitively resolve the perplexing moral questions that face us. As a result, the debates and political maneuverings that follow are often raucous and chaotic affairs.

    There is wisdom in this system of apparent chaos, however. The Founding Fathers, in refusing to establish a central authority of moral judgment, ensured that these questions must be addressed by the culture itself, thereby affirming the precept, politics follows culture, in ways that inhibit any imposition of a final adjudication from the state.

    This precept is also drawn from the Christian tradition. It is grounded in the notion that the power of the state draws not only from the consent of the people, but from a people grounded in the Christian moral tradition. Solzhenitsyn, again stressing the anthropological dimension, himself acknowledged this point in the Harvard address:

    Yet in the early democracies, as in the American democracy at the time of its birth, all individual human rights were granted on the ground that man is God’s creature. That is, freedom was given to the individual conditionally, in the assumption of his constant religious responsibility.

    Democracy is not free of moral obligation. (For a good discussion of these themes, check out Roger Scruton’s article, “The Limits of Liberty” in this month’s American Spectator, especially the section “Religion and Liberty.”)

    Will America be able to pull out of its decline? I don’t know. Secularism is a beguiling and pernicious heresy. But Solzhenitsyn’s phrase “constant religious responsibility” gives me hope. Many people sense this responsibility, even if dimly. I take the current spate of books by the “New Atheists” as a contra-indicator: If God is not, then why all this effort to drive the point home? But it’s an indicator that has a dangerous side too: If the Christian moral narrative is supplanted, the one that replaces it (using the language of the moral tradition), will be dark indeed.

    What gives me final hope however, is that the Gospel of Jess Christ is true. I mean here that the proclamation that Christ has resurrected from the dead and that death has been overthrown is not merely a proposition, but the doorway through which the very power of God, who redeems all, enters the world.

    Still, I value my freedom. I don’t have to worry, not yet anyway, for the knock on the door that comes for expressing an unpopular view. We don’t need samizdat. We have blogs that anyone is free to read. This is something I do not take lightly. There is still much worth preserving.

    There is a line in the human heart between good and evil. There is also a line in society between good and evil.

    Careful here Scott. Yes, cultural institutions become corrupted, but if you place the locus of change in the institutions, rather than the people running them, you can end up fornicating with the tyrant. That’s what the religious left did (See: United Churches of Castro). Some on the right display the tendency as well.

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    Scott Pennington says:

    “The intrinsic worth of the Orthodox Emperor would be no greater than that of the least begger in the Empire. Indeed, a truly Orthodox Emperor would be the most humble servant of all, wouldn’t he?”

    Absolutely, Wesley. I agree 100%.

    “But it is not true that democracy relies on a people free from moral obligation.”

    I don’t really think it’s a question of reliance. I’m an attorney and am somewhat familiar with our constitutional origins. It is true that a number of the Founding Fathers would have agreed that our constitutional system could only succeed so long as we had a relgious populace:

    “As Benjamin Franklin left the Constitutional Convention, on September 18, 1787, a certain Mrs. Powel shouted out to him: ‘Well, doctor, what have we got?,’ and Franklin responded: ‘A Republic, if you can keep it.’”

    Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.
    - John Adams

    The problem though is that while a democracy needs a religious people to make it morally sound, democracy, by it’s very nature, subverts religion by its insistence on government by popular consensus. Think about what the Church would be like if it were governed by popular consensus (I mean as to doctrine). It would be much like the progressive Protestant “churches” we see today. So when you write, “But it is not true that democracy relies on a people free from moral obligation.” I would, strictly speaking, agree with you. But democracy has a fatal flaw: It is incapable of imposing any moral obligation that the popular will cannot overcome at the ballot. Human nature being what it is, this, I fear inevitably, leads democracies to descend into depravity. If there could be some unchangeable imposition of Christian morality written into the constitution of a republic, or perhaps something that would require some overwhelming majority to overturn, then there might be some hope. But that is extraordinarily unlikely.

    “Yes, cultural institutions become corrupted, but if you place the locus of change in the institutions, rather than the people running them, you can end up fornicating with the tyrant.”

    I will be happy to fall right into your trap: If for some reason – - say a national security situation developed where it was clear the present administration was incompetent to preserve the nation – - and some group of generals, ideally, committed Christians, gathered together and said to themselves, in so many words, “the Constitution is not a suicide pact.”, proceeded to take power and reformed a dramatically less representative government along the lines of traditional Christian moral principles, not only would I not object but I would thank God. If, on the other hand, a godless, socialistic government emerged through whatever process, I would say that either peaceful resistance or militant resistance would be in order. The form of government is not so important to me as its character. What I am arguing is that, unfortunately, democracy cannot sustain a Christian morality for a long period of time because of human nature and the freedom granted voters in such a republic.

    “There is wisdom in this system of apparent chaos, however. The Founding Fathers, in refusing to establish a central authority of moral judgment, ensured that these questions must be addressed by the culture itself, thereby affirming the precept, politics follows culture, in ways that inhibit any imposition of a final adjudication from the state.

    This precept is also drawn from the Christian tradition. It is grounded in the notion that the power of the state draws not only from the consent of the people, but from a people grounded in the Christian moral tradition.”

    First of all, I’m trying to fathom how you can assert that the precept of politics following the culture is drawn from Christian tradition. From the ascendancy of Christianity to the end of Christendom, it seems like establishment of religion was the norm and the state was in charge of imposing Christian morality. When it didn’t, the Church was often happy to remind it of its obligation. Deriving from the culture had nothing to do with it. The only way to preseve a society in which the people are grounded in Christian moral tradition is through imposing a binding involuntary obligation upon them to do so. If not, some will stay grounded and some won’t and the fact that there is no “central authority of moral judgment” will ensure (let history be my evidence) that the culture, and thus the policy of the government, will devolve into the aggregate will of unbridled passions.

    There is a saying I have heard more than a few times: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” If you really believe that there is any hope for Christian culture in the democratic process of this country, by virtue of re-evangelizing the people or by whatever other route, then pursue it. While I think it is wise to treat this country as pagan and desperately in need of conversion, and while I strongly support evangelism (but true evangelism, where a stark contrast is presented between Orthodox culture and American culture, as in ROCOR, the Serbian Orthodox, and even the Greek Old-Calendarist churches), I do not expect or place any hope in the possiblility that this evangelism will result in a more moral government (unless a Constantine arises and reorders the government).

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    Fr. Johannes Jacobse says:

    Scott, sorry for the late reply.

    But democracy has a fatal flaw: It is incapable of imposing any moral obligation that the popular will cannot overcome at the ballot. Human nature being what it is, this, I fear inevitably, leads democracies to descend into depravity.

    Many of the moves towards the undermining of the civic morality came from the courts, such thing as extending free speech to cover pornography, privacy to cover abortion, Kelo and the functional abolition of the right of private property, homosexual marriage, etc. Yes, it is true that democracy is not the well-spring of virtue, but many of the laws that enforced, and thus implicitly taught, right behavior were undermined not at the ballot box, but in the courtrooms.

    But yes, your implicit point that the horse is out of the barn is well taken, although I take the view that the decline has its roots in culture, not government, even though government has certainly expedited the process (law is also a teacher).

    First of all, I’m trying to fathom how you can assert that the precept of politics following the culture is drawn from Christian tradition.

    Because democracy, like free markets, respects freedom, a value intrinsic in Christian anthropology. This does not mean democracy is “Christian,” but that it developed from Christian ideas (a culture informed by Christian values), and thus most suited for, yet dependent on, a people who practice those values.

    If not, some will stay grounded and some won’t and the fact that there is no “central authority of moral judgment” will ensure (let history be my evidence) that the culture, and thus the policy of the government, will devolve into the aggregate will of unbridled passions.

    Yes, but the statement is not complete. It is not that democracy inevitably portends a devolution into an “aggregate will of unbridled passions.” That has happened plenty of times in non-democratic societies as well. More precise would be a statement like: When culture devolves into an aggregate of unbridled passions, some kind of authoritarian or (in our age) totalitarian rule will result. Or maybe – God forbid – the free societies weaken themselves to the point where they become vulnerable to conquest — Islam in this case. That, too, would take care of the problem of widespread moral decadence.

    If you really believe that there is any hope for Christian culture in the democratic process of this country, by virtue of re-evangelizing the people or by whatever other route, then pursue it

    It’s not that I believe the democratic process can make moral people, it’s that I believe moral renewal is the only hope for preserving democracy — a form of self-rule I believe is worth preserving. I don’t look for the reemergence of a Constantine type figure. I can’t happen. The historical epoch in which a cultural change of the type Constantine fostered has passed (I explained the dynamics — paganism transforming into a Christian world view — upstream).

    If — God forbid — a figure does emerge who promises the restoration of order through the enforcement of particular virtues, the virtues will be the inversion of Christian social mores, although using the vocabulary of the moral tradition and thus “familiar” to the ears of the uninformed. (Just look how the term “tolerance” is misapplied for example, or abortion promoted as a civic “right,” or the euphemisms justifying euthanasia, etc.) In short, the only figure who could arise in the present cultural context must necessarily be an anti-Christ figure. It can’t be any other way. And this will lead to a tyranny, perhaps one willingly accepted because people cannot live in the civic chaos that moral decline fosters.

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    Scott Pennington says:

    “Yes, it is true that democracy is not the well-spring of virtue, but many of the laws that enforced, and thus implicitly taught, right behavior were undermined not at the ballot box, but in the courtrooms.”

    If the people wished to overturn any or all of the above decisions, they could through a) constitutional amendments or b) voting only for candidates who pledged to appoint originalist justices. They have not so they are as culpable as the justices who voted for these decisions.

    “It is not that democracy inevitably portends a devolution into an “aggregate will of unbridled passions.” That has happened plenty of times in non-democratic societies as well.”

    Yes, it is indeed that democracy “inevitably protends a devolution into an ‘aggregate will of unbridled passions’”. I do not suggest that other non-democratic forms of government cannot sink into a similar mire, just that, inevitably, democracy will and, therefore, that it is not compatible with Christianity.

    “Because democracy, like free markets, respects freedom, a value intrinsic in Christian anthropology.”

    If political democracy were a value intrinsic to Christian anthropology it would have emerged in Christian civilization long before the age when traditional Christianity was losing its moral and cosmological allegiance among the people.

    “If — God forbid — a figure does emerge who promises the restoration of order through the enforcement of particular virtues, the virtues will be the inversion of Christian social mores, . . . In short, the only figure who could arise in the present cultural context must necessarily be an anti-Christ figure. It can’t be any other way.”

    My, you are quite the prophet. You provide no proof or reasoning for this opinion. I am getting the feeling that you are more attached to democracy than to Christianity. Sooner or later, probably much later, Christians will have to face the manifest reality of social development in democratic societies.

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    Fr. Johannes Jacobse says:

    Scott writes:

    If the people wished to overturn any or all of the above decisions, they could through a) constitutional amendments or b) voting only for candidates who pledged to appoint originalist justices. They have not so they are as culpable as the justices who voted for these decisions.

    It’s not as easy at that Scott. Look at what is happening in California regarding Proposition 8: Arguments in place as Prop. 8 hearing nears. What happens if Prop 8 is overturned? My worry is that it signals the end of our constitutional republic.

    Yes, it is indeed that democracy “inevitably protends a devolution into an ‘aggregate will of unbridled passions’”. I do not suggest that other non-democratic forms of government cannot sink into a similar mire, just that, inevitably, democracy will and, therefore, that it is not compatible with Christianity.

    It is not so much that “democracy is compatible with Christianity” but that democracy, planted on the bedrock of Christian virtue, ensures liberty. That’s what makes democracy worth preserving, and why the threat to democracy is not intrinsic to the system itself, but comes from the culture that increasingly eschews virtue.

    Implicit in you argument is the idea that government is the primary caretaker of social virtue and thus culture. My problem with your approach is that while it might differ in detail, it’s essentially the same claim that the materialists (cultural Marxists, atheists, Progressives, etc.) make. I don’t see much difference between your view and a secularist view frankly, not in substance anyway.

    If political democracy were a value intrinsic to Christian anthropology it would have emerged in Christian civilization long before the age when traditional Christianity was losing its moral and cosmological allegiance among the people.

    You lost a critical distinction in the rewrite. I did not say that “democracy” was a value intrinsic to Christian anthropology. I said that the respect of freedom within democracy is a value instrinsic to Christian anthropology. The freedom that democracy seeks to protect) however, is conditionally given. It relies on a virtuous citizenry. Lose the virtue, the freedom goes and tyranny ensues (although it occurs in the name of freedom; the non-vigilant won’t see it coming).

    My, you are quite the prophet. You provide no proof or reasoning for this opinion. I am getting the feeling that you are more attached to democracy than to Christianity. Sooner or later, probably much later, Christians will have to face the manifest reality of social development in democratic societies.

    No, not really a prophet. I am not predicting it will happen, only speculating on the form it will take if it does. It’s not that difficult. Just project the cultural universals forward and the shape the decline will take is not that hard to discern.

    No, I am attached to the gospel, but I know the American experiment with liberty is noble — and fragile. (It’s not an accident that all the refugee movements of the last century were directed to American shores.) I also know that Christian ideals formed and shaped this great experiment — something I willingly affirm because I also am convinced that Orthodoxy can have an important role in the renewal of culture.

    Will this happen? I don’t know. But I value my freedom, and I worry about the forced imposition of a new morality, that, in the name of freedom, implicitly threatens to constrict our ability to preach and teach.

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    Scott Pennington says:

    “It’s not as easy as that Scott.”

    It most certainly is. In California, the danger is that liberal justices will invalidate the proposition. If the public had consistently voted for candidates who promised to appoint originalists, there would be no danger of this. It is precisely that easy – - for a decent public. But for those who have become lost in their passions because they value their “freedom” it gets much more complicated. They feel a thing to be unfair and therefore unconstitutional. Unfortunately, in a democracy there is no such thing as a decent public.

    “Implicit in you argument is the idea that government is the primary caretaker of social virtue and thus culture.”

    You have me somewhat distorted. I do not think that government, whether it is a monarchy, an oligarchy, etc. or a democracy is the primary caretaker of society. What I think is that democracy, unique among these systems, is by its very structure actively antithetical to virtue – - democracy deranges the public’s perception of what is and is not moral because it provides a false basis for morality, the will of the people. It is, just as it has become, an enemy of the Church. The reason is that it is much more desirable to vote oneself rights than responsibilities. This is a poison unique to representative government. Of course, moral turpitude may be encouraged or demanded by a king or council. But there have been righteous kings and righteous councils which were encouraging to public virtue. Democracy is not such a system. In America, the cultural decline has proceeded hand in hand with the extension of the franchise. Democracy may be neutral for some period of time, but in the end, it wages war on virtue. Always.

    “My problem with your approach is that while it might differ in detail, it’s essentially the same claim that the materialists (cultural Marxists, atheists, Progressives, etc.) make. I don’t see much difference between your view and a secularist view frankly, not in substance anyway.”

    I’m suggesting that any government which has its basis in anything other than Christian morality is suspect, if not anti-Christian. It could be the former Soviet government which based itself on the principles of Marx and Lenin. It could be America which bases itself on the propostion that majority rule, tempered by certain propositions that require a supermajority (Constitutional law), should be the law regardless of any other consideration. In that sense, regardless of how many founding fathers were Christians, America is just another unchristian system.

    “I said that the respect of freedom within democracy is a value instrinsic to Christian anthropology.”

    Then I guess I have to disagree with you again. You know that excommunication has been the normal price for belief and practice outside of Orthodox teaching. Democracy certainly does not posit a moral or theological teaching which is unchallengable, dissension from which is punishable by ostracism. “Let’s all vote on God’s nature and whether infanticide is a right.” Doesn’t sound Christian to me. But it does sound utterly democratic. No, the concept of freedom in a democracy is definitely not Christian at all.

    “The freedom that democracy seeks to protect, however, is conditionally given. It relies on a virtuous citizenry. Lose the virtue, the freedom goes and tyranny ensues (although it occurs in the name of freedom; the non-vigilant won’t see it coming).”

    Were it conditionally given, you might have a point. The fact that you believe it to be conditionally given is meaningless because you are not king. By democracy’s rules, it is not conditionally given. No legal proposition stands outside the reach of the masses, or errant judges.

    “It’s not an accident that all the refugee movements of the last century were directed to American shores.”

    That’s certainly true. But consider what the 20th century was like. Wars in Europe devastated everything. America, more than anything, represented a prosperous place safe from warfare. I’m sure there were idealists who came too. But looking back at the 19th century, you get a clearer picture of what has drawn people to America. Many of them would be suprised to hear that it was democracy that attracted them or caused them to remain (judging by the reception that many, say the Irish for instance, received at these shores). I think economic opportunity here and economic collapses in their countries of origin had much more to do with it. I don’t think the Mexicans crossing the border each day come here because they want to vote for Obama. Wages are higher.

    American was a noble experiment which has ended in failure. It is very hard to face. I’ve only recently faced it. The proposition that you can’t swallow is that human beings are incapable of virtuous (or even decent) self-government. Show me a democracy – - anywhere in the world – - whose citizens have retained the morality of a traditional religion (I won’t even specify Christianity) substantially as the law of the land. Human beings, unguided by some form of government tied to religion, are utterly incapable of maintaining any traditional sense of virtue as the norm in their society. Period.

    In effect, what you a really arguing, is that you like the liberty you still retain here in the United States and, given your view of political history, you are afraid to tamper with it or reject this system because you are afraid to lose what you have.

    America is a good place to make money. It’s not a bad place to live, materially, if you survive your own gestation. Morally, however, it is reprehensible in any number of ways. Many of them stemming from feminism. The destruction of family life, promiscuity, abortion, etc.

    If that’s your choice so be it. However, I’m reminded of a joke I heard about the decline of my former church, the Episcopal Church: There are two old men sitting in the back of the sanctuary when the Goddess Gaia is carried in on a bier and Buddhist chanting begins. One says to the other, “That’s it! If they change just one more thing . . .”

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    Scott Pennington says:

    Fr. Jacobse,

    One more thing: I clicked on your link to the story on the Proposition 8 appeal. Consider the fact that when the same proposition was passed earlier (and then recently struck down), it was passed by a considerably wider margin.

    Proposition 22 (2000):
    61.4 – 38.6

    Proposition 8 (2008):

    52.3 – 47.7

    So when you write:

    “What happens if Prop 8 is overturned? My worry is that it signals the end of our constitutional republic.”

    I have to observe that overturning it would just delay the process slightly. Give them 4 more years and the majority of the public will support gay marriage regardless of whether the P8 is overturned.

    I wouldn’t worry about an activist court in California. They’re fairly predictable. Worry that the people are becoming increasingly evil and, to tie it up with a nice little bow, that this evil is the driving force in our representative form of government.

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    Ronda Wintheiser says:

    Perhaps G.K. Chesterton could at least add something to this discussion, or maybe have the last word… :)

    “…There is a paradox in every story of conversion; which is perhaps the reason why the records of it are never ideally satisfactory. It is in its very nature the extinction of egoism; and yet every account of it must sound egoistic. It means, at least in the case of the Religion in question, a recognition of reality which has nothing to do with relativity. …It is the recognition that the truth is true, apart from the truth-seeker; and yet the description must be the autobiography of a truth-seeker; generally a rather depressing sort of person.

    “It will therefore sound egotistical if I preface these remarks by saying that I was for a long time Liberal in the sense of belonging to the Liberal Party. I am still a Liberal; it is only the Liberal Party that has disappeared. I understood its ideal to be that of equal citizenship and personal freedom; and they are my own political ideals to this day. The point here, however, is that I worked for a long time with the practical organization of Liberalism; I wrote for a great part of my life for the old Daily News, and I knew of course that it identified political liberty, rightly or wrongly, with representative government.

    “Then came the breach, on which I need not insist; except by saying that I became quite convinced of two facts. First, that representative government had ceased to be representative. Second, that Parliament was in fact gravely menaced by political corruption. Politicians did not represent the populace, even the most noisy and vulgar of the populace. Politicians did not deserve the dignified name of demagogues. They deserved no name except perhaps the name of bagmen; they were travelling for private firms. If they represented anything, it was vested interests, vulgar but not even popular.

    “For this reason, when the Fascists’ revolt appeared in Italy, I could not be entirely hostile to it; for I knew the hypocritical plutocracy against which it rebelled. But neither could I be entirely friendly to it; for I believed in the civic equality in which the politicians pretended to believe. For the present purpose, the problem can be put very briefly. The whole of the real case for Fascism can be put in two words never printed in our newspapers: secret societies. The whole case against Fascism could be put in one word now never used and almost forgotten: legitimacy. For the first, the Fascist was justified in smashing the politicians; for their contract with the people was secretly contradicted by their secret contracts with gangs and conspiracies. For the second, Fascism could never be quite satisfactory’ for it did not rest on authority but only on power; which is the weakest thing in the world. The Fascists said in effect, “We may not be the majority, but we are the most vigorous and intelligent minority.” Which is simply challenging any other intelligent minority to show that it is more vigorous. It may well end in the very anarchy it attempted to avoid. Compared with this despotism and democracy are legitimate. I mean there is no doubt about who is the King’s eldest son or about who has most votes in the most mechanical election. But a mere competition of intelligent minorities is a rather dreadful prospect. That, it seems to me, is a fair statement of the case for and against the Fascist movement…

    “…(I)t must be remembered that the Church is always in advance of the world. That is why it is said to be behind the times. It discussed everything so long ago that people have forgotten the discussion…

    “…(Q)uite clearly the fundamental truth of the modern world… is this; there are no Fascists; there are no Socialists; there are no Liberals; there are no Parliamentarians. There is the one supremely inspiring and irritating institution in the world; and there are its enemies. Its enemies are ready to be for violence or against violence, for liberty or against liberty, for representation or against representation; and even for peace or against peace. (This) gave me an entirely new certainty, even in the practical and political sense, that I had chosen well.”

    The Well and the Shallows, by G.K. Chesterton

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    Michael Bauman says:

    The role of government in this fallen world is to provide order: to protect the citizens from one another and against the depredation of invaders.

    There has to be some organizing principal. In representative governments the principal is, as Scott points out, majority rule with some restraints. Scott is also quite right with his point that moral and cultural decline is co-incident with the expansion of the suffrage.

    Christian freedom is our voluntary submission to the loving will of God in community. That is not something one ‘values’, it is something one does.

    Worldly freedom is simply the freedom to choose evil with as few restraints as possible. That is the freedom we ‘value’ and is the point of all politics in a representative system.
    Virtuous people cannot long survive in such a system.

    Democracy stems not from traditional Christianity, but from heretical Western Christian humanism—man is the measure of all things. The anthropological principal: “I think, therefore I am” that originally defined it has degraded to the tri-partite anthropology of materialist humanism: I control, therefore I am; I consume/accumulate, therefore I am; I rut, therefore I am. The populace votes on such principals and the politicians seek to inflame the passions that surround such blasphemous ideas.

    The exercise of Christian freedom is always costly from a worldly point of view. The more anti-Christian the culture becomes, the more costly the exercise of our real freedom becomes in terms of life, liberty and property, but the more rewarded we are by God.

    The Church, as Met. Jonah proclaimed, needs to lift up her prophetic voice and live the Gospel even though the immediate consequences will be distain, persecution and probably the falling away of many who now call themselves Christian or Orthodox.

    However, Gospel freedom is the only freedom that matters. I’m afraid Fr. Hans that your hope for the re-vitalization of the culture is attempting to put new wine in old wineskins when the old wineskins have already burst.

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    Scott Pennington says:

    Michael,

    Very well put.

    Ronda,

    I too was a liberal in a sense. Never a progressive liberal. I certainly would not fall into Chesterton’s category of Fascists because the Fascists did not base their policy on religion, it was merely another statism. I am grateful for your post if for no other reason than it does point out that there is a distinction between legitimate “despots” (a term which I take it Chesterton used to embrace all monarchies) and Fascism (which I think is what everyone believes you advocate if you reject democracy). There is another way, unless you consider all the monarchies, empires and oligarchies of ages past to be Fascist.

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    Ronda Wintheiser says:

    Mr. Pennington, I think you missed the point. :)

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    Michael Bauman says:

    Chesterton’s point is that only the Church matters. Unfortunately, he was speaking of the Roman Catholic Church which only goes to show how much more our voice needs to be heard without any worldly political ideology.

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    Scott Pennington says:

    Ms. Wintheiser,

    Your listed several quotes. I’m not sure what you believe they “point” to.

    Just taking the last one, which I might take to be your point:

    “. . . there are no Fascists; there are no Socialists; there are no Liberals; there are no Parliamentarians. There is the one supremely inspiring and irritating institution in the world; and there are its enemies. Its enemies are ready to be for violence or against violence, for liberty or against liberty, for representation or against representation; and even for peace or against peace. (This) gave me an entirely new certainty, even in the practical and political sense, that I had chosen well.”

    If you sincerely don’t believe that there are Fascists, Socialists, Liberals, etc., then I don’t know what to tell you. If you are saying that these labels are unimportant in the face of the higher truth that, “There is the one supremely inspiring and irritating institution in the world; and there are its enemies.” Then, guardedly, I agree with you. Although, of course, unlike Chesterton, I believe that that “one supremely inspiring and irritating institution” is the Orthodox Church, not the Roman Catholic Church.

    When Communism in Romania fell, the story goes, a priest went to one of the Orthodox bishops and announced joyfully that there had been a revolution. The bishop replied something to the effect that there has only been one revolution, the Empty Tomb. That lofty point being valid, it should be said that Communism, and the Communists, were enemies of Christ.

    I took my point from these words of Chesterton:

    “Compared with this [fascism], despotism and democracy are legitimate. I mean there is no doubt about who is the King’s eldest son or about who has most votes in the most mechanical election.”

    What Chesterton perhaps couldn’t foresee was the fact that democracy is also the enemy of the Church, much like fascism or communism. So . . . Eis polla eti Dhespota!

    I remember reading Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy and thinking two things: 1) he was quite entertaining and 2) some of his points were much more emotionally persuasive than logically so.

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    Ronda Wintheiser says:

    I listed only one quote, Mr. Pennington, albeit a rather lengthy one — from Chesterton’s book THE WELL AND THE SHALLOWS, and I did so not because I thought it “pointed” to something, but because Chesterton MADE a point that I didn’t think I could improve on.

    Of course I believe there are Fascists, Socialists, Liberals, and feminists, and Calvinists, and capitalists, etc. etc. etc. But when you read St. Paul’s assertion that in Christ there is no male or female, Jew nor Greek, you surely don’t begin to opine about whether you are a male or a progressive male — that’s not the point.

    You wrote that “What Chesterton perhaps couldn’t foresee was the fact that democracy is also the enemy of the Church, much like fascism or communism.” But that is exactly what Chesterton is saying — you’re just having trouble seeing the forest for the trees. The labels don’t matter — that’s what he means when he writes that “there are no Fascists; there are no Socialists; there are no Liberals; there are no Parliamentarians…” — Chesterton is saying that either you are an enemy of the Church, or you are not, and that is what matters; the comment he made at the end of the passage that he had chosen well was a reference to his conversion.

    I admit I assumed that in reading Chesterton we would pass over his mistake of converting to Roman Catholicism and not Orthodoxy. In this quote as well as in his book ORTHODOXY, although he thought he was speaking of the Roman Catholic Church, he was really speaking of the Orthodox Church and just didn’t know it yet. I don’t hold that against him, and I wager he most vehemently knows it now. ;D

    Most people who read Chesterton don’t dismiss his logic; I hope that isn’t a bit of Orthodox snobbishness on your part — it seems as uncharitable as dismissing Mother Teresa’s compassion because she didn’t happen to be Orthodox.

    Perhaps I should have just quoted Chesterton when he wrote that “Christianity even when watered down is hot enough to boil all modern society to rags…”.

    That, sir, is the point.

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    Ronda Wintheiser says:

    This article we’ve been discussing quotes Russell Kirk describing “moral imagination” as “the bank and capital of the ages, the normative knowledge found in revelation, authority, and historical experience.”

    The point I was trying to make by quoting Chesterton was that the Church is THE bank and capital of the ages; that SHE is our source of moral imagination; that we have a narrative in the Church that is the ultimate in revelation, authority, and historical experience.

    Couretas challenged us to provide a counter-narrative in our culture on questions where there is a fundamental clash. Don’t you think we can tap into that bank and capital? As Orthodox Christians, we have a “common story” that trumps anything Barack Obama has, regardless of his brilliance. Each one of us has a smaller narrative that ties into the larger One, and it is from that One that we draw “our values, morals, purpose, resolve, and all the constituents that direct the individual, and bind communities and societies together”.

    I do have a problem with your tone, Mr. Pennington. From the gitgo you responded to Couretas’ Clarion call by stating gloomily that we have lost the culture war; that we should no longer participate in the political process, that we have a duty to proclaim “Christian morality”, that we need a revival, and then you launched into a morose exposition of how Orthodox parishes should clamp down on some of the people you have noticed standing in the nave during the Liturgy who aren’t behaving themselves the way that Orthodox people should.

    You said that “In a free society, since we could, if we wished, prevent a slide into darkness, our moral accountability is even greater.” Regardless of the form of government we have or the politics that hold sway in our society at any given point in time, it seems to me that we have at our disposal a wealth of something to draw from that should give us a vision that is more than just sticking a finger in the dike or shaking it at people who have succumbed to the flood of immorality that is overtaking our culture. Although these discussions have to be entered into and hashed out and all of this ideology needs to be sifted and parsed, I find myself wondering when we get to the part where we put feet to this narrative that Couretas has challenged us to write?

    You did say that we have to proclaim the Gospel and that you’re in favor of evangelism — does that mean you’re engaged in it? When we’ve exhausted ourselves in discussing this, do we eventually get to the part where we clear out some time each week to visit someone in prison, or in a nursing home or hospital? When did you last find yourself in front of an abortion clinic offering help to abortion-bound women — when do we get to the part where we rescue those being led to the slaughter?

    Christ called us to love our neighbor. Is that not the larger narrative that we have immersed ourselves in; the source that we have tapped into by becoming Orthodox Christians? Is that not the heat that will boil all of modern society to rags?

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    Scott Pennington says:

    Ms. Wintheiser,

    1. I have no problem with saying there are no Socialists, Fascists, etc. in a certain sense. However, certain ideologies automatically make their adherents enemies of the Church. It’s nice to be able to identify them.

    2. An example of the emotional logic in Chesterton’s Orthodoxy would be his denigration of self-assurance or confidence saying that those in the lunatic asylums are full of self-confidence. It’s true, but it is also meaningless since that’s not what people are talking about when they say they value self confidence and Chesterton new it. Great rhetoric, logically bankrupt. Confidence is invaluable.

    3. We, as in “I, as well” raise money for a center for pregnant women in the area. Truthfully, the Greeks (my jurisdiction) aren’t real big on abortion clinic protests, nor is Kentucky, my state, big on abortion clinics.

    4. Yes, I think political involvement in this society is utterly futile for the reasons I’ve expressed above. The system is intrinsically evil and anti-Christian.

    “. . . and then you launched into a morose exposition of how Orthodox parishes should clamp down on some of the people you have noticed standing in the nave during the Liturgy who aren’t behaving themselves the way that Orthodox people should.”

    No, I suggested something much more radical that that. I suggested that we return to what Orthodox practice was for its first 1900 years. The gall of me! We’re so much wiser and more successful now at instilling piety in our people.

    “You did say that we have to proclaim the Gospel and that you’re in favor of evangelism — does that mean you’re engaged in it?”

    Yes, I don’t knock on doors like the Mormons or Bible Baptists. Everyone considers them obnoxious. The best evangelism is to do projects, whether it’s prison visits, public service projects sponsored by the church, etc. People value the source of the help they get and become curious. Yes, I engage in these type of things and advocate that all Orthodox do them.

    But unless we revive our allegiance to traditional worship and attitudes, we are only bringing people into a semi-Orthodox, semi-pagan church.

    So forget the politics. There was a Protestant Evangelical revival of sorts that arose in the mid to late 80′s. That was 20 years ago and while it expanded the number of evangelicals it did absolutely nothing to turn around the culture. The cultural decline has proceeded at full pace regardless.

    Convert others to Old World style Orthodoxy. Teach them that feminism is evil and the the patriarchy is intrinsic to Christianity. Provide a genuine clear alternative to the decadent culture, not a Byzantine (or Syrian, or Slavic) Americanism. Then we might have some positive effect on the culture. Not directly through politics but by virtue of the fact that more people will not only be nominally Orthodox (like Paul Sarbanes or Michael Dukakis), but pious Orthodox. Politics just diverts our efforts regarding this important work down a rat hole inhabited by crazy liberals and slightly less crazy “moderate conservatives”. The orchestrate a shell game for us and always end up implimenting policies that are more “centrist” than either of the true believers in either party would like. But notice, over time, morally, it always and infallibly gets worse.

    Wake up.

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    Ronda Wintheiser says:

    Ah, now I see! Thank you, Mr. Pennington, for sharing this last post. I think I understand you much better now.

    Ronda

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    Scott Pennington says:

    You’re welcome. I do apologize for the tone – - at least to some extent. It is difficult for me to put sharpness on a point without sounding a bit too assertive.

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