Often I find myself being criticized for taking up political themes in my writing or speaking. Typically (in an America context at least) I am chastised for aligning myself with the political or Religious Right. While there is some truth to this, I think as the Catholic journalist and commentator John Allen points out in a recent essay (“Spain takes a page from the US pro-life playbook” ), critics conveniently ignore “the fact that the church’s political alignment in a given culture often depends on factors beyond its control. In both Europe and the States, one such variable is how open the political left is to pro-life sentiment. To put the point bluntly, if pro-lifers (including Catholics) can’t find a home on the left, many of them are obviously going to end up on the right.”
Allen’s observation about the Catholic Church’s response to political currents I can certainly claim as my own. Additionally, I think his view of the centerist inclination of the Catholic Church here is applicable to the Orthodox Church. “In politics, as in most everything else, the genetic disposition of Catholicism is to seek the sane center. When the church careens away from the center, it’s often because external circumstances have shoved it in that direction.”
What might this means for the Orthodox Church’s witness in the Public Square and for her internal life?
First and foremost, I think it is a reminder that while we might find allies for the traditional moral positions of the Church in a given political party, such an alliance is temporary at best and can collapse at any moment for factors external to the relationship. In other words, no matter how at home I might feel on either the political left or the right because of their support of the Church’s teaching on a given matter, this support is often only pragmatic. This is not to accuse either the political left or the right of hypocrisy. It is however to point out that political agendas shift and they often do so for factors that are not in the control of either the politician or the churchman.
The recent passage in the US House of Representative of an overhaul of the US heath care system is as good an illustration as any. As Allen writes,”with passage of an amendment authored by Rep. Bart Stupak, a pro-life Democrat from Michigan, applying longstanding federal prohibitions on abortion funding to a new public insurance program and to new federal subsidies for private insurance” the easy and longstanding political typology of pro-life/Republican Party and pro-choice/Democratic Party may now be coming to an end. While “by no means a slam-dunk” in Allen’s view, if “the Stupack provision survives in the Senate . . . it could create momentum for partnerships with the Democrats on other issues — including a looming national debate over immigration reform, another top-shelf priority for the [the US Catholic] bishops.”
Though Orthodox bishops are less politically involved than their Catholic counterparts, a similar outcome for Orthodox Christians is not unlikely. Those of us who have tended for reasons of moral theology to lean to the right, might now find ourselves having to re-evaluate some of our partisan political allegiances. Granted one can, and I think should, criticize the political and economic assumptions and implications of the proposed health care reform schemes. But doing so will requires a greater philosophical sophistication then is typically seen among Orthodox Christians in America. The criticism that many Orthodox Christians have simply picked up the Republican agenda is certainly valideven if it is not the whole story and ignores a great deal of what is actually the case in American politic life.
Stepping back for a moment and looking across the aisle, my apologia for Republican leaning Orthodox Christians is also applicable to those in the Church who have made common cause with the Democratic party. It does seem to me that traditional Orthodox philanthropic concerns might find a better welcome in the Democratic party then among the Republican party. That said, when I look at both parties and their respective policy agendas, I would be hard press to say that the Right has been more effective in promoting a culture of life then the Democratic party has been in caring for the poor.
Let me be careful here. I think abortion is for our times as pressing a political and moral issue as slavery was up through the Civil War. And like slavery, I think that even if we were to end legalized abortion tomorrow, the social, political and moral consequences of our acceptance and promotion of it will continue to tear at the fabric of American culture for many years to come. If anything, given the enormity of what we have done, I think the effects of abortion will stay with us far longer and cause more harm then slavery.
Returning to current events I do think that (as Allen says) “recent days have brought intriguing indications that the political plates may be shifting” in America and with this shift there must come an increased sophistication not only in the Church’s witness not only in the public square but also internally.
The besetting failure of Orthodoxy in America is our almost global unwillingness to lay aside knee jerk anti-Western polemics. As least since the time of St Justin Martyr, the Church has understood that God prepares a people for the reception of the Gospel. Granted the parallel between his time and ours is not exact. Most Americans are Christians of one sort or another even if they are not Orthodox Christians. Likewise Western culture is, at its foundation, Christian. And while there are points of divergence and even disagreement between the Catholic, Protestant and yes even secular thinkers who have given shape to American culture and the Tradition of the Orthodox Church, there are also many points of agreement between us.
The cultural argument aside, I think the great insight of Justin Martyr–an insight used to the advantage of many in the Church’s ministry in Alaska–is that we cannot evangelize what we do not love and we cannot love what we do not see as good and beautiful and true and as a gift from God.
Though he could be sharp in his criticisms (“Do not suppose, you Greeks, that my separation from your customs is unreasonable and unthinking; for I found in them nothing that is holy or acceptable to God.Justin had a great love and appreciation for Greek philosophy.” Discourse to the Greeks, chapter 1), he was also able to see how God prepared the pagan world to accept Christ and the Gospel through philosophical specutation.
Whatever things were rightly said among all men, are the property of us Christians. For next to God, we worship and love the Word who is from the unbegotten and ineffable God, since also He became man for our sakes, that becoming a partaker of our sufferings, He might also bring us healing. For all the writers were able to see realities darkly through the sowing of the implanted word that was in them. For the seed and imitation impacted according to capacity is one thing, and quite another is the thing itself, of which there is the participation and imitation according to the grace which is from Him. (The Second Apology, chap 13).
Our defensiveness in the face of cultural challenges to our moral and dogmatic teachings is fruitless. Such a stance is both rooted in, and the cause of, our lost sense that God prepares each human heart and culture to receive Him and that He has done so in a wholly positive manner through the seminal presence of Christ. It is the task of the Church to nurture that presence and bring it to fruition. To do this we must never forget that it is God Who has planted the Seed; our task is cultivation. For Justin Martyr this work took the form of evangelism; while this is still central for us today (beginning with our own faithful, laity and clergy) our calling takes more the form of reconciliation. The great work of Orthodoxy in America is to find the seeds of reconciliation that God planted in not only the hearts and culture of Western Christians but also those same seeds within ourselves.
By way of conclusion, it is worth noting that all of us, Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, politically liberal or politically conservative, are Western Christians. The coming shift in American political alliances will make discovering our debt as Orthodox Christians to our Western Christian and secular cultural roots essential not only for the spiritual health of the Church but for the effectiveness of our evangelical witness.