This is an essay about the 2008 Election and the dearth of Wall Street, and how we might think about (and be involved in) politics as Orthodox Christians.
Do not look anywhere in these paragraphs for endorsements of candidates, platforms, parties or economic systems. There are no such endorsements to be found. Neither will you find an acceptance of convenient labels like “Conservative,” “Liberal” or even “Moderate.”
There is something else you won’t find here. You will not find here a rejection of the political process. We are Orthodox Christians who live in the world, and we bear the burden of “being anxious about worldly affairs” (1 Corinthians 7.32). We are not monastics who have detached themselves from secular concerns. Monks should have nothing to do with “politics” (in the usual sense of the word). But for us it is different. Whether we like it or not, we are immersed in the public square, where a conversation is always going on about public decisions.
That conversation is also called “politics.”
The Orthodox attitude toward politics is symbolized by the icon of the Feast of Pentecost. In this icon, the Apostles are gathered with the Theotokos, seated in the shape of an arch. They are looking down upon a dark circle, in which is framed an old-looking king.
This “king” represents all the political powers of the world, and the Apostles and the Theotokos reveal the transcendence of the Church. The Church, clearly, is quite “above” politics. It is never “under” the king in the icon, or any of the powers and principalities who follow him. The Church is not identified with the king.
There was a time when the Church actually “took over” the kingship. In the days of the Byzantine Empire, the “king,” or “Caesar,” was (in theory) subservient to the Church. To a lesser extent, this was carried on in the days of the Russian Tsar.
But those days of worldly power are gone – at least in this age. Now we are back to a time that is more like the days of the catacombs: we should give up any notion of a state-supported or mandated church.
No one takes seriously, anymore, any thought of “first Rome” or second, third or fourth. Rome is gone forever as a Christian center. Constantinople is gone. Moscow is gone, having gone the way of all the Rome’s of the past. New York is the center of the modern world: it has become the “Rome” of the post-modern age, but you will never mistake it for a Christian town.
This “Rome” may be in decline, while we watch the graphs plunge from 10,000, to 9000, to 8000. Who knows? What if Wall Street becomes another of the many fulfillments of “Alas, alas, that great city that was clothed in fine linen, purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls! For in one hour such great riches came to nought” (Apocalypse 18.16-17).
And who knows? The time may come when the “center of the world” moves west, way west, over the Pacific and straight into China.
That sort of “sino-centric” future should not bother anyone who can tell the difference between the old man and the Apostles on the icon.
But the Church does not ignore the king, either. It is concerned. It gives advice. It confronts, persuades and dissuades. Sometimes, it suffers persecution and even martyrdom by the wrath of the worldly king.
But never does the Church simply turn away. It stays “engaged” with the world: while the Church is not “of” the world, it is – undeniably – “in” the world.
The world needs the Church to be there. The Church has a mysterious, grace-bringing role to play in society. Because it is the Body of Christ, it bears a sacramental presence (1 Corinthians 7.14): it is “the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing” (2 Corinthians 2.15). Indeed, it is possible that the presence of the Church is itself the mysterious restraint preventing the “man of lawlessness” from taking over completely (2 Thessalonians 2.7).
So, in an age of the modern “catacombs,” what is the Orthodox Christian to do for politics, since he has no Christian Tsar or Prince?
First, he is called to pray and obey. I like criticizing the decisions of politicians as much as anyone else, but we are not permitted to show disrespect, or indecent opposition. Here is St. Paul, writing in the time of the Emperor Claudius, who was not known for his friendliness to the Church: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities … rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad … [the ruler] does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute His wrath on the wrongdoer … the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due” (Romans 13.1,3,4,6,7).
Here is St. Paul again, much later, writing during the time of the Emperor Nero. Remember him? The Emperor who invented empire-wide, state-mandated persecution of Christians? And what was the Christian to do about Nero? “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way” (1 Timothy 2.1-2).
This means that even though we might get a President who is pro-choice, or who cares little for the poor and the environment, or who gives carte blanche to homosexuality and other forms of cultural reprobation, or who caters wholesale to the demands of the super-rich, we must still pray for him, and give him due respect.
Respect is the first thing for the Orthodox Christian when he thinks about politics. A lot could be said here about civility and decent rhetoric – two qualities that used to be expected at minimum, but have now become cherished as rare things of beauty. It is too bad that civility and courtesy must be talked about as virtues, because they most assuredly are not at the level of the Orthodox catalog of virtues. Virtues (like self-control and kindness) are really a lot higher in quality than basic stuff like civility and decency.
In the culture of Christendom, civility was simply a given. It was something that any citizen (i.e., inhabitant of civitas) would have been able to accomplish. To speak civilly, to speak with clear and honest meaning (i.e., decent rhetoric), was no big achievement. At the same time, however, civility was always appreciated as a necessity. After all, one cannot have a civilization without civility.
And everyone knows that one cannot make laws legislating civility. That, by the way, it what is terribly wrong with the nonsense about “political correctness.” The juvenile attempt to enforce “tolerance” by the rule of law is much like junior high regulations against bathroom humor: appropriate, perhaps, for seventh grade, but ludicrous for adults, even boorish ones.
A society is civil to the degree that its members abide by unwritten, unlegislated rules of behavior. No one should have to be told that a handicapped person should be given consideration. No one should have to be told that a person of color is of equal, infinite worth – just as anyone else is.
But now civility is a big achievement, and it is no longer “usually present.” Civility and courtesy stand out, nowadays, only in contrast, starkly pronounced from the background of petty selfish disputes. Being “nice” and “decent” are premium qualities only because culture has sunk that low. And this marks the second thing that an Orthodox Christian must keep in mind about politics: the public square is squalid. It is now a sinkhole of slippery words with little or even opposite meaning, and of well-financed appeals to base desires.
In George Orwell’s famous 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” he wrote this: “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible … Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
This is why an Orthodox Christian really ought to resist the luciferian impulse to “spin” abortion as “choice,” or war as “peace-keeping,” or profiteering as “free market,” or barbarism as “class struggle,” or civilian death tolls as “collateral damage.” Almost every label and byword is a result of the stripping of meaning from a term, cutting it loose from its historic moorings, and setting it adrift on deconstructed fog of empowerment, liberationism, “coalition-building” and “consciousness-raising.”
Two terms come immediately to mind – words that have been spun and deconstructed, over and over again: “right” and “left.” For generations, most people have assumed that “right” means “conservative,” which means “Republican.” “Left,” on the other hand, usually means “liberal,” which, in turn, means “Democrat.”
Millions of dollars are spent every week by political operatives (with nicknames like "turdblossom") with the hope that people still believe this utter buffoonery. Unfortunately, most people do. There may have been a few moments over the last few hundred years when political affiliations really lined up that way. Maybe one or two times. And then everyone got over it, quickly.
“Right” in modern terms usually means a position that is loyal to the historic government of a country, and that country’s customary values. Its enemies often call it “reactionary.”
“Left” – as in “Left Wing” – refers to a position that is advances the aims of the peasantry, the proletariat or the lower classes. It is willing to change institutions to suit these aims. Its enemies often accuse it of being “revolutionary.”
“Liberal” is an attitude that supports a wider range of activity of the government in society and in daily life. Opponents of this attitude condemn liberalism for being “big government” and too intrusive in the activities of society.
“Conservative” – as usually (and unfortunately) understood – basically means opposition to whatever liberals want. I count myself a conservative, but definitely not in this modern and trite sense of the word.
“Republican” is the name of the political party that started in 1856 in Ripon, Wisconsin, under John Frémont. It was established notably by its first President, Abraham Lincoln. From the beginning, it was formed to oppose slavery, mainly because the party promoted industrialism, and thus opposed the agrarianism of the South. A successor to the Whig legacy of England, the party has usually sought to restrain the power of the executive branch in favor of the legislature. It has consistently worked to make conditions favorable for commerce and industry.
“Democrat” is the name of the political party founded in 1792 by Thomas Jefferson, and whose other great President was Andrew Jackson. It is the second-oldest political party in the world, and is one of the most factious. Generally, it favors policies that lean toward the “left,” and the advancement of the poorer classes and labor. It is also more open the expansion of government activity in civil society.
But these definitions are gross simplifications. In American history, exceptions abound that violate the definitions just listed.
One example is the issue of slavery, and the struggle to eradicate it. The anti-slavery position of the Republican Party was held by most people to be an extremely “liberal,” even radical, position. Many “revolutionaries” from the ranks of the Abolitionists and the “Barnburner” Party joined the Republicans – the very people today who would blanch at such a bunch of rabble-rousers.
Another rather mind-bending note is from the more recent history of Women’s Suffrage and the New Deal era. It is interesting to note that some of the major sources of funding for the women’s right-to-vote and right-to-work movement came from large corporations. The thinking behind such a move was cagey, you have to admit. Large moneyed interests are usually set firmly on the conservative side of the debate. But on this one, they voted, with lots of money, for the more liberal side. Their rationale was easy: enfranchising women meant the influx of tens of thousands of new workers. The availability of labor would expand – as it did – amazingly. Available labor means cheap labor. Do the math.
In the New Deal era, FDR and his crew launched a great many new federal initiatives that were unsavory (to put it mildly) to most conservatives. That said, why is it that most modern feminists look upon these very New Deal initiatives with contempt (to put it mildly)? The reason for this surprising reaction is that most of the New Deal legislation sought to protect and nurture the family. In particular, Social Security – as originally conceived in the New Deal– assumed that the father was the breadwinner, the mother was the chief care-provider, and the children were not “consumers,” but should be brought up instead to take their place as responsible citizens. The liberationism that exploded out of the 60’s reviles any notion of gender roles or traditional family structure: and for that reason alone, FDR and friends (yesterday’s liberals) are jilted by many liberals of today.
While this might sound confusing, the history of problem words like “liberal” and “conservatives” grows even more complex beyond American history. Liberals of nineteenth-century Europe fought for the civil rights of the individual. Conservatives of the same society usually supported the interests of the government, including protection over a wide range of social and economic activities. It was the Conservatives who enacted the first factory laws (which today are near and dear to the Labor and union movements). The moneyed interests were usually on the side of the liberals.
In politics, labels and movements can be counted on to do one thing: change. Jacques Barzun, an authoritative cultural historian, has made a long study of such changes, and he concluded his observations with this intriguing list of social accomplishments, and just who brought them about. This list might surprise you:
* tariffs, the income tax, the S.E.C., zoning, and generally the regulation of social, economic, and even moral behavior, rest on Conservative ideas;
* the post office, the police and fire departments, public schools, city buses, and national parks are Socialist, indeed Communist, institutions (Jacques Barzun, “The Great Switch,” in Columbia Magazine June-July 1989, p. 32).
Today, things are turned completely around. Free enterprise, free trade and freedom of religion are chalked up – wrongly – to the Conservative side. Liberals are typically blamed – wrongly – for tariffs, taxation, zoning, and regulations on the economy. And everyone wants to take credit – wrongly – for institutions that are, truth be told, legacies of the Socialist (i.e., way, way liberal) movement in Europe.
Each of these achievements has its own rationale, and each has value (even taxes). Each achievement is the result of long discussions of robust ideas about politics and civilization (some of these discussions have gone on for centuries, even millennia). Most of the time, the people involved have been well-meaning.
Most of the ideas have been good. Some have been downright stupid. Some have been outright evil.
Labels like “conservative” and “liberal” have rarely helped the discussion. In the hard work of debate, the words “Republican” and “Democrat” have done more to confuse and distort. It is better to stick to the discussion of ideas without labels. It is better to look at a candidate’s character without endorsements or affiliations. It is better, as we’ve said all along, to think and pray, to pray and discern.
Politics is should be a decent business. It is all about leading society to make good choices. As Orthodox Christians, we should be part of the debate – as Orthodox Christians, not primarily as Democrats or Republicans or Conservatives or Liberals. What might that mean? Here are some ideas:
A Small Platform
1. We pray for our leaders, and honor them with respect and obedience. We can criticize them, but we cannot curse them. We do this whether we voted for them or not.
2. We value the past. We consider our democracy to embrace the living and the dead. We honor tradition, and we do not lightly change the institutions that have stood the test of time.
3. We protect the future. We make choices based on the interests of future generations. That means that we accept the responsibilities of stewardship of creation. For the sake of our children (and the rest of God’s creatures), we refuse to trash the environment of this world.
4. We are stewards of morality: we should strive to renew decency and decorum in daily life. Because we honor the image of God in all people, we protect free political, philosophical and religious speech: freedom of expression, however, cannot mean libertine pornography or indecency.
5. We fight for the rights of the weak, who cannot speak for themselves. We know that the unborn child is a child, body and soul, from the moment of conception. Abortion is infanticide. No one has a right to choose death, not even for themselves. We know that only God can perceive the infinite value of human life, even when a person in a vegetative state will score low on the “quality-of-life” index.
6. We also know that God calls us to protect the poor and the other powerless members of society. To be sure, many (if not most) of the poor are poor because of their own bad decisions. This has been true since Adam and Eve were evicted from their first home. They were homeless, and it was their fault, after all, but the Lord clothed them nonetheless. We look broadly for the poor, and recognize that poverty extends beyond the obvious. The poor are the anxious and the powerless, the hungry, the nearly-bankrupt, the house-poor, and the adults who are never home because they are working for their house. The poor are the suicidals, the adolescents of every place, and now the the baby boomers who can't believe how things have turned out, under their watch. The Christian never has been permitted to withhold charity because the poor man made mistakes. Our Lord never refused to help because the lepers polluted themselves, or because the blind man sinned. There is always this "liberal" side of the Gospel that Christians, try as they might, can not run away from.
7. We are sacramental, and because of this, we are personal and local. There is something sinister in globalization. We are beginning to recognize that a globalized economy is what all industrialism must grow up to be, like kudzu. Globalization is not the answer to nationalism, or ethnicism or racism: only the Peace of the Church can resolve the legacy of Babel. Industrialism and commercialism block a person from loving his people and his place, his village and his nation. Persons have a better chance of recognizing Jesus (and His company) when they are less "appropriated" and "habituated" by the powers and principalities.
8. We proclaim a humanity that is noble and beautiful, truthful and good. We invite society to a higher calling. We disagree with the morbid immorality of consumerism. We honor the courage and intelligence of those who work, who make things, and make a fair profit – and if this is what capitalism is, then we endorse capitalism. But we also know that man is made for a better purpose than profit and consumption: as Wendell Barry once wrote, “Rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy.”
Orthodox Christianity, as the inheritor of deuteronomic Israel, takes literally the beatitude in St. Luke, “Blessed are the poor.” We respectfully chide our leaders and society for failing the poor, whether these “poor” are residing in violent neighborhoods and stalinesque HUD-boxes, or trapped in perpetually indebted servility, or in their mothers’ wombs, or in the nursing homes.
And we chide ourselves for not doing enough. Yet.
Because when the Lord said, “Blessed are the poor,” that blessing is meant to involve a political, courteous, faithful us.