I think, in the inimitable words of Richard Nixon and most recently Jamie Dimon (and also the infamous one-eared bunny from Groening’s oeuvre), that in this last expansion of the American Orthodox constituency, “mistakes were made.”
One of them, oddly enough, was the embrace of an American nationalism. I say “oddly” because this embrace is suspiciously consistent with a pre-world-war European nationalism -- a nationalism that motivates odd things like the hieratic blessing of machine guns and nuclear arms. It is a nationalism, too, that produces the unpleasant fractures of phyletism -- the parceling out of the holographic Church into historicist tribes (each of which are associated -- undeservedly -- with terms like “ethnicity” or “culture”).
I oppose nationalism with a simple neighborly and land-loving patriotism. There is nothing wrong with the latter. Indeed, I think a Christian really ought to be a patriot like this, an American with a small “a,” or at least an American without all the boldface and italic emphases (as in the souped-up “love it or leave it,” or “right or wrong”).
In fact, American nationalism is not only opposed to a decent patriotism: it also violates a decent America.
A nice “thought experiment” that demonstrates this principle is a brief consideration of this fact. We all know that a Baptist minister composed the Pledge of Allegiance. But did we know that the Pledge-writer was also a Socialist? An additional fact that should be considered is the likelihood that the very people on stage at political rallies who lead, lustily, the Pledge, would deny to their death the possibility that a Socialist could be patriotic at all, much less as patriotic as they.
Just as capitalism cannot be denied a place at the American pageant, so also cannot socialism. To acknowledge this should be a commonplace -- but the fact that today it is not an accepted historical truth, and to say so is rather un-expedient, proves the proposition that nationalism violates a decent America. The flag-waving denouncers of socialism turn out to be, ironically, patently un-American.
An American patriotism -- a truly Christian American patriotism -- will love the people and the land. It will recognize that both substances -- land and people -- compose this symbolic place-name. It will comprise its history with all its limitations and moments of beauty. It will not deny wrongheaded decisions. Any Christian who holds the Bible at least somewhat important will have to follow the lead of the prophets, and foster a healthy political critique.
A critique is frowned upon, at the least, in the loud, wide bowels of nationalism. Not so with patriotism true and blue.
There is a word bandied about nowadays, upon which the moral notion of proper patriotism especially turns. Not surprisingly, it shows up in two very different idioms, and its name is “American exceptionalism.”
A Christian patriotism will renounce any exceptionalism that predicates a prideful imperium -- such an errant exceptionalism runs rampant in the unfortunate extra verses of the national anthem, and it inflates the gaseous mikes of media hosts only when they’re “on the air.”
It is always good to count our blessings. God gave America the Grand Canyon and every single unborn child, every heterosexual marriage that thrives and every protected species that survives (unstained by Monsanto). These are all miraculous exceptions indeed -- and that is the sort of “exceptionalism” to which I hold.
But it is never good to count ourselves blessed at the expense of other nations. The Church -- not the nation -- is the city set upon a hill. Jesus preached to all the nations, not to the ten lost tribes of Israel running around in pre-Columbian America (one is inclined to suspect that the main reason why Mormons are getting along so chummily in the right circles of American Christianity is because so many hope the tale might be true). America needs Christ because America, like all countries, needs assimilated into the economy of the Holy Trinity.
But it doesn’t follow from this that Jesus is American. You may think that remark funny (it does sound comic) -- but sadly, such a thought lurks as the unspoken second premise underlying too much “Christian” political speech.
Jesus is not going to use America to shape an end-times narrative. He is not using it now to defeat Islam and other religions. He is not utilizing America to fend off trends of immorality and secularization. Current experience presents something of a conundrum for nationalists who believe fervently in such divine fending-off, because they would like to wave their civil religion flags against Muslims and gay pride parades at the same time: at even a cursory level of comparative theology and ethics, such simultaneous flag-waving comes off as at least mildly inconsistent. Jesus is not using America as an instrument of safeguarding a Biblical faith: preachers can throw up the American flag behind the pulpits and powerpoints all they want, but America is not the hope for the nations. The Rapture is just as much part of the American dream as is the hope of building so many new barns for rich fools -- who, when they discover the reality of the soul only at the late moment when it is “required” of them, find that the Rapture and the Dream were mere spectral fantasies indeed.
America did not bless Christianity. Christianity did not improve when it got to these shores.
God, as Creator and freely distinct from His Creation, does not need America.
America, surely, needs God, and the reality of His Church.
And permit me to suggest this possibility, against some prevailing notions:
Orthodox Christianity did not improve, either, when it got here. Over the space of only a few generations, it did become “American” in a lesser, regressive sense. We are more than competent at having imitated the mainline penchant for seminary accreditation (a bourgeois and secularist predilection if I ever saw one), for the professionalization (and concomitant secularization) of clergy, and for political hobnobbing (“we should unify because we can set up an important office in DC, so the Big People will pay attention to us”). Or, on the other hand (and schizophrenically doing so at the same time), just as competently aping the fundamentalist metier for commercializing spirituality and entertaining the buff elite.
But Orthodoxy still has the better (or, if you will, more authentic) America to reach and to attain: the “genius” of this land (whether you want to translate that term in its classical meaning, or its more current usage a la the newly-departed Walter Wink) still eludes ecclesial grasp and comprehension. Then and only then (along with the more important priorities of ascetical development and charismatic grace) will it become substantially (i.e., “spiritually”) autocephalous and united. Not before.
But I have uttered this point before, earlier in these pages.
Back to the mistakes made.
I wonder if Orthodoxy was ever really ready for America. Indeed, I doubt it very much. Clearly, the hierarchy back in the old world was unprepared for the expanse of the land, the melange of cultures, the superficial egalitarianism of blue-collar workers on their days off, the incongruency between the prima facie appearance of democracy and the a fortiori plutocracy, the utter commodification of all goods in the first truly bourgeois civilization -- a society with no real need for history and, conversely, a certain need to deny metaphysics.
I am note sure whether America ever occurred to Orthodox prophecy. If there is a place for America in a real eschatology, it will be that in this civilization, America is where history goes to die.
No, the old bishops and consistories and synods hadn’t a clue: whether they have one today is up for debate.
Consequently, American Orthodox parishes began to adopt American ways -- “trustees” instead of “councilors,” “dues” instead of “offerings,” “bingo” instead of “canonical hours,” “Rush and Glenn” instead of the prophets. American Orthodox priests began to practice American political speech -- including, especially, the odd conflation of “conservatism” with the “right wing” fandom of the military-industrial complex, and of “social concern” with the “left wing” desacralization of the academy and power. American Orthodox intellectuals (i.e., theologians, ethicists, historians) began to accept the American instrumentalization of intellect, and a patent pragmaticism began to infect all levels of ecclesiology and sacramentology. Ethics was removed from theology. History was subjugated under the rubrics of nineteenth century historicism. Christology was taken away from biblical exegesis -- and biblical exegesis was captured by romanticist literary criticism.
America said it wanted a respectable and successful religion.
Orthodoxy tried too much to give America what it wanted, and in doing so, it failed to give America what it needed.
“Need” is the only business of true religion.
“Want” is ever the stuff of the imperial cult, throughout the ages.
Let me utter a simple prophecy here. In this decade and the next, Orthodoxy will become more and more solitary. The coalitions may or may not survive, depending on whether the other groups become more or less Orthodox.
And Orthodoxy will move from its uncomfortable associations with imperial religiosity and become more like it was before Constantine. The Constantinian age is drawing to a close, with the complete rise of this a-historical and anti-sacral civilization. The eschaton, as it draws closer, will scour away the unrealities that are now clogging and burdening the church.
And you will see, as clear evidence of this scouring, the signs of clearer proclamation from the Church. Its language will become more Christological and Trinitarian and less the marketing speech of the agora. Its critique will become more continuous with the prophets about justice, in defense of the poor and the powerless. Its leaders will lead to deification largely through their own experience of deification: as in “imitate me, as I imitate Christ.”
In the light of that day, the Orthodox American may patriotically and faithfully say “God bless America,” and know in his heart that He has, surely, through the presence of his Church.