How should we as Orthodox Christians think about the political process which secures our liberties and is therefore in some sense sacred? First, we must remind ourselves to give thanks that we have the right to choose our own leaders, the right to speak our minds openly, the right to organize and coordinate with others who share our political principles. Second, we ought of course to realize just how serious the business of self-government is. The choices we make on Election Day, even if it be the choice not to vote at all, may implicate us in the policies and decisions made by our elected leaders. These leaders act in our name, doing what they think will win our approval, and in order to protect and advance what we tell them are our interests. In a real sense, they are our agents and we are their principals. Since we may someday have to repent as a people because of the actions these leaders will undertake, we must consider carefully before we endow them with the authority to make life and death decisions for our nation and for the world.
This brings us to a third point. Among men and women of high political principle, there are sharp differences of opinion about what constitutes the moral course of civic action. We disagree about the morality of domestic and foreign policy alike. One man thinks it immoral to initiate a war; another thinks it a crime that we do not send the military to correct injustice. One woman is confident that a moral nation would do more for the poor, while another woman protests that some government anti-poverty programs do more to harm than to help the vulnerable. When we look to the Church for guidance, we are told that Her business is not politics. Yet can this be true, when politics really comes down to the discussion and establishment of public moral life?
The Orthodox Church was born in a different era when political life was understood differently. To understand the wisdom and maturity of the Church’s approach to politics, we must consider the sophisticated civilizational milieu in which she first faced the responsibility of advising political leaders. Until 500 years ago there was an ancient and simple political philosophy that was common almost to the entire human race. In pictures and rituals, this political philosophy was so elemental that later generations viewed it as a kind of fairy tale. In brief, the king was thought to be the husband of the people. The priests, meanwhile, were considered to be the necessary celebrants of this civic wedding. As I said, to our dull, modern ears, this narrative seems laughable. But we should beware of mocking the ancients, lest we become like children who reject their elders’ wisdom, only to regret it later. Besides, it just so happens that our entire Orthodox faith and our entire liturgical year are centered on the wedding of a King and His City. I am talking of course, about Holy Week.
So what did the ancients know that we have forgotten? What secret to political life is hidden right before our eyes even within the Great and Holy Week? The secret is this: Civilization requires the marriage of two conflicting sets of ethical values. Moreover, because these valuations of morality are in conflict, their marriage always takes a miracle. One approach to social ethics regards consent as the ultimate touchstone of morality. This view emphasizes the rights of the individual. A second approach regards mutual support as the hallmark of genuine moral order. This view emphasizes the rights of the community itself. The first view is appropriate to business; it relies on contract. The second view is appropriate to government; it relies on law and regulation. Because these views are both needed, yet are also in conflict, ancient societies turned to religion to make the civic union possible.
In the medieval period, the two main syndromes were known as “those who work” and “those who fight.” The priests were “those who pray,” and they had a mediating function between the other two orders. Today, in almost every area of life, our two main political parties disagree as to what blend of private enterprise and government action will produce a just and harmonious social order. Nevertheless, with very few exceptions, supporters of both parties do respect the need for these two conflicting approaches to social justice, one of them based in innovation and consent, and the other calling upon the force of law and regulation.
Whether we are Republicans or Democrats, Libertarians or Socialists, as Orthodox Christians let us, however, hold one force highest of all in our hearts: Love. If with both hands we are involved in the political process, let us in the inner chambers of our hearts appeal to the God of mercy for the miracle our nation so desperately needs. That miracle would be that our challenging election process should not only bring us a President who will be equal to the myriad challenges we face, but that along the way we should each learn to respect and love the representatives of opposing political views even more than we do now. “So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go forth to him outside the camp, and bear the abuse he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come. ... Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” Hebrews 13:12-16
Dr. Patitsas is professor of ethics at HCHC.