By Fr. Anthony Perkins
How does your faith tradition inform your politics?
The parts of my tradition that inform all my life, to include my politics, are the call to holiness and purity, to be a source of peace and joy to this world, and the call to offer sacrificial love to everyone regardless of who they are. These are universal virtues, and it is pretty obvious what they mean for my personal life, how I live out my family life, how I live in and lead my parish, and what I do within my community; but it is far less obvious what the implications are for what we are calling politics.
The Orthodox Way is ancient and is currently followed by about a quarter of a billion people around the world. It’s truths are universal, but the pastoral application of them is contextual; so you should not be surprised that there is some variation across time and place. For instance, it looked a lot different under Soviet and Turkish oppression than it did in Constantinople in its heyday. And it even takes different forms here and now.
Let me provide some context. Orthodoxy teaches that humans – each one of us – were created with a very special responsibility and a very special power. The responsibility is to be good stewards or creation. We are called to serve everyone and everything around us. The power is to affect creation – to bring about changes in everyone and everything around us. Everything responds to us, to our physical touch and to our spiritual energies. When we follow the Orthodox Way and pursue holiness, sacrificing ourselves to tend to one another and to all of creation, then we become a blessing to the world and it responds accordingly. But our status as stewards is ontological, so the reverse is also true: when we forsake holiness we become a curse to the world. This is most obvious to us when it comes to things like gardening and family life – we know both domains respond to our loving care, our negligence, our incompetence, and to our malice, but it is universally true.
The fact that we have failed to do so is why, to paraphrase St. Paul; creation “groans in agony”: it has responded to our fallen-ness.
So we are called to be servants. The implications for personal, family, and parish life are clear, but the political implications are not. The Orthodox theological ideal is symphonia, with Church and State sharing the same Orthodox vision of holiness and implementing it in cooperation with each another and all the other parts of society. But even in majority Orthodox settings like the Eastern Roman empire (Byzantium) and pre-Communist Russia, the lack of discernment and variable commitment to holiness led to some serious problems (think of the iconoclast persecutions and Russian communism). This problem is compounded in a society like ours, where there is no shared vision for humanity or creation, much less for the need to live a holy life, and even less agreement on what a holy life or community would look like. Our own Orthodox history has taught us that the government that is strong enough and has the gumption to enforce holiness also has the strength and gumption to enforce wickedness.
This leads to another view of the state vis a vis the church: it is the shell of the egg that protects the baby chick as it grows and develops. This is not just a post-hoc theology that results from my own personal libertarianism – it comes from the heart of Orthodoxy itself. If you want to know the Orthodox, see how they pray and worship (ortho-correct; doxy-glory/praise/worship). In our daily prayers and in our Divine Liturgy (the pinnacle of our experience as homo-adorans!), we pray for many things: the health of our nation, the healing of the sick, the protection of travelers, and so on. But when it comes to the government and its programs, we really only ask for one thing: that our leaders be protected and given the strength to provide us security so that we can seek holiness and perfection.
The Orthodox understanding of our power and responsibility leads me away from politics and to a preference for limited government for yet another reason: politics always involve compromise. There is no policy that does not have problems and all problems have spiritual dimensions. When I compromise, I am missing the mark, I am spreading disease, I am spreading darkness. We can argue about costs and benefits, but all the compromises we make take their toll. They accumulated in our hearts and in our culture. Orthodoxy recognizes that this accumulation occurs as a consequence of living in a fallen world and we have a mechanism for sloughing off this accumulation, healing its damage, and reorienting ourselves towards perfection. We call it confession. But there is no sacrament for healing a nation or a culture. Moreover, I know far too many people who are passionate about the politics of our nation – something over which they have no control and which involves continual compromise, but fail to dedicate themselves to serving their family or bringing peace to their own heart – things which they can do on their own and which involves far less compromise.
In conclusion, we have seen that the more government does the more likely it is to do harm or infringe the religious liberty of minorities. I have seen too many unnecessary wars (not just Afghanistan and Iraq… we bombed Serbia on Pascha, the holiest day of the year!) and counter-productive policies to trust the government with enough power to enforce morality, even if I believed that it had the discernment to know goodness when it saw it. I do not want a government that loves me – I just want a government that protects people and their freedom. This is why I am so happy about the First Amendment. As a member and leader of a religious minority that has views others find abhorrent (e.g. our call to protect and serve the powerless leads us not only to run soup kitchens and food pantries, but also to champion the cause of the unborn; our call to chastity leads us to eschew not just adultery, but pornography and unwedded sex), I am also very happy that culture celebrates and protects diversity.