Orthodoxy and Modernity, Religion and Politics

What Orthodox Christianity Can Bring to American Christian Politics

Published on: December 18, 2015
3,699 views
Readers' rating:
4.1
(44)
Reading Time: 2 minutes

Politics may make for strange bedfellows but the political alliances forged by many American Christians are worse than strange—they are ironic and self-contradictory.

On the left, partisans draw on Christian teaching to pursue social justice, racial and gender equality, and responsibility for the environment. But in order to have a voice within the political left, Christians align themselves with advocates of unrestricted abortion rights, assisted suicide, and those who (naively) seek to remove religious discourse from the public square.

On the right, partisans draw on Christian teaching to challenge abortion and to advocate for traditional values. But in order to gain influence with the political right, they routinely align themselves with policies and organizations that obstruct clean air and water legislation, endorse capital punishment, and resist immigration and gun control.

When Christians uncritically affiliate themselves with either party, they do so because of political conviction rather than sound theological reflection.  It is only through ignorance or duplicity that one can suggest that the Democrats or Republicans genuinely reflect Christian teaching.

While Orthodox Christians in the United States are just as likely as others to succumb to these false dichotomies, their history might offer a way out of the ideological traps and self-contradictions that dominate current political discourse.

In the second century, when Christians first intervened in the public arena, they stressed that their contribution was superior to ordinary Roman citizens because they were motived by faith in God, rather than political advancement.  For authors like St. Justin Martyr, Christians sought the public good, for the sake of the good, regardless of whether the state looked favorably upon Christianity. This is a profoundly important insight.

Even after the legalization of Christianity, when Christians enjoyed a position of privilege, the most significant theologians of the Church were also those who consistently championed political causes that no ancient government could accept.

St. Ambrose censured judges who issued the death penalty, St. Basil excommunicated soldiers who killed in battle, and St. John Chrysostom demanded that the political establishment redistribute its wealth on behalf of impoverished laborers and refugees who had no legal standing.

Not only do these issues remain with us today, these interventions bear witness to the fact that the saints did not jettison their moral convictions for the sake of political expediency or predetermined alliances.

It was during St. Ambrose’s tenure as bishop that the emperor Theodosius first declared Christianity the official religion of the empire. Theodosius was also responsible for orchestrating the Second Ecumenical Council.  But neither endeavor did anything to deter St. Ambrose from repeatedly condemning the emperor for behavior and policies that contravened the Gospel.

The political, social, and economic setting of Orthodox Christian history is certainly different than our contemporary context. And, of course, we face a great number of political and social questions for which there is no unambiguous answer from Christian thought or practice. But there are some important lessons from the Orthodox Christian experience that would benefit all American Christians who hope to be active in the public arena.

Most importantly, we learn that the engagement in politics should be motivated by a concern for the public good for its own sake. We also learn that the most significant Christian thinkers were those who maintained their moral credibility rather than strike deals with the politically powerful.

A politics that entails moral self-contradiction may be expedient, but it can never reflect a genuine Christian politics.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

As you’ve reached the conclusion of the article, we have a humble request. The preparation and publication of this article were made possible, in part, by the support of our readers. Even the smallest monthly donation contributes to empowering our editorial team to produce valuable content. Your support is truly significant to us. If you appreciate our work, consider making a donation – every contribution matters. Thank you for being a vital part of our community.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

About author

  • George Demacopoulos

    Fr. John Meyendorff & Patterson Family Chair, Co-Director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center, Fordham University

    George Demacopoulos is the Fr. John Meyendorff & Patterson Family Chair of Orthodox Christian Studies, co-director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center, and a Professor of Historical Theology at Fordham University. Professor Demacopoulos’ research and teaching interests are in the fields of ...

    Read author's full bio and see articles by this author

Have something on your mind?

Thanks for reading this article! If you feel that you ready to join the discussion, we welcome high-caliber unsolicited submissions. Essays may cover any topic relevant to our credo – Bridging the Ecclesial, the Academic, and the Political. Follow the link below to check our guidlines and submit your essay.

Proceed to submission page

Rate this publication

Did you find this essay interesting?

Click on a star to rate it!

Average rating 4.1 / 5. Vote count: 44

Be the first to rate this essay.

Share this publication

Disclaimer

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

Attribution

Public Orthodoxy is a publication of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University