Political Polarization and Christian Unity

by Will Cohen


When politics is as toxic as it’s become today in North America, Church unity would seem more than ever to require quarantining the life of faith from current political and social questions. Broader society’s most polarizing issues do get taken up eagerly, it’s true, in Christian congregations (of whatever tradition) that lean hard ideologically either to the left or the right, but how fruitful that engagement has been is unclear. In any case, most Orthodox parishes I know aren’t overwhelmingly partisan in that way. As a consequence, North American Orthodox parish and diocesan life steers mostly clear of the pressing issues of the day.

There are exceptions. Each year in January, parishioners in many jurisdictions hear a letter from their Archbishop or Metropolitan read from the ambo by the priest to coincide with the March for Life in Washington, D.C. On rarer occasion, episcopal letters or statements on other issues are published. In recent months Archbishop Demetrios of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese issued a letter on the Christian responsibility toward refugees. At a global level, there were also the texts issued last summer by the Orthodox bishops gathered on the island of Crete, many of which touch on matters that correspond with contested issues in our national politics. Some of the statements of the Ecumenical Patriarch and of other notable hierarchs do the same.

Yet across North America, Orthodoxy remains remarkably apolitical. How might we go about changing this, and toward what end? Two brief suggestions may be offered.

First, we might do more to dispel the mistaken notion, which some Orthodox hold, that attention to social and political issues is somehow extraneous to Orthodoxy. Such a view is belied by St. Ambrose’s leveraging of ecclesial influence to protest an emperor’s wanton violence, by St. Basil’s efforts on behalf of the sick and homeless, by the decision of Archbishop Iakovos in much more recent times to walk with Martin Luther King, Jr. in support of civil rights, and many other examples. The responsibility of ordinary Christians in the Roman or Byzantine empires to try to influence public policy for the common good was far less evident than it is in participatory democracies today. In order for the Orthodox faithful to perceive and exercise this responsibility, political engagement must be seen increasingly for what it is in its truly Christian light–not as some idle interest in “issues” or politics for their own sake, nor as a politicization of faith, but as a real and significant way of loving our neighbor by attending with care and concern to how actual people are helped or harmed by local and national policies. Moreover, if it is only individually, as private citizens, that we attempt to discuss and discern these matters, and not together in our parishes and dioceses, our personal views will be unlikely to transcend whatever political “bubble” we personally inhabit, and North American Orthodoxy will meanwhile remain largely silent and of little service in addressing contemporary challenges, because a common mind of the Church will not have had a chance to emerge.

Second, however, we should be realistic that we Orthodox are not practiced at talking with each other about where and how our faith intersects with matters of politics, and we should expect to move slowly. (Even where a parish or jurisdiction may already be used to discussion of, say, American policy vis-à-vis the Middle East or the Balkans, it tends to pivot more on ethnic or national commitments than on faith principles.) In an initial stage, ecclesial discussion of local or national policy issues carried on in a parish or diocese is apt to leave us stuck in the stale old divides that characterize discourse in our broader culture.  But over time it can become different. Consider, for example, two issues on which Christians of otherwise strikingly different politics might find their unity deepened the more they talk about them in light of their Orthodox faith. Most progressive Orthodox Christians I know object to the direction of the political Left–with which they share other values–on the issue of abortion, including a party platform that sought to repeal the Hyde Amendment and the Women’s March organizers’ refusal to allow pro-life feminist groups as co-sponsors. Most conservative Orthodox Christians I know are, meanwhile, very much able to see that the Republican party’s vision on the environment diverges egregiously from the vision of Orthodoxy as inscribed in the latter’s liturgical and spiritual tradition and in numerous contemporary statements.

If together as Orthodox Christians we participated in an ongoing practice of ecclesial discussion and discernment undertaken within lives of prayer, fasting and participation in the sacramental life offered to us in the Church, it seems that with regard not only to these two issues of sanctity of life and the environment but to others as well, their superficial and polarizing ideological valence would come to impress itself upon us less and less and their deeper Christian resonance and significance more and more. In other words, by bringing these so-called “political” issues into our shared life of faith we would actually de-politicize them, and grow in our ability to talk about them in that freedom of Christ where truthful conversation, in contact with our authentic tradition, gives rise to fresh insight.

Of course, no North American Orthodox parish or diocese can presume to have some automatic access to this sphere of genuine freedom and truth merely on account of being Orthodox.  We know that what bars us human beings, period, from meeting in this holy and life-giving sphere where issues can be discussed and discerned in their true light is the world’s age-old sin, that which in its present thickening is making discourse altogether in our country more and more impossibly inhuman and intractable. Like the rest of the human race we partake of this sin and we contribute, often as much as anyone else, to the sterility and intractability of our nation’s discussions of politics (even if, ostensibly, we think we are bringing our faith to bear on it).

But insofar as we are also capable by God’s grace of dying to the sin within ourselves that mires all our discussions, we may be granted access to that more vital, profound, true and real discourse in Christ, not just about highfalutin theological things but precisely about things in this world. “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” These include the things of a concrete social, economic and political nature which, in their complexity and stubbornness, we are tempted to leave either to the technocrats or to the ideologues, but which the Church is called to struggle to see and speak of always in their relation to God.

This essay was sponsored by the Orthodox Theological Society in America’s Project on Faith in Public Life.

Will Cohen is Associate Professor of Theology & Religious Studies at the University of Scranton and President of the Orthodox Theological Society in America (OTSA).