Democracy and the separation of church and state are relatively new for the Orthodox Church. From both derive the many challenges the Church in America encounters as it stands unfettered in the political arena.
Paraphrasing the British historian and theologian G.L. Prestige, the concept, let alone the reality, of a political atheist was unknown until the modern era. Prior to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, God, politics, and the Church were inseparable.
Father Georges Florovsky has shown that as Christianity expanded throughout the empire, the Church was faced with two options: to either remain in the world/empire and contribute to the development and improvement of the body politic or to retreat into the desert. By the time of Constantine’s conversion to Christianity the Church found itself at a crossroads. It had to grapple with Christ’s kingdom not being of this world (Jn.18: 36) and the reality of an emerging Christian empire with a Christian emperor at its head.
With the Church facing the crossroads of empire and desert two concurrent foundations were laid. The first was a Christian political philosophy upon which would be built a Christian state and culture. The other was its antithesis, manifested primarily in the monastic movement, which would serve as a continuous reminder to the Church that its true home and sovereign were elsewhere.
Within the configurations of the Byzantine and Russian empires, Christian political philosophy developed to the extent that as Church and State maintained their respective spheres of influence they nevertheless formed a “symphonic” relationship of interdependence. Ideally “rendering to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Mt. 22: 20-21/Mc. 12:17) entrusted the Church to provide the dogmatic and moral foundations of society while the government, in the person of the emperor, ensured that orthodoxy and orthopraxy universally prevailed.
Within this ideal relationship, the role of the emperor was crucial, especially during the formative years of the Christian empire and its corresponding political philosophy. Personifying true piety, the emperor cared for the social welfare of his subjects as well as the proper functioning of every aspect of the political and religious establishment and was therefore seen as both king and priest. As the empire was transitioning from pagan to Christian, the emperor had more than a quasi-sacerdotal function. Indeed, in Eusebius of Caesarea’s Life of Constantine, one notices a nascent political philosophy based on pagan antecedents in which the emperor is de facto if not de jure the head of the Church, a “bishop of bishops,” and convener of ecclesiastical councils who is chosen by God to rule over the entire world. In effect, Eusebius gave birth to a Christian, theocratic political philosophy ostensibly built upon the Gospel. For Eusebius, the Christian empire reflected God’s kingdom destined to extend into all the earth whereby Church and state were responsible for proclaiming and implementing these precepts.
Yet, as this political philosophy became refined, as the relationship between Church and state continued to be interdependent, the symphonic ideal was not always in tune and was rarely realized. The state routinely overpowered the Church. This out-of-tune symphony reached its crescendo in 1721 when Tsar Peter the Great abolished the Moscow Patriarchate, reducing the Church to a department of the state with the monarch as its head.
Antithetical to the concept of Christian empire is the retreat into the desert. Preparing for the “kingdom not of this world” called for a withdrawal from the world, i.e., the empire. Whether the retreat was geographic, as in the case of early monasticism, or was lived out in the world it was accompanied by a psychological/spiritual myopia that gave rise to sectarianism.
As the concept of Christian Empire promoted theocracy and the establishment of the kingdom of God, Christian sectarianism looked to the coming apocalypse. This psychological/spiritual posture continues today among Orthodox Christians throughout the world. Espousing a “retreat” from the world these Christians attempt either to remove themselves from as much responsibility as possible to a given state or they embrace a political agenda understood as accelerating the anticipated apocalypse. Both postures discourage dialog and engagement with a given culture. In spite of the romantic allure of sectarianism, the Church has never officially embraced it.
As Father Florovsky noted, the Christian Empire was an experiment that ultimately failed. Yet, even with the disappearance of the Christian Empire the geopolitical transition from empires to nation states in the early modern period reformulated the concept of autocephalous churches such that they now become state or national churches. Allied with and influenced by their respective governments, these churches became engines for promoting political and nationalist ideologies. This is especially the case in Eastern Europe. In those ancient regions where Orthodox Christians existed as minority populations, the autocephalous churches were reduced to providing basic liturgical and pastoral needs of the faithful.
It is in America, however, where Orthodox Americans stand at a most significant crossroad. For many, the choices “to be a Church of the empire” or a “Church retreating to the desert” are as real and provoking now as they were in the fourth century.
Yet, in our American context, a new choice emerges. The Church exists in a secular and pluralistic culture where church and state are separated. No other Orthodox church finds itself in this stimulating and challenging context except the autocephalous Orthodox Church in America. It is not allied with the government nor is it a church in captivity. It is a local church that possesses the freedom to teach and preach the Gospel without diluting it with political propaganda. Within the American context, the OCA is free to engage in the many and difficult challenges it faces in a secular and pluralistic culture without substituting its rich, living and transfiguring theology with the ideology of the state. Being separated from the state eliminates any and all reasons to flee into the desert of sectarianism.
The Church in America has the same task the Church has always had: to remain a vibrant contributor to society without “peddling” an ideology in the guise of the Gospel (2 Cor. 2:17); to laud and defend “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable” (Phil. 4:8); to be an advocate for the freedom, well being, protection and dignity of the person created in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26); to care for the hungry and thirsty, to embrace the stranger, to cloth the naked, to visit and care for the sick, to care for the imprisoned (Mat. 25:32ff; Lk.10:25ff); to assist and protect the orphans and widows (Jm. 1:27) and to nurture, venerate and properly utilize the creation which awaits its envelopment and transfiguration in the glory of Christ’s second coming (Rom. 8:18-23).
Maintaining freedom from the government while remaining faithful to the Gospel, the Orthodox Church in America can humbly provide the criteria that guides its faithful to actively and responsibly engage in the political arena, not as lobbyists but as members of the living body of Christ.
Father Robert Arida has been dean of Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral in Boston, Massachusetts since 1984. His translation with introduction of Father Georges Florovksy’s “Body of the Living Christ” is soon to appear in The Wheel.
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 represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.