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Orthodox Christians and the Rights Revolution in America

Published on: February 2, 2024
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Orthodox Christians and the Rights Revolution in America

Anyone paying attention to controversies both within the Church and in many societies around the world will recognize how often the word rights comes into play. In March 2018, the Orthodox Christian Studies Center began a multi-year initiative to explore Orthodoxy and the promotion of human rights. I was privileged to be invited to participate in this initiative. I had already more than a decade before begun work on a project that fit the objective of the initiative. I had also come to appreciate how challenging the topic of rights had become. Some years earlier at a post-conference reception, a colleague had asked me “Why do you pick such difficult topics to write on?” Never having thought of my choice of topics as unusually difficult, I responded that I wrote out of curiosity mixed with dissatisfaction with what others had so far written—or failed to write—on issues I deemed to be important.

Orthodox Christians and the Rights Revolution in America began more than two decades ago as I continued to explore a long-standing interest in the issue of “rights” in the Anglo-American legal and constitutional tradition. But probing American legal, political, and constitutional rights to religious liberty, the disposition of property to charitable trusts, struggles between clergy and laity, and evolution of civil rights did not include a focus on human rights, nor on the Orthodox Church. In 2006, I was asked to write a review essay on “Law, Religion, and State Making” that assessed the contributions of the late Harold J. Berman and the younger scholars Philip S. Gorski and John Witte, Jr. Providentially, I met Witte in Atlanta a few years later where he and Frank S. Alexander presided over the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University. The two had published in 2006 their The Teachings of Modern Christianity on Law, Politics, and Human Nature. In the introduction they asked what the Orthodox made of human rights, theories of society, freedom of speech, and issues surrounding gender equality. These questions provoked my curiosity about how the Orthodox would answer. 

At that same Atlanta meeting, I also began a conversation with Aristotle Papanikolaou, who had been invited by Alexander and Witte as the Orthodox participant in a further exploration of human rights questions. Papanikolaou’s 2012 book The Mystical as Political addressed some of Alexander’s and Witte’s queries, but through the lens of theology, not history. As I explained to Telly when he invited me subsequently to participate in a human rights conference in Oslo, Norway and asked what my own focus on rights would be, he responded to my synopsis of what I was intending to do that it would mean my “getting down into the weeds.”

Not getting lost in the weeds has meant providing myself and readers a “primer” of various kinds of “rights” that have to be identified and distinguished from one another before one can query the Orthodox about how they would respond to Alexander’s and Witte’s questions. Orthodox Christians and the Rights Revolution tries to show how the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox have struggled to integrate their own inherited notions of rights, duties, and privileges both within and beyond the Church into the Anglo-American legal and constitutional development of rights. Orthodox Christians rapidly learned the value and advantages of accepting and endorsing some forms of rights. This proved to be true not only among those who had emigrated to North America. Appreciation of the advantages to the Church that could be realized in the North American experiment with a constitutional democratic republic caught the attention of Orthodox theologians abroad.

What my investigations and conclusions leave unanswered might be summed up thus:

First, the global disagreements among the Eastern Orthodox about the rights, privileges, and responsibilities of hierarchs, and the tension between synodality and primacy, especially in the case of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Patriarchate of Moscow  remain unresolved. This state of affairs percolates downward into the local churches as well and leads to even more fragmentation in a fragile and demographically small Orthodox presence in North America. The persistence of ethnic Orthodoxy challenges both Oriental and Eastern Orthodox to ask how committed they are to a North American church. 

Second, confidence in what counts as the reasonable, most probable, agreed-upon standards of truth and evidence—what the commentator Jonathan Rauch has called the “epistemic crisis” (that is, what counts as knowledge, who says so, and why should we defer to those who claim to know)—threatens to elude especially younger readers, Orthodox or not. Too many are increasingly disinclined to be shaped by the tradition of paideia, the foundation of “liberal arts” education that for centuries provided the forum within which the Church itself must work toward consensus about what the Orthodox understand by rights. 

Last, the pastoral obligation to protect the rights and dignity of the married, the celibate, the unborn, women, and minorities within the received Tradition of the gospel remains fraught and underdeveloped. But that pastoral witness also holds the potential for the Orthodox to shape the future of North American society. Alongside fellow citizens, Christian and non-Christian alike, an Orthodox perspective on rights needs to be heard. Most Americans remain unaware of what the Orthodox believe and teach about the questions posed to them by Witte and Alexander. But are the Orthodox themselves interested enough, curious enough, to go about discovering their Tradition’s grappling with such questions?

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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

  • Rev. Dr. Anthony G. Roeber

    Rev. Dr. Anthony G. Roeber

    Emeritus Professor of Early Modern History and Religious Studies at Penn State University

    The Rev. Dr. Anthony G. Roeber is Emeritus Professor of Early Modern History and Religious Studies at Penn State University, and Professor of Church History at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. Author of many books, his Palatines, Liberty, and Property: German Lutherans in Colonial Briti...

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

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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.

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