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Casualties of the Culture War: Orthodoxy and Morality in the Public Arena

Rev. Johannes L. Jacobse

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America's two Orthodox Christian senators--Paul Sarbanes, a Democrat from Maryland, and Olympia Snowe, a Republican from Maine--voted in 2003 against a ban on partial-birth abortion. While the ban on this heinous form of abortion eventually was signed into law, the vote of these senators raises many questions for Orthodox Christians. How do we reconcile our opposition to abortion with public policy? What place does our Christian faith and morality have in the public square? Is it reasonable to expect Orthodox civic leaders to remain faithful to the Christian moral tradition if many of their constituents disagree with it?

These questions are relevant because of the culture war, the struggle in our society about what moral values we should hold in common. A moral consensus is crucial for maintaining stability and ensuring progress in a society. In our day, parts of the consensus have fractured, especially those concerning life-protection issues like abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia.

Abortion is a flash point in this struggle. In general terms, one side sees the unborn child as a distinct human being endowed with the rights and privileges afforded all persons; therefore, aborting it constitutes deliberate killing. The other side insists that the unborn child is not a human being at all; therefore, aborting it does not constitute murder.

A Collision of Moral Visions

The competing moral visions are derived from the Christian moral tradition on the one hand, and secularism on the other. The Christian tradition shapes its vision from the commandment to love God and neighbor. The commandment is affirmed throughout the scriptural narrative, from the creation of Adam and Eve to the prophetic call to care for the weak, disenfranchised, and poor. It reaches its final and divine expression in the voluntary sacrifice of Christ on the cross. The Apostle Paul explains that the strong must bear the burdens of the weak and points to the sacrifice of Christ as the model of the responsibility that neighbor has to neighbor (see for example Galatians 6:2).

Secularism denies the transcendent authority of the Christian moral tradition because it rejects religion as the wellspring of morality. This creates a truncated moral vision subject to shifting political winds and social fashion. Russell Kirk, a prominent American thinker on cultural matters, wrote, "It's from an association in a cult, a body of worshipers, that human community grows . . . when belief in the cult has been wretchedly enfeebled, the culture will decay swiftly. The material order rests on the spiritual order." This dependence of the material world on spiritual verities is precisely what the secularist does not see or believe in, and must ultimately deny. Unfortunately, many Americans think in secularist terms--including Orthodox Christians like Senators Sarbanes and Snowe and those who agree with them.The philosophy of utilitarianism grows out of this secularist soil. Utilitarianism redefines the Christian commandment to love the neighbor by draining the obligation to sacrifice out of it.

The Christian commandment requires that we love our neighbor, even if that love imposes a cost. This obligation rests with those who have the resources and capability to love, especially stronger members toward the weaker. Informing the commandment is a very high view of the human person rooted in the divine decree that all people have intrinsic value.

Utilitarianism denies this sacred dimension. In the secularist vision, the value of a human person is determined by a calculation of the costs that the weaker person might impose on the stronger. The obligation of charity shifts from the stronger person to the weaker, and the presumption that human life has intrinsic value dims and will ultimately disappear. Killing is construed as a net social good--as we see with the aborting of the unborn.

Recently a retired Greek Orthodox priest lost his wife. The death was not unexpected, because his wife had suffered from Alzheimer's for five years. For over half a decade, this priest faithfully took care of her, breaking away only a few hours each week to serve the Liturgy. He fed her every day, carried her from chair to bed, and comforted her to the greatest measure he was able.

This priest's care for his wife was the Gospel in action. His sacrifice may even be heroic. No such obligation to sacrifice exists in the secularist vision. The utilitarian would argue that the wife ceased to be of value when her disease required more resources than her husband could reasonably be expected to give. Killing her before her time would be portrayed as a merciful act.

We hear utilitarian arguments all the time. For example, abortion is justified because of the hardships that a child might impose on the mother. Euthanasia is justified because the old and infirm are a drain on the resources of healthy persons. Embryonic stem cell research is justified because it can lead to cures for diseases.

These arguments have an appearance of compassion and are defended as good policies for the betterment of society. While abortion, for example, might provide a quick fix for a daunting problem, the notion that a pro-abortion policy is good for American society is not true. Holding slaves might keep a slaveholder from bankruptcy, but this hardly justifies slavery.

Secularist compassion is not authentic compassion. It is merely the Christian understanding of compassion radically misapplied. Authentic compassion prohibits the killing of innocents; it cannot be rightfully understood apart from the commandment not to kill. In fact, the violation of the sixth commandment reveals that most of the secularist vision is non-Christian.

Secularism nevertheless borrows heavily from the Christian vocabulary and appropriates its moral categories. Sometimes the arguments for death almost sound Christian, particularly when they are framed in terms of authentic compassion. This dependence on the cultural memory of Christianity confuses many ill-informed Christians, who take the secularist appeals at face value. It also leads some commentators to conclude that secularism is in fact a Christian heresy.

How should Orthodox Christians respond to these challenges? We can begin by understanding how moral conflicts play out in American society.

The Culture War and American Politics

Different cultures handle moral conflicts in different ways. In America, the conflict often becomes political. There are two major reasons for this. First, America is primarily a nation of laws, not class. Second, the American founding fathers presumed that moral virtue was the bedrock of freedom and liberty and structured our system of governance on this foundation. There is no institution of moral arbitration in the American system, no designated cultural elites, no monarchs, and no national church. Faith, religion, values, and beliefs are foremost a personal undertaking, and when the morality derived from faith governs the decisions of individuals, a virtuous society can result--one that ensures the growth of freedom and liberty.

Secularists argue that because religious faith is foremost a private affair, moral decisions informed by an enduring moral tradition have no place in the public square. Religion, however, while certainly a private affair, has a crucial public dimension. Without religion there will be no coherent understanding of right and wrong that a culture can share in common. Morality becomes individualized. One man's wrong becomes another man's right.

If secularists were only concerned with winning arguments, secularism would not be a grave threat. Secularists want more than rhetorical victories, however. They want to see their moral vision codified into law. Their chief ally in the culture war is the judiciary. Activist judges institute policies that could not pass free and open debate in legislative assemblies. Roe v. Wade is one example. The widely publicized effort to remove the feeding tube of Terri Schiavo in Florida is a second. A third is the ruling by the judges of the Massachusetts Supreme Court which created legal marriage between homosexuals.

The notion that religion is solely a private affair may be what drove Senators Sarbanes and Snowe to cast their vote against the unborn. Such a privatization of faith, writes Princeton scholar Robert P. George, "would have puzzled--even shocked--men such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King." If Lincoln had privatized religious faith, he would not have freed the slaves. If Martin Luther King had privatized religious faith, blacks might still sit at separate lunch counters.

The American founding fathers resisted the creation of a national church not in order to keep faith private, but so that private faith could inform public culture. They believed that private faith informs the individual conscience, and that a well-formed conscience is crucial for a healthy polity and thus for freedom. Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote that the wisdom of the American founders lay in the notion that freedom is a condition of man's moral awareness and obligation as defined by the Christian faith. The need for morally sound and courageous voices is clear.

The national culture war reveals that the faith that once guided Western culture is in decline. The influence that mainstream Protestant bodies in particular once held over society has waned to the point where they are now a minority religion. Their decline will grow worse as long as their drift from the moral precepts of traditional Christianity continues. Today the mainstream denominations are almost indistinguishable from secular culture.

This decline presents an opportunity for Orthodox Christianity--not to fill its parishes with new members, but to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ as it is comprehended and practiced in our Orthodox tradition. Orthodox Christianity is coming of age at the same time that American culture needs moral renewal. This timing, I believe, is not an accident of history, but occurs through our Lord's beneficent Providence. The elder guardians of America's moral and cultural traditions have abdicated their responsibility and are being led by the culture they are supposed to lead. In their place appears Orthodoxy, a faith that predates theirs and has the resources and understanding to assume the leadership they once held. Whether or not Orthodox Christians will be faithful to this commission remains to be seen.

The Orthodox Christian Faith in America

American culture has experienced periods of decline before. After the Revolutionary War, people were worn down by the chaos of battle, the pain of separation and death, wartime inflation, and the taxing effort of building a new nation. Greed, sensuality, and family breakdown increased. Alcohol abuse became rampant. People quit going to church.

But out of this exhaustion, renewal emerged. The Second Great Awakening (1790--1840) fostered the Temperance Movement, which cut alcohol consumption by two-thirds in one generation. Families became more stable, and alcohol-related diseases decreased. Settlement houses were established for the homeless and to aid the influx of new immigrants during the first great wave of immigration to American shores.

The great awakenings were movements of cultural renewal accomplished when the Gospel of Christ was appropriated in profoundly personal ways. When Americans return to God, efforts of unparalleled energy and vigor in service to the neighbor always result. It's part of the American character that we owe to the Puritan ethos of the founding of the nation.

Orthodox Christians in America today need to see our Christian brethren of other faith communities as potential partners in another cultural renewal. We should not flirt with mainline organizations like the National Council of Churches, which too often embrace the secularist ideals that militate against Christian renewal. (For example, the NCC was silent about Christians who suffered under communism, preferring instead to garner favor with the tyrant.) The Orthodox are closer to conservative Roman Catholics, evangelical Protestants, and even in some areas conservative Jews than we are to declining mainline Protestants.

The American experiment and Orthodox Christianity fit hand-in-glove in many ways. The American ideal of the freedom of individual conscience can find its fullest expression in the Orthodox understanding of the freedom of the person in Christ. If Orthodox Christians can find a way to express this freedom (which is nothing less than the freedom of the Gospel), if they can witness this freedom in their personal lives and in love towards their neighbor, the secularist darkness will be revealed for what it is. Secularist ideals will be abandoned and the light of freedom that Christ brings into the world will flourish.

What does this mean in practical terms?

Let us return to the battle over abortion. To convey the freedom of Christ, we must help pregnant women for whom killing the child might seem the only out. One tragic result of the pro-choice culture is that family and friends don't help as they used to. Sometimes they apply great pressure on the mother to have an abortion. We must direct our attention as much to mothers as to the unborn. This means not only pregnant women, but also women who have had abortions.

We must also fight the secularist mentality in other arenas, such as opinion pages and elsewhere. The culture war is largely a war of ideas, and Christians should not acquiesce to the prejudice that they have no voice in the debate. The use of this arena is particularly important where public pressure counts, such as the attempt to kill Terri Schiavo through judicial decree. Public outcry enabled the Florida governor and legislature to overrule a judge's arbitrary ruling to remove her feeding tube.

We must also fight for legal restrictions on any practices that promote death.

We must work to change the minds of those who believe abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia are matters of moral indifference, as did the abolitionists, who finally persuaded the culture that slavery was immoral.

And we must also reprove Orthodox civic leaders when necessary. If Senators Sarbanes and Snowe voted against the ban because they really believe that partial-birth abortion ought to be acceptable social policy, then they violate the teachings of their faith. If they voted against the ban only because most of their constituency is pro-choice, then they participate in the debasement of human life and still remain in violation of their faith. This violation should be censured.

Every generation faces a test in which one must choose between the truth of the Gospel of Christ and a false gospel. Our test may well be the false definition of the human being entombed in the secular vision. Standing up to the challenge will take clarity of mind and courage. It is not always easy to call a lie by its name when a chorus of voices shouts the opposite. We must take on the mind of the Apostle Paul, who wrote, "I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation" (Romans 1:16).

A Personal Example

Several years ago I was asked to speak at a conference with the parents of murdered children. It turned out to be one of the most eye-opening experiences of my priesthood. I had experience in dealing with a family with a murdered child, so I spoke about the trauma that family and friends experience when someone they know is murdered.

After my talk, many of the parents approached me. Their suffering was so deep, their pain so excruciating, that most of them had turned to God. Their conversions were some of the deepest and most authentic I have ever encountered. Yet many issues remained unresolved, and they peppered me with questions. They were looking for a peace that could not come until they understood some essential existential facts about their dead son or daughter.

The brilliance and comprehensiveness of our Orthodox Christian tradition was never more clear to me than on that day. Our faith understands death because it understands life. It does not shy away from the hard questions. It eschews cliché and mindless piety. I was able to draw from the deeper parts of our tradition and answer their questions in ways that brought them immediate relief from burdens they had carried for years.

My purpose in offering them the wisdom of our Orthodox faith was not to make them Orthodox, but to ground them more deeply in Christ. Most of them will never step into an Orthodox church. Even if some did explore the Orthodox faith, they may have gone to a parish not mature enough to receive them. No matter. Christ was with them in their suffering, He was with them in our conversation, and He will remain with them as they remain faithful.

These encounters reshaped my view of how Orthodox Christians should approach the men and women of America. The treasure we possess is the Gospel. The Gospel, when preached and heard, reveals Christ--particularly when it is preached with the clarity and intelligence provided by our Orthodox tradition. The Great Commission should not be misconstrued. We preach the Gospel not to fill our parishes, but to bring Christ into the world.

We must be ready in season and out of season to reveal the hope we have within us to anyone who has ears to hear. And there are many. Seldom does a day go by that I don't encounter people outside of my parish who need a word of advice or encouragement about God. We don't recruit, but we must speak the word of the Lord in ways appropriate to our corner of the world. We will also discover that freely giving to our neighbor may fill our parishes, but that determination lies solely in the hands of God. The Church is the Lord's and only He adds to it.

Orthodox Christians must approach the vexing problems of contemporary culture--most especially the carnage brought about by abortion--with a renewed resolve to live and preach the Gospel of Christ. The Gospel of Christ can defeat the dehumanizing secularism of our age. It requires that Orthodox Christians engage the culture with intelligence, courage, and even sacrifice. We can affirm the good in the great land of America (and much is still good) in the knowledge that God has blessed it in the past and He may do so again.

Fr. Johannes L. Jacobse is the priest of St. Katherine Greek Orthodox Church in Naples, Florida, and edits the website OrthodoxyToday.org.

This article was published in the September, 2004 issue of Again Magazine.

Posted: 10/6/04



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