If you're not a liberal in your twenties you haven't got a heart; if you're not a conservative in your forties you haven't got a brain." This old saying describes my shift from being a liberal follower of the Social Gospel to being a social and moral conservative. When I was younger, I was convinced that political ideology could change the world for the better. Somehow, the world failed to get better. Now in my mid-forties, my eyes are set on Matthew 25, which teaches that my life will be judged by how I treated the least of God's children. Where the Social Gospel addresses movements, masses, and political parties, the Lord's Gospel speaks directly to me. And there is no ideology to hide behind.
I grew up in Minnesota, the daughter of two life-long members of the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party, probably the most liberal party of any state in the country. My parents were simple people whose lives were shaped by the Great Depression. My father was a carpenter who was proud of his trade union membership. My mother kept the house. They were convinced that the union stood between them and the unfair labor practices of big business. Likewise, they believed that the Republican Party was out to weaken the working class by repealing Roosevelt's New Deal and Johnson's Great Society.
The political world of my parents was made up of black-and-white images taken from the little black-and-white TV that they watched each evening. They grew up in hard times and were grateful for their material success. They did not really understand political ideology--what it meant to be a liberal or conservative--and they voted a straight party line in every election.
My parents were faithful and true to each other for forty years. My mother, a good Greek-American woman, never remarried after my father died at the age of 63 from prostate cancer. She lived the remaining years of her life devoted to the man to whom she pledged her life in 1950. My father, a Swedish American, converted to the Orthodox faith after my brother, who was six at the time, asked him why all the other daddies went to church and he didn't. The question spurred my father to embrace his Christian faith and he passed on to me the love of the liturgy and scripture that he found in the Orthodox Church.
We would drive twenty-six miles to church every Sunday morning. During Great Lent, my father would make the trip back to town for the Wednesday and Friday services. Only now, as an adult, can I imagine how tired he must have been during Holy Week. He would rise at 4:30 a.m. to get to the construction site in Minneapolis by seven and pound nails all day, and return home for a quick supper to drive us back to church. My parents made this sacrifice to give us a moral and spiritual anchor that they believed was necessary for a productive and happy life. My father and all my uncles proudly served in WWII. They paid their taxes, they voted in each election, they educated their children and they loved their country.
When I met my husband in December of 1980 we were attending the University of Minnesota. I was working towards an MA in American History with an emphasis on Women's History. My future husband studied European history and was one of two people at the university who would admit to voting for Ronald Reagan in 1980.
The day we met we argued about politics well into the evening, debating everything from abortion to the Equal Rights Amendment. Within two months, I was engaged to a conservative, Evangelical Protestant Republican. This was, perhaps, evidence that my feminism was never deeply rooted. My family came to love my husband because of his kindness and generosity of spirit, but never for his politics. My father used to say half in jest--but only half--that Republicans can't get to heaven. My husband took it all in stride.
Yet, as happens with married couples, we began to influence each other. I became a conservative and my once staunchly Evangelical husband became a Greek Orthodox priest.
Still, all during the 1980s, I hung on to my liberalism and my feminism. I held most conservatives, with the exception of my husband, in abject contempt. Most of this was habit. I was swayed by the moral appeals of the left and took for granted the claims that conservatives had no moral convictions whatsoever.
Slowly however, as though coming out of a deep sleep, I saw that much of what I had been taught about America in college was not true. It took years of reading and reflection to realize that America was not an imperialistic giant out to subjugate the world. I came to see that the American Founding Fathers were as gifted in their political understanding as the Church Fathers were in theology. The Founders articulated a political philosophy based on a faith in God that was as deeply held as the faith of the Church Fathers was when they crafted the Nicene Creed.
As I continued studying, my view on faith and its relation to the culture changed too. Today I believe the radical precept that we are all "created in the image and according to the likeness of God." And that informs the equally radical assertion that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." The corollary took on a deeper meaning as well: "to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."
I discovered that the founding fathers were classical liberals. Their legacy is not the moral equivalency and moral relativism that are the hallmarks of modern liberalism. Rather, the rightful heirs of the classical liberalism of the founders are the moral and social conservatives of today.
The deep and intractable questions of the culture war are what drove me to take my faith more seriously. Sometimes the battlefronts are hard to make out and people of good conscience and intent can respectfully disagree with each other on many issues. Some issues however, cannot be reconciled with our Orthodox Christian faith.
This questioning of my core beliefs compelled a deeper return to Christ and my Church. This was a conversion in the truest sense of the word, and it is a conversion that I believe every cradle Orthodox Christian in America needs to undergo. I no longer accept that morality is relative. I see that evil is real and that each of us must make responsible choices every day based on right and wrong, good and evil.
I became conservative when my belief in a absolute truth and my commitment to an enduring moral tradition could not be reconciled with a political philosophy that implicitly claims that truth does not exist and that all morality is relative. Robert Bork reflected my view when he wrote, "The only relative truth the left won't tolerate is an absolute truth. The only belief they won't tolerate is a belief in the absolute. The only morality they won't tolerate is a traditional morality."
Faith into Action
Today I am a social and moral conservative. Yes, life is full of paradox. Yes, not all questions are black and white. But when it comes to issues that are the heart of our Orthodox faith and human life such as marriage, sexuality, the sanctity of life, I find my home among other conservatives.
Gay marriage, abortion, and euthanasia are some issues that require Orthodox Christians to take informed stands. We cannot hide in a state of sectarian denial. We cannot continue the arguments about jurisdictions, charters, and ecclesiastical authority that obscure the Orthodox presence in the public square. We squander our moral authority. Meanwhile, our children are increasingly drawn into the vortex of hedonism that afflicts our culture.
In his address to Harvard University in 1978, Alexander Solzhenitsyn offered us a prophetic warning. "In the early democracies, as in American democracy at the time of its birth, all individual human rights were granted on the ground that man is God's creature," he said. "That is, freedom was given to the individual conditionally, in the assumption of his constant religious responsibility. Such was the heritage of the preceding one thousand years. Two hundred or even fifty years ago, it would have seemed quite impossible, in America, that an individual be granted boundless freedom with no purpose, simply for the satisfaction of his whims." We Orthodox need to take this lesson to heart.
I have lost my patience with the left when it characterizes the right as moral fascists who try to impose a private morality on the nation. The truth is that anyone engaged in the great cultural debates of the day advances one moral vision over another. We are blessed to live in a land where these debates can freely take place, but we must remember the warning that freedom prevails only when moral virtue flourishes.
Today we live in an America where we can no longer display the Ten Commandments in public spaces, where prayers are prohibited in public schools, where manger scenes or menorahs are perceived as an unconstitutional abridgement of freedom, and more. Secular zealots are incrementally removing all the public symbols of faith in God in hopes of removing the memory of God altogether.
This confusion afflicts my own church in particular. Take, for example, Senators Sarbanes and Snowe, and Governor Dukakis, among the most prominent Greek-Americans in public office and treated like the favorite sons and daughter of the Greek Orthodox Church. I wonder if they have never seen an abortion that they wouldn't protect. Senators Sarbanes and Snowe even voted against a federal ban on partial birth abortion. That our Church Fathers are quite clear that abortion is a moral crime seems to make no difference to them.
Even more troubling is the spectacle of our Church hierarchy bestowing honors and awards on these Greek-American "reproductive freedom fighters." Can these Greek-Americans in the U.S. Senate be trusted to make morally coherent decisions as science advances into stem cell research and other complex areas? Can our Church hierarchs be trusted to guide them?
In the late 1990s, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, once the grand dame of the Women's Studies and Women's History movements in this country, converted to Catholicism and conservatism. She wrote, "Like the stone crosses that once stood at crossroads, abortion marks the convergence of the most portentous social, political, and moral questions of our time. Those questions challenge us to define our attitudes toward the purpose of our own lives and of the society to which we belong--toward life, death, and our responsibilities to others."
Why is it that a renowned scholar who spent most of her life promoting the radical feminist agenda in the academy and who only recently converted to Catholicism, can see so clearly that the support of abortion corrodes the moral foundations of our culture? In our Church meanwhile, men who have been elevated to the highest places of ecclesiastical authority, have been Orthodox from birth and possess impeccable ethnic pedigrees, and have been educated in the Christian moral tradition, elevate abortion advocates like Senator Sarbanes to "Archon of the Ecumenical Patriarchate?"
This lack of moral leadership extends to popular culture as well. Yianni, Jennifer Aniston, Olympia Dukakis, Nia Vardalos are touted as the pride of Greek culture. But who really wants their daughter emulating Aniston's character on Friends? We overlook the premarital sex or the grotesque caricature of baptism in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding." Should we ignore that in her next film Vardalos passes herself off as a drag queen? Do any of these Hollywood Hellenes ever consider the moral tradition of the Church on sexuality, chastity, and marriage? If not, why are they lauded?
When Whittaker Chambers left the Communist Party in 1937 and became one of the leading philosophers against Communism, it shook the intellectual world with as much impact as Elizabeth Fox-Genovese abandoning radical feminism for Catholic Conservatism. Chambers warned his wife about the consequences of leaving the left for the right. "I wanted my wife to realize clearly the long-term penalty, for herself and for the children, of the step I was taking. I said: 'You know, we are leaving the winning world for the losing world.' I meant that, in the revolutionary conflict of the 20th century, I knowingly chose the side of probable defeat. Almost nothing that I have observed, or that has happened to me since, has made me think that I was wrong about that forecast. But nothing has changed my determination to act as if I were wrong--if only because, in the last instance, men must act on what they believe right, not on what they believe probable."
Almost 70 years later, Chambers speaks for me. I too abandoned the left for conservatism while embracing my Orthodox faith all the more. I believe social and moral conservatives face an up-hill battle in the culture war. The spoils of war--sexual libertinism, hedonism, and instant gratification--will not be given up easily. The end result of a decaying moral and social order is a weakened family, and weakened families lead to weak societies. Is it any wonder that so many Americans seem not to understand the difference between liberty and moral license? The cultural left drives this forward.
I stand in a different tradition, one that does not understand morality in relative terms. This tradition also holds that I and everyone else in this world will be held to account. One day we will be judged for what we said and what we did. Like Whittaker Chambers, I also feel that I may have left the "winning world for the losing world." But I, too, must act on what I believe to be right.
Presbytera Susan P. Jacobse lives in Bonita Springs, Fl. This article was published in The Handmaiden.