I’m highlighting Mr. Strickland’s comments because ideas within it deserve consideration.
Dr. Bouteneff’s article has stirred a great deal of debate in these pages. My response is drawn from Bouteneff’s statement: “Neither is there any one system of governance, be it monarchy, democracy, plutocracy, or theocracy, which the Church would sanction as such to be the Christian way of estasblishing and maintaining a state…Christians are not ipso facto socialists, capitalists, or monarchists. And such as we Americans are accustomed to the logic of democracy, democracy is neither the way in which the Church is govers itself, nor is it the only or obvious Christian kind of state…Christians…have to decide in each particular case what best meets the criteria of Christian life.”
There are many ideas packed in this statement, and I am limited in time in commenting on them. I start with a question. Through her long experience in history, has the Church had a period (until the time of America’s great experiment in democracy) in which the state has not directly attempted to control ecclesiastical affairs? Emperors, Czars, and dictators have all had their hands inside the doors of the Church, attempting to muzzle the voice of the Gospel. As an Orthodox Christian, I cannot imagine wanting to live in a state governed by the whims, greed and power-madness of absolute rulers. Christians for Czarists? No thank you.
Bouteneff is dimissive of the importance of democracy for the Church,simply categorizing it among the various types of state. We only happen to be Orthodox Christians living in a democratic style of government. It appears to me Bouteneff is values- neutral when it comes to democratic institutions. They just happen to be. What account do they have for the Church?
American style democracy is based on the principle of the “limited state.” Governmental coercion is strictly limited by the expressed guarantees of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. There are built-in checks and balances, the safeguards that work well on occasions and fail in others. To be sure, American democracy is a messy business; it is highly competitive in both the markeplaces of economics and ideas. For some people, this is disquieting and assaultive of the ideal. All in all, what would replace it?
This leads me to to the question of the proper relationship between Church and state. Bouteneff is off-center here. The state should not confess a faith. It does that, however, when, in hostility to the faith confessed by its people, it confesses the ersatz religion of militant secularism. The great antidemocratic danger comes from the secularist creeds imposed by governments that recognize no higher (transcendent) sovereignty.
That was the reality of Nazism and communism. That danger is also present in our democracy when “the separation of church and state” is taken to mean the separation of religion from public life. The public square, like nature, abhors a vacuum. If it is not filled with the lively expression of the most deeply held convictions of the people, including their convictions grounded in religion, it will be filled by the quasi–religious beliefs of secularism. Christians should be encouraged to lively, sometimes heated, debate and decision-making in the public square.
One may well ask whether Bouteneff’s perspective is capable of informing democratic deliberation and decision by reference to an Orthodox grounded moral discernment.
Democratic deliberation and decision–making is necessarily conflictual. Short of the End Time, even among people of the best will (and it will never be that everybody will be of the best will), there will be different and frequently conflicting understandings of moral truth and the common good—and, increasingly, there is disagreement over what might be meant by words such as “truth” and “good.” The public square must always be open to all—at least in theory that is supported by determined effort.
Democratic discourse can be sustained by an awareness that God calls us to care for the earthly polis, and by the knowledge that opponents have access to truth and a capacity for reason even when they seem determined to prove that they don’t. And again, it helps to know that the most important things to be communicated and agreed upon are not in the realm of politics.
The Church must acknowledge the limits of her competence in political and economic life. In relation to politics she strives to maintain a principled, firm, and nonpartisan stance. Admittedly, that is not easy. In specific circumstances of partisan conflict, even the most carefully crafted statement of principle will be viewed by some as partisan. Therefore, a good rule of thumb when it comes to statements that intend to invoke the Church’s moral authority is this: When it is not necessary to speak, it is necessary not to speak. At stake is the danger of turning the gospel into an ideology or party platform. Politics is not the vocation of the Church. The Church is to help equip the faithful for the exercise of their vocations in the public square. The vocation of the Church is to help sustain many different vocations.
American democracy may not be the ideal, but is there an adequate replacement? Approximation to the ideal is the best we can hope for this side of the Kingdom of God.