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A Response to Dr. Peter C. Bouteneff's "Orthodox Christians and the Presidential Election"

Rev. Johannes L. Jacobse

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This editorial is a response to Dr. Peter C. Bouteneff's Orthodox Christians and the Presidential Election.

In his recent editorial "Orthodox Christians and the Presidential Election," Dr. Peter C. Bouteneff spends many words saying very little. Call his approach the posturing of the detached observer. Liberal ideas are superficially compared to conservative ideas and since neither the Democrat nor Republican party has a lock on all the correct ideas, the reader is led to that tired conclusion that choosing one candidate over the other is always "the lesser of two evils."

But is this really true? Does Bouteneff honestly think that because no party is ideologically and morally consistent that no substantive difference exists between them? Does he really believe that Orthodox Christians (Bouteneff's audience) have no real choices in the November elections? Is voting in any election merely the choice of one "evil" over another? Is the term "evil" even accurate here?

Bouteneff's ideas would have surprised Samuel Adams who wrote, "Each citizen (must) remember at the moment he is offering his vote...that he is executing one of the most solemn trusts in human society..." Indeed, the freedom to inform public discourse with meaningful ideas and choose leaders to shape them into policy is one of our most cherished freedoms and important responsibilities.

A quick glance at history proves Adams correct. Take abolition or WWII as examples. If Lincoln had not been elected, the plight of American slaves would have been much different. If Roosevelt had not been elected, all of Europe might be speaking German today.

This is true in our time as well. The Bush administration reversed many of the third world pro-abortion initiatives (a particularly noxious form of American cultural arrogance) of the previous administration. It has confronted the genocide in Sudan. It is more aggressive with terrorists. If the former Clinton administration is any indication, these initiatives would be rolled back under a new Democratic administration. There is a world of difference between the two parties regardless of how one views their policies.

In American society the great cultural questions take on a political character. America is unique in this regard because: 1) America is primarily a nation of laws, not class; and 2) the American Founding Fathers presumed that moral virtue was the bedrock of liberty and designed 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, beliefs, are foremost a personal undertaking, and when the morality derived from faith governs the decisions of individuals, a virtuous society can result that ensures the growth of freedom and liberty.

Politics of course is never an end in itself. Politics follows culture, and the great cultural debates are important because they finally determine the shape that politics take. Where faith informs political engagement, an Orthodox Christian could conceivably be Democrat or Republican (although the Democratic Party's unequivocal embrace of the culture of death makes this choice more and more untenable). Faith must always inform politics, not the other way around.

But this is a far cry from the assertion that the differences between the parties are inconsequential in the end, or that the failure of either party to be absolutely consistent in applying the moral precepts of the Christian tradition makes voting superfluous. This resignation is no more than the old relativist shibboleth albeit in ecclesiastical dress: "absolute good trumps relative good; since perfection can't be reached, there is no real use in trying to make things better."

Bouteneff constructs a moral equivalence between the parties while providing no discussion about the different ideas each party holds. The absolute good that informs Bouteneff's equivocation however, is not the ideology of the secular relativist but an unstated construct about what constitutes the "Church." Bouteneff implicitly posits a higher way that justifies his posture of detachment without ever defining what that higher way really is.

This is clear by how he uses the term "evil." "Evil" here functions merely as cliché and is employed solely for its emotional power. Bouteneff doesn't really believe that the political parties are evil even when he says one party is a "lesser evil" than the other. Rather, he is saying that the posture of the detached observer is preferred over the messy work of engaging culture and politics. This borders on ecclesiastical elitism.

These comments offer a serious disservice to Orthodox Christians. They counsel retreat instead of engagement.

The culture needs moral direction. Dr. Bouteneff is in a position to provide it. Yet instead of engaging the critical issues like abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, gay marriage, the failure of the Great Society, the war in Iraq, and others with intelligence and clarity, he regards the processes that shape these issues into policy as "evil" thereby rendering any engagement pointless. Is it any wonder that our Orthodox politicians routinely violate the precepts of the moral tradition when such defensive and self-defeating thinking prevails? Is it any wonder that so many Orthodox Christians are confused about their moral tradition?

It doesn't matter that some Christians are "repulsed" by "our positions on human life and human sexuality," as Bouteneff complains. The authority of the moral tradition is not determined by how many people happen to agree or disagree with it even if they are Christian. Their disagreements might shape the form of our response, but they should never silence our voice - or our vote. We should be ready in season and out of season to teach, defend, and explain what we believe and why we believe it with charity, clarity, and coherence. And we must defend those ideals in proper ways when necessary.

Dr. Bouteneff says "we must choose... we must have a compass to guide us in our choice and that compass is...Christ's Gospel and how it is lived in the world." True enough. But the moral illumination and guidance that informed choices require won't come from the distant pose of the analyst who believes that active engagement with the culture has only negligible effect. A better choice would be to take the freedom and responsibility of choosing our leaders with more seriousness.

Dr. Bouteneff's article can be found on the Orthodox Church in America website (link closed).

Fr. Johannes L. Jacobse is a Greek Orthodox priest and edits the website OrthodoxyToday.org.

Posted: 9/27/04

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