Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

Orthodoxy and Civic Duty

Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon

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Inasmuch as Christ our Lord obliges all of us indiscriminately to "render to Caesar the things that are Caesar" (Matthew 22:21), I suppose that few Orthodox Christians seriously doubt our common moral duty to take part in the civic life of our nation, including its politics. Even if they fail to notice St. Paul's contention that this obligation is imposed "for conscience' sake" (Romans 13:5), most Orthodox Christians in America live as good citizens, rendering "taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear honor to whom honor" (13:7).

In a republic or representative democracy, such as the one we enjoy and cherish, this participation must be more active and engaged than under other forms of government. Most Orthodox Christians in this country appear to have no theoretical problem with the arrangement. Inspired by the Epistle to Diognetus to think that "Christians are in the world what the soul is in the body," Orthodox believers coming to this country from abroad have promptly assumed their civic and political duties on arrival here. Simply as a matter of course, they began to vote, pay taxes, serve on school boards, organize and contribute to endeavors philanthropic (the adjective itself, after all, is Greek), and both run for and serve in elected public office. Moreover, as I had special occasion to appreciate when serving the Divine Liturgy in the Orthodox chapel at the Great Lakes Naval Base, Orthodox Christians also enlist and fight in our armed forces. The flag of this nation has draped their bodies slain in patriotic combat. Orthodox Christians have done all these things because they truly desire to be, and to be recognized as, good American citizens.

In this present issue of AGAIN, several authors have been assembled to advance a further thesis on this theme of the Orthodox faith and civic responsibility. These authors will argue that Orthodox Christians must strive to be, not only good American citizens, but also good Christian citizens of America. If Orthodox Christians do not bring to bear on American civic and political life the dispositions, strengths, and perspectives of the Christian Gospel, they will fail in their duties as American citizens. Active patriotism is not optional, and merely sentimental patriotism is no substitute. We cannot, and we must not, separate our Christian faith and commitment from our responsibilities to our country.

Freedom of the Press

To understand the reason for this, let us recall why freedom of religion is guaranteed in this nation. The context of that guarantee is inscribed in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

It is important to examine carefully the precise wording of this very precisely worded affirmation. It does not say that religion and the press shall be prohibited from bringing political influence and power to bear on Congress. It says, rather, that Congress must not bring political influence and power to bear on religion and the press. In not the slightest respect does the First Amendment restrict the influence and activities of religion and the press with respect to the political life of the nation. The restrictions in this amendment are laid entirely on the government, none of them on religion and the press.

In order to appreciate this distinction, we may consider how the First Amendment commonly applies -- and has always applied -- to the press. Everyone expects the press to be actively involved in political life. No one is surprised when newspapers, radio stations, and television networks comment at length on political activity. We hear no complaints that a constitutional principle has been violated when a city newspaper or a local television channel espouses a particular political cause or endorses a particular political candidate. On the contrary, this is exactly what we envisage as healthy to the political process. We welcome the interference of the press into political matters. This is the state of affairs that the First Amendment was painstakingly written to preserve. Those responsible for the crafting of that amendment were convinced that a vigorous and vocal press is beneficial to the life of the nation.

The prohibition that restricts Congress from interfering with the press has never been regarded as some kind of "wall of separation" between government and the press. We do not expect to find on the editorial page of The Chicago Tribune a statement that says, for example, "Although we ourselves personally approve a woman's right to choose, we refrain from pushing the point in these pages lest we appear to be imposing our own moral persuasion on the normal workings of the courts and the legislature. The traditional wall of separation between Press and State must be maintained at all peril."

Likewise, we would be more than slightly miffed if The Weekly Standard were to declare, "No standard is more serious than the separation of government and the press. Therefore, we think it inappropriate for us to interject our own views into the political process and impose our morality on others. We are willing to admit, however, strictly in our private and personal capacity, that our own view of 'gay marriage' is something other than completely favorable." We never expect statements like that from the press.

On the contrary, we take it as obvious that The Chicago Tribune and The Weekly Standard can say whatever they want on any subject under the sun, including the workings of government, and this is precisely the function they serve in civil society. If the instruments of the press refuse to do this, they fail in that very responsibility envisaged by the principle of freedom of the press.

Furthermore, the freedom of the press from governmental interference presupposes a prior freedom, the freedom of citizens to read or not read what the press has to say. Freedom of the press, that is to say, involves freedom from the press.

A free press, after all, does not mean that we don't have to pay for our newspapers. The press enjoys freedom from governmental coercion, but it must answer to its readers. They too are free, and if they become sufficiently disgruntled with the editorial page, or any other aspect of the newspaper, they may choose not to renew their subscriptions. They may boycott the advertisers There is a host of things they may do to express their freedom from the press. In short, the freedom of the press also presumes that the citizenry itself is free with respect to the press. No one is obliged to read newspapers.

Freedom of Religion

Now, because freedom of religion is guaranteed by exactly the same First Amendment that guarantees freedom of the press -- which it does in identical terms -- what is true of the one is in every respect true of the other. If there is no "wall of separation" between Press and State, there is no such wall separating Church and State. Just as the First Amendment lays no restrictions on the press in political matters, it lays no restrictions on religion in political matters. Both are governed by the identical provision.

For the same reason, if we expect the press to argue for its own views with respect to the decisions and workings of government, we should expect no less from the churches. If we are not shocked when a newspaper editor takes a very firm stand in favor of "abortion rights" and employs all the influence of his position to advance this view, it is illogical to be shocked when a bishop takes a very firm stand in favor of "the rights of the unborn" and employs all the influence of his position to advance that view. The same First Amendment protects both the editor and the bishop. The government neither ties nor shortens the arm of either.

Freedom of religion likewise implies not only that the government may not interfere with churches, but also that citizens are free to join or not join those churches. In the perspective of the First Amendment, American citizens may change their churches as readily as they change their newspapers. The government is as little concerned with a citizen's shift from the Methodists to the Presbyterians as with his switching over from Fox News to CNN. No one is obliged to belong to a church. The government doesn't care, and it shouldn't care.

In this country churches and newspapers are compelled to operate in a competitive open market. They must take their chances with the citizens. Government offers churches and newspapers no guarantee except that of freedom. Such is the provision of the First Amendment.

Churches and newspapers, moreover, are free institutions in two senses: the government may not interfere with them, and no citizen is obliged to take them seriously. What the First Amendment says to the press, it says also to churches: "You, my friends, are on your own."

Religion and Public Life

The motive inspiring the First Amendment is the key to its understanding. It was the conviction of the founders of this country that the freedom of Americans was to be embodied and expressed in institutions other than the government. They did not believe that the government had all the answers. The government, on the contrary, because it bears not the sword in vain, always has about it some aspect of coercion. The better to ensure the government's own freedom, therefore, the First Amendment provides that there will always be other institutions left free to bring their influence to bear on the government. Chief among these institutions are the press and the churches The press and the churches, understanding this to be their role, have always functioned this way.

The major historical example of this truth is the abolition of slavery, which perhaps provides its best illustration. Namely, long prior to its resolution by other constitutional amendments, and even before it was partly settled in the blood and carnage of a hundred battlefields, this weighty question was argued from the press and the pulpit. In the matter of slavery, it was the lighting of the conscience that led at last to the firing of the cannon. Ardent newspaper readers and devout churchgoers were the people ultimately to be credited, under God, for the extraction of that great scourge which even our American Constitution had been unable to remove. It was in large measure freedoms of religion and the press that brought about the freedom of the slave.

In every large crisis faced by this nation since its founding, religion and the press have brought the resources of their own wisdom to bear on the decisions of the government. This is exactly what the First Amendment had in mind when it provided that the press and the church should be completely free to address the conscience and shape the mind of the American public.

Spiritual Recovery

In recent decades, however, there has arisen the very strange notion that the churches are supposed to remain quiet about civic and political matters, for fear of "interfering with the business of government." Our forebears would have regarded that thought as weird indeed. They expected the churches to interfere. They wanted the churches to interfere. Indeed, they provided a specific constitutional amendment to guarantee that the churches would interfere.

The First Amendment is, in fact, a great declaration of humility. It declares that the State does not know everything. It makes available to the State the wisdom of a free press and free churches that are not beholden to it. It says with respect to the churches and the press, "You know, my friends, I am going to keep my hands off of you, because I want to be sure that if, down the road, I should start to go wrong, you will feel completely free to show me the error of my ways and pull me back to the path of righteousness." The last thing this country needs is a church or a press that is answerable to the government. On the contrary, the church and the press must be guaranteed such freedom as they need to talk back to the government, to challenge the government if necessary, to instruct the government in matters beyond the government's normal competence.

Now this is the reason why we believers cannot and must not separate our faith and religious commitment from our responsibility as American citizens. If Christians, including Orthodox Christians, do not bring to bear on American civic and political life -- and to the attention of the American government -- the dispositions, strengths, and perspectives of the Christian Gospel, they will fail in their duties as American citizens. They will fall short in the very responsibility implied in the freedom that the First Amendment guarantees to religion.

From the perspective of morality, American civic life at present seems especially perilous. Among the components of that peril, I see three as especially worthy of our attention. First, the vast but entirely legal slaughter of unborn children. Second, the current movement to change the definition of marriage, whether in courts or legislatures. Third, the Frankensteinesque horror of human stem cell research and human cloning.

These three matters invade the central core of human existence more directly than any other ethical problem currently posed to the American conscience. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine any intrusions more inimical to the meaning of human life than these three projects.

Among the public questions posed to the Christian conscience in American society today, these three are of great weight. Any one of them deserves to be put on the same level of moral seriousness and social gravity that we properly assigned to the institution of slavery. If, as Abraham Lincoln argued, the national house could not remain divided on the question of slavery, it most certainly cannot remain divided on these three matters.

As it happens, all of these matters are under intense discussion during the current year of political decisions. These are not subjects on which the Christian churches and individual Christians can be either willfully silent or ineffective.

Strategy and Alliances

First, no silence. Orthodox Christians must speak up and speak up emphatically. For some of us, this may not be easy, because political freedom of speech has not played a great role in much of Orthodoxy's historical experience, and Orthodox Christians are relative latecomers to the dynamics of democracy. This fact goes far to explain the relative absence of the Orthodox in this country's current politics of confrontation.

This absence is not difficult to understand. It certainly has to do with Orthodoxy's survival for so long in settings where political confrontation would have been suicidal. Emperors, tsars, sultans, and totalitarian dictators did not look kindly on that sort of activity, and for centuries these were the sorts of political leaders with which Orthodox Christians had to contend. For many generations they were obliged to keep their heads low, if only to keep their heads.

Nonetheless, our responsibilities before God as Christians in America right now compel us to throw off that limitation and find our proper clear voice to address the major concerns of our nation in what is certainly a time of great moral crisis.

Second, effectiveness. Almost from its beginning in this country, the Orthodox Church has realized that its full integration into the nation's civic and political life would remain impossible except in concert with other Christians. For many decades, therefore, we have cooperated with various Christian groups in America for the purpose of influencing the direction of American social and political life. This cooperation was pretty effective at one time. One thinks of Archbishop Iakovos marching with Martin Luther King in Selma some decades ago.

Permit me to suggest, however, that the time has come for a big change in this respect. Hitherto the Orthodox jurisdictions in this country have been engaged largely with mainline, fairly liberal bodies, such as those represented in the National Council of Churches. If Orthodox Christians, however, are to be truly effective in addressing the major moral questions currently facing this nation, those associations need seriously to be reappraised. Largely considered, those liberal churches are not the ones with whom we Orthodox should be joining hands. I see two reasons for this.

First, those mainline Protestant churches are almost all in grand decline, and in some cases in utter freefall. In many respects their leadership no longer enjoys the confidence of the rank and file of their membership. Several of those churches, in fact, have large movements of protest against their leadership, even unto threatened and actual schism. Why should the Orthodox Church feel more confidence in the Episcopal Church and the United Methodist Church than thousands of their own members do?

Second, some of these mainline Protestant churches should properly be considered part of the problem, not the solution. If Orthodox Christians are truly intent on restoring the legal rights of unborn children, for example, why would we align ourselves with churches that continue to speak of "a woman's right to choose"? Or, if we are resolved that marriage should remain what God intended it to be, the lifelong and consecrated union of a man and a woman, what incentive can we have for aligning ourselves with churches that have set up ongoing special commissions to study the matter?

In short, I am convinced that it is in Orthodoxy's best interest to break off, cleanly and expeditiously, our inherited ties to the mainline Protestant churches in respect to social and political matters. Those alliances pertain to a decrepit, self-serving, superannuated ecumenism that has long outlived its favor with either God or man.

If we are to be effective in addressing the moral questions currently facing the United States of America, we should realize that Orthodoxy's readier and more natural allies in these matters will be conservative Roman Catholic organizations and those rapidly growing evangelical churches that continue to address these moral concerns with a clear voice. This will mean new ecumenical alliances for the Orthodox, and we would do well to form them as soon as we can, "for conscience' sake."

Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois, and a Senior Editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity.

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Posted 10/21/04

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