Religious Right Must Not Set Agenda for Orthodox Church
By Harry Katopodis
The official Church should not be involved in partisan politics.
– Fr. Stanley S. Harakas (The Hellenic Voice, November 3, 2004)
Refute any attempt to totally isolate Orthodoxy from political activity.
– Fr. John Oliver (Again Orthodox Magazine, Fall, 2004)
Two Orthodox priests, two jurisdictions, two opposite views on what the Church’s position should be toward politics. The Orthodox Churches in America are heading down two different paths over political involvement.
The ultra-conservative Christian Right (mostly Christian evangelicals) has grown into a powerful political force in America and the Orthodox Church has also been influenced. It is inevitable that some Orthodox Christians will side with the Religious Right; however in the Antiochian Archdiocese (semi-independent and self-ruled church under the Patriarch of Antioch) and the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) jurisdictions, the influence goes deeper.
About 20 years ago several hundred converts from evangelical Christianity joined the Orthodox Church through the Antiochian Archdiocese. Evangelicals are still converting to Orthodoxy. Most converts end up in the Antiochian Archdiocese and OCA. They often bring their political beliefs with them and now claim to be the voice of true Orthodoxy in America when it comes to politics. The Christian Right focuses on one main issue, outlawing abortion; other issues are not as important to them.
The religious right in America started with the evangelical Protestants and a doctrine called dominion theology that says the Bible calls for Christians to take over governments because God gave man dominion over the earth in the Old Testament. They feel that the separation of church and state in American is a lie perpetuated by liberals and that America was meant to be a Christian nation.
Many people, Christian and non-Christian, feel strongly about other issues besides abortion and therein lies the controversy. To many people, economic and social issues trump moral issues and many are opposed to the war in Iraq. The Bible mentions the poor many times and often Democrats support government policies that help the poor and working class Americans while Republicans support policies that help corporations and the wealthier members of society. Although the religious right Orthodox feel that they are non-partisan, the fact remains that the Republican Party is for outlawing abortion and the Democratic Party is for keeping abortion legal.
A clarification should be made here: the Orthodox Church is against abortion and considers it a grave sin; however many Christians of all denominations, including Orthodox, feel that Christians cannot legislate their doctrine and impose Christian teachings on those who do not believe in those teachings. Many also feel that political parties can easily manipulate Christians by using issues such as abortion as wedge issues just to divide people and get votes without truly intending to outlaw abortion. (For more than 35 years the Republican Party has been promising to outlaw abortion.) Many Christians also feel that the culture of America (TV, movies, music, publications, etc.) is not Christian and imposing Christian laws would be futile.
Religious Right Orthodox on politics
Frank Schaeffer (a convert whose father was a founder of the anti-abortion Christian Action Council) wrote, “We will gird ourselves against the insidiousness of the secular culture around us, against … the secularistic scourge which comes to us packaged as ‘choice,’ ‘pluralism,’ and ‘democratization.’ We will reject the destruction of moral absolutes which we are constantly urged to adopt in the name of ‘pragmatism,’ ‘political correctness,’ ‘tolerance of diversity,’ ’sensitivity’ and ‘inclusiveness.’ Schaeffer goes on to attack some Orthodox leaders by saying, “They [Orthodox Christians] are told to live holy, sacramental lives on one day and then on the next, they see their Orthodox leaders ’schmoozing’ with pro-abortion politicians.” Dancing Alone, pages 306 and 311.
Fr. David Subu of the OCA is a “pro-lifer” who votes for pro-life (anti-abortion) candidates. Fr. Subu feels that the Church should be involved in politics. He goes on to strongly encourage a “pro-life” outlook for his readers. Solia, Jan/Feb 2008, Romanian Orthodox Episcopate official publication under Archbishop Nathaniel Popp (a leading proponent for making one Orthodox Church in America).
Another OCA priest, Fr. Steven C. Kostoff, recently wrote in his weekly email: “When we approach the chalice to receive the Eucharist, we are approaching and then receiving Life in abundance. We must stand in defense of the sanctity of life if we are to receive from the chalice of Life in a ‘worthy manner.’” His email was about outlawing abortion. Thursday’s Theological Thoughts email, February 7, 2008.
Also an Orthodox anti-abortion group has gone so far as asking bishops to ban Orthodox pro-choice politicians from Holy Communion.
It seems that the Orthodox “dominianists” have also hijacked the Orthodox unity movement in part to serve their political agenda. Since the rise of the religious right Orthodox there can be no doubt that a big reason many of them are pushing for one Orthodox Church in America is to give religious right Orthodox a stronger voice in Washington.
The religious right Orthodox have found a sympathetic ear in the Orthodox Church in America (OCA). The OCA has designated a Sanctity of Life Sunday to coincide with the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision which legalized abortion. (Sanctity of Life Sunday was started by President Ronald Reagan by proclamation in 1983 at the request of the Christian Action Council – now known as Care Net.)
The leader of the OCA, Metropolitan Herman, has directed that three petitions (prayers chanted by the priest) be added to the liturgy and that an anti-abortion prayer be read at the end of the Liturgy for that Sunday.
Metropolitan Herman also participates in the Right to Life March in Washington every year where they hear many speeches by mostly Republican politicians. Substantial coverage is given in their publications and their Web site to the Right to Life movement.
The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America
The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America has not followed the religious right Christians into politics and remains committed to the Ecumenical Patriarchate and to preserving the Greek faith, language and culture. In hindsight this has proved to be a wise decision.
Fr. Emmanuel Clapsis, former dean of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Boston, said: “We have to learn to communicate our beliefs not by the power of the state but through the power of persuasion and witness. It is difficult for many religions to adapt because whenever they speak they claim to express the voice of God, the will of God, and therefore they think their statements have a certain degree of infallibility. But that is erroneous because only the will of God is infallible; our understanding of His will is always subject to fallibility. The separation of church and state was done for the protection of religion because we have to have religious plurality… . The separation of church and state is very important because it provides opportunities for all religious communities, Christian or not, as well as secular people to present their views and to develop and generate, through dialogue and respect for all, what some people call an overlapping consensus to re
gulate ourselves. I want to express in the strongest way that Christianity should not be identified with any political ideologies either of the right or the left.”
Rev. Fr. Stanley S. Harakas, former professor at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, wrote: “The official Church should not be involved in partisan politics. Orthodox Christians inevitably will… . You can see that there can be legitimate differences among Orthodox Christians in evaluating and weighing the positions and values of the candidates on these complex issues. Eventually, the Orthodox voter will assign to some of these concerns more importance than to others… . No single candidate can be found who would embody or even approximate the whole range of Orthodox moral and spiritual concerns… . It is not the business of the Orthodox Church to officially tell them who to vote for in any election.” (The Hellenic Voice, November 3, 2004)
Fr. Theodore Stylianopoulos wrote, “Although America is inhabited by a majority of Christians, ‘America is not a Christian nation.’ Judging by history, truth be told, no nation ever was or can be ‘Christian.’ What can be hoped of nations is to practice justice for all citizens and show some compassion for their less fortunate members… . The very notion of America as a Christian nation, strongly promoted by fundamentalist Christians today, … inevitably distorts authentic Christianity into hard politics with all the attendant conflicts and recriminations. … Turning Christianity into a political movement aligned with a particular party becomes corruptive of Christianity and counterproductive to the very nature of its mission in the world.” (The Hellenic Voice November 29, 2006)
The Greek Orthodox Archbishop says a prayer at both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions every four years. He also meets with the president in the White House every year to mark Greek Independence Day on March 25.
Bishop Kallistos Ware
The well-known and respected Orthodox leader, author, professor and scholar Metropolitan Kallistos Ware weighed in on this issue, saying: “I have to say that I find the aggressive and authoritarian tone of ‘Orthodox dominionists’ to be unattractive, and I believe that it will prove in the long term to be counter-productive. I am fully in favor of Orthodox Christians, as individuals and on a personal basis, becoming wholeheartedly involved in the political and social questions of the day. At the same time, I doubt whether it is helpful for Orthodox Church leaders to make public pronouncements that have a strong political tone.”
Metropolitan Ware thinks that although this conflict causes tensions between the jurisdictions, it will not lead to a schism in American Orthodoxy because the issues do not involve the basic doctrinal teachings of Orthodoxy.
The battle over control of America’s political system will rage on. The Christian Religious Right will not give up and the moderate and liberal voices will also not give up. Whether we have a schism or not in American Orthodoxy depends on whether or not the “Orthodox dominionists” will demand that all Orthodox agree with them politically. The tragedy of this conflict is that God is not a Republican or a Democrat. In fact, He is not even American.
Harry Katopodis has worked as a radio/TV sports talk show co-host for several years and as an award-winning editor for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM). He studied theology at the University of Athens and is currently a high school journalism and mass media teacher.