February 1, 2016 Length: 51:29
As we enter the election cycle in 2016 what biblical principles or Church canons should be priorities in selecting candidates and supporting party platforms? Should Christian teachings, moral and bio-ethical teaching and Orthodox canons be disregarded in a contemporary secular society? Kevin’s guest is George E. Demacopolous, a Professor of Theology and the Fr. John Meyendorff and Patterson Family Chair of Orthodox Christian Studies, as well as the Co-Director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University in New York.
Mr. Kevin Allen: Welcome to Ancient Faith Today. You know, as we enter the presidential election cycle in 2016, there are questions I’m sure we all have as to how we as believing Christians should approach our political decisions and make political choices. For example, what biblical principles or Church canons and to what extent should they be priorities in selecting candidates and supporting party platforms? Or, should Christian teachings—moral and bioethical teachings, as well as Orthodox canons—be set aside in a contemporary secular society in our decision-making? And, what do we do when specific political issues of the day are not made clear in holy Scripture or are ambiguous or influenced by the varied Christian interpretations?
Well, my guest on this program wrote a very fascinating article that has been picked up in the media, which attempted to be balanced and fair on this very topic. It’s titled, “What Orthodox Christianity Can Bring to American Christian Politics.” I think this subject is a very timely one. So in this edition of Ancient Faith Today, we’ll attempt, tricky as this is, to have a non-partisan–oriented discussion of how we as American Christians might evaluate our political decision-making and what Christian values and priorities should prevail and how we apply them to political choice and choice-making.
My guest on this program is George E. Demacopoulos. George, who has been guest before, is a professor of theology and a Fr. John Meyendorff and Patterson Family Chair of Orthodox Christian Studies, as well as the Co-Director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center, at Fordham University in New York. His most recent publication—of which he has many—is Gregory the Great: Ascetic Pastor and First Man of Rome, published by the University of Notre Dame Press, 2015. George, thank you very much for being my guest on what is definitely a controversial subject.
Dr. George E. Demacopoulos: Thank you, Kevin. I’m looking forward to this.
Mr. Allen: I am, too. I think it’s going to be helpful.
So my first question, George, is this. Many traditionally Orthodox Christian countries—Greece as one example and Russia as another—are not, in many Americans’ eyes, great examples of how political states should be run. So, given that these are traditionally Eastern Orthodox Christian countries, and again not thought of as being great political examples for many Americans and voters and Christian voters. How do you see the influences of Orthodox Christianity having a possible positive influence on how American Christian voters make their choices and think through their political decision-making in this national election cycle?
Dr. Demacopoulos: Okay. As you know, modern democracy was borne of the French Enlightenment in a particular historical, political, and religious context. At the time, most Orthodox populations lived within the Ottoman or Russian empires. It was only at the end of the 19th century that Orthodox intellectuals, mostly Russian, began to imagine Orthodoxy within the context of a Western-inspired democracy. But then, just as this theological project got underway, the Bolsheviks upended everything. It has only been in the last 20 years that we have started genuine theological reflection on the compatibility of Orthodoxy and democracy and the ways that the institutional Church and individual Christians should operate within the pluralistic and secular environments that democracy perpetuates.
Your question points to the political struggles of countries like Greece and Russia, which are both very new to democracy. This is to be expected. It is what has happened in every country that has tried to enact democracy in the modern world, the United States included, of course. But I would like to suggest that the Church itself, and Orthodoxy, is, in a sense, struggling to find its own footing in political settings that don’t have historical precedence in the writings of the Fathers or the canons of the Church. Because of all of this, I think that most American Orthodox are at a loss for how to negotiate the tension between their political impulses and their faith commitments. I think that they are very easily influenced by other Christian traditions that have more clearly demarcated, albeit highly problematic, affiliations with one particular national party or the other. But those influences, too, are often unconscious and equally problematic.
Mr. Allen: Good point. So in your article, George Demacopoulos, “What Orthodox Christianity Can Bring to American Christian Politics,” which was on the blog Public Orthodoxy, you wrote this:
[P]olitical alliances forged by many American Christians are worse than strange—they are ironic [which means the incongruity between the actual result and the normal or expected result] and self-contradictory.
So what do you mean by that: “ironic and self-contradictory” as is regards both the left and the right of which Christians and Orthodox Christians are both affiliated?
Dr. Demacopoulos: What I mean is that many American Christians have deep-seated political commitments, and they often think that those commitments either derive from, or at the very least are compatible with, their Christian beliefs. But both the Republican and Democratic platforms contain core elements that are fundamentally incompatible with Christian teaching. This is why the situation is ironic and self-contradictory. So, for example, on the left, partisans draw on Christian teaching to pursue social justice, racial and gender equality, and responsibility for the environment, but in order to have a voice within the political left, Christians align themselves with advocates of unrestricted abortion rights, assisted suicide, and those who naively seek to remove religious discourse from the public square. On the right, partisans draw on Christian teaching to challenge abortion and to advocate for traditional values, but in order to gain influence with the political right they routinely align themselves with policies and organizations that obstruct clean air and water legislation, endorse capital punishment, and resist immigration and gun control.
Mr. Allen: So, George, without getting into a specific debate on these specific issues that you believe are against our Orthodox Christian values and teachings, do you think either party—Democrat or Republican—is fundamentally more or less secular in its platform and ideology, more or less reflective of genuine Christian teachings, or would you say—and I’m not trying to put words in your mouth, obviously—that according to the criteria of genuine Christian teachings, both parties are a mixed ideological bag?
Dr. Demacopoulos: My short answer would be to adopt your third option. The Democrats and Republicans both reflect a mixed ideological bag. But your connection to secularism, I think, is key. Many American Christians use the word “secular” without really understanding its historical origins and place in American society. If you know anything about the founding fathers of the United States, you would know that they were all deeply committed to the philosophical principles of the Enlightenment. As a result, the historical origins of American democracy lie in secularism. The vast majority of the founding fathers—Jefferson, Franklin, etc.—were Deists; they were not Christians. They were looking to avoid the wars of religion that had crippled Europe in previous centuries, and they thought that the best way to do this was to build a nation founded upon secular politics. So they drew on Voltaire, Rousseau, and other Enlightenment philosophers to establish a nation where faith, religion, and revelation would have no place in the practice of government.
If you really understand the history of political philosophy, you will understand that democracy is, by definition, a secular movement. This is just another reason why I see Christian politics in America as being so ironic. You can’t advocate for Enlightenment principles such as liberty and democracy on the one hand and then complain about secularism on the other. They are each implicated.
Mr. Allen: Very interesting. Yeah, very interesting. I’m glad you said that. I was not aware of that.
But aren’t there higher and lower Christian and, more significantly, teachings and values that serious Christians, regardless of the political structure that we find ourselves in, should consider when voting for a politician or aligning with a specific party? For example, is the issue of killing of babies in the womb and supporting with tax dollars institutions that do this, which are clearly against our Christian teachings and Orthodox Church canons, is this not a higher priority than, say, climate change? And, two, is the issue of capital punishment, whether the state should take life, not a higher priority than, as you point out, opposition to environmental legislation? So how do we make our choices?
Dr. Demacopoulos: Yes, I believe that you are correct in principle. I think that there are these “higher and lower,” as you put them, but what I was hoping to draw attention to with the op-ed that I wrote, was the fact that most of us allow political allegiances to pre-determine the moral calculus that we perform individually. In other words, our theological evaluation of what is more or less significant is corrupted by non-theological considerations.
Let me add that the juxtaposition you provided between abortion and the environment is useful because the two issues actually have far more in common, theologically, than any political commentator would ever allow. From a theological perspective, both are connected to our belief in God as Creator and in our role as stewards of his creation. Just as we are to care for the individual children whom God gives us, so, too, are we to care for the world that he provided. Environmental desecration, like abortion, kills innocent people, and both are fueled by human selfishness. From a theological perspective, environmental obstructionism is a sin in the same way that legalizing abortion is a sin.
Mr. Allen: George, as you pointed out in your article, though there are a great number of political and contemporary social questions—I’m going to quote you here—“for which there is no unambiguous answer from Christian thought or practice,” so how do we apply authentic Christian teachings to political and social questions, like, for an example, gun control, that did not exist in ancient times—I mean, I thought everyone had a sword in ancient times—or are unaddressed in our history teachings or current Church encyclicals?
Dr. Demacopoulos: Okay, let me begin with a quick clarification. The ancient world actually had very strict prohibitions against the possession of weapons by citizens and against the possession of weapons inside of cities. Both the ancient Romans and the Byzantines strictly prohibited the sale of weapons to anyone other than the army.
But to your specific question, the first thing I would say is that we simply have to be willing to acknowledge that the Church Fathers are not a panacea for every modern question. For starters, they simply could not anticipate every challenge the modern world poses. But even more significantly—and this is where we really run into trouble—authoritative voices within our tradition often provide incompatible opinions of the various topics. To people who know our tradition deeply, this doesn’t surprise anyone, but there are those within our ranks who are just completely unwilling to see things this way. They’re looking for black-and-white answers and so forth.
But if we learn anything from our history and from reading the writings of the past, it’s that the saints tried to respond to the questions of their day with pastoral discernment. They always pursued policies that they believed would lead the greatest number of people to progress in the Christian life. That was their goal. So they did not base their decisions on opinion surveys, on political alliances, or on pre-determined prejudices. What we learn from our tradition is that intervention in the public arena should be motivated by love, by a genuine concern for the welfare of others; it should not be motivated by self-interest. This, of course, is quite a challenge, and it is in many ways the precise opposite of the way that politics is conducted, but Christianity in a sense has always been a counter-cultural movement. It compels its believers to think of others rather than themselves and to resist the urge to do what the broader public expects.
Mr. Allen: George, do you think though that enough Christian voters, including Orthodox Christians, take their particular theology, of which we know there are many, many, and church teachings into consideration when they align with political parties? And I think you’ve already answered this, but I wanted to get a definitive response. Or would you say that oftentimes partisan politics trumps our beliefs in deference to secular values and what you call “theological traps”?
Let me just jump in here and give one example, and that is: dispensationalism, which has exerted a great influence on how many Evangelical Christians view their doctrines of the future and eschatology and dispensationalism as a belief in the system of historical progression in the Bible consisting of God’s self-revelation and plan for salvation; it’s an invention of or a way of hermeneutic of John Darby of Ireland in the 19th century, and as I’ve said it’s become a standard way of interpreting Scripture for many Protestants and Evangelicals, and has come to affect their views on foreign affairs, especially as it affects our relations with and our support of the state of Israel. One of our Republican candidates is very, very vocal on this issue. So what do you do with all these varied theological hermeneutic views in kind of distilling everything down to clear, classic, and traditional moral and Christian values that we should adopt in applying our political thinking?
Dr. Demacopoulos: Okay, that’s a big question. Okay, so. You started with: do I think that people take all of this into [account] with a moral calculus when they go into the voting booth or what have you.
Mr. Allen: Yes.
Dr. Demacopoulos: My hunch is that most Christian voters, Orthodox included, pick and choose those Church teachings that they care about, not only when they vote but in general. I think that most people want to think that they are good people. I think that most Christians want to believe that they are good Christians. But I think that, more often than not, people have political leanings in one direction or the other, and if they are Christian, they make themselves more confident in their political persuasion by drawing on a self-selected group of Christian moral teachings. It really couldn’t work the other way, meaning you couldn’t be a deeply committed Christian and then a [posteriori] find yourself deeply committed to one political party, because neither American party in the current context reflects a Christian outlook.
The example of dispensationalism in a sense very much applies to the Orthodox, not because we follow that particular line of Protestant thought, but because we can often be just as guilty of reading our past anachronistically and in a way that is predetermined by our biases of the present. But let me say as a theologian there is no theological basis for this idea of historical stages.
Mr. Allen: No, there is not.
Dr. Demacopoulos: The Church historian Eusebius wrote about this, but Eusebius was a heretic, so I don’t know why anyone would really adopt that. And as a historian, I would say that the idea of human history functioning in predetermined stages is complete nonsense. Everyone who has ever proposed such a scheme, whether it was the dispensationalists or Karl Marx who was really famous for this, developed these models of stages of history specifically because they wanted to articulate a future political utopia that served their specific needs. So whenever anyone speaks about this, Orthodox or not, I am always deeply, deeply suspicious.
Mr. Allen: George, you know Americans have been conditioned by modern interpretations of our first amendment, which was ratified in 1791, which has come to be popularly interpreted as the separation of Church and state, somewhat different from when it was applied in the early life of our country. And it seems that some Christians, including Orthodox, that I’ve spoken with in this country are thus very skeptical when it comes to making political decisions based on their religious convictions, often because they see their religious beliefs as, you know, personal, and not to be imposed on our democratic society at large. Is this how our early Orthodox saints operated in the Roman-era political arena and post-Roman–era political arena?
Dr. Demacopoulos: No. It could not have been that way, because the separation of Church and state was the hallmark of the secular rejection of religious influence in public life. These are all modern ideas that could not have been entertained in the ancient or medieval world. Even the idea of a personalist theology or a personalist politics would be an anachronism for early Christianity.
Let me say, though, that the first Christians who intervened in Roman politics were in fact the exact opposite. They believed that all of their endeavors toward public life should be dictated by their faith commitments. What is so interesting and so very different from our own day is that when they lobbied for this or that in the Roman world, they made political arguments on the basis of the rationality of their faith, because Christ was the Logos—literally reason incarnate—they believed that all Christian teaching was rational, and as rational they believed it was always morally consistent. The earliest Christians even attempted to convince the Romans that this moral consistency gave them greater political insight than paganism.
Mr. Allen: And we call ourselves rational sheep, so I get your point, yeah.
Dr. Demacopoulos: [Laughter] Well, in modern discourse we tend to think of, you know… We’ve bought into this secular idea that for you to hold a faith commitment, you have to suspend reason, that the two are in juxtaposition. But for early Christians, the most rational was the religious. It’s a very different way of looking at the world.
Mr. Allen: Yes. Let me follow up with this, George. This is kind of a tough question, but I feel I need to ask it. You took issue in your op-ed with Christians who uncritically affiliate with either political party because of political conviction rather than, as we’ve discussed, sound theological reflection. Yet as you are aware, I’m sure, one Orthodox jurisdiction invited our current Vice President, Joe Biden, who personally and whose party supports and promotes the use contrary to Orthodox canonical and ethical teachings on matters such as homosexual marriage—he came up before the President did—abortion, and euthanasia, to be the keynote speaker at their last Clergy-Laity Convention. So my question is: Do you see this as equally ironic and self-contradictory? I mean, should an Orthodox jurisdiction provide a platform for a party and a politician who aggressively espouses non-Christians views in his political agenda at a Church convention?
Dr. Demacopoulos: So, my short answer is yes, it is ironic to give a humanitarian award to someone who consistently supports abortion and euthanasia, etc. But as you know, Biden was given this award not because of his domestic politics but because he has also been a global champion of religious freedom and has especially taken up the case and the cause of the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Christians in Turkey who have no legal standing in their own country. To be clear, I assume you’re referring to the award that Biden was given this past fall by the Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. It’s overlapping membership, but it’s not the same thing as the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. The Archons are an independent organization appointed by the Patriarch to lobby for the protection of Christians in Turkey. And, full disclosure, I am proud to say that I am an Archon. But, of course, they don’t consult me on things like whom they give their awards to.
Mr. Allen: Actually, though, I was not so much referring to the award, which as you know has received a lot of criticism by some within the Orthodox world and was condemned by some in the Russian media, but I was referring more to the Clergy-Laity Conference of a year and a half or so ago in Philadelphia.
Dr. Demacopoulos: Oh, I see.
Mr. Allen: Even before the award, they invited Vice President Joe Biden to come and speak as a representative of the government. I’m just wondering: is that an appropriate thing to do for somebody who has come out with very non-Christian views?
Dr. Demacopoulos: Yeah, well, look… So I’ll go back to my short answer: there is a certain irony in all of this, and a certain self-contradiction. I think what’s going on, as you can probably imagine… I just returned from Turkey; I was there last week. The situation in Turkey… Until you visit and see just how bleak the situation of Christians in Turkey is, you really can’t appreciate what’s going on, and the political calculus that’s taking place is to honor those politicians who are doing what they can to preserve Christianity in what was once the center of Christianity. I think that’s what’s going on there, and we’ll see.
Mr. Allen: Okay. I’d like you to comment on a quote I’m about to quote from Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) of thrice-blessed memory. He wrote this:
The Church cannot belong to any party, but at the same time it is neither non-partisan or post-partisan. It should be the voice of conscience, one enlightened by the divine light. In the ideal state, the Church should be able to say to any party or political current, “This is worthy of man and God, and this is unworthy of man and God.”
My sense, George Demacopoulos, is: we aren’t seeing much of this from our Orthodox patriarchates or jurisdictions. Please comment.
Dr. Demacopoulos: I completely agree with Metropolitan Anthony’s statement and with your assessment. My only caution would be one of our expectations. I’m not sure that “the Church” ever speaks in politics, and that’s because no single person represents or speaks for the Church. To be sure, we have individuals in positions of institutional authority—archbishops, patriarchs, bishops, priests—who speak. Sometimes these men offer saintly advice; many times they don’t.
Mr. Allen: Right, but I thought your premise in your op-ed piece was that our patristic fathers and saints opposed political power and positions that contradicted Christian moral values, so why shouldn’t the Church be a continuation of that tradition?
Dr. Demacopoulos: Just a quick clarification there. I guess what I’m saying is that even when St. Ambrose speaks at a certain moment, or St. Basil speaks in a certain moment, it’s only kind of left to posterity for the Church to determine whether what they said actually speaks for the Church, right? I’m sure that St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. Basil, St. Chrysostom said certain things at certain moments in their life that we probably don’t want quoted all over the place, right? So what I’m saying is that it’s kind of hard to say specifically that the Church in the moment speaks on behalf of the tradition when it’s only an individual speaking, not the collective entity. So I think what we learn from the example of St. Basil or St. Ambrose is that the sort of history of reception of certain things that they said in certain moments when they intervened reflects a genuine Christian ethos. When they spoke truth to power and put their own lives at risk for doing so and did so because of their conviction in the Gospel, we subsequently then appropriate that and hold it up as an example of saintly activity.
Mr. Allen: Okay, George, you wrote this:
While Orthodox Christians in the United States are just as likely as others to succumb to these false ideological dichotomies, their history might offer a way out of the ideological traps and self-contradictions that dominate current political discourse.
So that seems to me to be the key to your op-ed and your position that we can learn from, so could you expand on this and provide some clear examples of how our Orthodox tradition and history can potentially help us establish an Orthodox or an authentic approach for making political decisions and voting?
Dr. Demacopoulos: Fro example, in the second century, when Christians first intervened in the public arena, they stressed that their contribution was superior to ordinary Roman pagans because they were motivated by their faith in God rather than political advancement. For authors like St. Justin Martyr, Christians sought the public good for the sake of the good, regardless of whether the state looked favorably upon Christianity. I think this is profoundly insightful. In other words, even though Christianity was illegal and even though an appeal to Christian revelation had no meaning in Roman society, Christians worked for the public good because it was the right thing to do. They advocated for the disadvantaged, they sought to limit violence, etc. They were motivated by Christian teaching, but they didn’t rely on revelation when they made their case in public. Instead, they developed sophisticated and rational justifications for why their vision of the public good was one that would benefit everyone.
Mr. Allen: But today, George, in our post-Christian and post-modern contemporary world, we clearly have many and often-divisive opinions in our politics about what is for the public good for its own sake. For example, on the subject of allowing in refugees from Islamic countries—I’m not saying I’m for or against it—many Christians would say that this is not in line with the public good, although most I think would admit it is compassionate. On the other hand, I’ve heard Orthodox say, “I support the Church’s position on abortion, but I believe it should still be legal, because this is a democracy and it’s the individual’s choice.” And on gun control, I’ve heard some Christians quote the text from Luke 22:36, where our Lord says to his disciples, “But now let the one who has a money-bag take it and likewise a knapsack, and let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one.” So my question is not really to promote any one ideological position on these issues, but how do we really develop a Christian consensus on what is Christian teaching when there are so many divisive and, as you pointed out, secularly influenced politics that we mesh up with our Christian thinking?
Dr. Demacopoulos: I agree that all of this is a problem. I would actually take issue with some of the examples you gave.
Mr. Allen: Okay. Please!
Dr. Demacopoulos: Especially the one from Luke 22 as a pretext for gun rights. For starters, it would be a complete anachronism. The concept that citizens have the right, let alone the need, to arm themselves originated in the 18th century as a deeply secular critique of the divine right of kings who wanted to restrict the weapons to their own soldiers. The passage itself from Luke—it really manipulates the Gospel itself to use it for gun rights. You have to keep reading to see that Luke is setting up the scene of Christ’s arrest. He has to explain why one of the apostles is in possession of a weapon that can cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant just a couple verses later. And don’t forget that Christ not only heals that servant, but after doing so issues his famous dictum that “he who lives by the knife will die by the knife.” For what it’s worth, the word is better translated as “knife” than “sword.” I realize I’ve gone a little off-course to your main question about building consensus.
I think we have to begin by acknowledging that we are often very selective in the way we pick and choose which Christian teachings we want to bring into politics. More often than not we allow pre-formed political alliances to determine which aspects of our Christian life we want to bring into the political arena. And on the left we emphasize Christian teaching on the environment and human equality. On the right, we emphasize Christian moral teaching on abortion or pornography. But as activists for Democrat or Republican candidates, we routinely ignore other Christian teachings for the sake of political expediency. If we could get people to shun the pre-determined political alliances forged by our current two-party system and the way campaign finance works, either by working within the political parties to transform them, or from outside of them, I think we would go a very long way toward finding a more authentic Christian politics.
Mr. Allen: Are you an advocate, for an example, of a third political party, not the Independents, but maybe a Democratic Christian party forming, a pan-Christian party?
Dr. Demacopoulos: I don’t know. Maybe it’s just because I live in New York: I tend to be cynical about everything when it comes to secular life. Orthodox Christians in the United States are such a minority. I would suspect that anything like that would be completely hijacked by Evangelicals who really do not share the kind of depth of history of engaging with politics that the Orthodox have. The Orthodox have a 2,000-year experience of operating in a lot of different political contexts. Evangelical Christianity in the United States has one experience. It’s a very different thing.
Mr. Allen: Following up on that, you pointed out in your op-ed piece that even after the legalization of Christianity, when Christians enjoyed a position of privilege, the most significant theologians of the Church were also those who consistently championed political causes that no ancient government could or would accept. Please give us some examples and kind of wrap that up with how we should think about our political activity and thinking.
Dr. Demacopoulos: Sure. So St. Ambrose, bishop in northern Italy in the fourth century, censored judges who issued the death penalty. St. Basil, a contemporary of his, excommunicated soldiers who had killed in battle. St. John Chrysostom, who lived a generation later, demanded that the political establishment redistribute its wealth on behalf of impoverished laborers and refugees who had no legal standing.
It was during St. Ambrose’s tenure as bishop that the Emperor Theodosius first declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire. Theodosius was also responsible for orchestrating the Second Ecumenical Council. In other words, he had done some really, really significant things that supported Christianity, but none of those things did anything to deter St. Ambrose from repeatedly condemning the emperor for behavior and politics that contravened the Gospel. Later in the tenth century, when the Byzantine army was losing battle after battle to Muslim advances, the emperor at the time asked the Patriarch of Constantinople to declare martyrdom for every Christian soldier who died fighting Muslims. The patriarch categorically refused to do so, citing the canon of St. Basil as the reason that he could not and would not sacralize military service.
In other words, what we have in all of these examples is that even though you have certain political institutions or personalities who were willing to do things that support the Christian position, the saints of the Church never abandoned their parousia, their willingness to speak truth to power even if it might come back to bite them. I think that is probably the single most important thing that we can learn, which is that we should not forge political alliances for expediency’s sake when doing so forces us to capitulate on core Christian teachings.
Mr. Allen: George, you need to follow up on something, because you mentioned the example of St. Basil excommunicating soldiers who killed in battle, and this is a question: although Eastern Orthodoxy doesn’t have a formal “just war” doctrine as some in the West affirm exists from Saint or Blessed Augustine, my understanding is that pacifism or anti-militarism is not a historic norm in Orthodox history. Now, this is your area of specialization. I mean, we had military saints, don’t we? And the Byzantine empire warred against their enemies, as you pointed out, who wanted to defeat Constantinople and the Byzantine empire and eventually did so in the 15th century.
Dr. Demacopoulos: Yes. So let me begin with the… Yes, I’m an expert in Byzantine history. This is what I do for a living. But let me begin with the ever-important reminder that the Byzantine empire was not an Orthodox utopia. The Church may have suffered more at the hands of Byzantine emperors than at any other point in history.
Mr. Allen: Wow.
Dr. Demacopoulos: Every major heresy that challenged the Church did so during the period of Byzantium and did so with support of the Byzantine government. I’m not saying that the Byzantine period is insignificant—quite the contrary—but I am saying that we should not jump uncritically to the conclusion that the Church-state relationship of empire in Byzantium should be considered a normative one for an Orthodox political theology. It is precisely because the saints thought otherwise that they were so willing to challenge Byzantine political authority.
But your question has more to it than this, right? So to your first point: yes, we certainly have military saints in our tradition, but the vast majority of those military saints were pre-Constantinian martyrs, meaning that they were soldiers in the Roman army who converted to Christianity and were martyred as a result. If you look carefully at their hagiographies, their saints’ Lives, that were written about these saints, you will notice that every one was composed prior to the legalization of Christianity, [which] tells us that these men were martyred because they left the army upon conversion. In other words, they were killed for going AWOL.
But what is really interesting is that if you look at how those same saints’ lives were rewritten almost a thousand years later, at the end of the Byzantine period, after the Crusades, you will see that the entire narrative structure of those saints’ Lives is different. In the later retellings, the saints are said to have remained in the army and fought valiantly as Christian soldiers. Naturally, the earlier set of Lives attests better to a historical reality, and the later set attests to what the Christian community at the time wanted to be true. Byzantium had shrunk to a tiny percentage of its original size, the authors that revised those stories were desperate to sacralize military resistance against the empire’s enemies.
To your second point, yes, the Byzantine empire, like all pre-modern societies, warred against its neighbors and eventually lost. One of the reasons Byzantium lasted as long as it did was because it was pretty good at avoiding conflict. They routinely paid off their enemies rather than fight them, they generally only engaged in defensive wars rather than wars of expansion, and the majority of their soldiers were actually foreign mercenaries. As a percentage, Orthodox Christians were almost always a minority in the Byzantine army.
Mr. Allen: So, George, as we’re starting to descend in this really informative conversation, in terms of using Orthodox history to guide us in the 21st century, you acknowledge that “[t]he political, social, and economic setting of Orthodox Christian history is certainly different [from] our contemporary context.” I’ve got a couple more after this, but as kind of a take-away for our listeners to kind of conclude, how do you propose then for Orthodox and non-[Orthodox] that Orthodox history and tradition can be helpful in determining political policy today when the social, geopolitical, and economic settings are so different?
Dr. Demacopoulos: I would propose that there are a few ways to do so. Even though some things are very different, like the rise of democracy, globalism, the decline in religious affiliation, etc., other things are more constant, regardless of political context, things like poverty, the abuse of power, the threat of violence. There are even some things that are more similar than we realize. For example, in Byzantium local politics were always largely run by the medieval equivalent of a two-party system that reached into almost every facet of life. Every politician and imperial official was affiliated with one or another, and there was a great deal of cronyism and abuse that accompanied this two-party system. In other words, no matter which political system of the past in which we find Orthodox Christians, whether in a Roman empire that persecuted Christianity, whether under a Byzantine empire that tacitly abrased it, or even under Islam, we find a scenario in which Christians worked for the public good, whether the political structure above them embraced or rejected Christianity.
More importantly, I believe that Church leaders such as St. Basil or St. Ambrose can illuminate the ways in which the Christians of the past negotiated the difficult political terrain of their worlds. But if we’re going to learn from them, we have to read much deeper than a paragraph-long account of their lives in some over-generalized summary. We need to read their letters, we need to read their treatises, and we need to examine and learn from the particular ways they worked out their faith in the world in which they lived. When we learn the specific ways in which they sheltered refugees, protected the poor, sought to eradicate the death penalty, then we can be emboldened to do the same, even if our political structures are different.
Mr. Allen: Let me follow on that, George. I’ve heard social media and talking with Orthodox Christians, both left and right, some Orthodox on the left will say things like, “I’m a pro-life Democrat.” And I spoke with Rod Dreher recently, a well-known journalist and so on, and he said he is an environmentally friendly, neo-traditionalist, more right-leaning. But how do you think through, in a two-party system where there are very anti-Christian party platforms—what do you do with that? As you pointed out, neither party is sacrosanct; each has its issues. What do you do? Do you pick the lesser of two evils in this party decision? which I’ve heard a lot of people think they’re doing. What do you advise?
Dr. Demacopoulos: I would begin with self-reflection. Why do I favor this party or the other? Why do I favor this candidate or the other? I would perform the kind of same self-reflection about the policies and the politics we oppose. I would ask Christians to examine, genuinely reflect: Why do they oppose gun laws or environmental protection? Why do they oppose restrictions on abortion? Do they oppose them because they originate from the party they don’t like? Do they oppose them because they come from candidates they don’t like? What is the reason? because opposition to those things certainly isn’t based upon Christian teaching.
I’m not saying that we can’t be politically active. I just think that we need to be far more honest with ourselves that both parties, and almost every politician, embraces policies that contravene certain aspects of Christian teaching. In short, I think that the ordinary voter needs to go into the booth with a great deal more ambivalence than they typically do. And for the people who really control politics in this country, the donors and lobbyists, I would urge them to use their resources as a way of transforming rather than reinforcing the absurd political alliances that typify current politics.
Mr. Allen: But let me just try to press you for a bit more clarity on this. What do you do when you have a candidate who, for an example, if you’re left-leaning, is very supportive of helping the poor, but supports abortion, euthanasia, and so on, and you’ve got politicians on the right that favor militarism, supporting countries based on strange interpretations of the Bible, and favor things that are historically non-Christian? And they’re all a mixed bag! How do you make your choices? Do you just withdraw—you said you don’t, but what do you do? Just trying to dig a little deeper here.
Dr. Demacopoulos: Well, I wouldn’t say that you can’t withdraw, but by no means am I insisting that one withdraw. And ultimately, I think this comes down to an individual’s conscience. What are you willing to tolerate? I have found myself in certain situations, to be sure, where I just cannot support either major party in a particular race because the candidates that they have, for a variety of reasons, I am incapable of lending them even the support of my vote, let alone anything else. And I think you just have to… At the end we’re all held accountable to our own conscience, right, and what we did?
Mr. Allen: And to God.
Dr. Demacopoulos: This is the decision that you have to make prayerfully and with consultation with a spiritual counselor. You know, you just have to live with it. What I really want to get away from is the kind of triumphalism that we see. You don’t necessarily see it so much with Orthodox as you see with other Christians in the U.S., but there are Orthodox who are susceptible to this as well. They think that if they support Candidate X or Candidate Y they are doing it because their faith teaches them to do so. I think any time you come to a conclusion like that you are really misunderstanding your faith and lacking in personal discernment. I’m not saying that you can’t support Candidate X or Y; I’m just saying that, in the current two-party system that we have with all of the crazy alliances that we have, there is no way to say that one party categorically represents a Christian moral vision or a Christian political vision. It just doesn’t exist in the United States at the moment.
Mr. Allen: Well, my guest has been Dr. George E. Demacopoulos, Professor of Theology and the Fr. John Meyendorff and Patterson Family Chair of Orthodox Christian Studies and the Co-Director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center [at Fordham University]. George, thank you very much for this very, very fascinating and I think helpful discussion on Ancient Faith Today.
Dr. Demacopoulos: Thank you.
Mr. Allen: And thanks to the AFT team: producer John Maddex and my researcher and editor, Michelle Mar, and thank you for listening.