Endorsement, and a Platform, for
*from Second Terrace<http://www.google.com/reader/view/feed/http%3A%2F%2Fjanotec.typepad.com%2Fterrace%2Fatom.xml
This is an essay about the 2008 Election and the dearth of Wall Street, and
how we might think about (and be involved in) politics as Orthodox
Do not look anywhere in these paragraphs for endorsements of candidates,
platforms, parties or economic systems. There are no such endorsements to be
found. Neither will you find an acceptance of convenient labels like
"Conservative," "Liberal" or even "Moderate."
There is something else you won't find here. You will not find here a
rejection of the political process. We are Orthodox Christians who live in
the world, and we bear the burden of "being anxious about worldly affairs"
(1 Corinthians 7.32). We are not monastics who have detached themselves from
secular concerns. Monks should have nothing to do with "politics" (in the
usual sense of the word). But for us it is different. Whether we like it or
not, we are immersed in the public square, where a conversation is always
going on about public decisions.
That conversation is also called "politics."
The Orthodox attitude toward politics is symbolized by the icon of the Feast
of Pentecost. In this icon, the Apostles are gathered with the Theotokos,
seated in the shape of an arch. They are looking down upon a dark circle, in
which is framed an old-looking king.
This "king" represents all the political powers of the world, and the
Apostles and the Theotokos reveal the transcendence of the Church. The
Church, clearly, is quite "above" politics. It is never "under" the king in
the icon, or any of the powers and principalities who follow him. The Church
is not identified with the king.
There was a time when the Church actually "took over" the kingship. In the
days of the Byzantine Empire, the "king," or "Caesar," was (in theory)
subservient to the Church. To a lesser extent, this was carried on in the
days of the Russian Tsar.
But those days of worldly power are gone � at least in this age. Now we are
back to a time that is more like the days of the catacombs: we should give
up any notion of a state-supported or mandated church.
No one takes seriously, anymore, any thought of "first Rome" or second,
third or fourth. Rome is gone forever as a Christian center. Constantinople
is gone. Moscow is gone, having gone the way of all the Rome's of the past.
New York is the center of the modern world: it has become the "Rome" of the
post-modern age, but you will never mistake it for a Christian town.
This "Rome" may be in decline, while we watch the graphs plunge from 10,000,
to 9000, to 8000. Who knows? What if Wall Street becomes another of the many
fulfillments of "Alas, alas, that great city that was clothed in fine linen,
purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls!
For in one hour such great riches came to nought" (Apocalypse 18.16-17).
And who knows? The time may come when the "center of the world" moves west,
way west, over the Pacific and straight into China.
That sort of "sino-centric" future should not bother anyone who can tell the
difference between the old man and the Apostles on the icon.
But the Church does not ignore the king, either. It is concerned. It gives
advice. It confronts, persuades and dissuades. Sometimes, it suffers
persecution and even martyrdom by the wrath of the worldly king.
But never does the Church simply turn away. It stays "engaged" with the
world: while the Church is not "of" the world, it is � undeniably � "in" the
The world needs the Church to be there. The Church has a mysterious,
grace-bringing role to play in society. Because it is the Body of Christ, it
bears a sacramental presence (1 Corinthians 7.14): it is "the aroma of
Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are
perishing" (2 Corinthians 2.15). Indeed, it is possible that the presence of
the Church is itself the mysterious restraint preventing the "man of
lawlessness" from taking over completely (2 Thessalonians 2.7).
So, in an age of the modern "catacombs," what is the Orthodox Christian to
do for politics, since he has no Christian Tsar or Prince?
First, he is called to pray and obey. I like criticizing the decisions of
politicians as much as anyone else, but we are not permitted to show
disrespect, or indecent opposition. Here is St. Paul, writing in the time of
the Emperor Claudius, who was not known for his friendliness to the Church:
"Let every person be subject to the governing authorities � rulers are not a
terror to good conduct, but to bad � [the ruler] does not bear the sword in
vain; he is the servant of God to execute His wrath on the wrongdoer � the
authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay all of
them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is
due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due" (Romans
Here is St. Paul again, much later, writing during the time of the Emperor
Nero. Remember him? The Emperor who invented empire-wide, state-mandated
persecution of Christians? And what was the Christian to do about Nero?
"First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and
thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high
positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful
in every way" (1 Timothy 2.1-2).
This means that even though we might get a President who is pro-choice, or
who cares little for the poor and the environment, or who gives *carte
blanche* to homosexuality and other forms of cultural reprobation, or who
caters wholesale to the demands of the super-rich, we must still pray for
him, and give him due respect.
Respect is the first thing for the Orthodox Christian when he thinks about
politics. A lot could be said here about civility and decent rhetoric � two
qualities that used to be expected at minimum, but have now become cherished
as rare things of beauty. It is too bad that civility and courtesy must be
talked about as virtues, because they most assuredly are not at the level of
the Orthodox catalog of virtues. Virtues (like self-control and kindness)
are really a lot higher in quality than basic stuff like civility and
In the culture of Christendom, civility was simply a given. It was something
that *any *citizen (i.e., inhabitant of civitas) would have been able to
accomplish. To speak civilly, to speak with clear and honest meaning (i.e.,
decent rhetoric), was no big achievement. At the same time, however,
civility was always appreciated as a necessity. After all, one cannot have a
civilization without civility.
And everyone knows that one cannot make laws legislating civility. That, by
the way, it what is terribly wrong with the nonsense about "political
correctness." The juvenile attempt to enforce "tolerance" by the rule of law
is much like junior high regulations against bathroom humor: appropriate,
perhaps, for seventh grade, but ludicrous for adults, even boorish ones.
A society is civil to the degree that its members abide by unwritten,
unlegislated rules of behavior. No one should have to be told that a
handicapped person should be given consideration. No one should have to be
told that a person of color is of equal, infinite worth � just as anyone
But now civility is a big achievement, and it is no longer "usually
present." Civility and courtesy stand out, nowadays, only in contrast,
starkly pronounced from the background of petty selfish disputes. Being
"nice" and "decent" are premium qualities only because culture has sunk that
low. And this marks the second thing that an Orthodox Christian must keep in
mind about politics: the public square is *squalid*. It is now a sinkhole of
slippery words with little or even opposite meaning, and of well-financed
appeals to base desires.
In George Orwell's famous 1946 essay, "Politics and the English Language,"
he wrote this: "In our time, political speech and writing are largely the
defense of the indefensible � Political language � and with variations this
is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists � is
designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an
appearance of solidity to pure wind."
This is why an Orthodox Christian really ought to resist the luciferian
impulse to "spin" abortion as "choice," or war as "peace-keeping," or
profiteering as "free market," or barbarism as "class struggle," or civilian
death tolls as "collateral damage." Almost every label and byword is a
result of the stripping of meaning from a term, cutting it loose from its
historic moorings, and setting it adrift on deconstructed fog of
empowerment, liberationism, "coalition-building" and
Two terms come immediately to mind � words that have been spun and
deconstructed, over and over again: "right" and "left." For generations,
most people have assumed that "right" means "conservative," which means
"Republican." "Left," on the other hand, usually means "liberal," which, in
turn, means "Democrat."
Millions of dollars are spent every week by political operatives (with
nicknames like "turdblossom") with the hope that people still believe this
utter buffoonery. Unfortunately, most people do. There may have been a few
moments over the last few hundred years when political affiliations really
lined up that way. Maybe one or two times. And then everyone got over it,
"Right" in modern terms usually means a position that is loyal to the
historic government of a country, and that country's customary values. Its
enemies often call it "reactionary."
"Left" � as in "Left Wing" � refers to a position that is advances the aims
of the peasantry, the proletariat or the lower classes. It is willing to
change institutions to suit these aims. Its enemies often accuse it of being
"Liberal" is an attitude that supports a wider range of activity of the
government in society and in daily life. Opponents of this attitude condemn
liberalism for being "big government" and too intrusive in the activities of
"Conservative" � as usually (and unfortunately) understood � basically means
opposition to whatever liberals want. I count myself a conservative, but
definitely not in this modern and trite sense of the word.
"Republican" is the name of the political party that started in 1856 in
Ripon, Wisconsin, under John Fr�mont. It was established notably by its
first President, Abraham Lincoln. From the beginning, it was formed to
oppose slavery, *mainly* because the party promoted industrialism, and thus
opposed the agrarianism of the South. A successor to the Whig legacy of
England, the party has usually sought to restrain the power of the executive
branch in favor of the legislature. It has consistently worked to make
conditions favorable for commerce and industry.
"Democrat" is the name of the political party founded in 1792 by Thomas
Jefferson, and whose other great President was Andrew Jackson. It is the
second-oldest political party in the world, and is one of the most factious.
Generally, it favors policies that lean toward the "left," and the
advancement of the poorer classes and labor. It is also more open the
expansion of government activity in civil society.
But these definitions are gross simplifications. In American history,
exceptions abound that violate the definitions just listed.
One example is the issue of slavery, and the struggle to eradicate it. The
anti-slavery position of the Republican Party was held by most people to be
an extremely "liberal," even radical, position. Many "revolutionaries" from
the ranks of the Abolitionists and the "Barnburner" Party joined the
Republicans � the very people today who would blanch at such a bunch of
Another rather mind-bending note is from the more recent history of Women's
Suffrage and the New Deal era. It is interesting to note that some of the
major sources of funding for the women's right-to-vote and right-to-work
movement came from large corporations. The thinking behind such a move was
cagey, you have to admit. Large moneyed interests are usually set firmly on
the conservative side of the debate. But on this one, they voted, with lots
of money, for the more liberal side. Their rationale was easy: enfranchising
women meant the influx of tens of thousands of new workers. The availability
of labor would expand � as it did � amazingly. Available labor means cheap
labor. Do the math.
In the New Deal era, FDR and his crew launched a great many new federal
initiatives that were unsavory (to put it mildly) to most conservatives.
That said, why is it that most modern feminists look upon these very New
Deal initiatives with contempt (to put it mildly)? The reason for this
surprising reaction is that most of the New Deal legislation sought to
protect and nurture the family. In particular, Social Security � as
originally conceived in the New Deal� assumed that the father was the
breadwinner, the mother was the chief care-provider, and the children were
not "consumers," but should be brought up instead to take their place as
responsible citizens. The liberationism that exploded out of the 60's
reviles any notion of gender roles or traditional family structure: and for
that reason alone, FDR and friends (yesterday's liberals) are jilted by many
liberals of today.
While this might sound confusing, the history of problem words like
"liberal" and "conservatives" grows even more complex beyond American
history. Liberals of nineteenth-century Europe fought for the civil rights
of the individual. Conservatives of the same society usually supported the
interests of the government, including protection over a wide range of
social and economic activities. It was the Conservatives who enacted the
first factory laws (which today are near and dear to the Labor and union
movements). The moneyed interests were usually on the side of the liberals.
In politics, labels and movements can be counted on to do one thing: change.
Jacques Barzun, an authoritative cultural historian, has made a long study
of such changes, and he concluded his observations with this intriguing list
of social accomplishments, and just who brought them about. This list might
** free enterprise, free trade, freedom to vote and run for office, free
speech and religion are Liberal achievements �*
** tariffs, the income tax, the S.E.C., zoning, and generally the regulation
of social, economic, and even moral behavior, rest on Conservative ideas;*
** the post office, the police and fire departments, public schools, city
buses, and national parks are Socialist, indeed Communist,
institutions*(Jacques Barzun, "The Great Switch," in
*Columbia Magazine *June-July 1989, p. 32).
Today, things are turned completely around. Free enterprise, free trade and
freedom of religion are chalked up � wrongly � to the Conservative side.
Liberals are typically blamed � wrongly � for tariffs, taxation, zoning, and
regulations on the economy. And everyone wants to take credit � wrongly �
for institutions that are, truth be told, legacies of the Socialist (i.e.,
way, way liberal) movement in Europe.
Each of these achievements has its own rationale, and each has value (even
taxes). Each achievement is the result of long discussions of robust ideas
about politics and civilization (some of these discussions have gone on for
centuries, even millennia). Most of the time, the people involved have been
Most of the ideas have been good. Some have been downright stupid. Some have
been outright evil.
Labels like "conservative" and "liberal" have rarely helped the discussion.
In the hard work of debate, the words "Republican" and "Democrat" have done
more to confuse and distort. It is better to stick to the discussion of
ideas without labels. It is better to look at a candidate's character
without endorsements or affiliations. It is better, as we've said all along,
to think and pray, to pray and discern.
Politics is should be a *decent *business. It is all about leading society
to make good choices. As Orthodox Christians, we should be part of the
debate � as Orthodox Christians, not primarily as Democrats or Republicans
or Conservatives or Liberals. What might that mean? Here are some ideas:
*A Small Platform*
1. We pray for our leaders, and honor them with respect and obedience. We
can criticize them, but we cannot curse them. We do this whether we voted
for them or not.
2. We value the past. We consider our democracy to embrace the living and
the dead. We honor tradition, and we do not lightly change the institutions
that have stood the test of time.
3. We protect the future. We make choices based on the interests of future
generations. That means that we accept the responsibilities of stewardship
of creation. For the sake of our children (and the rest of God's creatures),
we refuse to trash the environment of this world.
4. We are stewards of morality: we should strive to renew decency and
decorum in daily life. Because we honor the image of God in all people, we
protect free political, philosophical and religious speech: freedom of
expression, however, cannot mean libertine pornography or indecency.
5. We fight for the rights of the weak, who cannot speak for themselves. We
know that the unborn child is a child, body and soul, from the moment of
conception. Abortion is infanticide. No one has a right to choose death, not
even for themselves. We know that only God can perceive the infinite value
of human life, even when a person in a vegetative state will score low on
the "quality-of-life" index.
6. We also know that God calls us to protect the poor and the other
powerless members of society. To be sure, many (if not most) of the poor are
poor because of their own bad decisions. This has been true since Adam and
Eve were evicted from their first home. They were homeless, and it was their
fault, after all, but the Lord clothed them nonetheless. But the Christian
never has been permitted to withhold charity because the poor man made
mistakes. Our Lord never refused to help because the lepers polluted
themselves, or because the blind man sinned. There is always this "liberal"
side of the Gospel that Christians, try as they might, can not run away
7. We are sacramental, and because of this, we are personal and local. There
is something sinister in globalization. We are beginning to recognize that a
globalized economy is what all industrialism must grow up to be, like
Persons have a better chance of recognizing Jesus (and His company) when
they are less "appropriated" and "habituated" by the powers and
8. We proclaim a humanity that is noble and beautiful, truthful and good. We
invite society to a higher calling. We disagree with the morbid immorality
of consumerism. We honor the courage and intelligence of those who work, who
make things, and make a fair profit � and if this is what capitalism is,
then we endorse capitalism. But we also know that man is made for a better
purpose than profit and consumption: as Wendell Barry once wrote, "Rats and
roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand; it is the
privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy."
Orthodox Christianity, as the inheritor of deuteronomic Israel, takes
literally the beatitude in St. Luke, "Blessed are the poor." We respectfully
chide our leaders and society for failing the poor, whether these "poor" are
residing in slums or in their mothers' wombs, or in the nursing homes.
And we chide ourselves for not doing enough. Yet.
Because when the Lord said, "Blessed are the poor," that blessing is meant
to involve a political, courteous, faithful *us*.
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