The U.S. Election and Orthodox Christianity

I wanted to share two videos about Orthodoxy and Tuesday’s election, and offer some of my own commentary. The first video is by Father Peter Heers (you can read a transcript here):

I agree with Father Peter that no Orthodox Christian can stand indifferent to the public square, although hopes for political solutions to the spiritual problems of the world are bound to fail, as so many of the fathers teach us (I suspect Father Peter agrees with me when these worldly solutions come from the Left, less so when they come from the Right—later in the video, he lists a variety of Republican policies, not all related to abortion and homosexuality, that, in his view, Orthodox Christians must support). He argues that many international leaders are opposed to the faith, vision, and ethos of the Orthodox Church, as if a secular leader’s political opposition to the “vision” or “ethos” of the Church entails opposition to the practice of the faith (it does not). I don’t care if the leaders of the world dislike the Church. I do care when they prohibit the practice of the faith.

Father Peter begins with three relevant quotes from St. Paisios of Mt. Athos, the third of which addresses voting. I found that third quote compelling. St. Paisios said (brackets added for clarity and to replace the pronoun “they”):

[I said,] vote for the one you believe it is best; the one who loves God and our country. [But people] always gave the same reply: [Politicians] are all the same, Father. Well, look here. All olive trees are the same; all of them are affected by the same disease called dakos. However, some are affected 100% by it, others 80% and others 50%. Since we are in need of olive trees, we have to look for the ones that are affected the least. When we go to vote, we should always bear in mind two things: a) how much the candidate loves God and is thus a conscious member of the Church, and b) how much he loves his country and look solely after its interests and not his own. If someone uses another criterion to vote, he is acting out of self-interests and is not behaving like a true Christian. Later on, divine justice will allow him to pay for his mistake.

Based on this quote, Father Peter offers a litany of characteristics in a candidate for whom Orthodox Christians cannot vote. He begins: “Orthodox Christians obviously cannot support corrupt politicians who lie and use their power to become rich….” Okay: if you have followed the current administration through any of the mainstream global media over the last four years, you would be forgiven for concluding that Father Peter is admonishing any Orthodox Christian in the United States who considers voting for President Donald Trump. But as Father Peter continues, it becomes clear that he is making an argument for Trump’s reelection and the return of the Republican party to power in Congress.

Any candidate who supports abortion for any reason is verboten for Father Peter, as is any candidate who supports same-sex marriage or civil rights for transgendered people. These views conform to Orthodox teaching, so these statements don’t really bother me. He does suggests that some politicians support abortion after the moment of birth, but, sadly, he doesn’t identify any by name. The American people ought to know if such politicians actually exist. He argues that same-sex marriage in the civil sphere is objectionable because it undermines Christian morality and contributes to what he calls “the de-Christianization of society.” Orthodox Christians must never support such de-Christianization, he argues. Father Peter implies later in the video that secular concerns about discrimination against LGBTQ people are “deceptive”; the real aim of those who advocate for LGBTQ equality before the law, he argues, is “to force Christians to violate their beliefs.”

Religious liberties and issues/policies related to religious freedom are very important for Father Peter (specifically the Religious Freedom Restoration Act), as they should be. But so are right-wing bugaboos in the current cultural civil war. Father Peter rails against those who “pledged to make America into a global force of enforcement of the extreme agenda of the Neo-Marxists which seeks to decimate the Christian vision of man and pressure Orthodox Christian countries into denying the faith.” He condemns “those who are for ‘cancel culture’ even on the Supreme Court and demonize those who oppose the extreme LGBT agenda,” “those who single out those who adhere to traditional religious beliefs and moral convictions, aiming to limit their ability to live by their consciences and ostracizing them from polite society.”

Father Peter also says that Orthodox Christians must, as a matter of faith, vote against anyone who would implement a nationwide lockdown in response to the coronavirus. He argues for this position in the same sentence as his positions on the Orthodox understanding of sexual morality, implying that opposition to a national response to a pandemic is as important to the faith as, say, traditional Orthodox marriage.

One line from this video is particularly troubling to me: Orthodox Christians, argues Father Peter, must not support “those who are supported by, and support, outspoken Socialist and Marxist forces and would open the door to making American a socialist country.” What? I don’t see any problem with voting against candidates who support socialism, if you are a Socialist. But just because a candidate is supported by a particular group (such as the Democratic Socialists of America) does not mean we can align that candidate with that group. If we want to go that far, let me remind my readers that in this election, there are two candidates: one (Joe Biden) has been mocked and decried by organizations such as the DSA as a “moderate,” a “neoliberal,” a centrist, an imperialist, a racist, and a police-loving shill. The other candidate (Trump) has been warmly endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan and numerous fascist organizations. One candidate has bent over backwards to condemn the extremists on the left and their ideas (such as the abolition of the police). The other has refused to unequivocally condemn the extremists on the far-right. What should we conclude from this? Father Peter doesn’t seem nearly as concerned about fascism in our society, only the rising tide of Marxist ideology.

At this point, Father Peter turns to “lessons from history.” He cites St. John of Kronstadt, who fearlessly opposed the rise of Soviet Communism in Russia. “Socialism and Marxism inevitably lead to totalitarianism,” says Father Peter, “where the government takes the place of God in the lives of its subservient citizens.” Certainly this is true of the Leninism that the Bolsheviks imposed on Russia after the October coup of 1917. But as far as I can tell, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is no Lenin in terms of her ideology or her influence.

Like many Orthodox Christians, the lessons of 1917 are forefront in Father Peter’s mind. “We are teetering on the edge of anarchy,” says Father Peter. “It is the Eleventh Hour.” I find such apocalyptic rhetoric frightening, because it offers the impression that the future of our society is at stake, and emboldens those who would use those stakes to justify violence against their fellow citizens. I do believe these are dangerous times, that we are teetering on the edge of…something (I use the phrase “cultural civil war” to describe it). But a descent into totalitarianism doesn’t seem on the horizon. I believe we are living much closer to 1861, not 1917.

Let me offer another perspective, that of Father Seraphim Aldea, a man who, unlike Father Peter, actually lived under a Communist regime, who was born into and raised under Communism and then lived under post-Communist secular liberalism in Romania. What are his thoughts about how Americans should vote in the upcoming election?

I really encourage all Christians to watch the above video. For me, it offers a much clearer vision of what Christian political participation entails in a secular world. This vision is simultaneously more hopeful and more realistic than the one offered by Father Peter. We fail Christ, Father Seraphim argues, no matter which way we vote

This year has taught me, among other things, that voting is a very small act. I am amazed by those Catholic priests who boldly declare that anyone who voted for Obama is bound for hell. Seriously—for voting? What about those Christians who materially support, say, abortion in a million other, more significant ways, in their attitudes and actions toward women or their apathy toward the poor? What about those Christians who support anti-Christian principles and organizations with their dollars rather than their votes? What about those Christians who not only vote but volunteer for politicians like Donald Trump, who (according to John Bolton) approved of China’s genocidal policy toward the Uyghurs and other minorities (including Christian minorities) and who says nothing while President Erdoğan of Turkey runs roughshod over Orthodox Christians in Turkey and Armenia?

Christian political commentators like Father Peter and others, including those who aspire to so-called “post-liberal” ideologies, are surprisingly attached to a very idealistic and liberal notion of voting. They almost fetishize it. For such commentators, to vote for someone is to attach yourself to every principle and policy they’ve endorsed. This view of voting is dangerous, especially when we consider the long records of lifelong politicians or the non-records of dodgy anti-politicians (Biden is an example of the former; Trump in 2016, the latter).

Voting is a strategic, coordinated, imperfect vehicle for stating one’s preferences on issues that range from broadly geopolitical to intensely local. It is a frail and often incoherent means of stating one’s ideas and choices. It is part of an inherently flawed system of government (a system that may, as Winston Churchill suggested, still be the best system we’ve got). We should be careful not to moralize voting too much, much less draw soteriological implications from it. This is why I am wary about Father Peter’s approach and endorse Father Seraphim’s.

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