I’m a day late publishing the Post this week – forgive me – which means I’m a day late wishing you…
Orthodox Ecclesiastical New Year, that is, which begins on September 1. Here, if you’re interested, is a whole Blog Post about it: https://frbillsorthodoxblog.com/2020/08/28/213-happy-new-year/
Now to the subject at hand:
A Silly Introduction
The 2024 presidential campaign is upon us. Already…? please, no. But here it is. Each time it begins earlier. Of course, they’ve been talking about it ever since the 2020 election, but now it’s getting serious. The first big presidential debate took place here in Milwaukee last Wednesday, with politicians and political commentators crowding into the city.
Now, I am absolutely not suggesting a connection between that and the fact that on that very day the hot air in Milwaukee was the worst it’s been in many years: 101 F in the shade (38 C for you readers outside the US); it felt like 120 F (49 C). And oddly enough, the day after they all left it went back to normal again: 84 F (29 C). But really, I’m sure there was no connection. No way. None. Probably.
OK, that was silly, but I’m trying to make a serious point. During modern election campaigns in America, there is a lot of hot air, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” * or sometimes worse than nothing.
- I’m sure you know that’s from a speech by MacBeth.
A Serious Introduction
Am I about to tell you how to vote? Of course not. Nor does the Orthodox Church tell us how to vote. There are denominations on both sides of the present political divide which come perilously close to doing so – even have candidates who reflect their viewpoint speak in their churches * . That does not happen in the Orthodox Church – at least not so far as I know, and if it does it certainly shouldn’t.
- How do they pull that off without losing their tax-exempt status?
However, I will share my opinion about the following: I believe we in the United States of America have been given excellent political principles and a fine political system. Aa old Ben Franklin may (or may not) have said “You have a republic, if you can keep it.”
“If you can keep it…” In today’s dreadful “fallen” American political condition, unlimited money is poured into politics producing endless campaigns, very little governing, “attack” ads, propaganda designed to agitate, lies and half truths, facts taken out of context intended to convince us opponents are demons from hell.
Point One: Think like an Orthodox Christian
That means simply: Use the brains God gave you. We Orthodox believe God created us and called man and woman “very good” “very beautiful”. We believe mankind has not fallen utterly in sin. We still retain the power of reason. So use it. As rational human beings we have an obligation to try as best we can to distinguish fact from fiction, truth from lies.
For many years I’ve quoted the line from Senator Pat Moynihan, who I think was quoting others before him: “You are entitled to your own opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.” This is no easy task when we have so much information, so many facts (or are they fiction?), so many truths (or are they lies?) thrown at us. Therefore many people just go with what they hear most or like most, be it true or false, That applies to TV commercials and politicians, alike.
Do not fall for progapanda. Please take some time to try to ferret out the truth. Do not listen to what politicians say about their opponents; rather hear what they say about themselves – and even more take note of what they do. If what a politician says is mostly what’s wrong with his opponent [“attack ads’], obviously he hasn’t much positive to offer.
Be wary of political labels and name-calling. Today many Americans, instead of thinking about issues, are just lined up in opposing political camps, in tribes, like the Hatfields and the McCoys *, forever feuding with each other, taking verbal potshots.
Do you younger readers know about the real Hatfields and McCoys (not just the TV series)? two 19th century Appalachian families who feuded to the point of finally ambushing and killing each other. We trust American politics won’t get that far… although at the rate we’re going…
Point Two: Approach history from an Orthodox perspective
Learn from history. This is something that should come naturally to Orthodox Christians. We’ve been around for 2000 years. We know the twists and turns of history, how almost nothing in this world is stable for long.
So now let a voice out of ancient history speak – well, ancient in relation to American politics I have paid close attention to American politics for the past seventy-five years *, one third of the history of this country. (I just calculated that, and it startled me.)
- No kidding: seventy-five. I was upstairs listening to the 1948 Democratic Convention on my radio, when my Grandma Alice walked in. We listened together to President Truman lambasting the “no good Eightieth [Republican] Congress”. Grandma said “Give ’em hell, Harry!” and walked out.
Learn from history! Leopards may not change their spots, but modern political parties and categories keep changing theirs. I want to dwell on this point:
Some things considered moderate seventy-five years ago are now called “socialist” in some quarters. Some things which were ultra liberal seventy-five years ago are now middle of the road. Some things called radical seventy-five years ago are now said to be moderate conservative. Brothers and sisters, do not go with the political flow. Don’t try to adapt yourself to today’s ever-changing political labels (Republican, Democratic, liberal, conservative) which don’t mean much. It’s better to keep your principles than your party or your label.
For examples, long ago when I was young:
1 The Republican Party and the Democratic Party were similar enough that war hero Dwight D. Eisenhower pondered for many months which party he wanted to join and accept their nomination for President. He decided to be a Republican. He could just as easily have been a Democrat.
2 When I was young the Republican Party had many liberals in its ranks, as well as many conservatives. President Nixon (even though he lied when he said “I am not a crook”) tried to forge a middle ground (for the time, though it would be considered liberal today). Nixon, as a Republican President, favored universal health care, initiated the Environmental Protection Agency and expanded Social Security.
3 At that time the Democratic Party had many racists in its ranks. Here’s a quote from Strom Thurmond, long-time Democratic Senator from South Carolina: “I want to tell you, ladies and gentleman, that there’s not enough troops in the army to force the southern people to break down segregation and admit the Nigra race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.”
4 In my lifetime, the Democratic Party had many members who defined themselves as “liberals” but who opposed abortion and gay marriage – Senators Edward Kennedy and Joseph Biden, to name two. Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate for President as recently as 2012, sponsored universal health care when he was governor of Massachusetts. He is now a pariah in his own party.
5 In 1999 Donald Trump declared he was “pro-choice in every respect”. He said he thought abortion was “awful” but that decisions on abortion should be between a woman and her doctor. In 1974 Senator Joe Biden said he believed the Supreme Court went too far in finding a right to abortion, and later he broke with his Party and voted for a Constitutional Amendment allowing states to make their own abortion restrictions. * This does not mean either man was lying. People can change honestly in how they view things – but they did change.
- See: https://www.nbcnews.com/meet-the-press/meetthepressblog/flashback-biden-opposed-roe-trump-supported-rcna34128
Likewise with the terms “liberal” or “conservative”, or the Parties Republican or Democratic or whatever. They all keep changing. Don’t cling to any of them or they may well take you somewhere you didn’t intend to go. Do not put “blind faith” in them. The technical theological term for that is “idolatry” .
So can we find some stable social principles to guide us, something solid we can trust? Why… yes, we can, and of course you know what I’m leading up to:
Point Three: The Stability of the Orthodox Social Tradition
When I’m asked whether I am a liberal Christian or a conservative Christian, I always answer: “I am a Traditional Christian”, which, to my mind according to current definitions, means I’m conservative in some ways and liberal in others. We Orthodox don’t fit into modern Western or American categories. We come from Somewhere Else. That goes for religion. It applies even more so to politics.
The Holy Orthodox Church has Traditional teachings about many matters, which do not change with the times. We have a Rock which is not like a “reed blowing in the wind”, this way and that – a ship that sails straight ahead, neither left nor right with the times. Orthodoxy changes, if at all, very, very slowly in an organic way. There are no Reformations or Counter-Reformations here, or modern Councils which unintentionally turn everything upside down.
Someone said our chief job is not to think about Orthodoxy but to think about the world in light of Orthodoxy. Therefore, think about politics from a stable Orthodox perspective. What did Christ say? What did the Fathers say? What are the Church’s consistent teachings?
We can look to many worthy Orthodox writings – books and now blogs and podcasts – where we’ll find this spelled out. Keep in mind that any one writing even of the Holy Fathers is incomplete and needs to be read carefully in context, since no one person grasps the fullness of the Tradition.
However, the basic principles are well known: God created us male and female. All human life is sacred. * We have a fixed Tradition regarding marriage and sexual behavior. We are commanded to care for “the least of these My brethren” – the sick, the lonely, the homeless, including refugees. Greed is a sin. Mankind from the beginning was given responsibility to be stewards of God’s good Creation. That’s just to mention a few things.
- In their 2022 encyclical On the Sacredness of Human Life and its Untimely Termination *, the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the United States, teach that human life must be “inviolable”, and they speak succinctly and wisely to many issues: the Sacredness of Life, Murder, Suicide, Euthanasia, Capital Punishment, Abortion and Miscarriage. See: https://www.assemblyofbishops.org/news/2022/human-life-sacredness
If Orthodox social principles are well established, nevertheless we are free to disagree about how to apply them to politics and society. What is the most effective way to limit abortions? to share wealth with justice? to help the poor? protect the environment? All these we are free to debate – only we cannot ignore these obligations. Also: Are there matters best dealt with in ways other than political? Are there any Orthodox principles which apply chiefly to those within the Church, not directly to society? I’d suggest that we try to give issues a Scriptural proportion; that is, which matters are emphasized by Christ and Saint Paul and which are not? All these are open to discussion.
Point Four: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
In this case, I’m talking about the people we go to church with, our families, our friends. How can we get along with them during presidential campaigns? This is extraordinarily difficult right now. A generation or two ago, most American parents got upset if their offspring wanted to marry someone of a different Faith *, but of another political party? no big problem. Today, it’s the opposite. “What? you want to marry a Republican? No way!” – not that parents have much to say about it any more.
- A hundred or so years ago, my aunt’s Lutheran father told her, “You can marry anyone you want, just so he’s not a Catholic.”
Can politics be discussed in a “humane” way? Right now tensions are so high I’d say maybe, maybe not. Tread very carefully. Sometimes it’s best not even to try. I have my political opinions, but as a parish priest, I felt obligated to control my tongue, especially during election years. One Sunday at coffee hour a woman whom I liked very much started going off on the virtues of a politician I strongly disapprove of, and then she asked me the dread question: “What do you think of him?” I paused and prayed for wisdom, then gave her a hug and said “Therese *, I think we’d best not talk about these things while we still love each other.” I don’t know if that was the best way out, but it was all I could think of at the time. (* Memory eternal, dear one.)
Politics can sometimes be discussed rationally. Some years back at Saint Nicholas, Cedarburg, two elderly men would sit together every Sunday at coffee hour. One was exceedingly conservative, the other an old fashioned Milwaukee socialist. * They would talk politics quietly, then always conclude “Have a good week. See you next Sunday.” Someone suggested that neither had any idea what the other was talking about! No matter, they did it with love.
- Milwaukee had three socialist mayors between 1910 and 1960 – and good clean effective government, too. (Oops. I gave you my opinion.)
In discussion (about politics or anything else, for that matter) instead of just talking and thinking up clever retorts or putdowns, often keep quiet and listen. Note the saying to the right: If you find yourself getting angry, change the subject – “Do you think it will snow?” If that doesn’t work, shut your mouth, “sit on it”. If you can’t manage that, excuse yourself very gently and walk away.
“Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” James 1:19-20
Point Five: Keep politics in perspective.
As an Orthodox Christian you know politics will not solve our biggest problems. As I said to Khouria Dianna after listening to an Andrea Boccelli concert, “Music will save the world. Politics won’t.”
I hope you can open the following video. If it doesn’t work, search for Andrea Boccelli, Sarah Brightman “Time to Say Goodbye”. Then, if I were you, I’d listen to it and forget about politics.
“Beauty may save the world”, as Dostoevsky wrote. Love can save the world. Our Lord Jesus Christ will save the world. Politics will not. It can help, but don’t expect more of it than it can deliver.
Above all, remember that political opinions are only opinions. The Orthodox Faith is God-given, to be defended to the death, but political ideologies can be wrong. Hard as this may be to believe…my political opinions could be wrong. So could yours. Each of us perceives only parts of the whole truth.
All this will get harder to remember as the next year or so progresses, so let’s plan ahead now while we’re still more or less rational!
So… who to vote for?
Here’s what I do: I take the issues I consider most important (I am not a “one-issue” voter), then consider what I think are the most effective ways of handling them. Plus I consider the personal qualities of the candidates: are they truthful, honest, fair-minded? do they lead a decent, respectable family life? Then I try to balance all these out in my mind… So am I going to tell you who I vote for?
Next Week: If I’m brave enough, I’m going to begin a series titled “What happened between ‘and was made Man‘ … and ‘was crucified also for us‘”: The Teachings of Jesus”