Recently I read that a prominent Orthodox bishop spoke at the Democratic Convention, giving the benediction and endorsing the Democratic candidates for the next American Presidential election. Given the Democratic Party’s emphatic support of abortion and the LGBQT agenda, one wonders why his words did not include a prophetic denunciation of the slaughter of the unborn in that country or the sin of homosexual practices, given that his church is clear that both abortion and homosexual practice are wrong. But rather than dwelling on that obvious head-scratching anomaly, I would like to focus on the folly of the Church endorsing any political candidate.
As the American election looms ever closer, a little voice inside my Canadian head tells me that the smart thing for me to do would be to hide under the bed wrapped in the Maple Leaf and wait for the cannon-fire to die down. It is true that there is much about America and its politics that I do not “get”. It seems to this outsider that America is badly polarized politically at the present time, and that people are shouting angrily at each other. Maybe all the shouting is taking place on Facebook, and outside the online world, everything is calm. But if things are as badly polarized as my peek at Facebook suggests, it becomes all the more important for the Church to tread more carefully than it seems to be doing.
I am, please note, not suggesting that citizens of a country should not have passionately-held political opinions, or that they should not make them loudly known—though even here I would point out that one can speak both loudly and civilly at the same time (and of course, non-violently). Christians are citizens of an earthly land as well as citizens of heaven, and as long as our earthly homeland allows and encourages political debate, we should avail ourselves of this freedom. (And we should be thankful for it too, since not every citizen throughout the world has this freedom.)
Rather, I am speaking of the Church as church aligning itself with a specific candidate. This alignment gives the unmistakable message, both to the world and to its own members, that a truly Orthodox person will vote for a particular candidate, and that failure to vote in this way in some way reflects bad faith or disloyalty to Orthodoxy on the part of that Orthodox voter. This is rarely the case. Usually politics is so varied and the issues so complex that men and women of good faith and clear conscience can be found on both sides of the political arena. It all depends on which issues one chooses to focus upon and which set of goals one prioritizes.
One is tempted to say that the Orthodox Church has had a long history of cozying up to Caesar—witness to the use of the word “Caesaropapism”. It is true that use of this word is often overdone in western sources and critiques of Orthodoxy. But it would be futile to deny that they do have a point (see, for example, the essay “The Patriarchate of Constantinople and the State” by Speros Vyronis Jr. in the 2005 volume Orthodoxy and Western Culture). What was theoretically a symphonia of cooperation between Church and Imperium too often became the Imperium pushing its own agenda on an overly-passive Church. The Church, of course, did not simply roll over all the time. Sometimes bishops like St. John Chrysostom pushed back. But this was a comparatively rare occurrence, which is perhaps why bishops like John Chrysostom were canonized in the first place.
And anyway, a President (or a Prime Minister) is not an Emperor, since the former is elected in a way that the latter is not. The Church’s cozy relationship with the Byzantine State did not represent a partisan choice in the way that an episcopal endorsement of a Presidential candidate does. I suggest that the Church, as church, should refrain from endorsing political candidates during election time, and for the following reasons.
First of all, such an endorsement instantly divides the Orthodox faithful, since it suggests that a truly loyal, sensible, and clear-thinking Orthodox Christian will vote in the way that his or her church says they should vote. And surely there is enough to divide us already? Jurisdictional squabbles, variant liturgical practices, differing calendars—surely we don’t need yet another thing to fight over? Especially in 2020, when the blogosphere is lighting up over (of all things) the use of multiple spoons at the Liturgy. The hierarchs, if they can’t get everyone to calm down, can at least refrain from doing more to stir everyone up. Their task is to rightly define the Word of truth—a task which when accomplished unites the faithful—not to push political agendas, which inevitably divides them.
Secondly, endorsing a candidate inevitably means that we share the sins of the candidate as well as his virtues. Remember St. Paul’s advice in 1 Timothy 5:22: “Do not lay hands upon any one hastily and thus share in the sins of others”. The idea behind this apostolic directive was that the local church should not ordain its leaders hastily, for in that case it would share responsibility for the mistakes and sins committed by the hastily-ordained leader. It is similar with political endorsement: if the Church as church contributes to and enables the election of a candidate, to some degree it also shares the responsibility for all that person does afterward—both the good and the bad. That responsibility is properly borne by the voting citizens as individuals, not by the Church. If the candidate the Church helps to elect later does bad things, this will reflect badly on the Church as well. A lurid twentieth century example of this can be found in Germany in the 1930s. But less lurid examples are not hard to find in any century.
Finally, endorsing a particular candidate constitutes a failure to recognize the eschatological nature of the Church. The Church, as church, is called to higher and less ambiguous goals than political ones. Bluntly put, the Church is supposed to be above such things. If we align ourselves with a particular party, candidate, or cause, we run the risk of identifying ourselves with that politician’s goals when in fact we have an entirely different goal—that of calling all men, whatever their politics, to Jesus Christ. And we lessen our evangelical effectiveness too, for someone passionately attached to the candidate we do not endorse may well reject our proclamation of the Gospel because we have become tainted in his eyes through our political affiliation. Here it does not matter a whit whether the candidate the Church endorses is good or bad; the point is that a soul may be lost to Christ because of our political endorsements. That would be bad. Effective evangelism trumps good political action (no pun intended).
Recognizing the eschatological nature of the Church and that her citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20) should give us a much-needed perspective on the politics of this passing world. The things over which we argue are important, but not ultimate; they are ephemeral, not eternal. Eventually all the cannon-fire of this world will die away, including the cannon-fire generated by our politics. The Church’s orientation and its message must be one the things that remain and will never die away. Endorsing one candidate over another too easily involves wrapping ourselves in a flag of this world. That would be a mistake, for on the Last Day, all flags will burn. Only the Kingdom of God will remain, rising like a phoenix from the ashes of this world