by Fr Gregory Roy Jensen
Much as we might wish it were otherwise, in the Church there are differences in the “political convictions among her episcopate, clergy and laity.” Such differences—and even sharp disagreements—are however legitimate. The only thing we must rule out are those political positions that “lead clearly to actions contradicting the faith and moral norms of the church Tradition.” Whatever the political differences between Orthodox Christians, our witness in the Public Square should be constant. “In face of political differences, contradictions and struggle, the Church preaches peace and co-operation among people holding various political views” (Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church).
In the run up to the 2016 US Presidential election, peace and co-operation were frequently lacking. And not just in our nation but often in our parishes.
The problem isn’t that some Orthodox Christians voted for President Trump, while others voted for Secretary Clinton (in the interest of full disclosure, while I voted in the election, I didn’t vote for either candidate). Given the prudential nature of politics, there were morally legitimate reasons to vote for either major party candidates (as there were for the different third-party candidates).
No candidate was the clear morally correct choice. This shouldn’t be a surprise. Like the rest of humanity, politicians have morally mixed characters.
Complicating the matter even more, neither party’s platform was wholly compatible or wholly contrary to the tradition of the Church. As a result, voting one way or the other required voters to weigh moral and practical pros and cons. Even then, it meant that many people voted for a candidate about whom they had serious moral reservations.
The takeaway here is that there were (as there often are) serious reasons both to vote for and against any particular candidate. For me to accuse my brother or sister in Christ of being a bad Christian or having sinned simply for voting for (or against) either candidate (as distinct for voting to advance particular policies the Church sees as immoral) would be both unjust and uncharitable on my part.
How then are we as Orthodox Christians to live? How do we go about fostering “peace and co-operation among people holding various political views”? While the hierarchy and the clergy have a role here, this is primarily the vocation of Orthodox Christian laypeople in the Public Square.
First we need to understand that whatever we might feel personally about President Trump, Secretary Clinton, or any other candidate, voting for someone isn’t in and of itself evidence of a moral lapse. People vote for a complex of reasons. In the absence of clear evidence to the contrary, we shouldn’t assume that someone voted out of malice or for an immoral purpose. Instead, we need to give each other the benefit of the doubt.
Second, we all need a healthy dose of humility. Who you vote for doesn’t tell all that much about what’s in your heart. So whether we agree or not, we need to put aside the partisanship and talk to each other about our thoughts and concerns, our struggles and our hopes. As the conversation progresses, even if we don’t come to agree with each other, we might come to understand each other a bit more.
Third, what I’ve found helpful in political conversations (when I can maintain the discipline and not get swept away by my own, partisan inclinations) is to look for shared principles. For example, while I might want to lower taxes and you might want to raise them, we both may very well share a concern for helping the poor. So while we disagree about how to do it, we agree on what needs to be done.
Think about the people in your parish. Does anyone really think abortion is a good thing? That homosexuals and other sexual minorities should be mistreated? How many of us want the poor in Latin America to remain poor? Or see religious minorities in the Middle East persecuted, raped and killed by Muslim fanatics?
Americans have our faults. Basically though we are a generous and compassionate people. What divides us isn’t so much principle (though the divide here is getting worryingly wider) but application. Not what to do but how to do it.
Fourth, at least among those with whom I have spoken, the majority of Orthodox Christians who voted for Trump weren’t motivated by narrow political ideology. Most were just trying to make the best decision possible for our country. Certainly, they had personal concerns for themselves and their families. But in the main, their concern was for the common good and not simply their own, narrowly defined, self-interest.
These very deep and divisive political disagreements we see around us have begun to enter the Church. If left unaddressed, these will poison the life of the parish and the local Church. If you know the history of the Church in America you know that political disagreements once split what is now the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. Political disagreements also caused divisions in the Russian Orthodox Church in this country. And while relations have become significantly better in the last few years, administratively we see the consequences of those disagreements with the OCA, ROCOR and the Moscow Patriarchate all having bishops and parishes here. So we mustn’t think that the Church in America today is any more immune than in the past to the divisive consequences of secular political disagreement.
Fifth, I think it would be good if parishes sponsored classes and guests speakers who could address the social teaching of the Orthodox Church. Research in this area has been done by Public Orthodoxy and the Sophia Institute. There is also the work done by the American Orthodox Institute and a growing number of Orthodox scholars (clergy and laity, myself included) affiliated with the Acton Institute.
Inviting scholars from some of these groups to come and speak at your parish doesn’t mean asking them stump for this or that candidate or public policy. Rather, you are asking them to help you and the members of your parish (or diocese), understand the social implications of the Church’s moral tradition.
Sixth, we need to pray for President Trump, Congress, the Supreme Court, all civil authorities, the Armed Forces and all those who live in the United States. Does anyone doubt that we all always need God’s mercy no matter who is in the White House or which party controls Congress? And does anyone doubt that as much as you and I need mercy, those in civil leadership need it more than the rest of us?
One thing that the clergy could do is expand the commemoration we make at the Great Entrance. As it is currently written, it reflects a time and place when the Church lived under a monarchy. But as Orthodox Christians in America, we live in a democratic republic. America doesn’t have a single head of government. While ultimately, it is the people who rule, the civil well-being of the United States is entrusted to not only the President but also the Congress, the Supreme Court, myriad state and local civil authorities and the Armed Forces. All of these people need the grace of God and we shouldn’t limit our prayer to the President as if he were some kind of monarch.
Finally, we need to pray for each other. We need to ask God to be merciful to us and to those with whom we disagree. Let God sort out what mercy should look like. Our job, my job, is simply to ask for mercy.
And whatever else we need as a parish, a diocese, a Church and a nation, it’s mercy.
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Fr. Gregory Jensen is a priest of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-USA and has a doctorate in spiritual formation. He is a mission priest in Madison, WI, where he also serves as the chaplain for Orthodox students at the University of Wisconsin. A frequent retreat master and guest speaker at colleges and universities, he blogs at Palamas Institute and the American Orthodox Institute. The author of The Cure for Consumerism, he is currently writing a monograph on the witness of the Orthodox Church in the free market.