No matter what the political arrangements in which Orthodox Christians find themselves, when they emerge from their celebration of the holy Eucharist they must re-enter the world always anew as witnesses to God’s eternal Kingdom. In their encounters with others who do not share their faith, Orthodox Christians must remember that all human beings are living and irreplaceable icons of God, fashioned for him in their inmost nature. No one should seek to advance the Christian faith through the use of political power or legal coercion.
The temptation to do so has often been—and in some cases still is—especially acute in Orthodox countries. One of the more morally corrosive aspects of modern democratic politics is the tendency to slander and revile—even, in fact, to demonize—others with whom one does not agree. Indeed, there is no other space than in the political, perhaps, where the modern Christian must strive more assiduously against the prevailing tendencies of the age, and seek instead to obey the commandment of love.
Orthodox Christians should support the language of human rights, not because it is a language fully adequate to all that God intends for his creatures, but because it preserves a sense of the inviolable uniqueness of every person, and of the priority of human goods over national interests, while providing a legal and ethical grammar upon which all parties can, as a rule, arrive at certain basic agreements. It is a language intended to heal divisions in those political communities in which persons of widely differing beliefs must coexist. It allows for a general practice and ethos of honoring each person’s infinite and inherent dignity (a dignity, of course, that the Church sees as the effect of God’s image in all human beings).
Orthodox Christians must recognize that a language of common social accord, one that insists upon the inviolability of human dignity and freedom, is needed for the preservation and promotion of a just society; and the language of human rights has the power to accomplish this with admirable clarity. Neither, certainly, should Orthodox Christians fear the reality of cultural and social pluralism. Indeed, they should rejoice in the dynamic confluence of human cultures in the modern world, which is one of the special glories of our age, and take it as a blessing that all human cultures, in all their variety and beauty, are coming more and more to occupy the same civic and political spaces. The Church must in fact support those government policies and laws that best promote such pluralism.
More than that, it must thank God for the riches of all the world’s many cultures, and for the gracious gift of their peaceful coexistence in modern societies.
Ours is, it is often said, a secular age. This is not to say, of course, that religion has faded from all societies. In some of them, in fact, it remains as potent a cultural force as it ever was. And, even in the most thoroughly laicized and secularized nations of the West, religious belief and practice remain far livelier than one would expect if the religious impulse were merely an accidental aspect of human culture. But the constitutions of most modern states, even those that formally recognize an established church, assume the civic priority of a public space devoid of religious associations, and of a political order free from ecclesiastical authority. Many today, in fact, believe that democratic society is possible only to the degree that religion has been relegated to the private sphere entirely, and allowed no role in the articulation of policy.
This is, of course, an unreasonable demand, and one that becomes despotic if enforced by coercive legal means. Human ethical convictions do not evolve in conceptual vacuums, and religious adherence is an inseparable part of how a great many communities and individuals come to have any notions at all of the common good, moral community, and social responsibility. To silence the voice of faith in the public sphere is also to silence the voice of conscience for a great many citizens, and to exclude them from civic life altogether. At the same time, however, the dissolution of the ancient compact between state and church—or throne and altar—has also been a great blessing for Christian culture. It has freed the Church from what was all too frequently a slavish and unholy submission to earthly power and a complicity in its evils.
It is, in fact, very much in the interest of the Church that the institutional association of Christianity with the interests of the state be as tenuous as possible, not because the Church seeks to withdraw from society at large, but because it is called to proclaim the Gospel to the world and to serve God in all things, uncompromised by alliance with worldly ambitions. The Orthodox Church, then, should be thankful that God has providentially allowed for the reduction of the Church’s political enfranchisement in most of the lands of ancient Christendom, so that it may more faithfully conduct and promote her mission to all nations and persons.
Certainly, the Church can be at peace quite happily with a political order that does not impose theological conformity upon its people by coercive means, as such an order allows the Church to make a far purer and more immediate appeal to the reason and conscience of everyone.
In no sense does this preclude the Church from direct and robust cooperation with political and civil authorities and organs of state in advancing the common good and pursuing works of charity. Christianity began as a minority religious movement within an imperial culture either indifferent or hostile to its presence. Even then, in times of distress, such as periods of plague or famine, Christians often distinguished themselves by the selflessness of their service to their neighbors.
And, throughout the early centuries of the faith, the Church’s provisions for the desperate—widows and orphans especially, who were often the most indigent and imperiled persons of the ancient world—made it the first organized institution of social welfare in Western society. After the conversion of the empire to Christianity, moreover, there was no more significant change to the legal and social constitution of imperial society than the immense expansion of the Church’s philanthropic resources and social responsibility. No general characterization of the relation of Church and state in the period of the Christian empire is possible; the alliance bore fruit both good and bad; but no one should doubt the immense improvement in the Western conception of the common good that was inaugurated in—and that slowly, fitfully unfolded from—the introduction of Christian conscience into the social grammar of the late antique world.
In time, this cooperation for the sake of the common good was enshrined within Orthodox tradition under the term “symphonia” in the Emperor Justinian’s Novellas. This same principle was operative in the constitution of many Orthodox nation states in the post-Ottoman period. And today, as well, the principle of symphonia can continue to guide the Church in her attempts to work with governments toward the common good and to struggle against injustice. It cannot, however, be invoked as a justification for the imposition of religious orthodoxy on society at large, or for promotion of the Church as a political power.
Rather, it should serve to remind Christians that this commitment to the common good—as opposed to the mere formal protection of individual liberties, partisan interests, and the power of corporations—is the true essence of a democratic political order. Without the language of the common good at the center of social life, democratic pluralism all too easily degenerates into pure individualism, free market absolutism, and a spiritually corrosive consumerism.