In general Orthodox throughout the world have viewed the West’s embrace of Enlightenment Ideals with suspicion. Orthodoxy does not believe that the rights of the individual should always trump the rights of a nation, society, family or religion. Because Orthodoxy views the human as a being always in relationship to others, Orthodoxy would want to see individual rights discussions balanced with an emphasis on the right and need to love others which means taking into account the value of society itself. When it comes to fundamental human rights, Orthodoxy would want to say the most fundamental human right is to be able to love and to be loved (which includes forgiving, asking for forgiveness, repenting, granting mercy, stopping all cycles of revenge).
As a minority religion in America, and one that has suffered some prejudice and rejection, the Orthodox tried to protect their people by encouraging in the case of inter-marriages that the non-Orthodox person join the Orthodox Church. Orthodoxy’s own sacramental thinking discourages its clergy and members from any form of interfaith sharing of sacraments and in some case participating in other forms of worship. In America, because the Orthodox were often perceived as ethnic and therefore different, the refusal of Orthodox to actively participate in ecumenical events often has gone unnoticed. Orthodoxy believes that Christianity itself was meant to be one church, and has seen the divisions in Christianity and the diversification of Christian liturgies and theology as a negative evil further rupturing human unity.
Because Orthodoxy does not have a single worldwide leader, but rather is organized along the lines of national churches, it often does not speak with one voice on many social issues. However, and perhaps somewhat surprisingly, there is a fair amount of agreement among the Orthodox on many contemporary issues, and almost totally agreement on theological issues. To date the various Orthodox groups in America do not have a unified church leadership, but rather are organized along ethnic lines. The Orthodox therefore do not have one person or source to which to turn when seeking an Orthodox viewpoint on current issues. Orthodox Christian leadership has generally taken a “conservative” stance on social issues: pro-life being opposed to both the death penalty and abortion; opposed to genetic engineering, human cloning and stem cell research; opposed to same sex unions; and supporting family issues and the importance of motherhood in society. Orthodox Church leaders when addressing the issue have also tended to be in favor of many forms of ecology and question the rapacious effect of consumerism on the environment.
The role of leadership in the church has been hotly debated throughout Orthodox America. Some Orthodox newly arriving in America find allowing women leadership roles or voting roles in the church to be totally new and questionable. Even the notion of voting (democracy) in deciding church policies (doctrine has not been debated much anywhere in the modern Orthodox world) has met serious objections, especially from the hierarchy. The role of the laity (whether male or female) has been disputed as the church becomes increasingly Americanized. Bishops and priests sometimes express a fear of losing control of parishes as a result of democratization which they feel has no place in the church and which they sometimes interpret as anti-clerical. On the other hand, as more of the membership is Americanized and educated, the laity demand more openness, transparency and accountability from their clergy and hierarchs. Because the country is pluralistic religiously, Orthodox leadership has found it difficult to maintain absolute “denominational” loyalty. This has caused some church leaders in America to encourage further withdrawal from non-Orthodox gatherings. Conservative and fundamentalist thinkers are sometimes attracted to Orthodoxy, pulling the church into that direction as they bring with them their disdain for the “liberalism” of their former denominations. Many of these converts see the unique dress of Orthodox clergy as signs of the different and thus right ways of the Church. This has caused numerous other Orthodox to wonder whether Orthodoxy is in fact bringing the faith to America or whether these new converts are in fact reshaping the Church to more closely resemble what they imagine Orthodoxy to mean.
The challenges for Orthodoxy in America are many – cultural conflicts, as well as trying to discern the difference between Tradition and custom. There is also the difficult issue of how to bring about Orthodox unity in America when its parishes are organized along ethnic lines or have loyalties to old world politics and patriarchs. The issue is how does Orthodoxy incarnate the Church in America – what will it look like? How can it be faithful to its past and tradition and yet able to witness to the Gospel in the 21st Century?