Orthodoxy in Dialogue with America

This is the 18th blog in this introductory series to the Orthodox Faith.  The First blog is Orthodoxy in the World & Light to the World. The previous blog is Orthodoxy in Relationship to Christianity Worldwide.

Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, Dayton, OH

Orthodoxy entered into America as a true minority religion in an already Christian country.   Technologically the Orthodox came from inferior cultures as they came to North America.   Politically they often arrived  as almost powerless with their fellow Orthodox living in countries dominated by Islam or atheistic communism.    Their initial reaction was often to try to preserve their customs and practices in their small ethnic enclaves to protect themselves from the American culture, which they often experienced as hostile to them.

            During the height of the cold war, many Orthodox coming from communist dominated countries often felt themselves under suspicion of being spies and un-American, despite their frequently ferociously anti-communist stance.    The issues which occupied the Orthodox were often not the contemporary issues of modern America.    Feminism and the ordination of women which have been prominent in religious debates in America have played a very minor role in Orthodox discussions.  Part of this is the result of the fact that American Orthodoxy tends to take its cues on issues from the “old world” and there feminism is still a minor issue.   Orthodox  being very conservative and traditionalist in custom often brought to their meetings and discussions the structures and thinking that dominate in the old world –  not only were the questions “foreign” to Orthodox thinking, but they were calling upon Orthodoxy to make changes it was in no way prepared to make as it struggled (by trying to preserve its past, its tradition) to adapt to and to survive in the new world.

Protection of the Theotokos, Dayton

Orthodoxy in relationship to the American scene has struggled with:

–         America’s extreme individualism (as versus the Orthodox understanding of a human as a being always in relationship to others) – including notions that morality is basically determined by each individual not by society;

–         America’s unconstrained consumerism (as versus a spirituality which emphasizes self denial as the way to love) – including the sense that a constitutionally guaranteed pursuit of happiness means you should consume as much as you want and can afford;  

–         America’s love of things new (versus Orthodoxy’s constantly looking to tradition and the past to understand all things new) – including new ideas about God, morality, and truth;

–         America’s distrust of authority (versus a church which emphasizes hierarchy and tradition) – including a distrust of ancient or traditional ways of doing things;

–         America’s “meritocracy” (versus the Orthodox reliance on entitlement for those in positions of authority) – especially in relationship to bishops who traditionally commanded respect, not because of accomplishments but because of the office they held;  

–         America’s clear separation of church and state (as versus the Orthodox sense that there should exist cooperation, a symphony, between government and religion which are two branches of authority both given by God); and

–         America’s love of democracy and deciding most things by majority rule (as versus the historical Orthodox alignment with empires and kings in which there was not voting, but obedience to decisions handed down from on high) – including a modern tendency in American churches to vote on everything  from morality, to liturgy, to theology and thus to truth.

Next: Orthodoxy in the World: The Present Future

American Independence Day (2010)

Each year around the time of our American Independence Day I try to read a book related to American History.  This year I chose Garry Wills’  JAMES MADISON.      Madison is thought to be the founding father  most responsible for the American attitude toward religion(s): tolerance and acceptance of every religious tradition by assuring that the state establishes no one religion for the nation.  (see my blog series based on his collected WRITINGSKeeping Church and State Separate )    Madison did accept Christianity as the superior religion (probably the religion most in line with the ideals of the Enlightenment).  He did believe that ultimately Christianity would be strengthened by not being the state religion but by being the religion people freely embraced.   Thus he argued thoughtfully for complete religious freedom – meaning the state stays out of religion and doesn’t impose religion on anyone  (see my blog Madison: In Favor of the Separation of Church and State).  Yes, he did favor a separation of church and state and opposed the president calling for days of prayer and fasting or of their being government  supported chaplains for the military or the congress.

I also had opportunity to watch the wonderful HBO miniseries JOHN ADAMS as I was reading the book on Madison.  I found the series to be excellent, really putting humanity on some of the great figures of the American revolution and the founders of our nation, who all too often are thought of as marble statues.   What these men and women had to sacrifice in terms of family (and what their families had to sacrifice in terms of their being away at American business!)  was very obvious in the miniseries. 

(As an aside, I’ve also been listening to the CDs of Professor Mark Steinber’s A HISTORY OF RUSSIA: FROM PETER THE GREAT TO GORBACHEV as I drive in my car.  A highly recommended lecture series which gave me the additional dimension of learning about what was happening in Russia at the same as the American Revolution and Adam’s and Madison’s presidencies.)

Wills’ book focuses on the presidency of James Madison (Wills says the common consensus of historians is that his presidency is ranked as merely average for U.S. presidents, but the 2010 Siena Research Institute ranking by presidential scholars shows Madison being consistently listed since 1982 among the top 10 American presidents, ranking as high as 6th).  Wills writes critically of Madison and does not hesitate to point out his faults, but in the end writes a highly sympathetic evaluation of Madison as president, claiming his personal faults and foibles both were the cause of the War of 1812, as well as the ways in which Madison’s presidency actually did good for America.

There is little doubt that Madison was a brilliant man and rightfully called “the Father of the Constiution” because of the ideas he contributed to shaping the Constitution and our country as a whole.  My reading of Wills is that Madison was also a complex politician.  He was considered to be a good legislator (he effectively worked with others in getting things passed through legislatures), but he also was an ideologue and at times allowed his ideology to cloud his thinking and cause him to fail to distinguish between his ideas and reality.  The end justified the means in his thinking, and so he was willing at times to deceive, to be duplicitous, to hide his true goals while manipulating others to vote for things he favored.  He was willing to appear on different, even contradictory,  sides of an issue to secure the support of others, and then worked hard to cover his trail to make sure others didn’t discover the truth about the political games he was playing.  His political maneuvering cost him the respect of George Washington who at one time relied on Madison completely.  But when Washington discovered that Madison was both duplicitous and dishonorable, he cut himself off completely from his former confidant.  Though I had read previously that both Madison and Jefferson worked covertly to undermine the Presidency of John Adams (and Jefferson was his vice-president!), Wills reports that the two of them did the same to President Washington.  Both Jefferson and Madison shared ideological leanings and felt subversive methods were needed to support their anti-federalist ideologies.  (Read a recent WALL STREET JOURNAL article on The Feuding Fathers and see their graphic E Pluribus Unum? – political polarization was well established by the founding fathers of our nation).

Though Wills notes that Madison was at times duplicitous, and willing to take positions contradictory to previous positions he held as part of his ends justifies the means way of leading, still America emerged a stronger nation at the end of his troubled presidency.  Madison endeavored to remain faithful to the constitution which he helped write, though he would by his own actions strengthen the powers of the federal government over the states, an idea which he often spoke against.   He was responsible for helping create the Constitution as one of the founding fathers of our nation, and then was responsible for creating a sense of nation and nationalism (as versus individualism, and against the powers of the individual  states) as president.  He no doubt contributed much to our modern sense of what it means to be Americans and what the United States means to us.

One very anti-federalist quote of Madison long before he became president:

“War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.”  (1795)

Atheism: Luminous or delusion?

1st in a blog series.

Blogging has caused me on occasion to cross paths with some atheist – both on my blog and on theirs.  This has produced a few exchanges of ideas as well as exchanging barbs at times.  Often these communications are related to evolution which is one point at which the interest of atheists and believers do intersect.   This meeting point is actually a crowded city intersection because the spectrum of beliefs held by “faithists” (as some atheists like to label believers) and scientists is diverse.  There are of course atheist and biblical literalist/creationist ideologues who are the ones who draw the most media attention because their extreme views make for easier and more entertaining contrasts.  But there also are a wide variety of those who are agnostic, theistic scientists, deists, intelligent design adherents, and the indifferent.  The ideological atheists have no sympathy for the theistic scientists as they feel they just muddy the waters, but their real enemies are the biblical literalists/creationists.  Often when the ideological atheists attack religion they are referring only to biblical literalists and creationists, though admittedly they don’t distinguish between believers (see for example Jerry Coyne’s webpage Why Evolution is True which to some extent is devoted to refuting creationist claims that evolution is unproven).   Their attacks however often do not take into account the wide spectrum of beliefs held by “faithists” or that people believe for many different reasons, some much more logical and even factually determined than others.   While all creationists and biblical literalists are believers, not all believers are biblically literalistic creationists.

David Bentley Hart in his book ATHEIST DELUSIONS: THE CHRISTIAN REVOLUTION AND ITS FASHIONABLE ENEMIES offers a rebuttal to some of the common attacks on religion offered by “the new Atheists.”  (You can see a short video interview of Hart on the same topic: The New Atheists and the Ugly God).   Part of the basis of his polemics is that the new atheists’ attacks on religion are so broad in their claims as to be easily refuted by simply studying history (something many biblical literalists and “bible alone” believers are unwilling to do) and offering historical examples which refute the atheists’ claims.    For example in dealing with a favorite historical event for atheists – the Galileo affair in which the scientist having truth on his side is oppressed by the superstitious religionists, Hart points out:

“And the irony is, strange to say, that it was the church that was demanding proof, and Galileo who was demanding blind assent—to a model that was wrong.” (p 66)

Galileo couldn’t prove his theory as he still lacked the means to prove it, but he was asking the church to accept his theory as he felt certain it would be proven eventually.  The Church refused to accept his ideas without proof.  As Hart notes, ironically, the very model Galileo was proffering at that moment later proved to be inaccurate.   Thus to say the church always opposed scientific truth is simply not supported by historical example.  Hart offers several instances which refute the popular claims of “the new atheists.”

“This would, at any rate, be in keeping with one of the rhetorical strategies especially favored in New Atheist circles: one labels anything one dislikes – even if it is found in a purely secular setting—‘religion’ (thus, for example, all the twentieth-century totalitarianisms are ‘political religions’ for which secularists need take no responsibility), while simultaneously claiming that everything good,  in the arts, morality, or any other sphere—even if it emerges with an entirely religious setting—has only an accidental association with religious belief and is really, in fact, common human property; (so, for example, the impulse toward charity will doubtless spring up wherever an ‘enlightened’ society takes root).  By the same token, every injustice that seems to follow from a secularist principle is obviously an abuse of that principle, while any evil that comes wrapped in a cassock is unquestionably an undiluted expression of religion’s every essence.” (p 220)

Hart’s point is one that I have noted myself in conversations with atheists – if one points out that 20th Century Fascism and Communism were ideas both born of the scientific skepticism of the Enlightenment and both were profoundly anti-religious and based in absolute adherence to human reason and secular rationalism, the atheists immediately say that is because those anti-religionists followed religiously based thinking for how to solve problems.  Thus they claim 20th Century militant atheism is just another form of religion and not at all what real atheism is about.  However, if a believer points out that much evil that has happened in the name of religion was in fact a denial of that religion’s core values, the atheists simply scoff and say the two cannot be separated.  Hart’s contention is that much that happened in terms of religious warfare in Europe leading up to the Enlightenment’s separation of church and state was every bit if not more so guided  by political realities than by religious claims.  As states asserted themselves as independent of church control, their tendency toward relying on violence, abuse and warfare grew because they were freed from Christian moral constraints to do what was politically expedient – for which they always could find some religious support.  Certainly this is part of philosophical support that was given to Fascism in Germany – it was Christianity which was crippling Germany from being the dominating world power and which had to be overthrown.   Communistic Bolshevism made the same claim about Christianity in Russia.

Next:  Atheism: Ideal, Idyllic or Ideology?

The Private Support of Public Religion

madisonw2Having finally finished the 900+ pages of James Madison‘s WRITINGS  I can say that no matter what the debate today says about “the separation of church and state,” Madison believed it to be a separation ordained by God.  His bottom line regarding church and state is “that religion & Govt. will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”

His reasoning certainly is based in certain 18th Century Enlightenment ideals, especially that of the freedom of conscience which he believes all mergers between state and religion will eventually be tempted to violate in forced service to the state-church.   He also advocated “the equality of all religious sects in the eye of the Constitution” (emphasis in the original).   He does not believe the state can treat all religions equally if it has any dalliance with some.   He considered the idea the there must be “some sort of alliance or coalition between Govt. & Religion” an unfortunate error in thinking that is hard to shake but which cannot be supported by experience.  Speaking of his own state of Virginia, Madison extols the end result of a constitution which separates church and state:

madison“…Religion prevails with more zeal, and a more exemplary priesthood than it ever did when established and patronised by Public authority.  We are teaching the world the great truth that Govts. Do better without Kings and Nobles than with them.  The merit will be doubled by the other lesson that Religion flourishes in greater purity, without than with the aid of Govt.”

What would Madison have said about our current church and state debates?  Of course it is hard to know as many things are different today than in his day almost 200 years ago.   He opposed the appointment of any kind of chaplains paid from the national treasury.   Madison argues that for those in government who feel the need for prayer and spiritual guidance, it would be far “better proof to their Constituents of their pious feeling if the members contributed for the purpose, a pittance from their own pockets” rather than by taking money from the public purse.   Paying for religion from your own pocket is a far better witness to the public about how serious you are about your faith than is how much money you take from the general coffers to support your religious causes.  That seems to be Madison’s most basic sense of religion in the public sphere  – when believers pay to support their religions and their religions’ causes from their own pockets, that is the best witness to all how seriously they take their faith and how genuinely they believe in what they do.   He believed the greatest respect politicians can show God and religion is to not mix government and religion.  He felt leaders simply could not resist the temptation to use God and religion to support their own causes, rather than to use religion to improve their own personal morality.  He felt political leaders invoked God not to bring honor to the deity but to bolster their own personal agendas.

It is pretty hard imagining Madison to be in favor of prayer in the public schools (he would say training in prayer is something churches and parents should do).  He clearly did not think it proper for the executive branch to declare days of prayer, fasting or thanksgiving to God.    He did consider himself to be a Christian.  He maintained pretty clear lines of demarcation between the secular and the religious, between church and state, between the freedom of conscience and the rule of kings or the majority.   He would have been uncomfortable with how often American presidents invoke God, that God would be mentioned on U.S. currency or at every and any government related activity.   He was not an anarchist or a nihilist and probably would have been amazed at just how far ideas of the separation of church and state are taken in the modern world.  But he did believe that the two great accomplishments of the American Revolution were 1) government by the people and without kings, and 2) the separation of church and state which he felt ultimately benefitted both.   He was not opposed to leaders publicly expressing their faith, but when it came to government activities, he did believe these individuals alone should bear all the costs associated with religion.  He thought that to be the great witness to God and faith each public servant could make.

Madison: In Favor of the Separtion of Church & State

madisonwIt has been some little while since I wrote about my readings in the WRITINGS of American Founding Father and President, James Madison.    I began reading him because some historians think him to be the most influential founding father in defining the relationship between government and religion in America.  There are many who engage in an argument as to whether the founding fathers thought of the United States as a Christian nation or whether they advocated a total separation of church and state.  Madison embraced both ideas.  He did consider himself a Christian and considered Christianity to be the superior form of religion.  He also thought it best for Christians to live in a country where the state has declared itself neutral regarding any religion as then the membership is completely there by free choice and not be coercion.

Madison wrote in 1819 that in his opinion the evidence he could see based upon the American effort to create “the total separation of the Church from the State” was that more people were attending church than ever, the morality of the clergy had improved and devotion to God had increased.  Not only did Christianity not perish by not being supported by the government, but in Madison’s opinion it was much stronger for it.  The clergy were doing just fine, and the state had suffered no loss but benefitted as well from this separation. 

Madison turns a phrase now and again to emphasize his belief in the separation between religion and government and warns states against “giving to Caesar what belongs to God, or joining together what God has put asunder.”    Thus he took what Jesus said in Matthew 19:6 regarding the indissolubility of marriage and reversing the saying made the separation of Church and state to have been declared by God.   In another instance of turning a phrase and rejecting any sense of the divine right of Kings, Madison proclaims the “divine right of conscience.” 

Madison opposed putting the name of Jesus Christ into any constitutional document as that would profane His holy name by making it a legislative discussion.  Besides he points out, Jesus himself declared His kingdom is not of this world; therefore Madison wanted no one to confuse the two.

Madison was likewise against the appointment of Chaplains for the congress and senate as well as in the military.   His stated fear is always that the religious majority will impose their practices on the minority.  Madison notes that Roman Catholics, which in his time represented a tiny minority in America, should not be forced against the stated practices of the Roman Church to participate in the religious prayers and practices of the predominant religious groups in America.    Church members should be free to practice their conscience and creed and not have to do, say or pray what the majority religions are demanding of their members.   Religious truth is not established by the numbers of its adherents.  The individual’s right to follow his own conscience is more important than the will of the majority.  In the end he believed military chaplains always serve the temporal interests of the powers that be and of the chaplains themselves rather than the spiritual interest of the flock.  He felt that requiring soldiers to participate in religion was the best way to kill their interest in religion.

He also opposed religious proclamations (declaring thanksgiving or fasts) from the office of the president.  He notes George Washington did declare thanksgiving and fasts and generically referred to God.  John Adams actually embraced Christian prayer in his role as president, while both Thomas Jefferson and himself had refused to make religious declarations as president.  While today Americans are accustomed to hearing “one nation under God,”  Madison was opposed to “The idea also of a union of all to form one nation under one Govt in acts of devotion to the God of all…” 

Madison remained convinced that one result of the Fall of humankind was that the merging of religion and government always led to abuses of power and the trampling on the conscience of individuals.  He felt that religion’s temptation was to rely on government for its support rather than on the membership to actively support and live the religion.  He felt the temptation for Government was to claim divine support for its temporal plans and thus again to crush the conscience of individuals.

Keeping Church and State Separate

madisonI have read some historians who think that of the founding fathers of our nation, James Madison was probably the most influential in terms of forming the ideas of the relationship between religion and the state which have shaped our country.  I decided to read his own writings to see what I can learn about how he conceived the role of religion in America and the relationship he envisioned between the government and religion.  I’ve begun reading his collected WRITINGS, a massive 950 page volume, and intend to read him throughout this year.  His writings consist of many letters, so they readily lend themselves to being read a few pages each day – I don’t need to read them as a continuous story.  For a man who lived in a time in which letters all had to be hand written, he was amazingly verbose and one wonders if he had time to do anything but write. 

So far I’ve only read about 40 pages (letters he wrote between November 1772 and June 1785, just before he really began voluminous letter writing).   There are a few quotes which I found interesting from his early writings.  Madison described “the rights of conscience” as “one of the Characteristics of a free people.”  This is a key idea to why he advocates for a separation of religion and state (he doesn’t use the phrase, but certainly advocates the idea; it will be Jefferson I think who writes about the separation of church and state) – he doesn’t want people to be forced by government to do things which are against their consciences.  This to Madison is essential for people to be free. 

In 1776 Madison already wrote what will become the basis for thinking found in the Bill of Rights. 

“That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore, that all men are equally entitled to enjoy the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience, unpunished and unconstrained by the magistrate, Unless the preservation of equal liberty and the existence of the State are manifestly endangered; And it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love and charity towards each other.”

Madison did believe that “Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe.”  So all civil men “owe” reverence to God.  He clearly saw Christianity as the religion best fitting his ideals of a nation.  However he opposed laws which would have made Christianity the official religion in the Americas because he felt all people had to freely choose to believe, or not.  “Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess and to observe the Religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us.”  The only limit he put upon the freedom of religion was if the religion endangered the state or the practice of liberty it should not be tolerated.  One might say he did not think that freedom was absolute – it should not allow the destruction of the state or of human liberty.   In another sense he seems to value the state over any one religion.

Madison in general has a negative view of organized (clerically dominated) religion.    He writes that oppressive governments have often found religious hierarchy willing to suppress freedom and to support the established government.  But he argues a just government does not need the support of clergy to give legitimacy to itself; a just government protects the religious liberty of every citizen who in turn supports the government without needing a clergy to tell them to do so.   Thus he defend the separation of religion and government and cites the example of early Christian history in which the Roman government in opposing Christianity failed to protect the rights of its citizens to have freedom of religion – but despite this Christianity prevailed.   So not only does a just government not need religion to bolster its legitimacy, but true religion does not need government support to succeed.

 madisonw1Madison writes, “Torrents of blood have been spilt in the old world, by vain attempts of the secular arm, to extinguish Religious discord, by proscribing all difference in Religious opinion.”  It is an interesting thought – it is not religious disagreements which he blames for warfare, but the decision of the state to stop religious disagreements which have been so bloody.  Again we can see the seeds in his early writings of why he favors a separation of religion and government and why he believes in limited government.

He keeps church and state separated because they have different goals, agendas and objectives.   To some extent he sees the purpose of the state to protect the freedom of the individual, and religion is what helps the individual to aspire to and to attain his or her human potential.  Both government and religion thus serve the individual, but when the two merge to realize the agenda of either, the individual’s freedoms are threatened.