A new blog site, Ethika Politika, has published my essay exploring American individualism in light of the ascetical tradition of the Orthodox Church. Here’s the conclusion:
American individualism is not intrinsically immoral nor is it an anthropological heresy. For all America’s real faults and sins, it is founded on — and until recently preserved by — an ascetical intuition that helped Americans avoid the excessive of both the radical individualism of the Enlightenment and of pre-Modern aristocratic authority. The Puritan work ethic, the US Constitution’s separation of powers, our Bourgeois virtues, and commitment to Civil Rights all reflect that aspect of the American character that takes seriously the need to correct what is worse in us so that what is best in us can shine forth. Americans are not by any stretch of the imagination monks, but we are, in our way and when we are our best selves, an ascetical people nonetheless.
I’ve posted a fair amount here of late about religious freedom and the HSS contraception mandate. The reason I’ve done so is that religious freedom is essential not only to a civil society but to human flourishing. Let me explain please. Continue reading →
Not by accident did the First Amendment begin with religious freedom, protecting it from infringement in two ways: first, by prohibiting an official, governmentally sponsored religion (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion’) and second, by protecting the people in their free exercise of religion (“or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”).
What do these clauses mean? They don’t mean that Americans’ right to religious freedom is a right to believe whatever we want to believe. Even North Koreans have that right, because as a practical matter no one can force someone to believe or not to believe something. The free exercise of religion means the ability to act on those beliefs. To practice our religion in private or in public. To proclaim our religion to others, if we wish. To spend our money in furtherance of our own religion, and not in furtherance of anyone else’s. To promote what we think is moral, and not to promote anything we think is immoral. These are all necessary consequences of the idea of religious freedom.
Now we are implicated in this battle over the HHS mandate concerning contraceptives, abortion-inducing drugs, and sterilization. It could’ve been another flashpoint. Denmark, for example, has just passed a law requiring the official state Lutheran church to solemnize same-sex weddings. In Ireland, the government is seriously proposing to abolish the centuries-old priest-penitent privilege, thus enabling the government to force priests to violate the sacred seal of confession, something that has been well-settled in the common law since the days of Henry II and St. Thomas Becket. In Nigeria, in what seems like a weekly ritual, Christians are being killed for attending church.
How fortunate we Americans are that we are not encountering any of these obstacles to living in accord with our consciences. Still, the threat to our religious freedom is real. When our government tells us we must pay for acts we believe and know to be immoral for everybody, our situation is comparable to what’s happening in these other places, even if it isn’t precisely similar. So what are we called upon to do?
Of course, we want to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. But we must also render to God the things that are God’s. Conscience, as the voice of God within, is distinctly a resident of Our Father’s house. When the government tries to force conscience to bow to Caesar, we have no choice but to obey God rather than man.
When the authorities in Jerusalem ordered Sts. Peter and John to stop preaching about Jesus, they replied, “Whether it is right in the sight of God for us to obey you rather than God, you be the judges. It is impossible for us not to speak about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20).
Note the context and the details. Peter and John didn’t say the authorities were illegitimate. They didn’t tell the authorities what they must believe. They even invite their listeners to judge for themselves according to their own consciences. But they stand their ground on one point: that they must do the will of God, no matter what anyone else—government included—says.
It’s a bit of a Paul Revere moment. Only this time it’s not the British that are coming. It’s Big Brother. Or, if you prefer, think of Rosa Parks. We can go along and sit quietly in the back of the bus, or we can stand up for human dignity and the rights of conscience. When it comes to our precious heritage of religious freedom, we must either use it or lose it.
An interesting post from The Ochlophobist in which he reflects on the difficulties of embodying the Orthodox faith in American culture. He offers five comments that are worth reflecting on:
1. What authentic human culture existed in American locals in prior generations is now dead, even if it remains in caricature form. Thus Orthodoxy is not to “incarnate” into American culture, or to save or baptize American culture. There is no authentic American culture anymore. Orthodoxy in America must seek to create an American culture. There are certain local cultural “ingredients” which might be used, but what needs to be sought is a new cultural creation.
2. This can only be done by coming to terms with the secularism that rules American life and disabuses what would otherwise be authentic American cultural forms. Until we acknowledge the pervasiveness of secularism and its dreadful hold on virtually all aspects of our lives, we are simply playing the games of boutique religion.
3. The fundamental problem – if one seeks for Orthodoxy to become fully fleshed and blooded in America, completely embedded in the existential ethos of this place and people, how does one go about it in a pluralist society in which all things are sought (usually with success) to be commodified and delegated to a percentage of market share? How does one avoid, on the one hand, becoming a particularly placed fleshed and blooded micro-culture that is separationist (the Amish), or, on the other hand, how does one avoid becoming a religious movement which fully collaborates with secular materialist culture (Evangelicalism)? Assuming that we do not want to run to the hills, how do we fully confront and transform an ever morphing ethereal pluralist materialist übercommodified anti-culture?
4. Should we even be seeking the transformation of America at large? America is colossal, too big in any number of ways. Would it not be more modest, and might it not be more appropriate with regard to discernable human culture, to seek rather a Delta Orthodoxy, an Upper-Midwestern Orthodoxy, a New England Orthodoxy, an Appalachian Orthodoxy, a Pacific Northwestern Orthodoxy, a Canadian plains Orthodoxy, and so forth?
5. There must be no agenda. As soon as we have as our agenda to “win America for Christ” Orthodoxy style, we have become one agenda competing in a saturated market of agendas, and we have then condemned ourselves to petty market share. The American Orthodoxy of mission statements and evangelism strategies is simply more of the Evangelicalish-materialist banality. If there is to be a full existentially realized Orthodox culture in America, it must come to be because this is what Orthodoxy is, how she realizes herself in a place. There is a charismatic and fragile human element to this. Such will not be brought about because Orthodoxy has been marketed well. Ironically, those most concerned with religious market success doom Orthodoxy to cultural failure, precisely because they do not understand their own commitments to secularist materialism, and the fact that there can be no Orthodox-secularist culture that is truly a culture. Not to mention the pragmatically obvious – that in a pluralist-materialist setting, Orthodoxy will never rise above the fray of constant competition (a competition which assumes and implicitly teaches a fundamental relativism among competing truth claims) and the trite mechanisms associated with such an environment.
Thinking about my own experience of the Orthodox Church both in the “rust belt” and the West Coast, I think Ochlophobist is on to something in point 4. The Orthodox Church on the West coast, and for that matter in much of the Pacific Northwest and old West, is relatively wealthy. Unlike the midwest and middle Atlantic regions, small economically and demographically struggling parishes are relatively (though of course not absolutely) unknown on the West coast (and the Pacific Northwest and Old West). Ethnic identity is also less intense in the western United States.
Point 5, the necessary of not having an agenda, is also on target, though I would prefer the notion of detachment to the phrase “no agenda.” For better and worse, the large number of ex-Evangelical Christians has set the tone for Orthodox witness here in America. Again, while there has been some good from this, for exactly the reasons outlined by Ochlophobist, I would be hard press to say that this infusion of Evangelical Christian sensibilities is a good thing.
While yes, we must take Evangelical Christianity seriously as the religious language of American society, it often seems that it embodies a religious world view that as commodified as the wider American milieu. And then there is the toxic convergence of phyletism and Evangelical sectarianism that especially, though not exclusively, on the West coast takes the form of 19th century Russian peasant chic (i.e., let’s all dress as we imagine the dressed and spoke in Holy Russian in the golden age of the 19th Century–think a rather distressing tendency of some converts to dress like Fundamentalist Later Day Saints.)
Where I might disagree (and his and your comments are welcome on this point) from the Ochlophobist is with his assessment of American culture–or rather the absence of an American culture. Here I think I would say that yes, on a popular level at least, American society is increasingly less humane–less humanistic in the best sense of the term. But there is underneath this popular culture, a deeper, more humane, more humanistic culture grounded not simply in the Enlightenment, but also in some of the best of western culture (in is hard for me to read Thomas Jefferson and NOT hear echoes of Aquinas). We see this deeper culture evident not simply in the classical works of American political philosophy (e.g., the Declaration of Independence and the supporting literature, but also the US Constitution and its apology in the The Federalist Papers, and before that the writings of de Tocqueville) and contemporary thinkers in that tradition (for example, John Courtney Murray). And then there is the range of American literature, novelists, short story writers and essays, as well as the arts, musicals and films to which we can appeal to as embodying the best of American culture as such.
All that said, I think Ochlophobist is on to something–we are not as a Church prepared to actually incarnate the faith in an American context. This is not, I hasten to add, primary a matter of a deficient theological education. No, it is not that we do not understand the Fathers (though there is much work that needs to be done there for sure), but that we do not understand the foundations of the very society in which we live.
As I have alluded to at other times, putting aside for the moment our interest in Orthodox theology, there is to my view of things, a very disturbing anti-Western, and really anti-intellectual, trend in the Church. As a quick example, more often than I care to recount, I have sat with Greek immigrants and Greek-Americans who were quite proud of the Greek language, but woefully ignorant of classical Greek philosophy and literature. More than once, I have found that I was the only one at the table who had read Aristotle or Homer.
What I’m getting at is this, to embody the faith in American means that we need to not only be well grounded in that faith, but also the deep cultural roots of America. Sadly, and this is significantly weaker a word that I would like to use, for many Orthodox Christians the point of being in the Church (and this includes not only “converts” but also “cradle” Orthodox) is to NOT have to wrestle with the culture.
In a word, for all our newly found evangelical enthusiasm, we remain sectarian. We are more interested in the “low hanging fruit” of unhappy Evangelical Christians, mainline Protestants and disappointed Catholic and Episcopalians then we are in really doing the work required to present ourselves as a credible alternative to secular culture. To use a phrase I heard recently, we are concerned more with “nickels and noses” than in doing the hard work of transfiguring American culture.
So thanks to the Ochlophobist for his usual insightful and provocative obsevations.