Sober reflections on Orthodox Christian thought, culture, and spirituality

  • Outside the Political Spectrum

    Democracy has always been a bit of prickly pear for the disciples of Christ. How do we respond to a system that asks our participation and then makes us complicit in its unjust outcomes? This question is particularly apt in a democracy structured around two parties. Although a dearth of options can often be psychologically healthy (consider how our mind is paralyzed when offered too much variety), socio-economic views rarely fall neatly into one of two possibilities (or even a quadrant, as has lately been popularized). This may explain in part why political dominance has shifted back and forth between parties over the decades. Articles may be found dating back over a century decrying the “political pendulum” of American governance. Those whose ideals are not easily pigeonholed contribute to this seesaw. But should Christians take part in this phenomenon at all? Can we ever align with one side of the spectrum or the other?

    In recent years, numerous studies have been conducted to explore what role nature and nurture have in determining the political attitudes of adults. One theory has suggested that liberals are more intelligent than conservatives, and therefore more comfortable with nuance and less fearful of change. However, this assumes that liberalism and conservatism correspond to the current left-right political dichotomy. As additional research has shown, a progressive attitude may correlate with a slightly higher IQ; but progressivism itself is a response to the status quo, not a fixed set of social and economic values. Another theory publicized posits that conservatives possess a stronger sense of disgust sensitivity (a personality trait defined by how a person reacts to certain concepts and behaviors). But taken alone this measurement is likewise meaningless because the respondents are reacting to novelty, which is a moving target; it says nothing about the innate political mindset of the individual. This was borne out by a more recent study revealing that both progressives and conservatives are equally repelled by ideas that contradict their particular worldview.

    There is some evidence that children and young adults form their political viewpoints in consonance with—or in reaction to—those of their parents. The stability of a parent-child relationship may influence whether a young adult feels comfortable risking tension with mom or dad by assuming a contradictory stance. Other researchers have detected a link between emotional temperament and maternal attachment in young children. As the confluence of these two factors affects emotional and cognitive development, a child may become more anxious and fearful of change (resulting in a conservative outlook in adulthood), or later manifest the “live and let live” attitude associated with liberalism.

    If genetics and upbringing are the primary factors determining where a person will fall on the political spectrum, it seems there will always exist a tug-of-war between opposing sides. The status quo will gradually shift right to left and back again, with the conservatively-minded defending the status quo, and the liberally-minded challenging it. This will necessarily be the case within a free, democratic society where individuals have some measure of self-determination. But what of right and wrong? Should our ethical standards be based on our innate or inculcated reactions to prevailing customs? Can truth really be culturally-ingrained and therefore relative? An atheist can accept this position, but not a Christian.

    The Gospel of John begins with the proclamation, “In the beginning was the Word (logos)” (1:1). Jesus Christ is the reason and principle of everything that exists. His wisdom shapes the cosmos. When we behold his glory, we know with every fiber of our being that he is “full of grace and truth” (1:14). If man were the arbiter of truth then everything would be permitted (to paraphrase Sartre paraphrasing Dostoevsky), and politics would merely be a struggle between two opposing opinions. But if Christ is risen, then God alone is true and everyone else a liar (Rom 3:4). He is the yardstick by which our thoughts and behaviors are measured.

    To be in Christ—in his Body, the Church—is to abide in the Truth. A Christian worldview should therefore not be determined by external factors (biology, upbringing, or societal pressures). The Truth has come to set us free (Jn 8:32). So rather than forming our opinions from available political categories and parroting partisan talking points, we must critically assess every concept and push back against “every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor 10:5). How? By adopting a hermeneutic of suspicion in regards to ideology (liberal or conservative) and a position of humility in regards to the doctrine of the Church. Let the Scriptures and Saints guide us towards wisdom, and not the talking heads and appointed pundits of modern media. Whenever we assume a political view too quickly, we should question ourselves. And whenever we react too emotionally, we should check ourselves.

    Here is a litmus test to determine to what extent you follow ideologues instead of Christ: if more than fifty percent of your worldview easily aligns with a single political faction, then your ideology outweighs your theology. “What accord has Christ with Belial” (2 Cor 6:15)? And what accord has earthly politics with the kingdom of heaven? Those who remain true to the ethics of Paradise will remain wary of facile solutions and imperious decrees. When viewing the world through the lens of faith, right and wrong become crystal clear but application remains careful and nuanced. This is because we are always dealing with persons, not types or categories of people. Our ways of interacting with the world should be as eclectic as the political ideas we subscribe to.

    Perhaps most importantly, a Christian must eschew utopianism. We may strive towards a more perfect union, but there will never be a perfect union. St. Maximus the Confessor wrote that the source of all human sin and brokenness is philavtia: selfishness. This weakness will always drive our political decisions no matter how much any of us pretends to be altruistic. Yet, we must have hope—hope that we can transcend the political fray, even in some small measure; hope that a faithful life will bring some goodness into the world; hope that the Church will remain a refuge for those weary of human folly. Just as our religion cannot be abstract, neither can our impact upon society. We simply have to learn how to render unto Caesar what is his.