On Politics and Religion

(by Protopresbyter John Meyendorff)

(Fr. John of blessed memory, was a Dean of St. Vladimir Orthodox Seminary, a noted author, Church historian and patristic scholar.  He also represented the Orthodox Church in America in many Pan-Orthodox and Ecumenical affairs around the world during his tenure at SVS).  

In a totalitarian state it is easy – and often unavoidable – for the Church to be totally apolitical.  This is so because totalitarianism consists precisely in depriving the people of the right to think and decide on political matters.  The issue of “politics” (under an oppressive regime) arises only in the case of a revolutionary confrontation with the powers-that-be, and, in that case, for Christians there are difficult choices to make between active and passive participation in the change.  Quite often, Christians fail to satisfy either side because of their abhorrence of violence, which is practically inevitable in revolutionary situations.

In a democratic system Christians cannot be totally apolitical, because they freely vote.  If they abstain from voting, claiming to be apolitical, they in fact support the majority, which is a political act in itself.  They also pay taxes, which support government policies, and therefore are inevitably performing political acts.  So, in fact, an apolitical attitude in democracy is impossible.

However, Christians have advantages over their non-religious co-citizens.  They know through faith of the true meaning of such words as “justice,” “peace,” “security.”  They know that none of these realities can be provided by political or military or economic means only.  Politicians are lying when they promise those things to the people in their programs or their slogans.  True justice, peace and true security are accessible only in the Kingdom of God.  This basic belief makes Christians somewhat immune to total political commitment to anyone. 

However, it would be a mistake to think that the relative, temporary and partial forms of justice and peace can be ignored by Christians because they expect to find them in the Kingdom of God.  The commandment of love given by the Lord to His disciples refers also to this world and not only to the next.  “If someone says, I love God, and hates his brother, he is a liar” (1 John 4:20).

There is actually no clear and simple formula which would give us infallible directions as to how this divine love revealed to Christians is to be realized in their attitude towards society at large.  Historically, Roman Catholics and Protestants have relied on political solutions and methods more readily than the Orthodox.  To secure its independence from the State, Roman Catholicism became a state in itself, while Protestants, including the original white settlers in America, often dreamt of creating here on earth a just and “perfect” society.  Some Western Christians today, disappointed in the failures of the past, tend to ally themselves blindly with secular reformers or revolutionaries, hoping to reach “justice” in this way.  Orthodox Christians generally understand well that such solutions are quite mistaken.  However, they too have been often accused of being so detached from the world in their spiritual and liturgical experience of the Kingdom of God that they left their own countries in the grip of tyrants and dictators.

Personally, I believe that the Orthodox historical record in this respect is really not worse than that of the Christian West.  But it is true that if we, the Orthodox – especially now that we live far away from traditional structures which took certain Christian values for granted – do not take seriously our mission to the world around us, we will be judged accordingly.  This mission consists, first of all, in preaching the Gospel of Christ in its fullness, but it also involves feeding the hungry, helping the sick, being concerned with the weak and the disinherited.  There is no reason in this respect to leave a monopoly to socialist atheism, which is a miserable social failure anyway, or to agree with straightforward, selfish capitalism, which leaves the weak to care for themselves.  The Orthodox Christian solution is neither another ideological system, nor a politicized Christianity, nor an apolitical indifference to the world.  It implies the support of what is right and the rejection of injustice, in alliance with no one.  This freedom from all secular commitments, coupled with real concern for the salvation of the world, is the Christian position.  It somewhat annoys those who wish to use the Church for their own goals, but its strength lies in its independence and in its commitment to the higher Truth.  Let us not depart from it, and let us make the right choices accordingly.


(From a March 1983 editorial in the Orthodox Church in America Newspaper.  Reprinted in “Witness to the World,” published by St. Vladimir Orthodox Seminary Press, Crestwood, New York, 1987, pp. 88-90).