“Gospel values do not prescribe how to shape our governments. They tell us how to live.”
As committed Orthodox Christians, the decisions we make about our lives and our society are supposed to be “Gospel-based.” What does that mean in general, and what does it mean specifically with regard to our politics?
Gospel values are Christ-values, and we are given clear indications as to what these are. The main indicator is Who Christ is and what He does for us: the eternal Son of God became human. He lived among us as a man and suffered the full consequences of fallen human society, all the way up to His death—which became a path to our eternal life. Our values ought to be based on that all-giving, self-emptying love demonstrated by God Himself, so that we may have life in Him.
Our Lord tells us about Christ-values plainly, in chapters 5-7 of Saint Matthew’s Gospel. Those are the commandments that spell out the love of God and neighbor for all its implications as we live our lives. Love, to the end. Cultivate and preserve life. Check your anger and lust. And if we want to see further how these principles are to be lived out, we can look towards Matthew 25:31-46.
How would these principles be spelled out when it comes to American political parties? Such questions are so divisive in our day. That’s partly because we tend to get entirely different versions of the news, depending on our social media feeds and the channels we choose to watch. But it’s also because there are genuinely different ways to strive towards our common goals as Christians.
Let’s name two of those common goals: the redressing of poverty and the reduction (ideally to zero) of abortions. Depending on our political leanings—which depend on a lot of factors—we could address these in different ways.
So, do we redress poverty and care for the poor primarily through individual charitable giving and work—or primarily through tax-funded, government administered programs? The Gospel obviously couldn’t have envisaged the federal systems in place in the United States today — which means that we have to apply the principles ourselves, with thought and care. Furthermore, we have to respect that we won’t always come to the same answers in that prayerful reflection.
Do we reduce abortions by making them illegal right now—or by persuading people why abortion is such a tragic act, so that no one would even consider it? Or—to come full-circle—do we reduce abortions by addressing poverty and low education rates, which statistically account for what is by far the highest number of abortions? This is a much more controversial topic, but here too, the Gospel does not provide a totally clear-cut answer to that question, and as we’ve seen, Orthodox Christians—although united in the desire to eradicate abortion—are not in agreement as to the exact means for doing so.
In short, “Gospel values” do not prescribe for us how to shape our governments. They tell us how to live. This leaves us with the responsibility to make our political decisions on the basis of our best judgment as to which actions will yield the most life-giving results. Many Orthodox Democrats, and many Orthodox Republicans, feel with great conviction that their choice is the truly Christian one. In our day especially, we need to discuss these things with one another respectfully, and with the presumption that the other “side” is at least as wise and prayerful as we are in their reasoning. But we might also recall that, however passionate we are about our preferred way of arriving at a God-pleasing life and even a God-pleasing society, we are agreed on what it is we are striving for, what it is that God sent His Son to give us. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). We recall too that His Son gives us that life through His example of self-emptying (Matthew 16:24 and parallels).
Neither of the two main political parties in America has shown us a perfect path towards that abundant and self-giving life. But the more that we live and pray together, and affirm together the Gospel of the One Lord Jesus Christ, the more we can find common cause as Orthodox Christians.
Dr. Peter Bouteneff is the Director of the Master of Arts Program and Professor of Systematic Theology at Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, Yonkers, NY.