Politics is rarely beautiful.
No matter how idealistic, no matter how pure the motives, no matter how honorable the cause, the political process truly is, in the words of Otto von Bismarck, the art of the possible. To accomplish anything requires a great deal of maneuvering: balancing political rivalries and pressures, varying personalities and ideologies, all with some semblance of answering the age old question, “How ought we to govern ourselves?”
It’s presumed, so often, that the church has a very different answer to that question than the ideals and values of our government. Indeed, America has an uneasy relationship with matters of church and state. And Christianity certainly has a strong feeling toward the real power of civil authority as compared to the ultimate divine authority of God.
All this is nothing new — religious belief and values inform political convictions. We see where these collide in modern American society, with issues of the limits of universal healthcare, abortion on demand, care for the poor, illegal immigration, and even questions of the tax-exempt status of churches and other houses of worship. We have witnessed a paradigm shift, from America’s freedom of religion to a seemingly more constrictive “freedom of worship,” as has become the norm in many recent speeches. There clearly seems to be a frightening movement suggesting that we are free to believe and even worship as we please, so long as those beliefs do not actually affect the way we live our lives.
Belief is tolerated so long as it’s superficial. Conviction, the action of faith and its application in our real lives — aside from Sunday morning — is unwanted, especially when it flies in the face of political ideologies. What a sad state of affairs! What a departure from the freedom upon which our nation was founded!
And yet, despite this animosity or, perhaps because of it, in every service of the Orthodox Church we offer prayers for our civil rulers.
The Orthodox Church has seen political rulers of every stripe: emperors and princes, tsars and dictators, presidents and premiers. Some have been truly wise and inspired leaders, gracious, benevolent, and peaceful. Others have openly persecuted the church and worked for her total destruction. Some leaders are counted among the ranks of saints; others are labeled as heretics.
We hold all of this in balance. Good and bad; champions of the faith and persecutors of the church. We seek the harmony of seemingly contradictory scripture passages.
On one hand, St. Paul tells us in Romans 13:1, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” Yet the psalms tell us to “put not our trust in princes, in sons of men, in whom there is no salvation” (Psalm 146:3).
Our Lord, when questioned about civil versus divine authority, instructed his disciples to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). While there is a distinction in what belongs to each, it does not mean that we compartmentalize our faith from public life. God is Lord of all. Faith is an inseparable part of who we are.
And so, when we come together to worship, we remember our civil leaders in prayer.
No matter how flawed our political system is, no matter how much we agree or disagree with our elected officials, the church seeks to sanctify all of creation, including our society and government, lifting them up in prayer and asking that the Holy Spirit would grant wisdom.
This, perhaps, is the most patriotic and noble task that we have been given.