Orthodoxy and Democracy: A Response to Fr. Stephen Freeman

I get the distinct impression that many Orthodox Christians think they are supposed to have an emperor. This is only a feeling. It is hard to quantify. I get it when Facebook friends seem to do everything they can to put a halo on Putin, I overhear it in conversations at coffee hour, and sometimes I see it in a blog’s subtext, like this post Fr. Stephen Freeman wrote back in December.

Let me be clear that this is not an attack of Fr. Freeman. Reasonable people can disagree, and Fr. Stephen Freeman has always struck me as a reasonable man. I generally like everything I have seen him write. He also really likes Dostoevsky, which makes me automatically respect him.

The Two-Headed Eagle (via Orthodox Wiki)
The Two-Headed Eagle (via Orthodox Wiki)

You need to read the entire post, but if you insist on being lazy are busy, the following quotation captures the gist of it.

The classical world of Orthodox Christianity is profoundly undemocratic. It holds that the universe and everything that exists is hierarchical. This teaching is not an artifact of an older patriarchy (a typical democratic critique), but an essential part of the Christian gospel. For if Jesus is Lord, then the universe has a Lord. Democratic spirituality distrusts all hierarchy – anything that challenges the myth of equality is experienced as a threat. “Jesus never said anything about…”

To be fair, Fr. Freeman states clearly that this is not a political post. “I am, however, deeply interested in the spiritual disease that accompanies the interiorizing of the democratic project.” In other words, he is talking about the way that Christians have internalized democracy. The idea is that we tend to be popes unto themselves. We buck authority, making it difficult to foster humility, which is essential for our salvation. Fr. Freeman continues:

For with no mediating tradition, the modern believer is subject only to his own whim. The effect is to have no Lord but the God of his own imagination. Even his appeal to Scripture is without effect – for it is his own interpretation that has mastery over the word of God. If we will have no hierarchy, we will not have Christ as Lord. We cannot invent our own model of the universe and demand that God conform.

But there are a few of holes in Fr. Freeman’s reasoning that make me wonder if there is not an imperialistic subtext at work in his spiritual analysis.

For one, Fr. Freeman links the spirit of democracy to Protestantism, but this makes little sense to me. The Reformation did not start in 1776. It had nothing to do with democracy. Luther’s own political theology was highly imperialistic. In fact, the major reason his reform movement worked, and his predecessors’ did not, is that local princes saw it as a way to exert greater control over the lives of their subjects.

Fr. Freeman also states that, “This teaching [about hierarchy] is not an artifact of an older patriarchy (a typical democratic critique), but an essential part of the Christian gospel.” There is a lot going on in this statement. Where do I begin? How about I point out that linking hierarchy to patriarchy is a feminist criticism, but not a democratic one? It is a straw man. I would argue that the biblical presumption of hierarchy has more to do with imperialistic governance than oppression of women. The assertion that hierarchy is “an essential part of the Christian gospel” is just that: an assertion. It is the logical equivalent of saying, “Because!” What rationale he does give, the confession that, “Jesus is Lord,” is not essentially hierarchical. This title presumes hierarchy, but it presumes hierarchy because of the hierarchical context. So Fr. Freeman is also begging the question (which tends to go hand-in-hand with an argument by assertion).  I would argue that the confession, “Jesus is Lord,” is more a statement about the divinity of Jesus (based on the Septuagint rendering of the Hebrew name for God).

Creation of the World (via Wikimedia Commons)
Creation of the World (via Wikimedia Commons)

Of course, God does rule the universe, but what is the nature of that rule? “[H]e who is greatest among you shall be your servant,” (Matt 23:11). It is all well and good if we want to talk about the importance of hierarchy as long as we remember to talk about the way that Jesus Christ turns hierarchy on its head. Christian hierarchy values “the least of these.” It is a hierarchy of service wherein authority does not mean power but obligation to care for, and protect, those “beneath” you.

Fr. Freeman is right that discipleship requires a degree of submission. We have to trust that our master knows what he or she is doing because we are only a novice. I also think he is right that in our culture, we tend to want to buck authority. But it makes more sense to me to link this with consumer culture than democracy. When we are used to instant gratification and promises of quick fixes, it can be easy to treat churches like brands and doctrines like accessories. Faith becomes a matter of self-expression.

I wonder if Fr. Stephen Freeman is not misdiagnosing our contemporary spiritual condition because he is idolizing and idealized past. I think the problem with our world today is not that we have too much democracy. It is that we have too little of it. Fr. Freeman may have been focusing on a spiritual issue, but there is definitely a political subtext to it. It implies that the more spiritual one is, the more one fancies an emperor. This is dangerous. Just ask Ukraine.

 

11 thoughts on “Orthodoxy and Democracy: A Response to Fr. Stephen Freeman”

  1. America is a Republic. Democracy is not mentioned in the Pledge of Allegiance, the Declaration of Independence nor the constitution. Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich once wrote that Democracy was born in Greece and that's where it died. Americans write and speak about democracy in the same way Fr. Freeman (and the Orthodox in general) write about monarchy.

    In the gospel there is a very good example of democracy: when the people were asked to vote who to crucify – Jesus or Barabbas.

  2. we project, and the rich and powerful are only too ready to welcome and to justify our projections. There will always be leaders, but I see democracy as the secular form (and it *must* be secular!) of the (re)emergence, finally, of 'sobornicity' into social affairs. Evdokimov thought that responsibility for civil society was a primary function of the universal priesthood of the laity. In this desire for a king, it is still a case of, "It is not you whom they have rejected; it is me" (1Sm 8.7). But right before God said that, he said, "Listen to the voice of the people."

    1. There is really no equivalent between democracy and sobornicity (consensus). The first presupposes conflict with the majority winning and the minority losing. The latter presupposes enforced compromise with all parties winning some things and losing others. The latter is far more stable, but somewhat harder to implement as it is more time intensive and works best with smaller groups. Democracy is inherently unstable and tends to lead to corruption and tyranny as people tend to vote their own interests. The United States has proved exceptionally stable, not because of democracy, but because of its republican institutions that put harsh limits on the amount of change that democracy could effect. Even that couldn’t stop the civil war. Bottom line, it aint a good idea to idolize any form of human government.

  3. The biggest lesson we have to learn, not only in Orthodoxy but in culture, worldwide, is the recognition and withdrawal of our idealizing projections. We mistakenly think of ourselves as well beyond the phenomenon of participation mystique. This is currently our sticking point. The old way dies hard and painfully.

  4. BTW – you see exactly the same principles in early Chinese emperors representing the will of heaven. I think the principle exists outside of its obvious manipulative and political sphere.

  5. There is what can be called "the monarchical principle" in Orthodoxy – even once you have weeded out all of the whacko fringe elements. But to understand that principle in its fullness, you have to understand the negative side that goes with it. It starts with God in the Old Testament warning Israel what will happen if they take a king (instead of the government of judges prescribed). After that, there is an idea of symphony, but with it goes the idea that if you have a bad king, it is a judgement/mercy of God to hold you back from evil in some way. What was radical about the French revolution isn't that they killed a despot. It was that he was only a despot, and not a symphonic restraint of any kind. It is the expectation of the working out of providence in whatever ruler you have that creates the idea of "divine right", which later became a very distorted idea, removed from its context, so naturally, that idea died with dethroned despots.

    So if they want to think of Putin as a monarch, they should probably see him as a sign that they need to repent of their sins, until God sends someone better!

  6. "I get the distinct impression that many Orthodox Christians think they are supposed to have an emperor. This is only a feeling."

    Well, maybe a feeling for you, but it's actually been the express opinion of quite a few people i've met, including priests. Interestingly, many of them came from an evangelical-fundamentalist background. I view it as an a projection of a penchant for authoritarianism, which seems to have been a good part of their motive for becoming Orthodox in the first place. They wanted an absolute father-master; Protestantism failed them in one way or another, but in Orthodoxy they easily find icons of several.

    Lacan has some interesting observations about this sort of thing.

  7. "I get the distinct impression that many Orthodox Christians think they are supposed to have an emperor. This is only a feeling."

    Well, maybe a feeling for you, but it's actually been the express opinion of quite a few people i've met, including priests. Interestingly, many of them came from an evangelical-fundamentalist background. I view it as an a projection of a penchant for authoritarianism, which seems to have been a good part of their motive for becoming Orthodox in the first place. They wanted an absolute father-master; Protestantism failed them in one way or another, but in Orthodoxy they easily find icons of several.

    Lacan has some interesting observations about this sort of thing.

  8. Really great post. It's interesting to see Orthodox using the old Catholic (and Weberian) canard (most recently incarnated in Brad Gregory) that Protestantism is responsible for modernity and its travails.

  9. Interesting article. However , I direct your attention to 'How the Scots Created the Modern World' by Herman, in which he make a direct correlation from Scottish Presbyterianism in the 17th century and the founding of American style representative democracy. It is a powerful book and point that I had never considered before. I think Freeman has some

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