Orthodox America


  Democracy or Theocracy?


Surely it is a great blessing to live in a democratic society. We are free to choose our own livelihood, our own domicile, our own recreations and hobbies, and we can read whatever books we wish, We can vote freely on those issues and for those candidates that reflect our own values. We have the right to worship according to the dictates of our conscience. These and other benefits readily come to mind. What is less obvious, and less positive, is the impact that living in a democratic society -- a society religiously committed to "equality," "freedom," and "majority rule" -- has on our lives as Orthodox Christians.

       The "Great Experiment" -- America's adoption of a democratic form of government --worked successfully insofar as it was informed by Christian principles. However, with the erosion of these principles, there is no longer any pretense to be guided by the precedents of tradition and history, or even natural law and common sense. Everything is done "democratically," which today means that everything is decided by fashion, popularity, and opinion polls, by the journalism media and the entertainment industry, and by the whim of the mob. Majority rule. Everything else yields to this brutish principle, and we end up with a society in which virtually everything and anything is allowed, no matter how coarse, vain, vulgar or immoral.

       This kind of democratic mindset is wreaking similar havoc in many western Christian Churches. In these denominations, all kinds of controversial ideas are proposed--marriage between homosexuals, women clergy, pre-marital sex, etc.--and are then voted upon at church conferences and conventions where the "majority rules/' This mindset has made it possible to turn mainline historic Christian values inside out and upside down, to literally eviscerate the traditional family of its meaning and function, and to encourage flagrant disobedience of legitimate authority, both in the state and in the Church. The defiant attitude of so many American Roman Catholics towards the Vatican, their central authority, is another example of how an insistence on democratic principles can adversely impact church life.

     Living in the United States, a country that is relatively peaceful and prosperous, we are accustomed to think of democracy as a good and desired form of government. It is perhaps natural, therefore, that we should expect our churches and parishes to be governed according to the same principles. Some Orthodox parishes are, in fact, democratically governed. This is, however, very wrong, for, at its heart, democracy is opposed to hierarchy and obedience, and it is hierarchy, not democracy, that is the God-revealed system by which the Holy Church is to be governed

      What is even more fundamental, living in a democracy can adversely affect our spiritual lives. It fosters certain unchristian attitudes which we must identify and vigilantly guard against--in our children and in ourselves.

      Since about 1800 in the West, society has been taught to believe that children are not born with a fallen human nature. Rather, they are born in a state of innocence, and they only acquire a fallen human nature as time goes by, through association with adults. Thus, in true democratic fashion, our children and youth must, we are told, be allowed to control their own lives as early and completely as possible. Thus, in many homes, children are permitted to set their own daily schedule, to eat only what they like, to dress as they please, to watch television and listen to music without guidance or censorship. We are also told, in our egalitarian society, that children should be treated as equals with adults. Many children today are in the habit of calling adults by their first names (in some homes they are even permitted to call their parents by their first names!). And because all children learn respect for God by first respecting their parents (and, in particular by being obedient to their fathers), we now see a whole generation of children who have no healthy and appropriate fear of God or fear of the consequences of sin. Nor do they have any sense of hierarchy. Children raised in such a permissive atmosphere, when they are brought to church, have no sense of reverence or respect for the house of God. They did not learn manners and politeness at home, so they have no understanding of the noble and courtly etiquette of church and Divine services. Accustomed to doing as they please, they refuse to be still or quiet, and it is a constant battle for parents to control them (and a temptation to others when the parents do not even try). As teenagers -- a difficult age in the best of circumstances -- these children tend to develop yet more serious problems: refusing to attend church or to keep the fasts, having little or no respect for the authority of the priest, disregarding the moral authority of the Church (this is, after all, a "free society"), and sometimes, tragically, falling away from the Church altogether.

      As adults, are we not also affected by the spirit of democracy? We, too, tend to have a weak sense of hierarchy. We have no monarch, our president is as often held up for ridicule as for respect, we are all (theoretically) "equal," and therefore we do not have an innate sense of how to act in the presence of the King of kings, of what it means to be a "slave" of God. We accept the authority of the Church only insofar as it does not seriously impinge on our will, our desires (our pursuit of "happiness'); using "liberty for license,'' we choose those traditions we wish to uphold and dispense with those we consider "unreasonable" or "unnecessary"; we do not give due honor to our hierarchs and priests; we have difficulty in honor preferring one another (Rom. 12:10), and in acknowledging ourselves to be chief among sinners.

      There are other contributing factors, of course: our fallen human nature carries its own seeds of rebellion against the law of God. Nor do we suggest campaigning for a monarchy. It is not a democratic government but a democratic "attitude" we must beware. Already it has seriously weakened the fabric of authentic Orthodox life here in America. We must recognize it and make a conscious and concerted effort to overcome its corrupting influence -- in our parishes, in our homes, and in our personal spiritual lives.

      Let us not fear to contradict the mob-rule psychology of our culture; rather, in our homes and parishes, let us emphasize the special values of hierarchy, theocracy (government by the law of God), and obedience. We can cultivate true piety, reverence and devotion only by submitting ourselves -not to "majority rule," but to the All-Holy Trinity -- Father, Son and Holy Spirit, God. This is the authority that counts.

-- Priest Alexey Young


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