Monday, 24 November 2008

Sarah Palin 3

So can’t Orthodox Monk go back to talking about something really spiritual without going on and on about Palin? We will get back to the more spiritual things but we feel obliged to conduct one last discussion of the spiritual aspects of the politics of the day. What concerns us is the intersection of the religious with the political or, put another way, the intersection of the commitment to a religious life (in the ordinary sense, not in the Roman Catholic sense of a life lived under monastic vows) with right-wing politics. In other words, is it necessarily true that to be a good Orthodox Christian and a good Orthodox monk, politically you have to be a right-wing fanatic?

As a starting point, what concerns us is the atmosphere that Sarah Palin was condoning and encouraging at her rallies—especially the Obama ‘pals around with terrorists’ line, of which we managed to see a video clip.

Some salient facts:

They say that Palin was going ‘rogue’—that she was not ‘following the orders of senior McCain staff’ in proceeding in this way. We think that this is not merely a self-serving distancing from Palin by the people around McCain but reflects the facts, although you never know.

Second, Palin professes herself to be Christian.

Third she has documented connections to the Alaska Independence Party both personally, according to the claims of Mr Chryson, the former leader of the AIP, and according to her documented appearances either personally or by video at AIP conventions; and through her husband who was a card-carrying member of the AIP. Mr. Chryson is quoted to the effect that he worked with Sarah Palin to pass an amendment to the Alaska State Constitution that makes it easier to raise private militias; he is quoted as saying he has enough weapons in his basement for a small army. The founder of the AIP was murdered during the course of a private transaction involving plastic explosives. He was buried in Canada to honour his wish not to be buried under the American flag. At the time of his murder, for which his assailant is doing time, he was scheduled to address the United Nations under the sponsorship of Iran. Topic? Independence for Alaska. The present leader of the AIP seems to think that the AIP’s founder was assassinated so that he couldn’t embarrass the United States by delivering his speech at the UN. It seems to us that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, Sarah.

Fourth, our take on the video we saw of Palin delivering the line was that she was quite consciously manipulating her crowd.

Fifth, it is reported that the Secret Service gave a report to Obama that there was a spike in threats against his life that coincided with the period of more intense rallies where the crowds were being whipped up and shouts were heard that might be viewed as hateful if not downright dangerous (‘terrorist’, ‘kill him’ etc.).

Sixth, Obama gave his victory speech in Grant Park in Chicago protected by bullet-proof glass.

Seventh, the Secret Service was on the surrounding skyscrapers shining lasers down on to the stage to define lines of fire.

Eighth, when President-Elect Obama’s motorcade goes from his gym to his home in Chicago, the Secret Service agents scan the surrounding skyscrapers with binoculars—evidently for snipers.

Is Christianity the religion of hate? No. The Gospel is clear that we should love our enemies and pray for them.

Palin dismissed criticism of her behaviour saying that it was just the way party politics is done in America. The best line we have read concerning Palin’s attitude was by George Packer, in the New Yorker magazine—that Palin is too shallow to understand the forces she is playing with and that she is merely enthralled by the semi-erotic adulation of the crowds.

We would add that her primary political motivation seems to be personal narcissism.

When seen as an expression of narcissism, her several hundred thousands of dollars spent on clothing—including silk underwear for her husband—makes sense. While she claims to have had nothing to do with the purchases and that the clothing was merely stage props to be returned to the Republican National Committee after the election, custom-made underwear was being delivered to her up to the time that she appeared on Saturday Night Live. Underwear doesn’t get custom made for you unless you actively cooperate with the lingerie maker. Silk underwear for hubby as a stage prop? Well it is true that the great director Fritz Lang once had all his actors who were playing aristocrats, even the extras, wear silk underwear under their costumes so that they would get into the proper aristocratic mood. However, surely the Republican National Committee would rather cultivate the Republican cloth coat mood.

After the election, Sarah Palin offered her services to the Obama administration to help out on energy policy and special needs kids. If it seems odd that someone who thinks that the President-elect ‘pals around with terrorists’ would want to go to work with him, consider the possibility that the motivation is narcissism—getting into the limelight and staying there.

President-elect Obama showed remarkable magnanimity in offering Secretary of State to Hillary Clinton. He quickly arranged a private, personal meeting with John McCain and then stated that he would work with him. We wonder if his generosity of spirit is great enough for him to offer something to Sarah.

Now what we are interested in is this: at what point does a personal religious commitment as a Christian become a worldly commitment to a political faction or party? At what point does religion leave the Holy Spirit behind and become politics?

What we have in mind is this. Most if not all of the persons at the Palin rallies were of the ‘Christian right’. Yet there was an atmosphere at the rallies of hatred for the political opponent. Is this hatred something given by the Holy Spirit so that it would be consistent with these people’s professed Christian vocation? Now we are not prophets to know when the Holy Spirit is acting but our understanding is that Scripture says ‘party spirit’ is a work of the flesh and not of the Spirit. In other words, although the persons present at the rallies thought of themselves as Christians—committed Christians—their behaviour in shouting hateful slogans against Obama and threatening Obama’s supporters with violence does not commend itself as evangelical. These persons were not being moved by the Holy Spirit. They were being moved by another spirit. Anger and hatred are associated with the demons. They are not associated, ever, with the Holy Spirit.

Let us clarify certain things. We, Orthodox Monk, have for many years believed, in accordance with the dogmas of the Orthodox Church, that the fœtus is a person from the moment of conception just as St Basil the Great writes concerning the Incarnation of Our Saviour; and that abortion is wrong, a serious sin. Moreover, we also accept the social teachings of the Fathers of the Church. We would therefore be defined as a social conservative on a variety ‘hot-button’ social issues. However, we have no interest in right-wing politics. The Fathers were remarkably liberal on issues such as distributive social justice (see St Basil writing on the hoarding by the wealthy of wheat during famines so as to exploit the poor; see him writing on forcing the poor to take oaths concerning the veracity of their tax declarations; read St John Chrysostom).

To give our readers some idea of our attitude, when we read right-wing blogs and right-wing comments on news stories and other right-wing material, we have the eerie feeling that we have entered a parallel universe that resembles the one we ourselves live in but that has things arranged completely differently. It is not a universe that attracts us. We think that some of the people writing could well do with psychiatric medication—unless we ourselves are utterly mad and they sane.

Lest it be thought we are not being even-handed, let us add the following: When we read left-wing material we are struck that the authors are generally quite better educated than writers on the right. Even when the writers on the right, even name writers, are formally well educated, we have the feeling that their education is only skin-deep: their relation to ideas is superficial, surface, lacking in real intellectual and spiritual depth. However, we are often struck by the hatred, anger and paranoia on the left.

Neither the left nor the right appeals to us.

To return to the issue at hand, we have the feeling that we are being manipulated both by rather naïve clerics who think that one must necessarily support any politician who is against abortion whatever his or her other positions might be; and by political operatives who use Christian social conservatism as a springboard to political power, perhaps to implement a political agenda that has nothing whatever to do with Christianity or Christian social conservatism.

It is not at all clear to us that the Gospel teaches monetarism, Reaganomics or deregulation to allow the free market to run amok. It is not even clear to us that the Gospel forbids these things. It seems to us that a devout Christian might still be a devout Christian and hold either pro or con views on a variety of such political issues—although there is a certain point at which Christian social justice does enter into the discussion.

Moreover, we are extremely uneasy with the shading of right-wing Christianity into what strikes us as eerily close to fascism.

In other words, although we believe that abortion is wrong, and that assisted suicide and euthanasia are wrong and so on and so forth, we have the feeling that we are being manipulated by persons who want to mobilize that sentiment to gain political power so as to accomplish an agenda that has ulterior purposes having nothing whatever to do with Christianity as we know it as a member of the Orthodox Church. Moreover, we get the feeling that there is a very grey area where persons who self-identify as conservative Christians are in fact being moved by a worldly spirit closer to fascism than to Christ.

There is a further problem. In the West today, Christianity is a minority religion.

In the United States, the matter is somewhat more complicated. Most people in the United States go to church. In the United States on Sunday there are traffic jams outside the churches. However, it is not entirely clear to us if all the people going to church in America actually understand the Gospel in a way that the Fathers of the Church would recognize.

Moreover, less than 25% of the American people are Roman Catholic and only 20% of these go to church at least once a week—for the Roman Catholic the essential indicator of a personal commitment to Catholicism. That means that less than 5% of the American people are committed Roman Catholics.[1] Of those, however, how many actually follow the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching on abortion? Surveys indicate that Roman Catholics receive abortions at the same rate as other members of society.

Moreover, every time abortion has been put to a public vote in the United States, the voters have voted to keep abortion on demand with very few if any restrictions. Hence, a politician in the United States, whatever his personal persuasion, has to take into account the fact that a majority of the American people, however religious they might consider themselves, want the right to abort an unwanted child. The politician has to take into account that the people want abortion on demand whatever his personal beliefs might be about its morality. He simply cannot ignore what the people want even if they are wrong.

Let us suppose that Orthodox Monk and all the conservative evangelical Christians and all the Roman Catholic hierarchy are correct and abortion is a serious evil. Still, we are in a minority position in a pluralist democracy.

Moreover, Obama has made an interesting observation concerning use of the courts to force a particular line on what are essentially political issues. He follows the school of constitutional law that sees the Supreme Court of the United States as essentially following public opinion, not defining or leading it. Hence, it is his position that using the courts is not the right way to attain, for example, redistribution of wealth. Similarly, one has to wonder about persons who want to pack the Supreme Court with conservative Justices who just might, perhaps, overturn Roe vs. Wade. This is not a democratic orientation given the fate of anti-abortion measures at the ballot box—even if one is to argue that Roe vs. Wade was never originally democratic either. Moreover, when you get a Justice who wants to overturn Roe vs. Wade, with that Justice you also get on other matters of serious import a number of very right-wing positions that are not intrinsically Christian and perhaps even contrary to Christian justice and charity. We do not feel that Americans should be blackmailed into supporting politicians and justices whatever their other positions just because those politicians and justices are against abortion.

What we are saying is that, yes abortion is wrong but the political situation concerning it is very complicated in a democracy like the United States. On the one hand, a majority of the people want abortion on demand. On the other hand, being against abortion is packaged with a number of right-wing political positions that are not intrinsically Christian and might even be anti-Christian. A true Christian would take these factors into account. He would not take the fanatical position that anyone opposed to criminalizing abortion was an arrant sinner, that under pain of going to hell every citizen had to vote for the anti-abortion candidate even if the candidate’s other political positions were wacky or dangerous, or even if the candidate were plainly unsuitable for high office.

This also applies to the hierarchy of the various Christian denominations, including the Roman Catholic Church. In the West, including the United States, the Roman Catholic Church clearly has a problem with its own internal evangelization. Nominal Roman Catholics just aren’t going to church; they just aren’t accepting the Roman Catholic Church’s doctrines concerning the matters under discussion. The Roman Catholic hierarchy simply cannot ignore these facts. If it wishes to change society to bring it more into line with Christian morality as understood by the Roman Catholic Church, it is going to have to think very hard about the Roman Catholic Church’s actual position in society. It cannot merely permit a priest to say that anyone who voted for Obama should stop receiving communion until he or she does penance because Obama is pro-choice. The Roman Catholic Church runs the risk of rendering itself irrelevant even to its nominal adherents with such naïveté. People will simply stop going to the Roman Catholic Church and go elsewhere.

This is also true, although to a lesser extent, of the Orthodox Church.

There has to be a much deeper, spiritual approach to the matter, one that recognizes that persons of good will might have opinions opposed to ours. There has to be an attitude of true Christian love for one’s neighbour that recognizes that the issues are not cut and dried, not the natural campaign material of right-wing demagogues. There has to be an orientation that recognizes that society has to be evangelized in a loving, gentle way so that it comes to understand in love that the fœtus is a person from conception. Once this is achieved, then society itself will get the politicians and the judges to do its will. Moreover, an honest approach to educating society on the matter of abortion would also take into account elementary matters of Christian social justice so that the people understand that right-wing fanatics who clothe themselves in the garb of Christian anti-abortion righteousness might in fact be promoting values that are otherwise quite non-Christian or even contrary to the teachings of the Gospel.

Today the opponents of abortion are not always distinguished by the depth of their Christian spiritual life and are sometimes distinguished by their fanaticism, anger, hatred and violence. This is not the way to evangelize society. This is an indication that something is quite amiss in the anti-abortion movement.

We would like to return to the issue of right-wing Christianity and far right politics. As we pointed out, there seems to be a worldly partisan spirit among some of these people, a spirit that erupts into hatred, an emotion not associated with the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Part of the problem is that these people are often divorced from the Mysteries of the Orthodox Church, where the Body and Blood of Christ, according to Christ’s word, makes Christ to abide in the believer and the believer in Christ—and often in a way that is consciously evident to the believer who receives the Mysteries worthily.

We are told, further, that the Christian right places more emphasis on the Old Testament than the New (in terms of actual values if not formal belief structure), something that to us shows the Christian right’s roots in New England Puritanism, itself descended from Calvinism. One characteristic of such a form of Christianity is a harsh sense of retributive justice, especially for deviant members of the group. Another is its emphasis on salvation by personal election and corresponding de-emphasis on the necessity for salvation of personal purification from the passions (i.e. repentance, or conversion of the interior man to put off the old man and put on the new). In such a case it is quite easy for the faith to become reified, so that the faith, to use Martin Buber’s terminology, becomes an I-it rather than an I-Thou relationship.

Let us explain what we mean. A woman goes into an Orthodox Church. There is an icon on the icon stand from Mt Athos. One of the famous miracle-working icons of Athos. The woman piously approaches the icon to venerate it invoking the prayers and protection of the saint depicted on the icon. This is an I-thou relationship.

Someone else comes in who is a Professor of Art History. He takes some pictures of the icon on the sly (photographs are banned); he studies the iconographer’s technique and assesses the degree of movement in the composition, a key to distinguishing the Macedonian School of iconography from the Cretan School. He considers whether the icon needs cleaning and restoration work, whether the wood needs preservatives to protect it from insects. He could care less about praying. He has his career to consider. This is an I-it relationship.

Another fellow comes in. He’s an investor. He’s wondering whether investing in icons is a good hedge against the current economic crisis or whether he’s just going to lose his shirt. He discusses with the Professor of Art History the value of the icon on the market, assuming that the Athonites could be persuaded to sell it. The investor doesn’t see God; he sees dollar signs in front of his eyes. This is an I-it relationship.

Someone else comes in. She starts shrieking that venerating icons is idolatry and that everybody has to destroy all their icons. She’s obviously disturbed. The pious Orthodox woman, the Professor and the investor all restrain her from destroying the priceless icon from Mt Athos. Outside, right-wing evangelicals, some of them former members of the very same Orthodox Church, picket and shout loudly and hatefully that all icons are idolatry and must be destroyed. This is an I-it relationship that is merging into a fanatical political movement.

In the context of the Calvinist Christian right it is quite easy for a personal faith commitment to turn into a commitment to a political ideology. That is, from being a loving commitment to the person of Jesus Christ, and through Christ a union with the Father by the insufflation of the Holy Spirit received in the Mysteries of the Orthodox Church, the Christian commitment becomes an ideology, a matter of social solidarity with like-minded members of the sub-group. There is no longer a shared aspiration for union with God in Jesus Christ and for the expression of charity to all, but rather a cementing of a sense of personal identity through membership in a minority social group that wishes to impose its values on the larger society, perhaps so as to validate the group members’ sense of identity. The Holy Spirit leaves to be replaced by a spirit of fanaticism. In the final stage, the faith becomes a political ideology. At that point, the person’s orientation is toward social issues that only tangentially have anything to do with Christianity. This is the intersection of religion with far-right politics.

A key point is that at which the doctrines of dominionism take hold. These are the doctrines that the United States was founded as an evangelical Christian country and that it is the will of God for evangelical Christians to take political power in the United States, perhaps by subterfuge, so to impose evangelical Christian values on the United States, perhaps against the will of the majority. However, as we have pointed out, these supposedly Christian values contain not only the anti-abortion stance that we have been discussing but also far-right political stances such as a completely free-market economy and so on, issues where it is not at all clear that the dominionist is following the Gospel of Christ. In other words, the dominionist agenda is not purely Christian; it is an alloy of Gospel values as seen through a Calvinist prism that emphasizes the Old Testament; and of far-right political positions independent of the Gospel.

It is at this point that we think Sarah Palin’s views need to be clarified.

To continue, add to these factors anger and hatred, an attraction for guns, a taste for private far-right militias and a sense of entitlement and dispossession—and you have trouble. It is here that the car can easily swerve off the road of acceptable discourse and land in the ditch of fascist action.

At this point it is fruitless to expect the fruits of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit has long since left, leaving the members of the group to whatever spirit or demon wants to take them on.

Moreover, as we have pointed out, mixed up with all of this is an interpretation of the Revelation to John and of Christ’s words in Gospel and of Paul’s words in the Epistles that posits the quite imminent return of Christ and the unfolding in very short order of an End-Times scenario that involves the physical rapture of the evangelical believers into Heaven followed by a nuclear war among those left behind. We doubt that the interpretation of Scripture being purveyed is correct and we would be very worried if anyone holding such views were to be put into a position where he or she could launch a nuclear war. Moreover, these eschatological views seem to reflect a quite reified (I-it) relationship with the Christian faith, so that these views can very easily be converted into a political ideology divorced from a true relationship of faith with God through Jesus Christ that expresses itself in love for neighbour.

Clearly, people holding such views are exercising very strong pressure, in cooperation with citizens of the State of Israel, to set the direction of American foreign policy. For the Israelis, this is something of a Faustian bargain, as the Israelis themselves are well aware, since the ideology involves as part of the unfolding of the End-Times the conversion of most Jews to evangelical Christianity followed by the destruction of the remaining Jews in the subsequent End-Times war. Riding the tiger is a dangerous sport. The tiger might turn and devour you. For the rest of the world, if these people’s interpretation of Scripture is wrong their ideology is extremely dangerous.

What we see is a sort of Christianity that is not centred on the Gospel as a personal engagement with God together with personal purification from the passions as understood by the Fathers of the Orthodox Church but a Christianity that is mixed up with worldly values and fuelled by anger and hatred—we might even say angry and arrogant self-righteousness—together with a concern for the preservation of group or class power and privilege.

In the case of the End-Times, even though the believer is ostensibly concerned with a basic aspect of the Gospel—and the End-Times is a basic aspect of the Gospel—the orientation has shifted from a personal engagement with God and virtue to the advancement of a politicized agenda.

At this point the believer has ceased to be a Christian in any sense that a member of the Orthodox Church steeped in Orthodox Tradition would understand and has become a member of a far-right political grouping that makes use of Christian rhetoric.

This phenomenon of the transformation of religious faith into fanatical right-wing political commitment has been observed in a number of countries with an Orthodox presence—we Orthodox are not immune from this disease—and in those countries it has sometimes led to very serious crimes being committed against people who are not members of the group.

We think that Sarah Palin’s base is perilously close to such a condition, although we are certainly not aware of any crimes being planned by her, by any of her supporters or by any of her associates.

It is at this point that the devout Christian has to speak up and say: ‘These people are not speaking for me.’

These people are not speaking for me.

–Orthodox Monk

[1] Consider these data taken from

FACTBOX: America's Roman Catholic population

Thu Apr 10, 2008 7:59am EDT

(Reuters) - …

- According to a recent nationwide survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 23.9 percent of the adult U.S. population identifies itself as Catholic. This tallies with estimates by the U.S. Catholic Church itself.

- Since the early 1970s the percentage of the population counting itself as Catholic has remained stable at around 25 percent. But according to Pew, no other major faith has experienced greater net losses with 31.4 percent of U.S. adults saying they were raised Catholic and about one in 10 describing themselves as former Catholics.

- One indicator of the resiliency of Catholicism in any country is the Mass attendance rate among the flock. According to a 2007 survey by Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, about one fifth of U.S. Catholics attend Mass at least once a week while 11 percent go almost every week.

(Sources: Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life; United States Conference of Catholic Bishops; Reuters; Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate)


  1. Another interesting post. I have an idea for another post, perhaps only indirectly related, but no less relevant. The post I have in mind would tackle the topic of jus ad bellum (aka Just War theory). A few questions which might be worth answering are:
    1) Is there such thing as Just War theory in Orthodoxy? I.e., do the Orthodox historically define preconditions wherein war may be engaged without commission of evil?
    2) Related to #1, is there such a thing as "necessary evil", in Orthodoxy? I.e., is there a scenario where going to war will be evil, but not going to war is also evil, but the former is adjudged a lesser, but necessary evil?

  2. Wow. Lot's of big words and legal stipulations in the guise of being a thoughtful orthodox Christian. You should have been a lawyer.
    All of your 'reasons' for avoiding Palin and the right seem to me to be intellectual gymnastics for not having the capacity to simply put your faithlessness down at the feet of an obvious evil: abortion.
    You are hedging your bet with pages of suppositions into the evils of the political right when the left has as many. What is certain in all of this is that Obama is for abortion, which is certainly murder of the most helpless and Palin is against such an obvious human violation.
    She and hers are clearly not as elequent or sexy as your hero but then going upstream has never been popular.
    All the gymnastics in the world and however many 'head's out here you fool won't change the fact that you voted for the murder of innocent children. Could it be you are making an idol out of your reasonings and suppositions?

  3. I know this an old post but I just recently found your blog. I must say that I agree completely with your assessment of the unnatural marriage of Christian values and the radical right wing. I also agree with your description of the Christian right as a different sort of Christianity with Calvinist (and uniquely American) ancestry. It is remarkable that an issue that is very seldom legislated (abortion) is the primary voting criteria for so many. The right wing has made a concerted effort to gain Evangelical votes in the past few decades by packaging abortion with as part of the right wing agenda (although is has low priority). This marriage of "social conservatism" with an entire political ideology has achieved a new Christian right where the free market, a taste for war, and a lack of care for the poor are just as central to their faith as abortion or even the divinity of Christ. I seem to be droning on but it was a wonderful and insightful post. . . thank you.