Patriotism: What Role Does It Play for Orthodox Christians and Their Faith?

We’re all for it! Patriotism is a good thing: loving, treasuring one’s homeland and people, a sense of belonging, our own way of doing things, our particular gifts from God.
Americans have much to be patriotic about. (We’re certainly not alone in this; think “Canada” again, for another example.) We have much for which we should be grateful to God, things we easily take for granted:
Political stability for almost 250 years. Despite huge changes in society, threatening events including a civil war, some major missteps and failings and also the occasional bizarre politician, the system still stands. America’s founding fathers were brilliant visionaries in this regard. Imagine anyone today fashioning a form of
representative government that would still be around in the year 2245.
Our freedoms – elected government, freedom of worship, of speech, assembly, the press. We have often been slow to apply these God-given rights, as the founders described them, to women and minorities. It’s still a struggle, and these freedoms are not infrequently under attack, but we’ve made progress.
Peace. In parts of the world there is little peace for anybody. Here, despite occasional ethnic strife brought on by rabble-rousers, or because we have mistreated minorities, people of many sorts generally get along together. Our Milwaukee Orthodox Churchwomen’s Association, which includes Greeks, has held luncheons at a Turkish restaurant! America’s capacity to provide a refuge for people from all over the world (may we continue to do so) and incorporate them into our society – perhaps some of you who are reading this blog. In The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann he wrote how he and his wife Juliana came to America as immigrants, she not speaking a word of English, and 25 years later she was made head of one of New York’s most prestigious schools for girls. He wrote, “The American dream is still alive!”
Orthodoxy and the Nation
Orthodoxy has always formed a close bond with society and culture so that the faith is connected with life, not just with Sunday morning. Actually the modern nation state, with its sharply defined boundaries, is a relatively new development. Things were more flexible in ancient times. But Orthodoxy has associated itself with modern nations too. That’s why we have the national Bulgarian Orthodox Church, the Romanian Orthodox Church and so on.
However, patriotism can also be dangerous. Father Schmemann wrote in his Journal that one of the worst things that ever happened to Orthodoxy was its identification with modern nations, so that people cannot distinguish between the two – like those who think that to be really Orthodox you’ve got to be Greek or Russian or whatever, or like some evangelicals who can’t seem to separate their Christianity from Americanism (of a particular type). When my wife and I were first looking at Orthodoxy 30 years ago a Ukrainian Orthodox woman, a good friend (memory eternal, Helen+), asked me, “Why do you want to be Orthodox? You’re not Ukrainian.” Someone I know was interested in Orthodoxy and visited a Greek church, where the priest told him, “I’m glad you visited. Now go back to your own church where you belong.”
This attitude is called Phyletism (“tribalism”): the odd notion that Orthodoxy is limited to a particular tribe or culture or nation. It was condemned at a pan-Orthodox council in Constantinople in 1872. The great danger of Phyletism is that it limits Orthodox people to one narrow national way of looking things. Orthodoxy is multi-cultural: for all the world, all peoples. Orthodoxy is super-cultural: wider, broader, deeper, higher, wiser than any one nation or culture.
Our Lord Jesus made this clear regarding Jewish tribalism. How often he made foreigners the heroes: the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan leper who alone returned to give thanks, the Roman centurion of whom he said. “I tell you many will come from east and west and sit down with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in kingdom of heaven, but the sons of Kingdom [the Jews, or us if we are unfaithful] will be cast out into the darkness”. John the Baptist warned,“If God needs sons of Abraham, he can raise them up out of these stones.” And so it is if God needs Americans… or if he needs Orthodox.
Orthodoxy in America
American Orthodox are not much tempted by Phyletism. This is not an Orthodox country. Nor, despite what we read, did the United States have a Christian foundation in the classical sense of that word. At the time of the American revolution only about 30% of Americans had any formal religious affiliation. The conversion of America to “believing” Christianity began in the 18th century with the evangelical Great Awakening and continued in the 19th century with the arrival of many Roman Catholic immigrants. However, among well-educated Protestants of the 18th century the predominant theology was deism, the belief that God like a clockmaker created the universe, then largely left it running on its own. No miracles, please.
I think many of America’s founding fathers were affected by deism: they often gave God an impersonal deist title, “Providence”. But they weren’t consistent about it: they also spoke of his involvement in human affairs. Also, very much in the spirit of of the times, few of them believed in the divinity of Christ. Thomas Jefferson revised the New Testament leaving out all miracles. George Washington, an Anglican vestryman, never received Holy Communion. John Adamswas  a Unitarian. They believed in the social value of religion in general but established no particular religion. I hate to tell you this, but in today’s terms many of America’s founding fathers were religious liberals. I don’t mean to disparage them or their work. Goodness, wisdom, intelligence and political brilliance are not limited to Orthodox Christians. 
As Orthodox Christians how should we relate to a non-Orthodox America? We should incorporate what is good here, which is a whole lot. The Orthodox Church has always moved into new lands and has taken what is good in the culture and brought it into the Church. Unlike Protestant missionaries who made Hawaiian natives dress like Scottish Presbyterians, American Orthodox women do not need to dress like Russian peasants – though they certainly may if they want to. Alaskan pagans had spirit houses in their cemeteries where they went to commune with their dead; today many old spirit houses have Orthodox crosses on them where the natives pray for their dead.
Already some good American things are being pulled into the Orthodox Church. America is in many ways a democratic culture. Americans like to participate. This is helping American Orthodox recover some elements of authentic ancient Orthodoxy that have been underplayed: more frequent Communions; worship in the local language, so people can understand and participate; more open icon screens so people don’t feel cut off from the action in the altar; parish councils and national conventions, so laypeople can take their proper place in the running of the Church, and more. Some churches appropriately have services on American Thanksgiving Day. And I think America’s emphasis on freedom fits well with Orthodoxy’s hard-to-explain unity in the faith without external compulsion. 
But Orthodoxy rejects those things in cultures which do not conform to the faith. Here are some things in American culture that we do not want in the Church:
1. If Americans have loose sexual mores (as apparently many do, judging by television and the movies and the behavior we accept in some of our political leaders), they are to become strict when they become Orthodox.
2. Arrogance. Many Americans both conservative and liberal take it for granted that we are right and the rest of the world is wrong, and our job is to tell them how to do it. I once watched a visiting American secretary of state on Greek television publicly telling Greek leaders exactly what they must do and how they must do it, and I could see by the Greeks’ facial expressions that whatever she said (even if she was right, and I think she was) they were not going to do it. Arrogance (even if it’s unintentional as hers was, for she is not by nature an arrogant person) is destructive. Since we Orthodox believe we are the original and authentic Church we are tempted by this kind of triumphalism. We need to reject it. It will drive people away – or, worse, it will attract proud, arrogant people. The Orthodox virtue is humility.
3. The confusion of political freedom with spiritual freedom. In John 8 when Jesus said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free”, the Jews responded, “We are sons of Abraham. We’re not slaves to anyone.” (“I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.”) Jesus answered, “I tell you, whoever commits sin is a slave to sin.” If pride, greed, lust, anger, hatred, drink, drugs, whatever, control you, you are not free. You can vote in every election and pray in every school and still be a slave. In fact one can have no political freedom, no religious freedom and still be truly free. Freedom from sin is the ultimate freedom.
4. The modern American attitude towards money. It is taken for granted in our culture that money comes first: the purpose (for many the sole purpose) of life is to make bigger profits, get rich, accumulate as much stuff as possible, have the perfect kitchen. (I refer to HGTV.) The Church calls this the sin of greed. American Orthodox are very tempted by this: to think that the measure of success is big houses, big churches, big budgets, big money. This is not compatible with Orthodoxy. I am glad that God has provided my church, Saint Nicholas, Cedarburg, with the money we need (including 10% for charities) but not much more.
The Orthodox Mission to America
Our mission here is not to change Orthodoxy to make it American. Orthodoxy is what it is, always has been, always will be.

Our mission is twofold:

1) to make Americans Orthodox. To make authentic Orthodoxy available and accessible so Americans can enter into it. By the grace of God this is happening, slowly. I believe the Orthodox Church has arrived in America at just the right time, and that Orthodox from the old countries, whether they know it or not, have come here by the hand of God, for the purpose of God.
2) to make America Orthodox. To contribute our Orthodox values and gifts to this society: our strong families; our theological and moral stability; our worship with its sense of mystery and wonder and of being “at home in heaven”, now so lacking in most American religion and society; our ability to transcend political divisions in a way that many American denominations cannot, and more. The Orthodox Church has always been concerned not only with saving souls but with the conversion of cultures, creating Orthodox societies. If God wills, we hope to convert the nation. In the Roman empire 2000 years ago we were a small minority but growing even despite persecution, and you know what happened. Today we are a small minority in America but growing. In time who knows what may happen? Hang in here for a few more centuries.
For the sake of America and Americans I hope these things will happen. Despite all that we Americans justifiably complain about, we are blessed to live here, now. But all nations and empires, even the best of them, come and go – this is no secret – while the Church, by the promise and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, will endure forever. The gates of death will never prevail against her, and in her and her ways are found true freedom and security for every nation and every people.
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