Reflections on Religion and Political Power

Many unbelievers argue that religion was been invented by people in political power in order to assert their authority and to exercise control over others.

How should be respond?

First, if this argument truly made sense, how could one explain the existence of religion in societies that do not have a government? Some communities of the past, and some tribes even at present do not have their own states. They do not even have any chieftains, and have been living as extended families for millennia, isolated from other extended families. Although they have no government, they do have a religion.

These examples alone would show that the existence of religion could not be explained by politics.

But even if we examined societies with governments, we might see that out of a great variety of religions some were indeed more compatible with strong political power than others. This can be said mostly of religions which treated political rulers as living gods, like Pharaohs in ancient Egypt.

Before the advent of Christianity, the Roman Empire also had a tradition of deifying its emperors. It is true that these religions have existed in the past, but we should also remember that they are now extinct. They do not exist any more. They have no followers.

Paradoxically, the argument that religion is a tool of political power – which is the subject of our discussion – is now being advanced against Orthodox Christians, not ancient Egyptians or Romans. Yet it is totally inapplicable to Christianity simply because it teachers that no king, prince, emperor, president or ruler is God.

There is only one true God, Who stands above all humans, including kings and rulers. There is God’s law, which everyone must obey, including rulers. This teaching alone was a huge disincentive to all rulers because it means that they too were subject to God’s law and its constraints on their power. Admittedly, Christianity also teaches obedience to government, to managers at work and to one’s parents, but only to the extent that a Christian faithful is not being asked to do something that goes against the law of God.

One example of what a Christian should do when this limit is transgressed can be found in the Book of Acts. When the Jewish elders demanded of the Apostles to stop preaching about Christ, the apostles replied: Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! (Acts 4:19), and they continued to preach. This is one of the most vivid illustrations of the idea of the Christian God Who is above all kings, and Who, in the words of the Scripture, deposes kings and raises up others (Daniel 2:21), presides over the kingdom of men (Daniel 4:14), is feared by the kings of the earth( Psalms 76:13), and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing (Isaiah 40:23); His law is above the law of any king or prince. Few rulers were comfortable with this idea, as most of them were seeking absolute power. Christian saints and scholars never taught that we must obey everything that a ruler might order us to do.

As an example, let me cite the writings of two saints. Saint Augustine Aurelius wrote: As long as we have faith in our Lord and are following Him to His Kingdom, we shall not obey any person who would seek to rob us of the gift of eternal life bestowed on us by our Lord (commentary on the epistle to the Romans).

Saint Joseph of Volotsk said: “A king or prince who does not care about his subjects and has no fear of God becomes a servant of Satan – a devil, not a servant of God, a slayer, not a prince. Do not listen to any king or prince who leads you to impiety or wiliness, even when he tortures you or threatens you with death” (Enlightener).
In the Roman Empire under Paganism, Christians would refuse collectively and consistently to obey the directives of the Emperor when they contradicted the Law of God. This included orders to make sacrifices to the Emperor’s genius. There were other known examples of mass disobedience. Soldiers of the Fiva legion refused to participate in the persecution of Christians ordered by the Emperor, because they were themselves Christians.

Throughout history, the hierarchs of the Christian church have been known to denounce the rulers for breaking the Law of God. In 390, Saint Ambrose of Milan publicly denounced Emperor Feodosius for his cruel suppression of the uprising in Thessaloniki; the emperor took heed, laid down his royal regalia and took penance before his people.

Saint Ambrose barring Emperor Theodosius from Milan Cathedral

In 857, Patriarch Ignatius of Constantinople not only refused to grant a lawless request from Regent Bardas, but also excommunicated him in public for his sinful deeds.

In 906, Patriarch Nicholas of Constantinople excommunicated Emperor Leo VI for his fourth marriage.

In 1261, Patriarch Arsenius of Constantinople disowned Emperor Michael Paleolog for blinding the nine-year-old son of his predecessor.

In 1586, Bishop Philip of Moscow publicly denounced the Russian Tsar Ivan the Terrible.

Metropolitan Arsenius (Matseevich) refused to take the oath of loyalty to Empress Elisabeth in 1741. Later, in 1763 he openly criticised and even anathemised Empress Catherine II for ordering the confiscation of church lands.

None of these examples would have been possible without the Christian teaching that God stands above any and all earthly rulers, and that any ruler is subject to God’s law. Incidentally, this teaching attracted much criticism from 17th century Japanese Confucians. Specifically, Arai Hakiseki remarked with great disapproval that the veneration of the ‘divine ruler’, or the single God, leads one to the neglect of one’s earthly ruler [1].

The French philosopher Bertrand de Jounevel wrote, “The holy king of the middle ages represents a less arbitrary and a more accountable form of government than we might be prepared to believe. His rule is constrained both by human law and custom, and by God’s law” [2].

One proof of this observation regarding the role of the Christian faith as a constraint on the power of a Christian king is this episode from West European history that dates back to 1077. The Holy Roman emperor Henry IV had a dispute with the Roman Pope, which ended in his excommunication. The emperor had to take a journey to Canossa, the then seat of the Roman Pope. He wore a hair cloth and walked barefoot all the way. When he finally reached the gates of the castle where the Pope was residing, he was made to wait three days before the gates finally opened. He had to spend a long three days outside before they agreed to let him in! When he entered the castle at last, he fell to his knees before the Roman Pope and took his penance.

Henry IV at the gates of Canossa

Next time you are told that Christianity had been invented to help governments keep people in obedience, remember the example of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV. Something is telling me that he might disagree with this statement strongly.

Not all stories of excommunication ended in this way. In some of the other episodes referred to earlier in the text, the patriarchs and metropolitans suffered retribution in various forms. Some were exiled, others were deposed, but this was still more of a problem for the rulers who misbehaved. In many cases, they faced anger and condemnation from the masses, while the disfavoured hierarchs were ultimately proven right.

In fact, the drift towards secularism, which began in Western Europe, was welcomed by the people in power, which was due in large part to their desire to free themselves of the constraints that were rooted in the Christian faith.

From an effectiveness standpoint, the best way to establish full control of a society is to promote atheism, not faith. Atheistic regimes such as North Korea provide some telling examples. Political regimes were far more successful at establishing totalitarian control when they were free from religion that governments in countries where religion was playing a stronger role. This conclusion is true for North Korea, but also for other regimes, such as the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, Communist Albania, and even for many periods in Soviet history.

In summary, the criticism of religion that atheists like to bring against Christians is more applicable to the former. In fact, as one examines the history of atheistic regimes, one wonders if atheism was in fact a convenient excuse for governments to free themselves of the constraints of the religion and its teachings regarding the primacy of God’s laws over earthly laws and of God over earthly rules, so could freely establish totalitarian rule?

From an Orthodox perspective, the observations and conclusions of this text coincide with the current doctrine and position of the Chuch. As stated in the Foundations of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Chuch, “Where a government is compelling Orthodox believers to renounce Christ and His Church, or to engage in sinful and spiritually destructive acts, the Church has a duty to refuse to obey to such government. Christians may, following the will of their conscience, disobey the commands of the state that compel them to engage in grave sin (III.5).

[1] Hirosi Nagata. History of Philosophical Thinking in Japan. Moscow, 1991. P. 71.
[2] Cited in: A. Stankecivius.Church-state relations -a historical overview.

Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds

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