Friday, July 23, 2021

"The Rising Tide of Religious Nationalism"

(EA) - Members of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States of America participated in the International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington, D.C. from July 13-15. Archbishop Elpidophoros, Chair of the Assembly, delivered remarks entitled “The Rising Tide of Religious Nationalism,” as a featured speaker of the summit (read the full text here and below).

His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros

Address for the International Religious Freedom Summit, 2021

“The Rising Tide of Religious Nationalism”

July 15, 2021

It is a great privilege to be with you today, and I want to express the appreciation of the Greek Orthodox Church of America – a province of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the Mother Church of Eastern Christianity – for the exceptional work of the International Religious Freedom Summits. The partner and supporting entities bear witness to the inclusive and the comprehensive nature of the vision for human liberty and freedom of conscience we seek to enhance around the globe.

I shall commence the subject of my remarks, with the following observation. “Religious Nationalism” is only one side of the coin. There is also “Nationalistic Religion.”

Much like the terms “Caesaropapism” and “Papocaesarism,” that described the tensions between political and ecclesial autocracies of centuries past, the interests of the State and those who desire some form of “theocracy” are seldom aligned.

The shoreline where these rising tides appear is a very long one, with diverse landscapes. Here in the United States, we have witnessed – especially in recent years – how independent religious bodies with charismatic leaders are using the public, political sphere to advance their own agendas. This is a clear case of “Nationalistic Religion,” where identity politics are incorporated into a religious entity in order to advance a religious agenda. Should such a tide rise to an undue influence – either in the legislative, judicial, or executive branches of government, it would challenge the very idea of the First Amendment, and the non-establishment clause concerning religion.

On the other hand, we could look at some aspects of modern Iran, and find a distinct brand of “Religious Nationalism,” a full-blown attempt at theocracy by a seeming majority. But to see a spiritual basis for the State is to create a stratification of society along religious lines, a spiritual apartheid, if you will. The result is a monolithic society unyielding to diversity.

When you elevate one religion above all others, it is as if you decide there is only one path leading to the top of the mountain. But the truth is you simply cannot see the myriads of paths that lead to the same destination, because you are surrounded by boulders of prejudice that obscure your view. What an odd thing to say as the voice of Orthodoxy in America. What an odd thing to say given the Constantinopolitan-Byzantine origins of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Are there other paths?

Finally, there is a hybrid of the two, as in the case of the Russian Federation and the post-Soviet Russian Orthodox Church. The painful history of the Church under the communist regime came to a sudden and stunning halt with the fall of the Iron Curtain.

However, even as the Russian Federation morphed into its present form, the newly freed Russian Orthodox Church struggled to rebuild its place in society. Its cooperation and support of the State has been a way to regain its former glories. Yet, it is the state itself that has benefited from the “Religious Nationalism” created by the reborn Orthodox Church within its borders. Precisely because the Moscow Patriarchate maintains much of the contours of the old Soviet Union. The close relationship between the state Foreign Ministry and the Church Department of External Relations is well known. I mean, except for the sudden halting in killing thousands of clergy, turning churches into warehouses, and constantly claiming "there is no God." Otherwise, it's the same thing. Totally.

Through the networks of the Moscow Patriarchate, the Russian Federation is able to exert influence in the new nation-states that emerged after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Ukraine is a case in point, where a local Orthodox Church was established, legally and canonically, by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, yet the Moscow Patriarchate continues to maintain its own entity. This is clearly in the interests of the Russian Federation which benefits as much, if not more, from its “Religious Nationalism” as the Church does from its “Nationalistic Religion.” Silly Russians. When the EP unilaterally sets up a new local Church 'legally and canonically," it's fine. When the Russian state funds pre-existing parishes and monasteries it's nationalism.

These few examples – painted in broad strokes – highlight the kinds of exigencies that we are facing. By promoting one religion above others, states create an oversized monolith in the public square that de facto (and sometimes de jure) excludes the citizenry who do not conform to that religious point of view.

For the religious entity, the material advantages of state-sponsorship should be far-outweighed by the cost to the ethical, moral, and spiritual core of the faith tradition – anyfaith tradition. To put it in specifically Christian terms: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” Throughout history, every religious body has had to face the choice of ‘rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.’ Can this be read in any other way than to say that the Russian Church has imperiled its soul by... rebuilding the Church. The Church of Greece is financed by whom?

So how do we overcome these tides that seem to inexorably rise over time?

First, we must confess that such monoliths are not consistent with a modern, pluralistic, and emergent world. Democracy still finds a way in the imagination of peoples who yearn for liberty. That is why the cultivation of indigenous democratic forms of government – not the imposition from without – is an answer for both the state and the religious culture. Because even a homogenous religious culture is dependent on the individual’s freedom, in order for faith to be genuine and not coercive.

Second, we can accept that the historical journeys of any people possess complex and complicated markers that, if respected, create seawalls that hold back the troubling and troublesome tides. Allow me to close with a recent and very relevant example from the nation of my birth.

Last year, in this very month of July, the most iconic edifice of Orthodox Christianity – the Hagia Sophia in modern Istanbul, had its status withdrawn and was re-converted into a mosque. This Church was the largest Church in the world in the first millennium of Christianity. The end of the Roman Empire in 1453 changed its use, as has happened throughout history to many religious edifices.

But when the Turkish state emerged a century ago, it was deemed that such a unique and potent symbol should emanate an inclusive message, one that served the interests of all the citizens. Thus, the Hagia Sophia became a museum. For the Orthodox Christian world, this was not the best solution, but it was a vision for a future that included the incredible historical journey of Anatolia, not just one phase of that journey. We see in this re-conversion how the tide rose. And we see in those that called this crisis out, the effort to stem the tide.

My fellow laborers in the field of human freedom and inclusivity, I have outlined only some of the shores against which the tides of “Religious Nationalism” and “Nationalistic Religion” are crashing. Our best seawalls are going to be built out of cooperative efforts to instill democracy and freedom of conscience around the globe. This Summit is a most significant building block in that wall, and I thank you for your attention today and for your service to this mission.


  1. Thank God we can ignore nonsense like this as individuals, it doesn't have any real impact on our ability to work out our salvation. But from the perspective of church unity, one wonders how much more toxic division can be tolerated before an even wider schism occurs.

  2. [insert nation-state] Orthodox Church and then fret over nationalism? Am under the impression that the church-state was founded by a politician around 380 AD. If anything only America has an opportunity to apply a universal, non-ethnic Orthodoxy as we shed off the Old World stupidity found in men, not from Him

    1. Bozo2U,

      I question if there is such a thing as "non-ethnic" Orthodoxy.

      Part of the problem of being in the United States is that we do not recognize genuine difference and celebrate it. I am not talking about the 58000 genders, etc.,but the clear differences in race, language and culture that actually exist as Godly variety.

      God is one, but He fills all of His creation. The problems come when I think my prejudice and preference are of God. Like the Greeks, some Arabs, etc.

    2. Worse. Accede to the Muslim Turkish government's requirement of Greek ancestry for the Patriarchal throne, then fret over nationalism.

      If anything only America has an opportunity to apply a universal, non-ethnic Orthodoxy

      This cuts two ways. Yes, America is a multi-ethnic (there is no such thing as "non-ethnic") empire. And yes, America will end as all empires end.

      Also, good comment, Michael Bauman.

  3. Interesting to see who was not there, and how much Hellenism was foisted on the laity and hierarchs. So what was the Christian charity purpose.

  4. "...Democracy still finds a way in the imagination of peoples who yearn for liberty. That is why the cultivation of indigenous democratic forms of government – not the imposition from without – is an answer for both the state and the religious culture."

    Replace "Democracy" with the more accurate "Classical Liberalism" here and you have the key to Archbishop Elpidophoros, and in truth GOA's/Greek America and by reason of a dependent relationship the EP's, central philosophy and even "ontology" - way of understanding and being a person in the world.

    In other words, this is his/their answer to "Christ and Culture", but even more than that Classical Liberalism is a commitment to a theological anthropology and everything that derives from it including politics, culture and how to "be Church" in it, etc.

    Thing is he/they are yesterday's Liberal (in a philosophical sense) and Integrationist. The Catholic Integrationists are far ahead of him/them. For example they at least admit and try to address (ultimately unsuccessfully) the failure of Classical Liberalism to create humane (let alone Christian) society/culture on its own terms, to say nothing of the obvious conflicts its view of man has with Christianity.

    Add to this the fact that Classical Liberalism is imploding in on itself due to its internal contradictions and the energy unleashed by the sexual revolution, and Archbishop Elpidophoros/GOA/EP come across as what they are - anachronistic Classical Liberals of the cold war/1960's variety, sloppily groping to apply a world view that even their own compatriots(e.g. in Liberal Protestantism, Liberal Catholicism, and the Democratic Party) have moved on from...mostly, NPR perhaps not.

    I feel for the EP (of the last 100 years), for to commit to CL as the "answer" to not only the perennial "Christ and Culture" question in general, and his specific existential crises in Islamic Turkey, reveals a historical and intellectual shallowness, isolation, and even decadence. The Russians, for all their very real problems, at least are not decrepit Liberals from the 1960's...

    1. Yes. I am sympathetic too. The Empire vanished. Then the monarchies vanished. So now the EP puts its lot in with secular liberalism (like the Catholics) just as it starts to vanish into history.

      I think what the EP and others fail to realize is that liberalism has morphed into a competing religion that seeks to replace Christianity as completely as Christianity did the Greco-Roman and Germanic pantheons.

    2. Indeed. The Orthodox Integrationists failure to see that Classical Liberalism and the secular culture/morality/lifestyle it produces is not Christian or Christian compatible (in theology, philosophy, life, culture, etc.) is a basic failure of *discernment*. In other words they have failed to not be slaves to "the spirit of the age".

      Some RC see this as well - indeed as well as the few in modern Orthodoxy who really got it (Schmemann), such as Ratzinger, Hanby and others:

  5. "My fellow laborers in the field of human freedom and inclusivity..." Is that how he, an Orthodox Archbishop conceives of himself? Kyrie eleison.

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    3. Freedom, liberty, inclusivity, justice, pluralism, modern (and their antonyms of "prejudice, nationalism, non-modern...") are how all Integrationists (whether they are Orthodox, RC, Protestant) see the the world and Christianity in it. They are Classical Liberals in mind and heart.

  6. The Abp. makes a very strong point about illiberal religious nationalism centered in Russia but blunts it mentioning the Phanar’s ham-handed efforts to oppose it, if that’s what you call splitting churches all across the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc.

    Rather than aim as hominems at the Phanariot, I choose to listen to what he says about the dangers of the illiberal theocratic impulse now rampant worldwide. Iran and Turkey are directly comparable to Russia at this point in their construction of a totalitarian religion-as-statecraft. The Abp. is nowhere near alone in noticing this. But if you like your religion with a strong dose of authoritarianism and bigotry, I’m sure his words will find no resonance among you.