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Words We Live By: ORTHODOX & American Ideals In Foundational Texts

by Gregory Cook

Forty years ago, Fr. Alexander Schmemann called on Orthodox students to reflect on Orthodoxy in America. What does it mean to be an Orthodox Christian in America? Do we seek to re-create the “Old Country” in our churches? Or do we seek to become more American than the Americans? This is a dilemma even for those of us who have no other cultural background except “American,” we who speak no other language than English and have little or no tradition other than generic American traditions. America is a daunting place. It has enormous capacity to consume or at least modify customs, practices and beliefs. It does this through its materialistic culture. However, America also offers a level playing field for all religions. This is a new situation for the Orthodox to find themselves in — we have always been either an oppressed group, typically a minority, or closely connected to the ruling power. These two conditions have masked the true aim of Orthodoxy, which is to transfigure all of creation. America, while unique, is no exception: it too can be transfigured by Orthodoxy. To do so we must understand America, and one of the best ways to do this is to understand its foundational ideas as expressed in certain texts. These are the words we in America live by. We may fall short of their aspirations, but these texts reveal what those aspirations are.

Orthodoxy has always been open to building on what is true and extant in any nation or culture; America should be no different. Metropolitan Antony Bashir was so bold as to say that there is a line of direct continuity between Orthodoxy and America. “Orthodoxy is a freedom-loving, democratic faith … it is at its best in our free America,” he declared. “If the best of Byzantium has survived, it is in the United States, and if there is an Orthodox political ideal, it is enshrined in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence”. I believe we should heed Metropolitan Antony’s words and examine these foundational texts, to hold them up to the light of the Orthodox faith to see how they stand up to the revealed Truth. This essay looks at three texts: the Declaration of Independence and two speeches by Abraham Lincoln. By examining America’s foundational texts, we may begin to see a path to building on what is good and true.

The Declaration of Independence

There has been much debate about whether or not the Founding Fathers who wrote and signed the Declaration were Christians. Some say they were more Deists in their beliefs. For our purposes, this debate is moot, simply put, the founders were not Orthodox, whatever their personal religious practices. They had been shaped by Western Protestant Christianity, English traditions, and the Enlightenment’s political and philosophical ideals. Some, like Thomas Jefferson, were clearly outside the dogmatic mainstream of American Christianity. Others, such as John Jay, were strict adherents to their confessional inheritance. (Jay was President of the American Bible Society.) Many, such as John Adams, were in-between and might be thought of as Unitarians. We cannot blame them for their non-Orthodoxy. After all, Americans of their generation had no first-hand knowledge of the Orthodox Church.

The Declaration is a polemic against British rule as manifested by the king, George III. In the centuries leading up to that year of 1776, Orthodoxy had only known rule by monarchs. Even civil wars within Orthodox nations had been for the purpose of installing a different king or queen. The emperors of Roman civilization had come to be seen as an icon of Christ on earth. The Declaration called for a severing of a people from a king, not in order to set up another king, but to allow that people to rule itself under God. This was truly revolutionary.

Another departure from past Orthodox thinking and practice is the terminology used for God. There is no acknowledgement of God as Trinity. Instead, God is referred to as “Nature’s God,” “Creator,” “Supreme Judge of the World,” and “Divine Providence.” We can take at least two approaches to this terminology. We could, of course, throw up our hands and cry “heresy, anathema!” Or, we might say that here is a basic understanding of God enshrined in a foundational text, and now it is our mission to bring a fuller understanding of God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — to our American brothers and sisters.

I leave it to political scientists and political theologians to perform an exegesis of all the Declaration’s various clauses, which are mainly complaints against the King and British rule. The heart of the text is found in its second paragraph: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness …” Holy Tradition clearly teaches much the same. We find this passage: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Gen. 1:26, RSV). St. Luke writes that St. Peter said, “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35). Orthodoxy teaches that all men have an equal chance to fulfill their true destiny: healing of their nous and deification (theosis). A man or woman is intrinsically to be respected for his/her resemblance to God, regardless of where he ends up in life. St. John Chrysostom forcefully illustrates this in his sermons about the Lord’s teaching on Lazarus and the rich man.

Regarding life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, Holy Tradition again teaches that these are important. But notice, as with the previous passage on equality, that Orthodoxy links these qualities to the Trinitarian God. God gives life: “For with thee [God] is the fountain of life: in thy light shall we see light” (The Great Doxology). God gives liberty: “He has sent me [Jesus] to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18). Only in God is there ultimate happiness (which is probably better translated as blessedness): “happy is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in the Lord his God” (Ps. 146:5, KJV). The “American Scripture,” as some have called it, is not wrong, just incomplete. It is concerned with earthly government and not eternity. While the scriptures and Tradition have much to say about life in this world, they always point to the life beyond this present world. Too often the words of the Declaration end up being used to justify a grab-itin- this-lifetime mentality. St. Gregory Palamas rebukes that kind of thinking. “He who through the power of the Spirit has extirpated his materialistic worldly proclivities in this life will hereafter live a divine and truly eternal life in communion with Christ,” he wrote in a letter to the Nun Xenia. “But he through surrendering to his materialistic and worldly lusts and passions has in this life deadened his spiritual being [and will suffer] the second and final death”. Part of Orthodoxy’s mission in America must be to point beyond a “this-world” consumer culture.

Lincoln’s Speeches

Lincoln is not, strictly speaking, one of the Founding Fathers. However, he fills a role not unlike that of Maximus the Confessor in Orthodox theology: he brought the earlier teachings into a synthetic dogmatic unity. He is the great interpreter of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. “I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence,” he told a crowd at Independence Hall in Philadelphia while on his way to Washington, D.C. to be sworn in as the sixteenth President of the United States. He said later in the same speech that “something in that Declaration [gave] liberty, but alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time.” The Greeks, for one example, looked to the United States Revolution and its guiding principles in their revolt against Ottoman rule in 1821.

Lincoln’s spiritual beliefs and religious practices have been much debated. The weight of evidence boils down to this: he never joined any church, though he attended Episcopalian and Presbyterian services; and, he frequently invoked God in his public and private utterances both as a private citizen and as President. In his own lifetime he was called “Father Abraham” by the slaves he freed, and modern-day scholars have named him, among other things, “The Theologian of American Anguish,” and “Redeemer President”.

Both his detractors and those who champion him aver that Lincoln and his words have helped change the way Americans see the world. His life and accomplishments are noted around the world. I would like to look at two of his most famous speeches, the address at Gettysburg, delivered in November, 1863, and his second inaugural address, given in March, 1865. Both are masterpieces, and both contain oft-quoted lines and ideas that can be built upon in an Orthodox fashion.

The Gettysburg Address was, in years past, memorized by American students as a masterwork of oratory. The occasion was the dedication of a cemetery on the site of a battlefield. “Four score and seven years ago,” began the President, showing the importance of history and the fact that America was, and is, a young country in the scope of history. He was referring to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. He continued, mentioning “our fathers,” honoring those who labored to bring a free nation into being. Orthodoxy is familiar with honoring those who have gone before us and carried on the apostolic teachings. And every Orthodox nation has its revered figures who founded, gave laws, and fought for the people: Moses and David among the Israelites, Vladimir and Alexander Nevsky among the Russians, Sava and Lazar among the Serbians, and so on. The opening paragraph continues, mentioning “a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” This has been America’s mission to the world. It is up to us as bearers of Orthodoxy to show America that the ultimate freedom is found in Christ and that equality is more than just the result of a set of laws. Metropolitan Hierotheos, writing about transforming the world through political power, writes, “This does not mean that we do not applaud every effort to improve some bad conditions in the unstable and sick societies, most of which do not accept God’s word. But the most effective and realistic way is through curing the nous”.

The following paragraphs in the Gettysburg Address draw attention to the sacrifices of the nation at war, particularly the men who died on the battlefield fighting for freedom. “It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this,” said Lincoln. A society that does not honor is dead is both without a conscience and an understanding of tradition and eternity. “Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers in their generations” declares the writer of the Book of Sirach (44:1, RSV). Lincoln is there to memorialize both the famous and the forgotten, who “have consecrated” the battlefield with their blood and struggle, and to call the living to complete the task of the fallen. “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends,” declared Jesus (John 15:3, NKJV).

Lincoln closes the address with a call for perseverance, faith, and patriotism. “[W]e here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Is it too hard for us to believe that America can have a new birth of freedom in the fullness of the Orthodox faith? That, along with the warriors who have died in battle protecting us, we will remember the saints who shed their blood, sweat and tears on American soil? Lincoln and the earlier founders acknowledged God as sovereign. They yearned for freedom from tyranny. They sought justice and fought to allow Americans to worship freely without fear of persecution. Surely these are strong elements to build on.

That brings us to the second of Lincoln’s speeches I want to examine, the Second Inaugural Address delivered in March, as the Civil War was in its last spasms. The great abolitionist and activist Frederick Douglass reported that, “the address sounded more like a sermon than a state paper”. Lincoln had an excellent command of scripture, and he used that knowledge fully in this address. He begins by summarizing the events since his first inaugural four years previous. He ends the second paragraph with a heartbreakingly terse four-word sentence: “And the war came”.

It is in the third paragraph that he comes to the spiritual underpinnings of the war. “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.” The special tragedy of the Civil War was its truly fratricidal nature. After touching on the injustice of slavery in the next sentence, he says (alluding to scripture), “But let us judge not that we be not judged.” What should the nation’s perspective be? “The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.” To which the Orthodox can say, “Amen.” It is tempting to treat God and our prayers like a football game, with either “our” side or “theirs” winning and proving which one is God’s favorite. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9, RSV). Lincoln proposes that the war is a form of punishment to the nation and that it will be removed according to God’s timing, because “the judgments of the Lord,” Lincoln writes, “are true and righteous altogether.” (He is quoting Psalm 19:9).

The Inaugural’s final paragraph is worth quoting in full, for it gives to us today as Americans and Orthodox a clear mission. “With malice toward none; with charity [love] for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.” Our age is one of demonization of the opposing side, which usually means anyone who does not agree with us. By contrast, Lincoln calls for healing and brotherhood, in spite of the fact that hundreds of thousands of men died during the course of the Civil War. He did not call for revenge, but for justice and reconciliation. That is a message we need to hear in our land and this world. He calls for this, not as a sign of weakness, but in humble submission to the God Who guides us.


“A people takes its meaning from such founding statements as the Declaration of Independence, from such political expressions of its political soul.” The Declaration and Lincoln’s speeches have helped guide this land for decades and instilled in generations a desire to promote freedom and pursue justice. But we cannot stop there. Metropolitan Hierotheos writes, “It is utopian for us to want to transform society by trying to find a suitable social system. It is not a question of a system, but of a way of life.” America, a land neither pagan nor Orthodox, seems in need of direction. Americans are confused and anxious. We are deeply divided over a legion of issues. Nonetheless, there is hope. There remains, Fr. Schmemann reminds us, a “great hunger for God and His righteousness which has always underlain the genuine American culture.” By seeing what America has aspired to be, and discerning where Orthodoxy may build and expand upon those ideals, we can do God’s work in this land, honoring Him and the nation we call home. May we use these words we live by to bring others to the Word Who gives us all life.

Courtesy of the

May 2008 issue of The Word magazine.

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