Christianity, Democracy, and the Shadow of Constantine

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Editor(s): 
George E. Demacopoulos, Aristotle Papanikolaou
Orthodox Christianity and Contemporary Thought
  • Bronx, NY: 
    Fordham University Press
    , November
     2016.
     304 pages.
     $35.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780823274208.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Christianity, Democracy, and the Shadow of Constantine gathers presentations from a 2013 Fordham University conference of the same name. The conference and resulting volume unite Christian voices in a rich discussion around the relationships between Christianity, politics generally, and liberal democracy specifically. Notably, this volume succeeds at overcoming the persistent divide between Eastern Orthodox thinkers and Western Protestant and Roman Catholic ones. The collection contains numerous well-reasoned and even provocative contributions that would be valuable for nearly any course or for research on the topic.

The volume’s first section offers two essays that address the post-Soviet situation in Eastern European countries regarding their relationship to secularism. In the first, Kristina Stoeckl reflects on how non-theological thinking has made its way into the recent development of the Russian Orthodox position on human rights. In the second, Father Capodistrias Hämmerli discusses the Lautsi v. Italy (2009) case brought before the European Court of Human Rights that addressed the display of religious symbols in state schools. Remarking on the very different responses to this case by Western and Eastern European countries, Hämmerli offers historical reasons for why many Eastern European countries see their national identity as tied up with a form of religious identity.

The second section of the collection turns more generally to political theology and features the work of Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox thinkers. It begins with three non-Orthodox thinkers offering theological considerations of politics, paying special attention to possible points of connection with Orthodox theology. In the first essay, Protestant theologian Luke Bretherton provides a brief introduction to consociational democratic theory before suggesting a possible connection to the Orthodox theology of the Trinity. Then, Roman Catholic theologian Mary Doak offers a way of thinking about Trinitarian inclusiveness and openness to difference while providing grounds for the just use of power. Finally, Protestant theologian Eric Gregory contributes a theological reflection on the temporal nature of politics. Analogizing political history with salvation history, he contends, helps to anchor a serious commitment to politics in full view of its limited potential and provisional status.

Next, three Orthodox thinkers offer arguments for why and how liberal democracy ought to be embraced and engaged. Here, Emmanuel Clapsis suggests some consonance between liberal democracy and an Orthodox anthropology. Clapsis contends that the freedoms afforded by such a political order provide the necessary conditions for each person to discover their intrinsic need for relationship and community. Next, Perry Hamalis argues Orthodoxy should embrace democracy because both traditions share the same fundamental concern for protecting human life against the forces of death. In the last essay of this section, Nathanial Wood provides an especially insightful christological contribution, arguing that the church offers the completion of liberal democracy’s humanistic project. In this sense, the relationship between church and state is analogous to the dual nature of Christ, and the church’s work begins with self-emptying into the world and moves toward the “inward overcoming” of the secular (169).

The third section of the collection brings more historical perspective to the discussion and presents, for the most part, a cautionary take on the relationship between Christianity and the political order after Constantine’s conversion. Timothy Barnes and James Skedros contribute essays that reveal a history of the usurpation of ecclesiastical matters by the Roman emperors who succeeded Constantine. Peter Iver Kaufman presents something of a provocative reading of Augustine that emphasizes the tension between worldly or secular powers and the Church, arguing against recent attempts to present Augustinian thought as amenable to liberal democracy. Lastly, J. Bryan Hehir offers a somewhat different tone in his analysis of the Roman Catholic Church’s thinking about the political order since Vatican II, at which point, he argues, it became more hospitable to liberal democracy. Hehir’s essay offers a nuanced account of this time period and provides an instructive example of an increasing collaboration between church and state, albeit one wherein the church insists on maintaining its distinct integrity.

The volume culminates with an essay by Stanley Hauerwas reflecting on the notion of political theology and further clarifying his position on the relationship between Christianity and politics. Hauerwas contends that too many Christians have concluded that Christianity ought to be somehow useful for the establishment of a more just political order. He argues such approaches are problematic for allowing liberal democracy to set the terms for the proper telos for society, thereby unwittingly positioning the church in service of the state. He concludes in a rather familiar way by arguing that the church is to be rightly seen as “God’s politics for the world” (269).

As I have indicated, this volume contains numerous conflicting voices on the topics at hand. This makes for a very intriguing and dynamic collection, but it would have been nice to see more direct engagement among the contributions. Nevertheless, by bringing together powerful thinkers from Eastern and Western Christian traditions, it greatly enriches the growing literature on political theology and shows the promise of such encounters.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Nicholas Buck is a doctoral student in religious ethics at the University of Chicago.

Date of Review: 
September 19, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

George E. Demacopoulos is Fr. John Meyendorff & Patterson Family Chair in Orthodox Christian Studies at Fordham University. His most recent books are Gregory the Great, The Invention of Peter, and Five Models of Spiritual Direction in the Church.

Aristotle Papanikolaou is Archbishop Demetrios Chair in Orthodox Theology and Culture at Fordham University. His most recent books are The Mystical as Political: Democracy and Non-Radical Orthodoxy and Being with God: Trinity, Apophaticism and Divine-Human Communion.

Add New Comment

Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.

Log in to post comments