Fr. Patrick Reardon recently sent a pastoral letter on how to vote to members of his parish. Since I am neither a member of his parish nor his diocese, I would normally ignore such things, except that this letter has been supported and forwarded to other Orthodox parishes. As a result, a concerned friend on facebook asked me for a resources on other Orthodox viewpoints. They then asked if I would allow them to share my response with others. Here it is. You may read Fr. Reardon's letter here on Touchstone and Fr. John Peck's blog. It exists on other websites as well, but it was, as far as I can tell, originally sent by email.
Dear friend, I need to think more about resources for your priest, since to be frank, I am not sure what would convince him out of his position. I do agree with him that we are accountable, that our decisions have grave consequences, and so like your priest and Fr. Reardon, I take voting seriously. I also think that our choices are not as clear as he, or Fr. Reardon, think. So, let me address Fr. Reardon's points.
First, he is absolutely correct that whatever we term 'rights' (a non-Orthodox way of addressing human flourishing, but it is the term he chooses), they derive from our dignity as persons made in the image of God. So yes, slavery is wrong despite the fact that the founding document of the U.S. does not say so. Yet he does not account for the fact that slavery has not always been condemned by either the Church, nor some of its most prestigious members. St. Gregory of Nyssa owned slaves, and upon his death, freed the males and gave the females to his sister Macrina's care in her monastery. While we can debate all we want the difference between U.S. chattel slavery and what happened in the Byzantine empire, the fact is that it was practiced by members of the Church. So, Fr. R treats as unambiguous a practice that has been historically ambiguous within his own ecclesial community.
As to abortion, I agree with Fr. R. that the fetus is a valued human live. However, I am also of the opinion that criminalizing abortion does not reduce them. Rather, abortion is reduced through education, through the availability of contraception, through ensuring that children and their families are supported throughout their life. This has been statistically shown, repeatedly. A very well written article, that is quite political, can be read here: http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/sexandgender/6501/barack_obama%2C_pro-life_hero_/. Criminalizing mothers whose bodies cannot carry to term a child, or for whom the birth of the child guarantees the loss of job, income, family, etc. is not a gracious or merciful response. And in the end, it does not guarantee the life of the child. Good social policies reduce abortion, not criminalization. So, while I agree with him regarding a principle, I disagree with his assumptions regarding how this principle is to be effectively implemented.
Further, to claim that an unborn child has a "right" to life even when its birth will claim the mother's life pits two "rights" against one another. This is, I think, unavoidable whether one uses the language of rights or not. The truth is, we live in a world where such decisions are inevitable, and must be made. They are difficult, painful, and should cause us grief. But they cannot be made by the law. And Fr. R gives no indication for how such a situation should be addressed. He offers no tools for discernment, perhaps because he believes we should not be allowed to discern at all in this situation.
Fortunately, and this is virtually the only ecclesial resource I can think of at the moment, Orthodoxy does leave room for such discernment. The Basic Social Statement of the Russian Orthodox Church as the following to say (XII.2, http://www.incommunion.org/2004/10/14/xii/):
"Without rejecting the women who had an abortion, the Church calls upon them to repent and to overcome the destructive consequences of the sin through prayer and penance followed by participation in the salvific Sacraments. In case of a direct threat to the life of a mother if her pregnancy continues, especially if she has other children, it is recommended to be lenient in the pastoral practice. The woman who interrupted pregnancy in this situation shall not be excluded from the Eucharistic communion with the Church provided that she has fulfilled the canon of Penance assigned by the priest who takes her confession. The struggle with abortion, to which women sometimes have to resort because of abject poverty and helplessness, demands that the Church and society work out effective measures to protect motherhood and to create conditions for the adoption of the children whose mothers cannot raise them on their own for some reason."
In short, it is the OFFICIAL position of the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia that discernment is necessary in such situations. Fr. R would do well to consider this source, even if he does not agree with all of it. The fact that it is a social statement by an official ecclessial body does not make it binding on us. That is not how Orthodoxy works. However, it is worth our serious consideration.
Finally, while I would take a much more open stance on same-sex relationships than most Orthodox currently writing publicly, Fr. R does not take into account Fr. Hopko's reasoning regarding the permission of civil unions. But I don't think any amount of resources is going to sway Fr. R's opinion. Rather, loving gay and lesbian couples might. But I can't imagine any who in their right mind would expose themselves to the depth of relationship with Fr. R that would allow such a change. It would require a willingness to suffer that I would not wish on anyone.
This leads me to my primary disagreement with Fr. R: he does not sufficiently distinguish between principles and policy. I share the first two of his principles (no, I do not agree with his third principle about marriage), but I do not agree that the policies he supports actually best fulfill those principles. He seems to believe that the law is the best tool for implementing what is "good," where as I believe the law is primarily a tool to prevent the worst. The law limits the most egregious forms of human sin by criminalizing it, giving it penal consequences. It seems to me a very typical way of American reasoning, to assume that the law is the best and final tool to implement principles. Rather, the law is our best limiting tool, but creates nothing virtuous on its own.
And yes, I am willing to stand before my creator and give an account of my beliefs. As a matter of fact, that is exactly what I believe I am doing in this moment, so your priest's hint that perhaps I should be worried for my eternal future is a hollow warning, a mere step away from the "turn or burn" mentality that alienates so many of God's loving children.