Jonathan Tobias, a Chowan County resident and professor of religion, was recently published in Princeton Theological Seminary’s “Theology Today” journal.
In it, Tobias spends his time explaining why democracy is preferred to the Orthodox Church and how some Christians in America are drifting towards authoritarianism instead.
Tobias, who teaches pastoral theology at Christ the Savior Seminary in Johnston, Pennsylvania, is a member of the Orthodox Church. He has written and lectured for more than 20 years on the Orthodox Church and American society and holds master’s degrees from Winebrenner Theological Seminary and Youngstown State University.
Tobias moved to Chowan County with his wife in November 2018.
Tobias’ article is an “American response” to a document published by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (the continuation of the Byzantine Orthodox Church) in early 2020.
The document, titled “For the Life of the World: Towards a Social Ethics of the Orthodox Church,” acts as a sort of guide to the positions of the Orthodox Church on the world. Tobias says he was asked by John Chryssavgis – notable theologian and leader of the Orthodox Church – to write the response.
Tobias takes a stand on the second section of the document, which contains the following quote: “it would be irrational and uncharitable on the part of Christians not to feel genuine gratitude for the particular democratic genius of the modern age.”
Throughout the article, Tobias explains why he thinks the Orthodox Church prefers democracy to other forms of governance.
“The government must restrain evil behavior,” he said. “We should be grateful for democracy. It is the best governmental condition in which we have lived. Orthodoxy tolerated many authoritarian regimes.
When many Orthodox Christians immigrated to the United States in the 1920s, they encountered an entirely new society: democracy.
With it came the possibility of new success and tolerance for all.
“The Orthodox Church knew how to be persecuted and how to be the first state-sponsored church, but was unsure how to exist on the same plane as other religions and beliefs,” Tobias wrote.
The ideal of separation of church and state was something Orthodoxy had to contend with in the United States, as well as coexistence with other (or non-religious) religions.
“When people got off the boat from Eastern Europe and people asked for our vote, we didn’t know what that meant,” Tobias said, speaking on behalf of Orthodox Christians at the time.
While Tobias believes that Christians should actively seek roles in their government, he said the church as an entity should not wield political power in a democracy.
“It (the church) doesn’t get involved in government, it’s always incompetent in exercising its powers, it always makes people sick,” he said.
Tobias added, “The state needs the church to be its conscience, though. We must encourage the state to take care of the poor, the environment, etc.
Worried that some Christians are straying into toxic ideologies and dragging their religion along with them, Tobias warns against authoritarianism, especially in the United States. He says the Orthodox Church has had a lot of history with harsh regimes, prioritizing democracy above all else.
“Authoritarianism, racism, those ideologies will have a toxic effect on the church and make it do things that go against its essence, it makes people go astray,” Tobias said.
According to Tobias, being in a democracy means sometimes having to compromise. In recent decades, he said he has seen many American Christians — especially some evangelicals — take democracy for granted and use it to seek political power and disenfranchise others.
“Every religion should be on an equal footing in a democratic republic,” Tobias stresses.
Yet some don’t see it that way, he says.
“Many Christians these days see democracy as a zero-sum game,” Tobias said. “If you compromise, you are a loser. Some Christians these days try to wield as much power as possible by taking it from others, which is one of the least Christian things you can do.
He continued, “People promote partisan politics from the pulpit, to me that is intolerable. I teach preaching in seminary, you can talk about moral and social issues, but you must never run for a political candidate. We pray for the president, whatever his name or party, but we cannot campaign for him.
Towards the end of the interview, Tobias vaguely quoted Benjamin Franklin.
“Ben Franklin said we need Christianity in America because it produces good citizens and he was a deist (belief in God without a specific religion),” Tobias said. “So Christianity was always respected by the founding fathers, but they argued for a secular state.”
Tobias hopes his article will help others understand the Orthodox Church’s positions on democracy. Not only why democracy is favored, but why it is better for Christianity.
The article, titled “The Orthodox Preference for Democracy: An American Response to ‘The Church in the Public Square,'” will be featured in the April edition of “Theology Today.” It can be read online at SAGE Journals, for a fee.