by Archbishop Peter (L'Huiller) of New York and New Jersey


The relationship between Church and State from the beginning of contemporary times has been a recurrent problem, at least in the Western World; the emergence of such an issue resulted from the modern concept of State which developed in the eighteenth century. We do not intend to address this huge and complex question within our short article nor to put forth a systematic presentation of an Orthodox position insofar as it could be authoritatively spelled out.

This apparent fluidity results from the variety of societal conditions. In America, we live in a society characterized by religious pluralism and this situation is accepted by the overwhelming majority of the citizenry and moreover is legally written down in the Bill of Rights which states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” (Article 1). This fundamental declaration set forth the principle of freedom of religion in a negative way since the law states what must not be done. This phrasing has to be understood in its historical context. It actually implies a separation of Church and State which is not fully described. For this reason, its practical implications are nowadays diversely interpreted.

To be more precise, those who favor extreme secularism advocate a restrictive understanding which is obviously at variance with the original intent of the framer. As has been recently proven, the phrase of Jefferson on the “wall of separation between Church and State” which was used by judges for more than a century had not at all an axiomatic significance in his mind. Be that as it may, both the legislation and its implementation by case law seem to be fair and by and large have never hindered the life of the Orthodox Church. If sometimes judiciary pronouncements are at variance with canon law, this comes from the deficiency or vagueness of the charters of foundation, by-laws or statutes of some ecclesiastical institutions. Nobody can seriously say that freedom of religion is not adequately guaranteed in America; but can we infer from this fact that such a model represents a universal paradigm? We must give a nuanced answer which takes into account historical and societal data. Let us keep in mind that other countries which have a firm democratic tradition, especially in Western Europe, are often concerned with the danger caused by some sects and cults and this preoccupation is not unfounded. A balance has to be found between freedom of religion and possible manipulations, such as brainwashing or swindling.

Furthermore, one should observe that the problem in the relationship between the Church and State has very specific traits in countries where Orthodoxy has always been the traditional religion of the population and is perceived as a part of national identity because it has usually been a decisive factor in the making of that identity. In those cases the concept of separation between Church and State has another than in the Western World. It normally means that the respective competence of Church Authorities and those of the civil power are different. In other words, it is more appropriate to speak of a distinction between Church and State than a real separation. This approach represents an adjustment of the old Orthodox ideal of symphony; it reflects the fact that in normative Orthodoxy the Church as such did not attempt to infringe the rights of civil Authorities and vice versa. To be sure, since the Church is not separated from Society, this distinctiveness does not signify that Church Authorities are not entitled to strongly express the Christian standpoint bearing on or related to ethical issues. About the discrepancy between the theoretical Orthodox position on the respective spheres of competence, someone can object that this ideal was often transgressed throughout History. Actually, the existence of deviations does not infirm principles; moreover, in some circumstances, the Church had to assume civil responsibilities because such a system was imposed by invaders, for example the Turks, and also it was the sacred duty of the Church to safeguard the people against assimilation and apostasy.

Against such an historical background we can understand why in Eastern Europe the only alternative to cooperation between Church and State was a systematic persecution intended not only to destroy the Church’s structure but also to uproot religion from souls. Consequently, after the collapse of communism, the tendency was to return, at least partially, to the status quo ante communism. This trend deeply distresses the sects and cults which consider Eastern Europe as an open territory for proselytism and continually and viciously attack both the Orthodox Church and civil authorities. So, in America and in Western Europe, they have organized a campaign of propaganda in order to create the feeling that they are persecuted. Besides, in Western Europe, they try for instance to demonstrate that Greece must abolish the official status of the Orthodox Church albeit including 98% of the population. Let us mention the fact that freedom of religion exists in that country as proven, alas, by the blooming of sects acting among uneducated segments of the population.

To sum up the content of this short article, let us say that the legal status of the Orthodox Church is to be considered according to local or regional situation in the light of historical data. With very rare exceptions, the Orthodox Church has never exerted dishonest proselytism and we must notice that these happened almost always as a reaction against the most despicable forms of proselytism. With respect to the legal exercise of freedom of religion, the principle remains intangible, but it should be understood that modes of implementation cannot ignore historical and societal factors.

From Jacob's Well
Newspaper of the Diocese of New York and New Jersey
Orthodox Church in America
Fall/Winter 1998-1999