After the martyrdom of the Czar and his family, the Orthodox Church in what was becoming the Soviet Union wrestled for a while with various ideas about what was needed. In the Byzantine idea of polity, the Church and the State had always worked “in symphony” even though the idea usually manifested as State Control of the Church in reality: what the west called “Caesaropapism”. In Russia this played out as an ongoing power struggle between the Czar and the Patriarch of the Russian Church. In fact, Czar Peter forbade the election of any new Patriarch in 1700 and the Russian Church let that happen. So there was no Patriarch until the Bolsheviks killed Czar St Nicholas II in 1917 and let the Russian Church have a Patriarch again.
That’s where this story gets really odd. If the state can prevent your leadership from electing a Chief Bishop – and then, turn around and grant you permission to do so again 200 years later – how beholden to the state are you? Both the Church and the Russian State – Czarist and then Soviet – thought the answer was “Greatly Beholden”. So, in the 1920s and 30s, when Orthodox Clergy wanted to bring the Church more-closely into alignment with Soviet ideology, the Soviets encouraged this…
Not because Soviets thought that the proper manifestation of Christian Social Teaching was socialist; not because they thought that Marx had finally understood Christ more perfectly. Rather the Soviet Support for what was called “The Living Church” (Живая Церковь Zhivaya Tserkov) was to encourage a schism in the Church – in order to weaken the Church entirely. After a while, it was common for Soviet agents to influence internal Church politics by seeming to take “liberal” Church positions against the “conservatives” in the Church: things like allowing monastics to marry without giving up their church titles, or allowing Bishops to get married. Today they would have been pushing new definitions or marriage and sex or liberalized abortion laws. This was a political choice and not a theological one. When it became necessary to fight the Nazis, Joseph Stalin jumped theological tracks and began supporting the conservative majority in the Church to get them all fighting with him (and Churchill, etc) against Hitler. Later, again making a political choice, Stalin and his successors would persecute (or partially liberate) the Church in order to gain some political stepping stone.
This history is presented because America seems to be in a Trumpian Renovation period right now.
Entirely for his own political power (not for any theological position) the President has taken religious talking points. In that it results in some sort of political change in favor of Church teachings, I don’t think that’s bad, per se. But the overall effect is to lure a certain class of clergy and faithful into thinking they have to support the President no matter what. These are like the minority of Orthodox in Russia today seeking to make Stalin a saint. They remember the Great Leader’s overtures to the Church and so the Bad Things he did must be ignored. Our President has this same class of supporters in the Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant communities of America.
So I think it’s interesting that right now there is a fight between governors and the president over opening Churches. I remark that it’s interesting… but I don’t trust or agree with either side. While I can agree that many “liberal” politicians would rather the Church go away, the reality is the “conservatives” would drop us like a hot potato if they thought they could get more votes by doing so. We already see this in the area of abortion where Republicans are quick to talk, but slow to act and even many a Catholic Politician refuses to vote (as a matter of course) in keeping with the Church’s position. No, if they could get more votes and stay in power by doing so, they blow up Churches just like Stalin did and give their people swimming pools.
The real issue about opening the churches: If gov’ts allow houses of faith to be open for the spiritual wellbeing of their people it is a tacit admission that religion is a communal, not private affair. It follows that religion is a part of – with effect in – the public sphere. This is contrary to the entire enlightenment project and contrary to the stream of secular, atheistic culture. Religion is ok at home. Not in public.
Neither Trump nor the Democrats can allow for that save that it supports their political ends. Trumps was conservatives who think they have to vote for him because of abortion… while ignoring literally everything else about him as a person and the economic choices he makes. Democrats what liberals who think they have to vote for Biden (or Clinton, or Obama, or whomever) simply for the sake of healthcare or welfare, ignoring abortion and every other moral issue that comes up. At present, both sides are using the medical emergency and taxes to whip up support.
Contrary to any “Politicopapism”, the Church offers the Social Kingship of Christ: which requires the state to move her people towards salvation… or get out of the way while the Church does her job. So it is possible to see that a given politician’s support for something is a cynical ploy to get votes and yet, realistically to give that politician our vote now – knowing that next election we may have to get rid of him. It is possible to see that healthcare for all and a social safety net are part of the requirements of Catholic Teaching while realizing that abortion must be stopped and cannot ever – even momentarily – be considered “healthcare”. Siding with one politician over another will only lead to a schism in the Church, to participation in the Enlightenment project of weakening the Church.
Our current culture drives us apart, to consider “my needs” over and above anything else. Catholic Social Teach is exactly social and requires a community. It takes a village, actually, to live the faith. If we allow the politicians to destroy our social fabric in a Stalinesque move simply to divide and conquer, (if, God forbid, we should participate in it) we are following them – not Christ. We are seeing the new Living Church, and we are bound for death.