Of late Russia and its leader Vladimir Putin have been in the news. Putin recently signed into a law a new decree banning “homosexual propaganda”, effectively outlawing Gay Pride parades and other forms of public endorsement of homosexual lifestyle. Also banned is the adoption of children by gay parents. Homosexuality itself, which was decriminalized in Russia only since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, remains decriminalized. Nonetheless, to say the least, people in the west are concerned over what appears to them to be unwarranted repression of homosexuals in Russia and unconscionable suppression of free speech. What are we Orthodox in North America to think of all this? Are there any lessons that we can draw from what is happening so far away in a country with a very different history and outlook than our own?
Inevitably, most of the people weighing in on the debate from America approach the events from the perspective of rights—the right of free speech, the right of gay couples to adopt children if they should choose, etc. American framing much of this debate in terms of rights is inevitable, I suggest, because that is the lens through which America sees the world. It is part of the bold and grand experiment that is American democracy, and it is a new way of looking at things. (Note: not a bad way necessarily, just a new way.) American democracy is the New World step-child of the Enlightenment and of French democracy, which itself was born in the blood of the French Revolution, and exulting in “liberty, equality, fraternity”, even if these noble goals were pursued for a while through the guillotine. America is arguably greater and certainly more globally influential than France, and so when one thinks of democracy it is usual for people to think of America as the land of the free, not France. Somewhat ironically, thanks to American power in the world, the lingua franca is now American English. But the global influence of America should not blind us to the historical fact that American-style democracy is still comparatively new in world history, and for many people outside the U.S. the jury is still out on the question of whether or not the American preoccupation with rights is as workable as many people in America think it is. At least that seems to be the perspective of some in Russia, including Putin.
But if protecting individual rights (including the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”) is not the main task of a government, what is? Older governments, including the government of what is now called Byzantium, would have replied, “justice”, including as one of its main components the promotion of virtue. That is, rulers were concerned to discover what was just and virtuous behaviour and then to outlaw unjust and unvirtuous behaviour. Obviously since rulers were fallen, they often made a mess of it, like all men make a mess of everything. But attaining virtue remained the goal. The question for them was not, “What are my rights as a citizen?”, but rather, “How should I live as a citizen?” The focus was on the promotion of virtue and the elimination of vice.
I am not saying, of course, that there is no overlap between the two approaches to law, or no commonality between the ancient way of looking at society and our modern one. And I am as happy as anyone else living in the west to have the freedom to speak (or blog, like I am now) and not fear the policeman’s knock on my door. But I am aware that our modern American way is not universal or of any great antiquity.
I am not Russian, have never been to Russia, and know all too few Russians. (The ones I do know are wonderful, and I wish I knew more of them.) But my guess is that Russia looks westward across the wide sea into the New World and sees not so much a shimmering example of freedom as it does a rising tide of immorality. In the New World (let’s include my own Canada here too), homosexuality is rapidly becoming normalized everywhere and is the new status quo. This is an astonishing and rapid revolution, especially when one considers that just a few years ago (at least in Canada) it was still a criminal offense to be a homosexual, and that Gay Pride parades were unthinkable, much less gay marriage, or gay and lesbian clergy. Within a few decades things have changed dramatically and are continuing to change. I predict that by the time my toddler grandchildren are able to vote gay marriage will be universal and normal throughout North America, and that speaking publically against homosexuality will have become a crime. It is this rising tide and this cultural revolution that Russia sees, and which it wishes to avoid. Whether passing such laws is the best way to go about avoiding it is another question. But I suspect that since Russia has been heir to Byzantium longer than they have been heir to western democracy, they see our North American situation more in terms of clear and present danger than they do in terms of clearly threatened rights.
So, what is the best way forward for us here in North America? I do not think that taking the Russian approach of banning these things by law makes any sense here. We are too preoccupied by “rights”, and anyway, the homosexual genie is now out of the cultural bottle so that turning back the clock is not an option, even if it were the right thing to do. I suggest therefore that whatever we do in North America about our laws, we also recognize that the gay cultural revolution has in fact taken place, and that we tell our children, grandchildren, and catechumens that Orthodox Christians must now live counter-culturally. It is not as if this commitment to counter-cultural living is a new thing. It was the norm when we lived as a minority in the pagan Roman Empire. We survived just fine then; we can survive just fine now, but we need to face up to the present reality. Christendom has sunk like Atlantis. We who wish to be saved are in the Ark.