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Augustine in the ballot box

ESSAY | A historic treatise on politics and religion sheds light on this year’s contentious election season

Photo illustration by Krieg Barrie

Augustine in the ballot box
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ROME has always served as the West’s quintessential empire. Not only did it conquer the entire Mediterranean Basin and much of Northern Europe, it also colonized Western civilization’s mental landscape. At its founding, America imbibed deeply from the well of Rome, finding inspiration in its republican institutions and mimicking the iconography and architecture of its artists and builders. Is it surprising that we sometimes search Rome’s history for clues to our country’s future?

The situation confronting the fifth-century Roman Empire on the eve of its collapse holds a superficial similarity to contemporary America. Out-of-touch elites governed the empire, and people had lost faith in governmental institutions. A stark divide existed between the needs of rural and urban populations, and citizens faced economic uncertainty as the government manipulated the currency by experimenting with different coinage. Rome even had its own immigration crisis, failing to assimilate the Germanic Goths, who a generation earlier sought asylum in the empire when fleeing from the Huns. Other Germanic tribes illegally crossed Rome’s porous border, exacerbating an already desperate problem.

On Aug. 24, 410, Germanic Goths led by their king, Alaric, sacked the city of Rome. It was the first time foreign enemies had breached the city walls in 800 years, and news of the devastation shook the foundations of the empire. The empire’s mood darkened over the following months as the government failed to contain the fallout. But during this destruction, Augustine of Hippo wrote one of Christianity’s greatest literary works, The City of God.

In his magnum opus, Augustine argues that the City of God and the City of Man aren’t the same thing. It’s a timely reminder for Americans, as our country finds itself in the midst of another election cycle. For many—both left and right—politics has become a religion. But it’s a religion filled with fear and trembling because the whims of a voting populace, in which each half distrusts the other, shape the world’s destiny, rather than the designs of a good and sovereign God.

While Italy burned, Augustine served as bishop in the small town of Hippo in the Roman province of Africa, modern-day Algeria. Though Hippo lay across the Mediterranean, hundreds of miles from Rome, those living there saw firsthand the effects of the empire’s collapse as refugees flooded into North Africa. In 412, Augustine began writing The City of God to make sense of the calamity. Americans in crisis might glean a shred of insight from studying Rome’s turmoil, but Augustine’s message offers better insights for Christians seeking to live faithfully in this world as they await the Second Coming.

Fifth-century Christians often viewed Rome as a Christian empire, and many American Christians fall into this same trap, talking about the United States as if it’s analogous to the City of God rather than just another manifestation of the City of Man. Sen. Ted Cruz, for example, has often referred to America as “the last best hope” for the world and a “shining city on a hill.” To be fair, Cruz is echoing theologically loaded language from Ronald Reagan and other politicians throughout America’s almost 250-year history. But that rhetoric wouldn’t impress Augustine. His writings reminded readers that Jesus is the world’s last best hope and the Church is the shining city. When these categories get confused, Christians begin to expect more from politics than it can possibly deliver.

Photo illustration by Krieg Barrie

The title of The City of God comes from Psalm 87:3, in which the psalmist sings of God’s exaltation of Zion: “Glorious things of you are spoken, O city of God.” Opposed to this heavenly city is the city of man, which seeks to establish itself through pride and self-sufficiency. Augustine worked on The City of God over 15 years, exploring the interplay between these two cities in a book that would run to a thousand pages.

His initial goal was to answer the criticism of pagans who blamed the Roman Empire’s precarious situation on its embrace of Christianity. The Sack of Rome took place about a hundred years after Constantine began favoring Christianity. After Constantine’s baptism toward the end of his life, all Rome’s emperors claimed Christ—except Julian the Apostate, who met with a violent, untimely death.

Throughout the fourth century, Christianity grew in both imperial influence and sheer numbers as the faith attracted more converts. Rural areas remained largely unconverted, but Christianity became the driving cultural force in the empire’s urban centers. Many Christians, most notably the church historian Eusebius, began to view Rome as the locus for the promised kingdom of God. Christianity had conquered the empire, and this new Christian empire would usher in the millennial reign of Jesus.

But then Alaric’s Goths sacked Rome, and the loose political structures that had held the empire together for centuries began to unravel.

Pagan critics of Christianity pounced. Many of these men belonged to Rome’s most distinguished families, rich enough to insulate themselves from imperial pressure. They claimed Rome’s misfortune occurred because the people failed to honor the city’s traditional pantheon. These gods, according to the pagans, had protected Rome for almost a thousand years, but now they had abandoned Rome. The Christian God wasn’t up to the task of defending the city.

Augustine begins The City of God with a frontal assault on Rome’s traditional religion and those thinkers who support it. He recounts the pagans’ own stories, showing how time and again their gods proved faithless. The Romans prided themselves on piety, absorbing all the gods from their conquered peoples. But if those gods didn’t save conquered peoples from Roman aggression, why should the Romans depend on them now?

Augustine’s attack on Rome’s long-dead religious traditions might not seem to have much contemporary relevance. But he doesn’t merely attack the misconceptions of Christianity’s critics. He also corrects and admonishes the Christians living through Rome’s disaster, building a theological framework for how Christians should view the state.

Augustine’s writings remind us that Jesus is the world’s last best hope and the Church is the shining city. When these categories get confused, Christians begin to expect more from politics than it can possibly deliver.

IN AUGUSTINE’S DAY, many Christians had adopted Eusebius’ idea that the Roman Empire was the manifestation of Jesus’ coming kingdom, and the Sack of Rome elicited fear and spiritual anguish. Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin, watched events unfold from Bethlehem, and Rome’s plight wrecked him emotionally. He compared the city of Rome to Zion, and he moaned, “The entire world perished in a single city.”

If Rome were the manifestation of the kingdom of God, the situation would indeed be dire. Why was God allowing these things to happen? What sin had Christians committed to bring on this suffering? Even more theologically troubling was the notion that perhaps God’s purposes for the world could be thwarted by barbarian swords.

It’s easy to see how Eusebius, Jerome, and countless other Christians could be attracted by the promise of a Christian state. We see some of the same impulse in those who espouse extreme forms of Christian nationalism today. But Augustine suggests the entire project is misguided. When Jesus said His kingdom wasn’t of this world, He didn’t mean it’s coming later, during the days of Constantine—or during the days of Trump, for that matter.

In Augustine’s formulation, the City of Man isn’t bound by a particular time and place. Instead, it manifests itself in different ways throughout human history. The Assyrian Empire, the Hellenistic empires, the Roman Empire—they’re all manifestations of the City of Man. Early in his book, Augustine launches into a study of history to show that every human political institution is doomed to collapse, only to be replaced by another.

The Bible uses the imagery of Babylon to refer to this world system, and Augustine says Christians ought not confuse themselves by assuming Rome had become a New Jerusalem rather than just another iteration of the old Babylon.

The machinations of the City of Man offer no hope, but there’s another city that can claim the Bible’s promises to Jerusalem, and that’s the City of God. The City of God is also boundless, containing all God’s people throughout time and space along with the holy angels. This city, roughly analogous to the Church, is the body through which God will bring about His purposes.

The City of God won’t shatter beneath barbarian swords, and unlike the City of Man, which will finally be overthrown at Christ’s second coming, the City of God is everlasting. In the midst of trials, Augustine comforts believers by pointing to their ultimate hope.

Augustine offers a nuanced approach to politics, much like the Apostle Paul’s. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul said, “Our citizenship is in heaven,” but he also took advantage of his Roman citizenship when it suited him. Christians are citizens of both the City of God and the City of Man, but only the heavenly citizenship is eternal. Our earthly citizenship is passing away, and Augustine says Christians are like pilgrims traveling through the earthly city on their way to a better country. We must avoid the vices of the City of Man, but that doesn’t mean we should show contempt for the earthly city and its politics.

Christians are free to make use of the politics and culture of the City of Man, but we must always remember those things are not ends in themselves.

Some contemporary conservative politicians, like Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, claim America is a Christian nation, because the Founders said so. But do the Founders or contemporary politicians get to decide, or does God? Some also claim the country must turn back to God if it is to achieve its former glory. Even some pastors succumb to this politicized rhetoric that portrays the goal of the Christian religion as restoring and supporting a proper social order.

Augustine would say that’s a pagan way of thinking. Remember, the pagans in Rome talked the same way: If we get our religion right, Rome will be glorious again. They made a plausible case. By many objective measures, Rome was more prosperous and more peaceful before Christianity became politically influential. Even Enlightenment writers in the modern era blamed Rome’s decline on Christianity’s enervating influence.

Writers like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Jordan Peterson, and Tom Holland use a similar argument when they support Christianity today. Christian virtue should be promoted in order to save Western civilization. But this attitude is exactly backwards. It turns Christianity into something to be used and the preservation of the West as the end goal.

Photo illustration by Krieg Barrie

SO HOW DO WE avoid the siren’s call of using religion to prop up a doomed way of life? Augustine says an honest assessment of history should do the trick. The Romans, pagan and Christian alike, shared an inordinate pride in their empire’s accomplishments, but Augustine takes a notoriously dim view of state building. In The City of God, he says citizens of small states are often happier than those in large empires, and he claims that without justice the only difference between a kingdom and a criminal gang is size, implying the Roman government was no better than Alaric’s marauding Goths.

Augustine attacks the very heart of Roman nationalism, spending a significant portion of The City of God dismantling Rome’s most cherished stories. He talks about how the country was founded in blood, and he examines the golden age of the Roman Republic, showing that it really wasn’t so golden after all. In fact, Augustine denies that the Roman Republic even warranted the name “Republic,” a word that denotes a government by and for the people. A true republic possesses true justice, and one can’t find true justice apart from Christ. At its best, Rome was a shadowy facsimile of a republic, driven by pride and lust for domination.

In the fifth century, pagans and Christians alike wanted to make Rome great again, but Augustine asks, “When was it ever great?” Americans often fall into this Roman tendency of idealizing the past, but is there a period of our history in which we can honestly say we fulfilled the mandate of “justice for all”?

This isn’t to say America is as bad as it could be, devoid of common grace. Despite trampling Rome’s sacred calves, Augustine evinces a certain amount of pride in being Roman. The government didn’t possess justice, but it was a better government than other manifestations of the City of Man. Rome was able to achieve peace and prosperity because it possessed a certain kind of martial virtue. Augustine admits the effectiveness of Roman virtues, but he concedes they were merely “splendid vices”—vices masquerading as virtue that kept even worse vices in check.

Augustine says Christians are like pilgrims traveling through the earthly city on their way to a better country. We must avoid the vices of the City of Man, but that doesn’t mean we should show contempt for the earthly city and its politics.

Looking at American history, Augustine likely would accuse our version of the earthly city of failing the standard of justice—but he might also admit that the United States is as good as it gets on this earth. Ultimately, however, as good as it gets simply isn’t good enough.

Augustine is unequivocal in his dismissal of civil theology, and our modern conception of church and state operating in separate spheres owes much to his thinking. Ancient societies believed religion and civic life overlapped, and for the Romans, traditional religion was an aspect of civic life. After Rome converted to Christianity and Christianity supplanted paganism as the new civic religion, those old habits of thought persisted. Augustine warns that God never meant for Christians to think this way.

Despite his skepticism concerning the civic order, Augustine supports it. He doesn’t advocate tearing down or supplanting the government with some idealized polity that has no chance of achieving perfection. He frequently cited Romans 13 to remind Christians they’re under the authority of the civic magistrate: “Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”

In the waning days of the world’s greatest empire, Augustine surveys Rome’s long history and decides Paul and the other martyrs were Rome’s real heroes, not the politicians and soldiers. Rome’s senators and citizens crafted a polity that lasted for a thousand years, and Rome’s legions spilled their blood conquering the world. But the glory they achieved for Rome proved ephemeral.

In The City of God, Augustine referred to the Apostle Paul as “the best and strongest of men.” Paul didn’t exhibit strength through war and conquest; rather, he gloried in his own weakness. Likewise, Augustine esteems the martyrs who possessed humility in the face of death. Their first concern was testifying to their faith in the heavenly city rather than fighting for fading glory in the earthly city.

Augustine ends The City of God with a contemplation on that heavenly city, saying, “There we shall be still and see, see and love, love and praise. Behold what will be in the end without end! For what else is our end but to reach the kingdom without end.”

During a contentious election cycle, it’s easy to forget our ultimate concern should be the kingdom without end, rather than restoring America’s fading glory. But citizens of heaven still have a civic responsibility to work for the good of the earthly city. As we prepare to cast our votes this year, Augustine would urge us to faithfully engage in politics—without putting our faith in it.

Collin Garbarino

Collin is WORLD’s arts and culture editor. He is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Louisiana State University and resides with his wife and four children in Sugar Land, Texas.



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