How Augustine’s "The City of God" Encourages Christians to Engage in the Political Process
I graduated from high school in 1991. Thus, I came of age during the Reagan years. One could say I was the generation birthed by the “Moral Majority”, whose parents were Jerry Falwell and Barry Goldwater. Consequently, throughout my adult life I viewed myself as a conservative Evangelical Christian and voted accordingly and faithfully every two years for the party I believed was most inline with conservative Evangelical Christian values—the party of Ronald Reagan—the Republican party. However, recently it appears I am watching the image of myself in the sidemirror of the Republican party becoming smaller and smaller as I am left standing on the side of the road wondering where I go from here.
With greater frequency, the moral issues that are so dear to my Christian faith are being pushed to the periphery or tabled until “after the elections.” I was so disheartened by my choices during the last presidential election that for the first time in my adult life I did not vote for a presidential candidate. I also know I am not the only Evangelical who forewent the presidential election. Recently my disillusionment reached an all-time low as I watched in utter shock as Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) gave a speech on the Senate floor (Aug 23) wherein he blasts the Republican party saying, “Many voters think Republicans actually care about the unborn. Many voters think Republicans are really opposed to government funded abortions. But the dirty little secret is that Republican leadership is blocking my amendment to defund Planned Parenthood.” At that moment I began to wonder if voting even matters. We elect politicians who all promise to go to Washington and make a difference, who tell us what we want to hear to win our votes, but as soon as their name is mounted on their office door they begin marching to the beat of a different drum.
What are Evangelicals to do about it? Some, like myself, have seriously wrestled with whether it would be a wiser use of time to stay home on election night. In the end, does it really matter who we vote for or if we even vote? Considering we cannot predict nor control what politicians do, and the fact that God has already “declared the end from the beginning” (Is. 46:10), would it not be better to simply stay home and pray for our nation rather than vote for a politician or political party that may do more harm than good? This is where 21st century voters can still benefit from the insights of a 5th century theologian—Augustine of Hippo.
In the year 410, the capital city of the Roman Empire was sacked by barbarians. In response many argued that this was the result of Rome embracing Christianity and rejecting the traditional Roman gods. Augustine took to pen and paper to explain how the fall of Rome fit into God’s plan for history and to encourage the saints to not lose heart. The result was his famed work The City of God. In the second half of that book he highlights three key points that are worth reflecting on today in our current political climate.
First, where there is no true religion there are no true virtues. Augustine rightly points out:
For though the soul may seem to rule the body admirably, and the reason the vices, if the soul and reason do not themselves obey God, as God has commanded them to serve Him, they have no proper authority over the body and the vices…It is for this reason that the virtues which it seems to itself to possess, and by which it restrains the body and the vices that it may obtain and keep what it desires, are rather vices than virtues so long as there is no reference to God in the matter.[i]
When a society tries to control human behavior and vices apart from God and his revealed will as set forth in scripture, apart from an acknowledgment of and acquiescence to the authority of God’s Word, “they have no proper authority over the body and the vices.” Consequently, those qualities which society deems to be good “are rather vices than virtues so long as there is no reference to God in the matter.” In other words, Augustine helps us understand why society—at least western society—is in a moral tailspin with the ground rapidly approaching. We no longer live in a mere post-modern America. We now live in a post-Christian America. Yes, we still see remnants of our Christian past here and there. For example, “In God We Trust” is still on our currency. But for all practical purposes we now live in a completely secular society.
It is helpful to bear this in mind as it helps us to make sense of what we are watching on the news or reading on the internet. The apostle Paul states it this way: “Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man…” (Rom. 1:22-23 ESV). Post-Christian America has exchanged the “glory of the immortal God” for an image of themselves. This is not to say the United States was ever God’s country. It is to say that for most of U.S. history a biblical worldview was at the forefront of the American psyche. Today that biblical worldview has been replaced with a completely secular and humanistic worldview. The point is that as we watch the news and engage in civic responsibilities, it must be borne in mind that “the blind is leading the blind” (Mtt. 15:14). It must also be borne in mind that the solution is ultimately not to elect better politicians. The solution is the gospel. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation…” (Rom. 1:16 ESV). The gospel is the “power of God”. The gospel alone has the power to transform lives and societies.
Toward that end, Augustine postulated that we must work with secular governments (earthly cities) to establish peace in society so that we (the heavenly city) might make good use of that peace.
The earthly city, which does not live by faith, seeks an earthly peace, and the end it proposes, in the well-ordered concord of civic obedience and rule, is the combination of men’s wills to attain the things which are helpful to this life. The heavenly city, or rather the part of it which sojourns on earth and lives by faith, makes use of this peace only because it must, until this mortal condition which necessitates it shall pass away.[i]
Augustine clearly understood that in the end only the City of God would be left standing, that God would be victorious and would someday triumph over all his enemies and the enemies of his people. But until that day, “until this mortal condition which necessitates it shall pass away”, believers must ever seek to work with the earthly city to establish peace in society so that we might make good use of this peace. We may become upset or frustrated that politicians are not moving fast enough--or moving at all—on the moral issues which we hold dear to our hearts. However, in the grand scheme of things, overturning Roe v. Wade, defining marriage as being between one man and one woman, or defunding Planned Parenthood is not going to mend the fray of the American moral fabric. Only the gospel will do that. Thus, believers must do all we can to maintain a peaceful society that is friendly, or at least indifferent, to Evangelicalism so that we can continue to worship in peace, train up our children in the ways of the Lord, and evangelize our neighbors.
When Jesus sent his disciples out into the world he said to them: “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16 ESV). If I understand the book of Revelations correctly, we will not be able to stop the damn from someday fully bursting. The world is going to get worse. But if we do not retreat from our civic responsibility, if we work wisely with the earthly city, we can help to establish a peace that we can make good use of.
Thirdly, Augustine argued that believers must keep their minds focused on eternal glory, not temporal happiness.
But the actual possession of the happiness of this life, without the hope of what is beyond, is but a false happiness and profound misery. For the true blessings of the soul are not now enjoyed; for that is no true wisdom which does not direct all its prudent observations, many actions, virtuous self-restraint, and just arrangements, to that end in which God shall be all and all in secure eternity and perfect peace.[i]
To strive for the happiness of this life “without the hope of what is beyond, is but a false happiness and profound misery.” This is because true happiness and complete satisfaction can never be found in this world. Everything this world has to offer is temporal and fleeting. Only Christ can satisfy our soul’s deepest longings. Only the City of God is eternal. The apostle Paul profoundly understood this truth, which is why he wrote: “I count all things as rubbish in light of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil. 3:8 my translation). Paul was radically transformed by his Damascus road experience and came to realize that only Christ mattered, only pursuing Christ, loving Christ, and knowing Christ. Like Paul before him, Augustine took a long view of life. He understood that the “blessings of the soul are not now enjoyed.” At least not fully.
Believers need to be farsighted, not nearsighted. We need to remember that this world--this nation—is not our permanent home. We are pilgrims on pilgrimage, missionaries on a mission, soldiers bivouacking. We have been called by God to “proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9 ESV). If we keep this goal in mind, we will be far less likely to become frustrated or disillusioned with our current political system.
Anytime a government involves people there are bound to be problems. Anytime a government involves unbelievers there are bound to be enormous problems. Since the time of Adam and Eve there has been conflict between the earthly city and the heavenly city, between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman (Gen. 3:15). This is not going to end until the return of Christ, and Evangelicals are certainly not going to fix this through the election process. However, if we keep in mind that our government is filled with blind who are leading the blind, it will help us to be more compassionate. Just as Jesus had compassion on the masses as he saw them as sheep without a shepherd (Mtt. 9:36). If we understand that our goal in the political process should be to establish a peaceful society in which believers can freely worship, minister, and evangelize, we will be freed from the anxiety that comes from watching the nightly news. And if we keep our eyes focused on the goal, instead of the path, we will find greater motivation to keeping going, to keep pressing on “toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14 ESV).
 Augustine, The City of God, Book XIX, chapter 25.
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