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Is Augustine the patron saint of the 2016 election?

St. Augustine, oil on wood.
St. Augustine, oil on wood.

Public domain photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

St. Augustine, oil on wood.

(RNS) In the summer of 430, the great Christian writer and bishop Augustine of Hippo lay dying as barbarians besieged his North African city – basically a mop-up operation in the slow-motion fall of the Roman Empire.

Today, in the fall of the year 2016, a lot of Christians can relate.

For conservative believers in particular, Hillary Clinton represents a corrupt and imperious establishment and her election would only advance America’s moral decay and make the nation’s decline inevitable. Donald Trump, on the other hand, is seen as a modern-day version of the Vandals, a barbarian at the gates of a once great nation whose election is backed by many of the same Christians who should be opposing such a man.

Given such an apocalyptic prospect, it’s no wonder so many are pointing to the life and writings of St. Augustine for consolation, most notably his treatise “The City of God,” which sought to make theological sense of the barbarian sack of Rome 20 years before his own death in Hippo.

“Now is a good time to re-read your Augustine,” tweeted Ryan Anderson, a Catholic writer on politics and culture and a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

“Rome fell. America might. Augustine helps us understand and respond.”

Then again, just what Augustine was saying in “The City of God” and how that relates to today’s America isn’t as clear as we might think.

One common view, for instance, is that Augustine’s contrast between the Earthly City, or the City of Man, and the heavenly City of God is a signal to the faithful to abandon hope for an inherently fallen world — and in particular the mess of politics — and elevate one’s gaze to the ultimate triumph of the divine order.

Caught between the self-defeating moral rot of the established order and the brutality and chaos of an uncivilized horde, that thinking goes, a Christian has little choice but to retreat to the sanctuary and pray.

Yet religious leaders and Augustine scholars say that interpretation isn’t quite accurate, and they insist that the saint, even in the midst of the collapsing culture around him, was offering a more complex and practical counsel — and one that’s more relevant to the present circumstance.

“Christians are not of the world, but we’re most definitely in it,” Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput said in a lecture at the University of Notre Dame in September.

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, during the Festival of Families announcement at the Pontifical North American College in Rome on June 23, 2015. Photo courtesy of Chris Warde-Jones, Archdiocese of Philadelphia

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, during the Festival of Families announcement at the Pontifical North American College in Rome on June 23, 2015. Photo courtesy of Chris Warde-Jones, Archdiocese of Philadelphia

“Augustine would say that our home is the City of God, but we get there by passing through the City of Man,” said Chaput, a prominent conservative who has blasted both Clinton and Trump. “While we’re on the road, we have a duty to leave the world better than we found it. One of the ways we do that, however imperfectly, is through politics.”

In an essay last March, Russell Moore, a prominent Southern Baptist leader who opposes both Trump and Clinton, made a similar point about not bailing on the society we have, no matter how dire the situation: “We need what Augustine calls the ‘ordered harmony’ of the temporal order,” Moore wrote.

Augustine, he continued, “doesn’t celebrate the rise of the barbarians, nor does he shrug off the instability and terror around him. The city of God, while she sojourns as a pilgrim band in this present age, is concerned with earthly peace and flourishing.”

Christian history is filled with examples of the competing impulses to either engage with the world or retreat from it — and even before this campaign various Christian writers and thinkers had been debating whether it was time to withdraw from society to some extent.  

The most notable and articulated expression of that idea is found in Orthodox convert and writer Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option,” a proposal (soon to be a book) that faithful believers start to model themselves on small, intentional communities like those established in the sixth century by St. Benedict, considered the founder of Western monasticism.

But experts say that Augustine is no Benedict.

“Augustine’s ‘City of God’ is not about hunkering down. It’s about being a public presence in every city,” said Chad Pecknold, a Catholic University of America theologian and commentator on religion and politics who is writing a book called “Augustine’s City.”

“The realism of Augustine is always something I think a lot of people miss,” Pecknold said. “He’s actually very realistic about the earthly city as a place of compromise, about the agreement of goods held in common. He’s even realistic about politics being about things of conscience and the discernment of the eternal law.”

Part of the challenge in parsing Augustine is that he was such a prolific writer and homilist (and such a remarkable number of his works have survived from antiquity), and his life was so long, rich and well-documented that it’s easy to find a passage or interpretation to support various points of view on a range of topics.

Catholics, for example, have long revered Augustine’s theology and philosophy, while many Protestants, following on Martin Luther, love to highlight Augustine’s ideas on original sin and the sufficiency of God’s grace.

The saint’s memoir of conversion, the “Confessions,” is also a classic that has inspired countless pilgrims and has been invoked in unexpected ways.

Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, right, says a few words of support for Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump, left, during a campaign rally in Naples, Florida, on October 23, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Jonathan Ernst *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-AUGUSTINE-ELECTION, originally transmitted on Nov. 3, 2016.

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, right, says a few words of support for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, left, during a campaign rally in Naples, Fla., on Oct. 23, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Jonathan Ernst *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-AUGUSTINE-ELECTION, originally transmitted on Nov. 3, 2016.

Trump surrogate Rudy Giuliani, for example, recently compared the Republican nominee — whose tales of sexual escapades have been lowlights of this campaign — to the Augustine of the “Confessions.” “The reality is men can change, people can change,” Giuliani said. “Sometimes going through things like this makes you a much better person.”

In the political realm, Augustine’s “City of God” has been used both to legitimize secular regimes — if they happened to be medieval kingdoms led by Christian monarchs — and to sanctify a strict separation of altar and throne. Today there are those who argue Augustine would have supported the British vote to leave the European Union — and those who say he would have opposed the Brexit referendum.

Officially titled “De Civitate Dei contra Paganos,” or “The City of God against the Pagans,” the treatise is composed of 22 books and it covers a range of issues, from the mystery of suffering and evil in the world to the rise and fall of civilizations in the sweep of history.

The first half is essentially a critique of Roman culture and polytheism and a defense against those who said that the rise of Christianity was somehow to blame for the fall of the Eternal City.

The second half then goes on to talk about the relationship between the two cities, the secular and the godly. But if Augustine was dismantling the pagan notion that the earthly city was the great and good end of human activity, he was not arguing that Christians should just fold their tents.

Rather, as Pecknold explained, Augustine was saying “you need citizens of a higher city, pilgrim citizens who obey the laws of the earthly city but also see that these laws are ordered to transcendent ends. … It is that dual citizenship that really makes cities flourish.”

Pecknold, who says he will not vote for Trump or Clinton, says that for him the main concern is not the candidates themselves but the fact that so many Americans are supporting one or the other.

Augustine was pointing out that the moral health of a citizenry contributed to the city’s fate, he said, so Americans today need to look at themselves and consider Augustine’s “portrait of what a calm, cool, collected and critical Christian should be.”

Augustine, Pecknold added, would not be as focused on the religious bona fides of a candidate.

“Augustine is more interested in having a just king than a Christian king,” he said.

“Our criterion would be to say, ‘Well, how Christian are they?’ That wouldn’t be Augustine’s question. His question would be: Are they just? And if they are just, then you support them. And if they are not just, then you have to resist them.”

About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.

35 Comments

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  • “Is Augustine the patron saint of the 2016 election?”

    No, that’d be St. Jude.

    Props to anyone who gets that joke.

  • Please don’t try to represent Mr. Dreher’s idea of the Benedict Option if you don’t really understand it.

  • Shallow….

    Our two candidates range from terrible to atrocious – but the make-up of the supreme court is of critical importance. We can get rid of a president in 4 yrs. Members of SCOTUS will be holding sway for decades. Vote AGAINST HE whose supreme ct will take this country back to the Dark Ages – and possibly mankind to annihilation….

  • Weren’t the early Romans polytheistic, and the Vandals pagan until converting to Christianity sometime early in the 5th century CE ?

  • Once again, that depends on how one defines the term. It is not all inclusive. I’ve known people who, when asked, “Are you a Christian?” have been known to reply, “Of course, I was born in America wasn’t I?” But it’s not the same thing at all.

  • I’m really enjoying the more deep thinking philosophical articles that are appearing with some frequency here. The questions raised in this article, at least for Christians, are good fodder for framing a response to the unsettling changes that we are likely to continue to face now and in the future.

  • The Romans had already adopted their version of Christianity, what would later become Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox for over a century or so. The Vandals, Goths and Visigoths were members of a now extinct sect, Arianism. Neither Roman nor Barbarian were pagans at the time Rome was falling.

  • Thanks for this article. I’ve been feeling exactly this pull in opposite directions. Think I’ll get out my old copy of City of God. Merci! Mary Rakow

  • Well that’s timely. New study says people are no longer voting on the morality of the candidate, but their expectations of their leadership. America is more secular than ever, christianity is declining at more than 1% of the population per year. The extremists who want america to be ruled by their god can run to their sanctuaries and pray till they die of old age. We are a more diverse population religiously than ever and 30% of us practice no religion at all.

    Many believe the two cities represent govt (the crown) and the church and means they are separate. Give to caesar what is caesar’s and to god what is god’s separate church and state. (Of course theocrats and dominionists would argue). Because christians pick and choose which passages to believe they throw that one away. Separation of church and state was in state laws starting in 1776, because it’s what the people wanted. All 50 states have separation and religious (no religious preference by govt) freedom in their constitutions long before the 14th amendment forced them to.

    When they say ‘moral decay’ what they mean is non-christian, it means the religious right has lost the power over govt to establish christians ‘principles’ on the citizenry of america. We are born a moral people, kindness and compassion is part of our brain structure. We don’t need their christianity or their god favored by our govt to be a moral country or to succeed on any level.

    Remember Augustine is not a biblical writer, his writings do not come from his god but from one man’s brain. (he is the one that made christians look down on sex, did not come from the bible).

  • romans weren’t christian until constantine established christianity as rome’s religion in the 5th century. Then they went about killing non christians, burning temples, and destroying remaining pagan religions. Judaism and christianity were spread by force, by govt decree and under threat of death. By the time of the nicaean counsels 85% of priests did NOT believe in the deity of Jesus, they were told to teach it by the church.

  • What archeologists are finding is polytheism was still popular up into the 7th century. They are digging up statues of various gods in places thought to be mono at the time. It seems what was written later and what was actually practiced in private are totally different. Having no other gods BEFORE ME doesn’t mean no other gods period, just put YAHWEH first.

  • What these christians want is to take america back to 1954, before integration, before birth control, before schools were made secular, when a woman’s place was biblically in the home and pregnant. Those were the dark ages.

  • It is generally accepted that Christianity (Nicean version) was the official religion of the Roman Empire by the late 3rd Century (Constantine’s rule was in the 300’s). Arianism of the Germanic Tribes was also well established by then as well.

  • Constantine’s rule ended in 337. Christianity was the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380 with the Edict of Thessalonica. Its a bit earlier than the 5th Century.

  • it was only the official version when constantine made it the official version in the 4t century. It was never the only religion practiced. I believe archeology before texts.

  • By declining to vote for either candidate (and being concerned that Americans are supporting one or the other) Pecknold has invalidated his entire understanding of Augustine. The city of man is integral to the human experience and not to make a choice in the presidential election is, in reality, to make a choice. One must not abstain from making hard moral choices and voting. Personally, I am voting for a Hillary because of her life-long devotion to justice and because Trump’s “pro-life” persona is just that….it is not a personal conviction nor does it represent a true conversion from his earlier views. His view is cynical and manipulative of the so-called “Christian Right”. They are being hood-winked by someone who has shown an appalling lack of respect for human dignity.

  • A fair point. But once again, calling oneself a Christian without earnestly endeavoring to walk by Christ’s teachings does not truly make one a Christian, any more than if I walk out into the garage and shout to the world, “I’m a Chevrolet!” I’m trying to make clear the distinction between declaring something, and that something being true and valid. Though in the vast and rapid sweep of history it makes things easier to assign people to categories. I prefer to take things on a one on one basis.

  • “They are being hood-winked by someone who has shown an appalling lack of respect for human dignity.”

    I would say that this describes right wing Christians to a T. They are hoodwinking themselves, and joyfully so, showing that their concerns about morality are nothing compared to their lusts for power, money, and dominion.

  • You’ve just described what passes for a good portion of modern Christianity, including every single self proclaimed mOral Christian who is voting for Donald trump.

  • That is at best a discussion within one’s sect. But for all intents and purposes, for historical purposes one simply goes by their professed religion/sect. Especially since any discussion as to whether Romans or Vandals were earnest in their following of Christ’s teachings is entirely speculative and bereft of any usable evidence to support a premise in one direction or another.

  • was paul for or against sex? he was one man, a lone traveler who was obsessed with writing about a man he never met, jesus, at times from prison. did he even write the book that is attributed to him, (he only wrote some of them). the bible is a sex fest.

  • Paul warned against forgeries written in his name. If that “letter” was a true one, the. There are forgeries. If that statement were not true, than that letter is a forgery.

  • In the historical context I won’t dispute your point, but I remain confident that God Himself in His own time will make the clear and correct distinctions. I await with bated breath the summation of human history. In the meantime; the Now if you will, we are certainly able to make the proper clarifications in our own time frame.

  • “Well_Read”, my keister !!

    YOU WROTE: “[Paul] was obsessed with writing about a man he never met, Jesus…”

    ~~~~~~ Only an ignorant fool would write about something he knew nothing of!

    READ: Acts 9:9
    “Saul (Paul) meets Jsus near Damascus”

    9 Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord. He went to the high priest 2 and requested letters from him to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any men or women who belonged to the Way, he might bring them as prisoners to Jerusalem. 3 As he traveled and was nearing Damascus, a light from heaven suddenly flashed around him. 4 Falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?”

    5 “Who are You, Lord?” he said.

    “I am Jesus, the One you are persecuting,” He replied. 6 “But get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

  • that would be fine if the NT was true and historical. it is not. Historically/archaeologically/texts outside the bible prove none of it.

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