Many Christians arrive at the end of this election season with a sense of relief regardless of the outcome. The months (or even years) leading up to the election have been divisive and difficult for anyone trying to live a faithful life in our inevitably political world. Churches, schools, and institutions have spent time during the election season equipping Christians with theological and political principles; pastors have shepherded their people through division inside and outside the church; and individual Christians have navigated the political tensions of their own friends and family.
We are tired, frustrated, and very often heartbroken over the evil and injustice we have witnessed. But we have cast our ballots, we have taken an “I Voted” sticker selfie, and we have completed our civic duty. We can be done talking about politics now, right?
The end of this election season, however, should be the start of a new season of political participation, not a chance to throw down in exhaustion. The work of faithful political engagement neither begins nor ends with an election. This is true not only because the regular work of government has just begun, but because for Christians the work of spiritual formation has only just begun as well. We have been shaped by the election, just as much (if not more) than we sought to shape it. The work of forming and sustaining human communities is inextricably bound up in questions about spiritual formation: the shaping of our loves and loyalties, the stories we tell ourselves about the world and our place in it, and the ultimate goods worthy of our striving. Any time is a good time for cultivating the political imagination of the people of God.
Augustine is one crucially important figure in Christian history who remains a helpful guide for nurturing a distinctly Christian political imagination. He lived in a tumultuous time in history: the beginning of Christendom and the beginning of the end of the Roman empire. He lived in a time of shifting popular attitudes towards Christians and a time in which an empire that once felt inevitable and eternal revealed its fragility. That feeling of instability, of shifting cultural attitudes towards Christians, of inevitable institutions unexpectedly crumbling—this might not feel all too unfamiliar to us today.
The theologian and bishop of Hippo is often remembered for his relative pessimism about secular authority: compared to other Christians seized by triumphalist visions of Christian rule on earth after the conversion of emperor Constantine, Augustine was realistic about the power of human government to affect positive change. He believed, as many church fathers did, that human government was a remedial measure by God to restrain sin in the world—and thus limited in its authority and potential.[i]
Yet despite his low expectations for human government, Augustine was personally politically engaged. He wrote letters to officials urging against the death penalty even for those persecuting Christians; he commended the official Macedonius for his desire for the heavenly city as a proper motivation for good work on earth; and he dedicated City of God to another government official, Marcellinus. In his letters and sermons, he describes the civic duties of leaders not in contrast with their faith but in deep connection with it.[ii] Augustine’s own theology, pastoring, and life represent a crucial tension for Christians throughout history: how can we have a pessimistic understanding of politics while still faithfully participating in it? In other words, how can we live in the tension between our competing impulses towards idolizing politics on one hand and abandoning our responsibility to seek the common good on the other? How can we maintain low expectations and high hopes?
One important way Augustine’s theology can help us answer those questions is his account of the “two cities.” Rather than making a simple divide between “church and state” in the way we typically do today, Augustine describes the two cities—the city of God and the earthly city—as two communities united by their common objects of love. The city of God includes all beings united by their love of God and oriented toward him. The earthly city includes all beings united by their disordered love of themselves, others, or material goods above God. This conception allowed Augustine to see in all earthly communities—churches, governments, families, cities—the mixing of these two cities, the intermingling of people with different loves. This account of human communal and political life continues to provide us with resources to think about our own political participation and the spiritual formation that should motivate it.
One such resource is Augustine’s consistent critique of perfection. Political work is of course always imperfect: we toil in a broken world, fight the sinful impulses in our own hearts, and struggle against the powers and principalities in all areas of life. While we await the coming redemption of the world, all our efforts will be tainted by sin and difficulty. And yet much of our politics works with perfection in mind: you either win or you lose. You either reach your ultimate goal or you fall short. If a political goal cannot be a roaring success, it might not be worth attempting.
Augustine was deeply aware that no earthly political work would ever approach the glory of the coming kingdom of God and yet nonetheless interested in working towards fleeting glimpses of it. Both his spiritual autobiography Confessions and his monumental theological work City of God dwell on the in-between time: the in-between of a Christian still fighting sinful desires while awaiting the fulfillment of redemption and the in-between of a world divided by wayward desires while awaiting the coming redemption of creation.
After many chapters about his philosophical and moral wandering in Confessions, the reader might be excused for expecting that the climactic conversion story might be followed by a triumphant account of a pious Christian life. Instead, Augustine struggles to achieve the moments of intimacy with God he desires and continues to struggle with temptation. Similarly, in City of God he describes the whole of human history after Christ as living in this kind of tension: sojourning through a broken world with a vision of the coming kingdom that cannot be realized until Christ’s return.[iii]
Rather than operating out of the pragmatism that constrains the rest of the world, Christians have greater creative possibilities for political action. When our actions have significance not merely by their success or failure but by the extent to which they align with the city of God, creative possibilities open up. Rather than making questions of strategy preeminent (as they often are in political conversations), Christians have the freedom to champion causes with little chance of earthly success, to advocate on behalf of marginalized and vulnerable people with little political influence, and to find fulfillment in local political work that will never “change the world.”
Augustine describes the two cities not so that we can measure all our political work against an unattainable ideal, but so that we can recognize which policies, behaviors, and people belong to which city. When we are faced with political choices or opportunities, we can (albeit imperfectly) identify the earthly city by its bent towards domination and destruction and the city of God by its animating love of God and neighbor.
Augustine never witnessed a modern election season, yet I think he would be strangely familiar with one of its most common features: reading the times. “This is the most important election in our lifetime!” “You don’t want to be on the wrong side of history.” “Our country is in moral and spiritual decline!” Humans have often been infatuated with reading history, telling the story of our country or society in terms of ever-increasing progress, finding our place in a grand historical narrative. But for someone who wrote a sweeping account of biblical and Roman history, Augustine is surprisingly uninterested in human attempts at interpreting history.
He gives a scathing retelling of the history of the Roman empire, exposing the depravity and destruction hiding underneath its crowing achievements. And yet he is uninterested in making broad historical interpretative claims, even as current events at the time of his writing could easily have prompted a definitive narrative of decline. Why not? What is wrong with “reading the times” and making judgements about the rise and fall of empires or the trajectory of societies? Augustine’s autobiography gives a clue: telling your own story while you’re living it is always a slippery venture.
While Augustine’s honest retelling of his own life story is full of insight, it is always troubled by the problem of self-narration. We are always in the middle of our own journeys, writing the story as we go, returning to past events and discovering that they have more meaning than we realized at the time.[iv] All history and autobiography are storytelling from the middle of the story, never from the kind of perspective necessary to make grand claims about the trajectory of any community and our place in it. That is why Augustine is so bent on narrating his own story and the story of the Roman empire in the context of the biblical story—it is the only account of human history told from God’s perspective. He can assign meaning to certain events that we would never guess, elevate people we would never pick, and make promises about the end of the story that we can trust.
Augustine had seen enough political surprises to know that humans consistently fail to predict how our own actions and plans will turn out. Some Christians during his time placed great faith in the newly “Christianized” Roman empire as the beginning of the Christian age on earth, while others labeled Rome the “new Babylon.” Augustine’s perspective is one we would be wise to adopt: seeing all human institutions as ultimately ambiguous: good at times, evil at others, ultimately temporary, and difficult to assess from our limited perspective.
What does this have to do with political engagement? It is another way in which Christians are freed from the constraints of earthly thinking. We cannot know if this election is the “most important in our lifetime,” or if a certain politician will save our nation from its coming decline, or if we are justified in the compromises we would make for this historical moment. We are free to approach political decisions with wisdom, faithfulness, and biblical principles—not fear-mongering, decline narratives, or doomsday forecasting. We can evaluate the desires, fears, loyalties, and loves animating politicians or parties and judge them accordingly, not based on whether their actions are somehow justified by their unique place in history.
The end of an election season is the beginning of another political season: a time for nourishing our weakened political imaginations. Regardless of the way we voted, debated, or volunteered this season, it gave our political imaginations a thrashing. On both sides we were bombarded with temptations to seek power above faithfulness, to demonize and denigrate anyone who does not think as we do, and to submit the story of the gospel to any number of political narratives. The time after an election season is a time for confession. Augustine conceived of the act of confession not merely as recognition of our sins but as an act of praise. Confession involves an honest evaluation of our own sin and the brokenness of the world, a longing for all things to be made right, and a celebration of the hope that one day they will be restored.[v] This is the work of rehabilitating our damaged political imaginations: lamenting the division and destruction of the season we exit and praying with hopeful expectation for something better.
But for Christians in our communities to hold onto hope for redemption will require that we tell them the story. Our political lives are overflowing with competing stories about the world and our place in it. Augustine’s vision for political transformation was not contained in earthly institutions but rooted in telling a better and more vibrant story about the coming kingdom of God that would animate the people of God.
As we evaluate how to move forward in the coming months and years, Augustine might encourage us to foster our creativity rather than sharpening our political strategies. If we are to live in the tension between political pessimism and faithful engagement, we need our political imaginations enlarged beyond the constraints of worldly political thinking. Instead of leaving political conversations behind with the election season, we have a responsibility to begin the work of formation now—telling beautiful stories of human flourishing, confessing our brokenness with the hope of redemption, and doing the everyday political work of loving our neighbors.
[i] Gregory Lee, “Using the Earthly City: Ecclesiology, Political Activity, and Religious Coercion in Augustine,” Augustinian Studies 47, no. 1 (2016): 42
[ii]Augustine, De civitate Dei, 5.19.; Eric Gregory, Politics and the Order of Love: An Augustinian Ethic of Democratic Citizenship(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 52.
[iii] Charles T. Mathewes, The Republic of Grace: Augustinian Thoughts for Dark Times (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 234
[iv] Charles T. Mathewes, “Book One: The Presumptuousness of Autobiography and the Paradoxes of Beginning,” in A Reader’s Companion to Augustine’s Confessions, ed. Kim Paffenroth and Robert P. Kennedy (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2003), 7.
[v]Peter Dennis Bathory, Political Theory as Public Confession: The Social and Political Thought of St. Augustine of Hippo (Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Books, 1981), 150.