In a recent essay, “Liberalism, the American Right, and the Place of Love in Politics,” Jake Meador attempts to move beyond the terms of the recent, ostensibly existential, debate within American conservatism. The opposition between libertarian proceduralism — represented by David French — and authoritarian integralism — represented by Sohrab Ahmari and Adrian Vermeule — is assessed by Meador as merely a new, and significantly devolved, iteration of a larger, decades-long debate within conservatism.
Meador wishes to take the discussion to deeper levels and introduce different intellectual resources in hopes of breaking free from this stunted impasse. To that effect, he retrieves a recent project which has been largely ignored (or rejected) by conservatives: Eric Gregory’s version of Augustinian liberalism — which Gregory labels “Augustinian civic liberalism.”
What I attempt in this essay is to expand on Meador’s proposal by assessing the merits of Gregory’s constructive retrieval of Augustine for Christian political theology in our contemporary context. This can be profitably performed by analyzing Gregory’s particular relation to the interpretation of Augustine provided by Robert Markus — who can generally be described as the originator of the movement (in its various streams) known as “Augustinian liberalism.” Gregory, I argue, is right to follow Markus on certain issues, right to differ from Markus on others, but wrong in the ways he sticks with Markus on a key issue. Thus, two cheers for Gregory’s Augustinian liberalism, not three.
Gregory is Right to Follow Markus: Political Ambivalence During the Saeculum
One of the major contributions of Markus in his seminal 1970 work, Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of Augustine, is the recognition that the “secular” is, for Augustine, a time (rather than a space) which is inhabited by Christians and non-Christians until the return of Christ. According to Markus’s “eschatologism,” it is impossible to separate the citizens of the heavenly city and earthly city; inextricably intermixed, they share goods in society — among which are matters pertaining to political governance. The political regime and the institution of the church cannot be identified in secular history (the saeculum) since this time and certain goods are shared with those who do not follow Christ. Absolute moral and religious unity is precluded prior to the parousia. Because of this ineradicable pluralism and the reality of sin, it is not possible to usher in the kingdom of God, to bring the heavenly city upon the earth. Therefore, politics is “desacralized.”
Markus is astute in detailing Augustine’s move away from his earlier Eusebian enthusiasm about the historical fulfillment of eschatological hopes as a result of the conversion of Constantine and the apparent triumph of the church. After his theological disputes with the Pelagians and the historic sack of Rome, Augustine was disabused of such illusions and forced to alter his theological perspective. He now refused to countenance any sacralizing of history, but he also rejected a simple narrative of decline.
Rather, Markus argues, Augustine proffered the third way of the secular — a unique invention of Christianity. In this time, Christians should exhibit a posture of ambivalence toward political arrangements. The future arrival of kingdom realities is certain and cannot be thwarted by politics; but these realities can also not be fully instantiated in secular history through political activity. This relativizes political orders; they can neither immanentize the eschaton nor thwart the coming of the kingdom. Thus, there is no single “Christian” order. The church experiences no conclusive victory within the political and social realms. History is neither static nor does it proceed along a unidirectional path. The lines between the sacred and secular are in constant fluctuation and require perpetual renegotiation. The relation of political orders to true religion is thus dynamic and revisable.
Gregory largely follows Markus on all these points (as does James K.A. Smith in his recent proposal for Reformed public theology, Awaiting the King). In this respect, his project is faithful to Augustine and instructive for contemporary political theology.
Gregory is Right to Differ from Markus: Anti-Neutrality and the Religious Value of Political Participation
Meador draws attention to Gregory’s rejection of neutrality in politics. This is a divergence from Markus who never substantially retracts his earlier argument that the political order during the saeculum must be religiously neutral. For Markus, the political ambivalence proper to Christian theology also entails a certain historical agnosticism regarding God’s purposes within history and a complete deferral of kingdom-realities to the eschaton (two ideas which I will discuss in the next section). Thus, according to Markus, nothing ultimately significant occurs during secular history. He believes that this, alongside the intractable pluralism mentioned above, necessitates a religiously-neutral state.
Augustinian civic liberals not only reject public neutrality, but also more robustly affirm the importance of this time and the relative good which can be accomplished in the political realm. Whereas Markus’s burden was to desacralize politics, one of the fundamental goals of the Augustinian civic liberalism of Gregory and others, like Charles Mathewes, is to argue for the religious value of political participation. Mathewes, like Markus, rejects an over-realized eschatology; but he emphatically implores Christians to unite their religion with political action. Gregory explicitly shifts the focus from political institutions to political virtues, highlighting love as a motivation for public action. Christian love of neighbor should inspire and inform public action according to Gregory.
This is all very instructive, and can claim a certain alignment with Augustine’s theology. In book 19 of The City of God, the locus classicus of Augustinian political theology, Augustine famously argued that, during their earthly pilgrimage, the citizens of the heavenly kingdom “use” the peace of temporal realm without joining the earthly city in its false worship by “enjoying” the goods of this world inordinately. The heavenly city worships God alone, who is the supreme good, the only proper object of our ultimate love.
So citizens of the city of God must use temporal peace to achieve eternal goods, which involves seeking the enjoyment of God through all things and loving God in their neighbors. Citizens of the city of God must, therefore, learn to embrace the vulnerability of temporal politics. They can neither control nor abandon political realities. They “use” temporal peace rather than placing their hopes in any historical order — whether past, present, or imagined future. They engage whatever is the contemporary order in order to love God and neighbor in it. A desacralized politics can and should be attended by neighbor-love through the shared use of temporal goods. This accords quite well with Gregory’s “politics of love.”
Gregory Displaces the Church in Augustine’s Vision
In order to keep this love from being paternalistic and triumphalist, Gregory argues that Christians need to distance themselves from Augustine’s ecclesiology, which could tempt them to imagine that they have a monopoly on grace and virtue. As Meador highlights, Gregory centers his account of virtue on Christology rather than ecclesiology. Gregory expands on this by arguing that Christ is not the exclusive possession of the church, but is the common good of all temporal citizens.
Here Gregory seems to follow Markus who, in his later works, defends state neutrality not as excluding religion from the public sphere, but as denying that political justice and peace is not dependent upon religion. Markus also extends his interpretation of Augustine’s eschatology to ecclesiology. The church, too, is secularized — i.e., it cannot be conceived as a unique sphere of the sacred. Thus, the visible, historical church is completely distinguished from the city of God, and the two cities are essentially invisible in history.
During the saeculum, according to Markus, there is no significant distinction between the church and world. The church is mixed, like all other institutions, and just as corrupt. No institution should be identified with the kingdom of God. God’s rule bears solely upon individual hearts and not upon institutions or society as a whole. Gregory seems to follow this by refusing to restrict the possibility of virtue to the church, and by focusing primarily (if not exclusively) on the virtuous practices of individuals to the neglect of reflection on the role of formation within institutions and relations between institutional realities.
Meador endorses Gregory’s argument that the Augustinian teaching that justice requires governments to worship God means that a government needs to have a positively defined conception of virtue and of the good life. Meador understands this as being incompatible with either libertarian/liberal proceduralism or authoritarian integralism. Government cannot remain value-neutral with regard to good — this much is true. But Gregory’s narrow focus on the virtues of citizens and absolute rejection of ecclesio-centrism does diverge from the political significance of the church in Augustine’s vision.
In Augustine’s thought, there is a closer relationship between justice and virtue and the worship of the church. Justice, according to Augustine, means rendering to one what is due. What is due to God? Worship. Where is this worship expressed? In the church as the pilgrim part of the heavenly city. This constitutes the church as the center for true virtue, wherein persons can be freed from the power of demons and where morals are built up because it is there that worship is offered to the true God. Though this topic cannot be explored fully here, according to Augustine, true worship effects unity, orders one’s loves, forms participants in virtue, and humbles citizens and their political ambitions.
Augustine is abundantly clear that this should not lead to any pride in the church. The heavenly city on earth is inextricably mixed in its members — both institutionally and individually. There are people who are currently members of the church who will ultimately prove to be citizens of the earthly city. And even within the moral psychology of Christians there is an ongoing warfare of the will which requires daily forgiveness.
Therefore the justice which characterizes the church is necessarily penitent. The primary virtue which the city of God exhibits is humility, which is also received through Christ who humbled himself. As those justified in Christ, the just society is penitential — its righteousness entails its perpetual confession and request for forgiveness. The church can confidently acquire a measure of justice on this earth, which flows out into broader social life.
As those who know they need mercy, they will show mercy toward others. Humbled citizens of the city of God are also self-critical in their political judgments, and thus Christian political actors must acknowledge their limits, admit their mistakes, and abandon all attempts that seek to control history. They know that God’s kingdom is never in jeopardy, and that to hold onto any particular regime would be political idolatry which would express itself in domination. Perfect peace is found only in God, which means that true happiness eludes us in all of our earthly politics. The church experiences a taste of this peace now, and thus its members summon their neighbors to share this joy with them for eternity, looking beyond temporal politics. What this means is that Christians are better servants of the world when they are cognizant of their heavenly citizenship and approach their earthly political activity with humility. This awareness, this humility, is cultivated in the worship of the church.
Furthermore, not only are justice and virtue more closely tied to the worship of the church than the Augustinian liberals acknowledge, but in Augustine’s theology there is a much closer relation between the city of God and the church on earth than they envision. Though that relation might not be as close as those who have taken the “ecclesial turn” (e.g., John Milbank and Stanley Hauerwas) perceive it, it is not as distant as the Augustinian liberals present it. Robert Dodaro has provided a seminal analysis in this regard, portraying Augustine’s ecclesiology as properly lying somewhere between Milbank and Markus. One has to balance the corpus permixtum with the totus Christus, the historical and the eschatological aspects, in Augustine’s theology of the church — and this leads to an understanding of the church on earth as the pilgrim part of the heavenly city.
It is true that Augustine avoids a simple identification of either the city of God or the city of man with earthly societies, since they are mixed within history and include angels. But a compelling case can be made, such as has been provided by Gregory Lee, that the broader narrative argument in TheCity of God presents the two cities as having histories which can be observed and be narrated. The heavenly and earthly cities are defined by the objects of their loves, and they manifest in societies that can be observed.
Therefore, each city is defined by the moral character of its respective citizens; but that morality is manifest societally — i.e., it creates two “orders” or “cities.” The loves of the citizens produce societies and, though these societies are eschatological and intermixed during the saeculum, they have histories which can be narrated. Though they are mixed, they are not entirely invisible. True, their membership is to a degree hidden according to predestination; but there is the possibility of membership transfer and historical judgment regarding actual societies according to their visible practices.
The pilgrim part of the heavenly city has a visible history that can be traced to its origins in Abel, then progressed through Noah, Abraham, and came into full expression in the New Testament church. So while it is most likely true that the city of God has both a historical and eschatological aspect, either of which can be emphasized at various points, the visible church truly participates in the heavenly city. The earthly polity which most manifests the city of God here and now in its constitutive practices is the church. It worships the true God and, as the eucharistic assembly, it is the kingdom of God in the present. Augustine even connects this with the fulfillment of prophecy.
Even Markus eventually concedes that the Augustinian interpreters who have taken the “ecclesial turn” do rightfully capture Augustine’s emphasis on the church. It is central for the formation in virtue and it is the visible expression of the heavenly city within secular history.
Augustine does not intend to communicate that Christians must separate from sinners. That is antithetical to his core arguments in his dealings with the Donatists. He believes that it is impossible in this life to avoid sinners; and though sin is congenital, it is not contagious. The Donatists were the ones who believed the opposite and viewed separation as a necessity. Augustine argued that toleration of sinners was required both within the church and in the civic sphere. But he also believed that the church must be a visibly distinct body; and this is one of the very reasons that he so desired to retain fellowship with the Donatists. The church is the community in which sinners unite in worship of the true God, receive forgiveness, and hope for renewal in virtue through sacramental fellowship. This is core to the church’s visible witness to the city of God. The Donatists were refusing this formation and, thereby, undermined the visibility of the heavenly city through the penitent people. This is what constitutes the church as a unique society amidst the earthly city; and it is into this fellowship that the city of God summons the world.
Augustine’s engagement in the Donatist controversy shows not only the importance of the visible distinctiveness of the church, but it also gives insight into the centrality of the church in how Augustine assesses various political orders. He judges them especially (but not exclusively) according to how they respond to and treat the church. In Letters 105, 173, and 185 (letters either to Donatists or to governing authorities regarding the Donatists), Augustine argues that a score of Old Testament prophecies are being fulfilled through the church’s cultural and political prominence. Christ is characterized as ruling the nations through the church. The rulers are perceived as having submitted to Christ by virtue of the establishment of laws against impiety, but also in protecting the church and promoting its worship.
He admits that this situation is somewhat unique, relatively recent, and not necessarily permanent. There is an instability to history. The church’s circumstances in the political sphere will change and thus the relationship between the church and the governing authorities must be continually readdressed. A similar argument is picked up in City of God. At the end of book 18, he explains that this time of the saeculum will involve both “persecutions” and “consolations.”
Therefore, the posture of Christians should be one of critical ambivalence. Things could go in either direction, and, as Augustine makes clear in book 19, it is possible to discriminate between societies by their concrete practices. There he says that as long as the governing authorities the rulers give protection of the church and promote true worship, the church will lend its support. In times of persecution of the church and prohibition of its worship, the church must dissent and triumph through suffering. This is how the heavenly city during its pilgrimage uses, rather than enjoys, political goods. The state can neither secure nor ruin redemptive history. The church does not rest its hopes in political arrangements.
But it is clear that, for Augustine, the indeterminacy of history does not negate the intrusion of eschatological realities. Ambiguity about the future does not render present politics autonomous — for rulers are under Christ — or completely opaque — for we can assess political circumstances according to the recognition of the church. Since the church is the fulfillment of prophecy and exists as “the way of everlasting salvation” in the world, societies and ruling authorities that mock or attack it are foolish.
So while one can agree with Gregory that Augustine’s political theology does not necessitate an anti-liberal stance, and, yes, we can concede that liberalism might not demand the privatization of Christianity, it is not so clear that Gregory affirms the political significance of the church in ways that are aligned with Augustine. This is something which Jonathan Tran addresses in his recent piece, “Assessing the Augustinian Democrats.” Meador flags the fact that Gregory wishes to avoid the dualistic ontology of those who have taken the “ecclesial turn” and who emphasize the church’s role in the formation of virtue in contrast to the ways of broader political society. Tran explains that:
An Augustinian democratic ontology is meant to replace this [dualistic] picture. . . . The Augustinian democrats retain the correspondence between virtue and morality but their ontology allows them to broaden its availability. . . . The development of the ontology leaves little prospects for saying much about the church. Wanting to avoid crowding out the world, the Augustinian democrats overcompensate and crowd out the church. It is not that church does not have a place, but it is no longer uniquely the place of sacrament, virtue, and God.
The Piecemeal Appeal to O’Donovan
Gregory wants to suggest that Christ can triumph within liberal orders. But the question which needs to be posed to Gregory’s Augustinian liberalism is this: does Christ display his triumph over the rulers of liberal orders in and through the church (cf. Eph. 3:10)? Meador highlights the fact that Gregory turns to Oliver O’Donovan as someone who similarly rejects a simple anti-liberalism and leaves room for the triumph of Christ in liberal institutions.
Gregory endorses O’Donovan’s christocentric vision in contrast to ecclesiocentric ones. The problem is that O’Donovan, at least in his magisterial work of political theology, TheDesire of the Nations, places significantly more emphasis on the church than Gregory’s civic liberalism can countenance.
Certainly, for O’Donovan, Christian political theology must not be reduced to ecclesiology; but it certainly requires a central place for the church. Consider these quotes:
Political theology has an ecclesiological mode, which takes the church seriously as a society and shows how the rule of God is realised there.
The kingly rule of Christ is God’s own rule exercised over the whole world. It is visible in the life of the church . . . .
A theological account of how this world is ruled, then, must proceed from and through an account of the church.
The church does not philosophise about a future world; it demonstrates the working of the coming Kingdom within this one.
The triumph of Christ over the kingdoms of this world must be displayed in a culture that “responds to the proclamatory presence of the church in its midst.”
This entails, at least in part, the state facilitating the mission of the church. Though O’Donovan has no naïve nostalgia for a return to any particular manifestations of Christendom, he does offer a (qualified) theological endorsement of the underlying principle of Christendom. He argues that Christendom lamentably ends when people “no longer think that the rulers of the earth owe service to the rule of Christ;” when the state denies that it should offer deliberate assistance to the church’s mission.
Gregory also relies heavily upon Karl Barth to round out his Augustinian liberalism. But, though influenced in many ways by Barth, O’Donovan is no ally here. O’Donovan famously begins the epilogue to his magisterial work with a rebuttal of Barth’s radical distinction between the church and the polis of God which descends from heaven to earth. This move is assessed by O’Donovan as a failure to acknowledge the political character of the church itself. The church, says O’Donovan, is the promise of the city. “If [it] . . . has as its eternal goal, the goal of its pilgrimage, the disclosure of the church as city, it has as its intermediate goal, the goal of the mission of its mission, the discovery of the city’s secret destiny through the prism of the church.” This is a rebuttal to Barth, and certainly discordant with Gregory’s aversion to the “ecclesial turn” in political theology.
So my assessment is that Gregory’s Augustinian liberalism deserves two, but not three, cheers as a political-theological guide to contemporary conservatism in America. In terms of the political significance of the church, Gregory’s project could use a little more O’Donovan and a little less Markus. At least if Gregory, and those who invoke him, wishes to remain Augustinian.
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This is worked out most fully in Eric Gregory, Politics and the Order of Love: An Augustinian Ethic of Democratic Citizenship (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago, 2008). ↑
Two recent works which provide an in-depth analysis of the views of the authors associated with Augustinian liberalism are Michael J. S. Bruno, Political Augustinianism: Modern Interpretations of Augustine’s Political Thought (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2014), chapters three and four; and Robert C. Crouse, Two Kingdoms & Two Cities: Mapping Theological Traditions of Church, Culture, and Civil Order (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2017), chapter five. ↑
All references will be to the second edition. Robert A. Markus, Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine; second edition (Cambridge: Cambridge, 1989). ↑
There is now a general consensus that the saeculum in Augustine’s thought refers to a time rather than a third, neutral space. See Luke Bretherton, Christianity and Contemporary Politics: The Conditions and Possibilities of Faithful Witness. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 81f; cf. the note on 110ff. There is some disagreement about the beginning of the time—whether it was inaugurated at Christ’s incarnation or with the fall of man. See Paul J. Griffiths, “Secularity and the Saeculum,” in Augustine’s City of God: A Critical Guide; edited by James Wetzel (Cambridge: Cambridge, 2012), 34. ↑
See James K.A. Smith, Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017), 216ff. There Smith argues for the posture of “calculated ambivalence.” ↑
Though he later focuses more on the indeterminacy of history and its opacity to our knowledge regarding its direction and meaning. See Robert A. Markus, Christianity and the Secular (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame, 2006), 27, 35ff. Cf. Gregory, Politics and the Order of Love, 91. ↑
See Crouse, Two Kingdoms & Two Cities, 134ff. In that section Crouse provides analysis of Mathewes and Gregory’s Augustinian civic liberalism. ↑
All references will be from the The City of God against the Pagans; translated and edited by R. W. Dyson (Cambridge: Cambridge, 1998). Henceforth referred to in footnotes as CoG. ↑
These points are developed more fully in Stewart-Kroeker, Pilgrimage as Moral and Aesthetic Formation; Robert J. Dodaro, Christ and the Just Society in the Thought of Augustine (Cambridge: Cambridge, 2005); Lee, “Using the Earthly City;” James K. A. Smith, “Formation, Grace, and Pneumatology: Or, Where’s the Spirit in Gregory’s Augustine?” Journal of Religious Ethics 39.3 (2011). ↑
See Robert J. Dodaro, “Church and State,” in Augustine through the Ages: An Encyclopedia; general editor, Allen D. Fitzgerald; associate editors, John Cavadini et al. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 183. ↑
See Robert J. Dodaro, “Justice,” in Augustine through the Ages: An Encyclopedia; general editor, Allen D. Fitzgerald; associate editors, John Cavadini et al. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 483; Dodaro, “Ecclesia and Res Publica,” 240; Bruno, Political Augustinianism, 199. ↑
See Robert J. Dodaro, “Ecclesia and ResPublica: How Augustinian are Neo-Augustinian Politics?” in Augustine and Postmodern Thought: A New Alliance Against Modernity?; edited by L. Boeve, M. Lamberigts, and M. Wisse (Walpole, MA: Peeters, 2009), 238, 264. Dodaro argues that this means that Augustine’s ecclesiology is located somewhere between the portrayals of Robert Markus and John Milbank. Markus overemphasizes the corpus permixtum/ecclesia permixta while Milbank privileges the totus Christus in his description of the church as the societas perfectas. ↑
See Gregory W. Lee, “Republics and Their Loves: Rereading City of God 19,” Modern Theology 27.4 (2011). ↑
See also Griffiths, “Secularity and the Saeculum,” 43f. ↑
See CoG 14.1; 15.1; etc. Cf. Griffiths, “Secularity and the Saeculum,” 40; Oliver O’Donovan, “The Political Thought of City of God 19,” in The Bonds of Imperfection: Christian Politics, Past and Present, edited by Oliver O’Donovan and Joan Lockwood O’Donovan (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 49ff. ↑
See Crouse, Two Kingdoms & Two Cities, 154f; O’Donovan, “Political Thought,” 56f. ↑
Even Mathewes admits this much. See Mathewes, “A Worldly Augustinianism,” Augustinian Studies 41.1 (2010), 338. ↑
James R. Wood is an assistant professor of theology and ministry at Redeemer University (Ancaster, ON). He recently defended his dissertation on the political theology of Henri de Lubac at Wycliffe College (Toronto). Previously he worked as an associate editor at First Things, a PCA pastor in Austin, TX, and campus evangelist and team leader with Cru ministries. His writings have appeared in various academic and popular publications, and they focus primarily on matters pertaining to political theology, ecclesiology, and sacramental theology.