The City of Man


Christianity and Politics (2)

When government interferes
This series explores some of the ways Christianity has shaped the Western political tradition. In the first article, we looked at the issue of separation of church and state and its broader impact on the development of intermediate institutions, civil society, and the concept of sphere sovereignty.

We also noted that when a sphere fails, there is a temptation for the government to step in, but this poses two dangers: first, the government is ill-equipped to handle problems in other spheres and often makes the situation worse; second, when the government interferes with a sphere outside of its competence, it raises the specter of tyranny and ultimately of totalitarianism.

But why is this? Isn’t it a bit paranoid to see the threat of tyranny around the government’s attempts to regulate areas that don’t regulate themselves effectively?

The answer is found in Augustine of Hippo’s reflections on human society, found primarily in his monumental work "The City of God."

Augustine on the fall of Rome
"The City of God" is one of the most influential books in history. It largely shaped how the Western world thought of itself for well over a thousand years. It was written in the wake of the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 AD. Roman pagans argued that the city fell because it had abandoned its old gods when it adopted Christianity. Augustine responded that the problem wasn’t that Rome was too Christian, but that it wasn’t Christian enough.

"The City of God" argues that there are two “cities” in this world, the City of Man and the City of God. The City of Man, which Augustine identifies with Rome and other earthly empires, is dominated by self-love and built around the lowest common denominator in society, which is self-indulgence. Virtue is absent since the citizens of the City love themselves more than others, though good behavior may be enforced by social customs or by coercion by the state.

In this environment, the state is necessary to restrain evil. The problem is, the government itself is part of the City of Man and is itself dominated by self-love. The state is more interested in self-aggrandizement and power than it is in promoting the good.

At the same time, Augustine believed that government was instituted by God and is therefore potentially good. But because of original sin, in the City of Man government turns away from the good and therefore becomes evil—a necessary evil, in view of the need to restrain vice, but evil nonetheless. In the City of Man, the state is nothing less than organized oppression, and maintains its power through violence and threats.

The City of God
In contrast to the City of Man is the City of God, which Augustine identifies with the New Jerusalem. Where the City of Man is based on self-love, the City of God is built around love of God and therefore love of neighbor. Because of this focus on love, all true virtue resides in the City of God. Only Christians are part of this City, since only they have received the grace necessary to overcome the effects of original sin in their lives.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that societies need virtue to survive, all human societies belong to the City of Man. But the need for virtue also means that the City of Man and the City of God share some common interests and can cooperate with each other.

The two cities together
The City of Man always seeks stability, if for no other reason than to maintain its own power, and as a result it legislates at the level of the minimal standards needed to preserve society. The City of Man therefore emphasizes tolerance of differences (as long as they don’t interfere with the government’s power) in order to avoid conflict. For the City of Man, this passes for peace, albeit distorted by greed and selfishness.

The City of God also seeks peace, though of a different and more profound sort. This means that the City of God and the City of Man can cooperate to some extent in promoting peace and stability within society.

Similarly, the City of Man and the City of God utilize the same resources and social structures, and seek protection by the same laws, but they do so for very different purposes and using very different means. The City of Man uses terror—the threat of violence—to compel good behavior and to protect good people from the wicked. The City of God relies only on penitence, grace, and mercy, not compulsion, to advance its goals.

Yet despite these differences, both Cities share an interest in promoting good behavior, and their work can complement each other: the magistrate’s threat of violence may contribute to the growth of the City of God by encouraging penitence, while the City of God’s emphasis on virtue can lead to the stability of the City of Man. Even further, the City of God can encourage the City of Man toward the good, though without taking on the responsibility for making laws, while the City of Man can promote good behavior through the courts and can defend society and provide stability to allow the City of God to flourish.

Christians and civil government

Augustine’s efforts to find common ground between the City of God and the City of Man provided an important theological justification for Christians to be involved in civil government: by promoting true goodness and virtue as a civil magistrate, the Christian can work to advance the interests of both Cities simultaneously.

At the same time, although Augustine paid lip service to the goodness of the Christian emperors, it is also clear that he saw them as being a part of the City of Man, with all the corruption and self-centeredness that entailed. Like any other ruler in the City of Man, they wanted ever-increasing glory and power and thus could not be trusted completely to promote the City of God.

Augustine’s ideas about government mirrored his ideas about the human condition: original sin means that we love ourselves rather than God and neighbor, and that love shapes our actions, leading to sin. In government in particular, it leads to a lust for power and glory, with the result that Caesar proclaims himself lord and sovereign over all areas of life. This is an on-going temptation to all government in the City of Man.

At the same time, government was established by God to perform a good purpose in this fallen world, and thus Christians may participate in it. Further, just as Christ redeems us from sin and makes it possible for us to avoid sin in our personal lives, it is possible for the Christian magistrate to live out and promote the virtues of the City of God while working in and for the City of Man—possible, but very, very difficult.

Because of the effects of original sin and the temptations of power, the Augustinian political tradition did not allow anyone absolute power. Medieval governments influenced by Augustine were always limited, and always had some form of checks and balances in place to prevent rulers from overstepping their bounds. It didn’t always work, but the principle was firmly in place.

After the middle ages, ideas like the Divine Right of Kings and Absolute Monarchy took hold for a time in Europe, but the Puritans and other religious reformers influenced by Augustine resisted these innovations in government because of their acute awareness that original sin influences even kings.

That same tradition informed the work of the American Founders, who did their best to develop a structure of government that would prevent anyone from gaining unlimited power. But at the same time they were clear that the only real safeguard America had against political corruption was the election of men (and later, women) of virtue to office. Without that, no amount of legal structures would prevent the government from becoming corrupt and tyrannical.

Distrust of government thus has a long history in the Christian tradition and is a consequence of the doctrine of original sin. In our current climate, conservatives emphasize the effect of sin on government and sometimes sound as if they do not believe it affects business; progressives decry corruption in business but seem to think that government is pristine (at least when they control it). Augustine would remind us that sin affects all earthly institutions, and that the only way to redeem any of them is by the leavening influence of the City of God.

All of this begs the question, even with the effects of sin, shouldn’t Christianity have a positive view of government and its role in society since it is established by God? Although as early as Pope Gelasius I (492-496), the idea of church and state as two separate, legitimate spheres developed, a full case for the goodness of government awaited the recovery of the writings of the Greek philosopher Aristotle in the twelfth and thirteenth century. We will look at the integration of Aristotle into the Christian tradition in the next article.

Next steps

Do the cities of God and Man interact well in our country at this time? Talk with some friends about this question. What is the Christian’s duty in helping to make this situation as good as it can be?


For more insight to the relationship between Church and state, order Chuck Colson’s book,
God & Government, from our online store. You might also read the article, “The State of the Nation,” by Chuck Colson.




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