How Are Christians to View Government?: Lessons from Church History, Part 1

Antonio_Rodrguez_-_Saint_Augustine_-_Google_Art_ProjectChristians in America today do not have any clear understanding of how to think about government. Some look at politics as territory Christians should avoid, whether because they are so committed to the idea that we are citizens of heaven that they believe we should not be involved with any earthly state, or, more often, because they think that we should not bring religion into politics, “legislate morality,” or impose our values on a non-Christian society. Others believe it is our duty to bring our values into culture and the law, and are thoroughly bewildered about what to do when that route is closed to us.

As people who believe in sola scriptura, we turn to the Bible for help, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of clear guidance there. Leaving aside the question of the relationship between the Old and New Testament, the Bible has nothing to say about how to live in a modern democratic republic where we can have a say in public policy. It tells us to be subject to the governing authorities and to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but it also tells us to give to God what is God’s and that our responsibility is to obey God rather than man.

This is where turning to church history can help us.

Many great Christian thinkers of the past have wrestled with difficult questions concerning the relationship of the Christian and the state, and there are a number of important principles that we can learn from them. In this article, we will look at one key thinker from the early centuries of the church, St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430).

Augustine of Hippo

No church father had as much of an impact on Western Christianity as Augustine of Hippo Regius, a city in modern Algeria. Augustine was critically important for shaping much of Western theology. For our purposes, we need to look at the central thesis of one of his most important books, “The City of God.”

Augustine’s masterpiece was written in the wake of the fall of Rome to Alaric and the Visigoths in A.D. 407. Roman pagans claimed that the city fell because the Empire had abandoned its ancient gods for Christianity. (Yes, nearly a century after Constantine, there were still pagans in the Empire.) Augustine offered his defense of Christianity in “The City of God.”

Augustine argued that there are two cities in the world, the City of Man and the City of God. The City of Man is the fallen world in rebellion against God. It is dominated by self-love and held together by the lowest common denominator, self-indulgence. True virtue is thus completely absent. People may do good things because of social pressure, fear of the state, or some other reason, but ultimately even the good they do is always self-serving and therefore never truly virtuous.

Under these circumstances, government is necessary to restrain evil. Unfortunately, government is also part of the City of Man and is itself characterized by love of self. It therefore aims far more at self-aggrandizement and maintaining its power than at promoting the good. And it pursues its agenda through the use of force. To put it simply, government is organized oppression. It is evil—a necessary evil, but evil nonetheless.

Augustine’s ideas about the City of Man flow from his understanding of Original Sin, the idea that we have an inbred tendency to be selfish and self-seeking and thus to sin.

In contrast, the City of God is characterized by love of God and therefore love of neighbor. As a result, true virtue and all things necessary for human flourishing are found here. Such things are possible only to those who belong to Christ. Rather than violence, the City of God relies on compassion, mercy, generosity, self-sacrifice, and repentance to achieve its purposes.

The City of God and the City of Man occupy the same space in the world. All human societies are inevitably part of the City of Man, though members of the City of God live within them. Even though the two cities have very different motivations, they can cooperate. For example, the City of Man always seeks stability to maintain its own power, and so governments legislate minimum standards of behavior and promote toleration as a means of preserving peace in society. The City of God also seeks peace, but as a means for advancing God’s purposes in the world. The City of God can thus cooperate with the City of Man in promoting peace, even though the goals, motivations, and methods of the two cities are radically different.

Augustinianism in Action

“The City of God” shaped how Western Europeans understood society for well over a thousand years, even influencing the U.S. Constitution. In particular, it promoted a skeptical attitude toward government. Since governments are part of the City of Man, if left unchecked they have the power to do great evil. Further, if all government officials are subject to Original Sin, then none of them can be trusted with unlimited power.

As a result, due to the influence of Augustine, all medieval European governments were limited in their authority and had systems of checks and balances to try to prevent anyone from seizing too much power and abusing the people. Among other things, the idea of unalienable human rights given to us by God is first clearly articulated by medieval theologians. Since these rights come from Creation or were given by God in Eden prior to the institution of human government, the government cannot arbitrarily deprive us of them. Our entire concept of universal human rights and therefore limits on governmental power grows out of Augustine and the reflections of these medieval theologians. (Later concepts like the Divine Right of Kings and Absolutism were aberrations in the Western political tradition, but they arose in specific circumstances and did not last more than about a century.)

Augustine’s ideas had a profound effect on Martin Luther, who had been an Augustinian monk, and John Calvin; from Calvin they spread to the Puritans, and from there into the American political tradition. Our ideas of limited government and checks and balances come from Augustinian pessimism about government and its potential for abuse of power.

The system set up in our Constitution was intended to take advantage of self-interest so that each organ of the government would jealously guard its prerogatives and keep the others in check. There was originally no provision for political parties because the Founders believed that parties would act as factions, and that loyalty to faction would outweigh loyalty to institution. In other words, people from each institution (the House, Senate, and the Presidency) would work together across institutional lines to promote their faction’s interests, causing the whole system of checks and balances to break down. History has demonstrated this fear to be well-founded.

Ultimately, the American Founders recognized that because of Original Sin, they could devise the best governing system imaginable, but its integrity would last only as long as men (and later, women) of virtue were elected to office. Once government fell into the hands of the corrupt, it would inevitably become corrupt and abusive.

The Augustinian answer to how a Christian should view the government, then, is quite simple: We should be wary of it, constantly aware of the danger of corruption, and weighing whether the people we elect are people of integrity and virtue. If they are not, we can count on them working to accumulate more power for themselves, and, sooner or later, demanding allegiance to themselves over allegiance to God.

Augustine himself never equated the City of God with the Church, though later Catholic theologians starting with Pope Gelasius I (d. 494) did. Nonetheless, Augustine’s political theories raise the question of how churches are to relate to the state. We will turn to that question in the next article in this series.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.



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