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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

Augustine 2020: Augustine on the Campaign Trail

Updated: Sep 26, 2022

As Christians approach the 2020 election, a variety of questions are in the air, being discussed by families at dining room tables, parishioners during coffee hours, and hotly contested over social media: which candidate best represents my Christian values? Who will stand up for my religious liberty? Who will protect the sanctity of life? Who will care for the poor among us? How will we care for the planet God has entrusted to us? In the face of the coronavirus, how is the government called on to protect our health, our economy, and our freedom all at that same time? Who will work to heal our racial divide? Recent instances of police brutality and the accompanying protests have forced Christians to grapple with the presence of racism and bias within American institutions. How do we live in a society that favors some of us over others because of the color of our skin?

Unfortunately, the Bible does not give us clear answers to these questions. Its calls to defend the poor, widow, and orphan, to value all life no matter the age, its sexual ethics, its calls for leaders to act justly and for citizens to submit to authorities, even those as unjust as the emperor Nero, do not fit neatly within a particular campaign platform. Nor are the Bible’s discussions of ethics easy to interpret and sort through, from portrayals of slavery and violence to matters of sexual ethics. Instead of engaging in the complex reflection required by the biblical text, many Christians have resorted to the easier route: pick a political team, emphasize the Scripture passages that prioritize that party’s agenda, and deem the other the enemy of “biblical values”. In all these scenarios, Christians have reduced the biblical vision of human flourishing in this present age into something far more manageable and which fits more neatly in our partisan divisions. Christians are just as guilty as the rest of our society for perpetuating the divisions we experience over political allegiance.

Fortunately, Christians in 2020 America are not the first to ask these questions. There are examples of how to navigate the rich biblical tapestry and find how to engage in the community God has placed us in. We are not without guides as we navigate how we, as citizens of the Kingdom of God, are called to exercise our responsibilities as citizens in the nation God has placed us in. St. Augustine of Hippo, writing at the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the early 5th century, addressed similar concerns.

When the Goths attacked Rome in 410, prominent figures in the empire argued that the disaster had befallen the capital because Christianity had led the people away from serving the ancient Roman gods. They argued Christianity had weakened their society and made them susceptible to calamity [1]. To respond, Augustine had to argue that Christians were able to contribute to the good of the earthly city and were able to make it a better place [2]. This is the very same question Christians ask as they considered voting: how can I use my right to vote in accord with my faith as a way of contributing to a more just society here and now? How can I, with my faith, make life in this community better? Augustine wrestled with these questions and can serve as a guide as we ask how Christians can contribute to the good of their communities.

Yet Augustine must also wrestle with, not only whether or not Christians can contribute to the good of society, but if Christians can remain devout while being good citizens in an unjust society. How do Christians live obediently and faithfully when the laws of the land are themselves unjust [3]? As Christians struggle with class inequality and systemic racism, they are asking the same question: how can we be faithful Christians while being part of a society with ordered injustices? Augustine, again, serves as a guide for Christians working through these issues.

But not only did Augustine have to argue with pagan critics of Christianity. He also was responding to several Christian thinkers who argued that the primacy of Rome was the result of Christianity’s primacy in the empire. God had established His Kingdom on earth in the earthly city of Rome. Through a theological mistake, they had confused the kingdoms of this world with the Kingdom of God and, with nearly 2,000 years of historical hindsight, we can see that Rome passed away as just another kingdom of this age [4]. But Christians today struggle with the same question: is America a “Christian nation”, established as a city on a hill? Is one political party the party of Christian values? Augustine can help us navigate that same question theologically from his own vantage point.

So as we follow our candidates in our political system on the campaign trail, we have Augustine as a guide to help us reimagine Christian political engagement in light of the biblical vision. He asked the same questions we do, but because he asked them in a different context, he was not susceptible to the same blind spots we are. He can give us a fresh perspective on how to navigate our political moment as Christians and provide a model for how to draw on the full tapestry of Scripture in our political engagement. As we follow him as he follows Jesus, we will see the importance of Christians contributing to the good of our communities, but also the limits of even our best political systems. Our hope is in the reign of the risen Christ and, until He comes, we live as good neighbors in our present cities. We hope you will join us as we walk down the 2020 campaign trail with Augustine.

[1] Augustine and Ernest L. Fortin, “Introduction,” in Augustine: Political Writings, trans. Michael W. Tkacz and Douglas Kries (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994), p. ix, 1-2.

[2] Ibid. pp. x-xiii.

[3] Ibid. pp. xiii-xvii.

[4] Ibid. pp. xvii-xxvi.

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