Augustine 2020: In God We Trust?
Updated: Sep 26, 2022
Our sampling of Augustine’s political writings includes very little of Book VI from The City of God and that is just as well. For the most part, in this book, Augustine is arguing that the Roman gods do not serve as a basis for hope in the afterlife . Very little is directly applicable to our situation or to the issues of Christian political engagement we are addressing in this series. However, Augustine makes a few comments on what he calls “civic theology” which are worth considering. By “civic theology”, he means the religious rituals of the temples used to unite the public life of the ancient city . America’s pluralistic society is not united around a particular religion. In fact, our Constitution bars us from establishing a state religion. At the same time, Scripture verses and basic concepts of God have made their way into our public discourse and our founding documents. There is a religious vernacular for our political life.
The Declaration of Independence is famous for its references to the Creator. Our money, at least since the 1950s, is printed with “In God We Trust” and, since the same time, our Pledge of Allegiance has called us “one nation under God”. “God bless America” is a common closing statement for politicians, no matter their religious affiliations. Public figures have used Scripture verses in speeches since the earliest Founding Fathers. Yet, we need to be careful of assuming all these statements refer to robust, orthodox Christianity. The Founding Fathers included committed Christians, but also deists who, despite referring to God, thought of Him very differently from orthodox Christians . Instead, they thought of God as the creator who “got the ball rolling”, but has had little to do with the universe since the beginning and certainly has not personally entered it in the person of Jesus Christ. The religious references on our coinage and in our Pledge of Allegiance were part of a Cold War program during the Eisenhower administration to encourage Americans to make necessary sacrifices to sustain the Cold War effort. Eisenhower, with the assistance of clergy such as Billy Graham, promoted the notion of America as a “Christian nation” to encourage citizens to live sacrificially and protect a distinctly American way of life. Eisenhower gave America a messianic role, bringing hope and freedom to the world. America’s civic theology is not an attempt to completely orient America around the Christian vision but draws from Christianity, America’s most prevalent faith, to prop up a specific political agenda .
I am by no means opposed to using Scripture and notions of faith in our public discourse. Scripture presents a vision of the world I affirm and believe has something profound to say to our present context and can enrich our public life. But as Christians, we need to resist allowing our political lives to define our lives in two ways. First, we cannot allow the use of Christianity by public figures to ever confuse us from the fact that America remains an earthly city. Simply utilizing more Christian language does not transform America into the city of God, or even a Christian nation. Second, we have to resist reducing our Christian faith to the American dream. We cannot let our political positions, heritage, or American identity replace a robust understanding of Christian faith, rooted in the eternal Kingdom of God, inaugurated in Christ’s death and resurrection. Civic theology cannot replace rich biblical theology. When we allow our political life to influence our theology, we betray our Christian faith by lowering the standards for justice to a political agenda rather than Scripture. I recently had a conversation with a woman who said, “We live in America; we are all Christians.” Such a statement betrays what I fear too many Americans who identify as Christians actually think. America and the city of God are distinct. If we confuse and conflate them, we lose and violate the radical message of God’s love, justice, and hope for the world found in the death and resurrection of the Son of God which is beyond any political or societal program we could come up with.
Augustine then makes a second point more applicable to us. He discusses the philosopher Seneca who, despite critiquing the gods described in Roman theatre and poetry, nevertheless performed the civic role of religion and acted out practices he did not believe in . Augustine writes of him, “It also taught him, for the sake of the civil laws and customs of man, not indeed to act as an actor does when pretending in the theatre, but to imitate such an actor in the temple. This was the more reprehensible way to act, for in acting in this way he was acting mendaciously in order that the people might think he was acting sincerely” . I want to be careful here that I do not suggest we judge the hearts of all political leaders or we retain a complete sense of distrust in them. However, keep in mind what Augustine says here. Just as in Augustine’s Rome, it is easy to perform the public duty of religion for the sake of the city. All of our presidents have been members of Christian churches and our only Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, faced stiff opposition because he was not Protestant. Eisenhower, previously mentioned, had no church membership until his presidency . It is very difficult to make your way in American political life without an affiliation with Christianity. This is not to say that all politicians’ expressions of faith are self-serving, but Christians, when deciding to vote, do need to be wary of it. When Christians vote, we need to look beyond how vocal a candidate is about his or her faith and the number of Scripture verses quoted, but to pay attention to policy and ask, “Does their faith commitment result in more justice for our society than we had before?” A vocal profession of faith does not guarantee a leader who will govern justly. We need to be cautious that we are not distracted by Scripture quotes in campaign speeches and neglect investigating their policy positions and considering if a vote for that candidate will truly uphold justice and serve as an act of love to our neighbors.
 Augustine, Augustine: Political Writings, trans. Michael W. Tkacz and Douglas Kries (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994), p. 48.
 Ibid. pp. 48-50.
 Justin Taylor, “America as a Christian Nation: A Conversation with Mark Noll and George Marsden,” The Gospel Coalition, July 6, 2016, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/evangelical-history/america-as-a-christian-nation-a-conversation-with-mark-noll-and-george-marsden/.
 See Frances FitzGerald. The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2017, pp. 180-186 and Scott Carr, Jr. “Cold War Religion,” November 6, 2018, https://www.reimaginefaith.org/post/2018/11/05/cold-war-religion.
 Augustine, p. 51.
 FitzGerald, p. 185