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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

Augustine 2020: Worship vs. Politics

Updated: Sep 26, 2022

We now come to the final book in The City of God’s second section that has, in my opinion, been the most challenging aspect of Augustine’s thought to relate to our context. He has focused on comparing the pagan religions of his day to Christianity. In Book X, he concludes an argument about beings that served as intermediaries between the pagan gods and the Romans. While not divine themselves, the Romans, nevertheless, worshiped them [1]. Augustine compares God’s miracles to the signs of the Roman religions [2] and contrasts angels to these intermediary beings [3]. Amid this argument, we find a beautiful passage summarizing the Christian’s relationship to God and the worship Christians offer to God. I find this chapter worth looking at this week because, as Christians, we are not engaging politics from a neutral standpoint, but from a Christian identity formed in worship. This identity is far above that of our party, the candidates we support, where we exist on the liberal-conservative spectrum, and the political ideology we subscribe to. Any political identity we profess is subservient to our Christian identity.

Augustine defines Christians in Paul’s language, as temples of God [4] in whom God dwells. The corporate church gathered together is a temple to God, but individual members of Christ’s body are also themselves temples dedicated to God [5]. Augustine’s description of Christians as God’s temple speaks for itself: “When lifted up to him, our heart is his alter. To him, by his priest, the only-begotten one, we are reconciled. To him we offer bleeding sacrifices when we struggle for his truth even to the point of martyrdom. To him we burn the sweetest incense when in his sight we are afire with pious and holy love. To him we dedicate and give in return his own gifts with us and our very selves. To him, in solemn feasts and established holy days, we affirm and consecrate the memory of his benefits, so that ungrateful oblivion might not steal that memory through the passing of time. To him we sacrifice the offering of humility and praise, burning with the fire of charity in the alter of our heart” [6].

Christians are freed from sin and find our joy in God alone. And so, Christians pursue the love of God, the love which serves as the source of our existence. As we seek his love, we become more like Him. As we become more like him, we turn outwards towards our neighbors, pouring love on them and inviting them into the love of God [7]. Augustine points us back to the words of Jesus himself who summarized all the law in two commands: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” [8].

When we engage in politics in our cities, we do not do so disconnected from our Christian identity, formed by the love of God, and called to love God in return and also conferring that love to our neighbors. Yet politics can tempt us in dangerous ways. It can tempt us to be more interested in ensuring our team beats the other side. It can be tempting to demonize leaders from opposing political parties and those who vote differently from us. It can be tempting to succumb to the anger, despair, cynicism, and selfishness so prevalent in our political process. While emphasizing the need to love God and our neighbor through our politics, the temptations to desire victory and have our way can effortlessly transform our politics into idols. John Calvin, himself greatly influenced by Augustine, said, “Man’s nature…is a perpetual factory of idols” [9]. Turning aside from the command to love God and neighbor in favor of our political persuasions is as easy as breathing. The typical rules of political discourse are a formative narrative. The news media we consume, the debates we witness in partisan politics, and the vitriol of political debate on social media influence and form us. They prey on our fears and offer us hope. We learn to fear the other party’s agenda or, more often than not, a misrepresentation of the other party’s agenda. Our only salvation is in our political party or candidate, the only thing standing between us and certain destruction as a nation. Fear forces us to turn inwards, to circle the wagons, defend what we have, and to be afraid of fellow citizens of differing opinions and backgrounds. Christian worship is a counter-narrative to our politics, one that turns us towards God in hope and outward towards our neighbors in love and solidarity.

As we engage in politics, we can only do so in prayer, continually resubmitting ourselves to the God who loves us in Christ. Every news story we hear, every campaign speech we listen to, every policy proposal we read, every vote we cast, every protest we attend, and every petition we sign is a temptation to turn to an all-consuming desire to have our way. Yet it is also an opportunity, an invitation, to love God and our neighbor with our political spheres of influence. Every moment of political engagement must also be a moment of prayer, a moment where we ask, “God, what are my motives right now? What do I want? Do I desire your Kingdom or the kingdom of my political team?” After asking these questions, we must confess our sins, receive God’s mercy, and seek to extend the love he has shown to us to our neighbors, including those neighbors who do not profess the same faith we do.

[1] Augustine, Augustine: Political Writings, trans. Michael W. Tkacz and Douglas Kries (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994), p. 58.

[2] Ibid. pp.74-75.

[3] Ibid. pp. 76-77.

[4] 1 Corinthians 3:13.

[5] Augustine, pp. 72-73.

[6] Ibid. p. 73.

[7] Ibid. pp. 73-74.

[8] Matthew 22:37-39 NRSV. Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18.

[9] Calvin, John, John T. McNeill, and Ford Lewis Battles. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, I.11.8.

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