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Church and State: In Defense of Augustine’s Allegory of the Two Cities

By May 1, 2014 No Comments
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The ongoing political debate on the separation of church and state has been all too ambiguous in the use of political arguments of St. Augustine of Hippo. Politicians who include George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi have appealed to the elements of Augustine’s legacy. Particularly the critics of Augustine’s allegory of the two cities have often relied on his writings to argue for a strict church-state separation. Yet in contemporary political uses of Augustine, it remains unclear what the exact political implications of Augustine’s allegory are. Does the doctrine of the two cities call Christians to stay in or out of politics? More important, does Augustine provide a justification for a firm separation of church and state?

In order to examine the implications of Augustine’s allegory of the two cities, this essay addresses two major critiques against De Civitate Dei. The first critique reproaches Augustine with the concept of a divided Christian life. According to this view, Augustine not only separates politics from religion but also favors a Christianity of dual identity that brings about an alienation from politics. The second critique suggests that Augustine promotes indiff erence regarding the character of and a Christian’s participation in the civil society. According to this view, Augustine justifies any earthly regime as long as it does not impede someone’s ability to be a good Christian.

Disagreeing with the two criticisms, this article provides the following argument: While Augustine’s doctrine of the two cities does defend the glorious city of God against the pagan city of humanity, it also invites the reader of De Civitate Dei to find genuine references common to the two cities. Moreover, Augustine’s use of the two-cities doctrine does not restrict a Christian to a passive obedience of any regime whatsoever. Despite Augustine’s emphasis on both the primacy of God’s action and the sinfulness of humanity, he calls for an active Christian involvement in political life and thus for a nonexclusionary church-state relationship.

Alienating Religion from Politics?
One way to criticize Augustine’s theme of the two cities is to point to his alleged division of the Christian identity. Augustine’s formulation of a Christian identity is reproached as a dichotomy between civitas terrena, the earthly city, and civitas dei, the city of God. Moreover, because Augustine departs from the classic understanding of cosmos, where gods are seen as political deities, he is criticized for a supposedly dichotomous understanding of God. That is, Augustine believes in a God who is both radically diff erent from all creation and intimately present in every creature. Finally, as he gives the primacy to the city ruled by God and as he understands Christians as pilgrims on this world, Augustine alienates Christians from politics.

To address this first criticism, one must take into account Augustine’s task to exculpate Christian faith from the charge of being responsible for both the sack of Rome and the strong assimilation of Christianity into the politics of the Empire.

Responding to pagan accusations about the sack of Rome, Augustine argues that Christian religion is not only incomparably better than pagan religion but also more apt to provide the citizens with civic virtue. First, with his lengthy attack on pagan religion, Augustine shows that the failure of pagan society to make a citizen virtuous originates in a false conception of divinity. This falseness is pagan polytheism. Several books of the first part of De Civitate Dei vehemently criticize pagan mythology as being responsible for the vices of Rome and the fall of the mighty empire. Second, in order to prepare a philosophical framework to show that Christianity allows and fosters an enhancement in civic virtue, Augustine refers to Scipio’s and Cicero’s definitions of the Roman commonwealth. Augustine defines the commonwealth in terms of rational people united by love of a common thing (De Civitate Dei, Book 19). By pointing to the importance of the “community of interests,” he lowers the scriptural standards of what qualifies as a just community and shows that a higher form of justice must come to the aid of human justice. True civic virtue can therefore only be acquired through the assistance of a higher form of justice, i.e., God.

Responding to the embarrassments of a politicized religion within the church, Augustine needs to show that Christian identity is not divided and absorbed into the politics of the empire. Political pressures and the problem of identity had burdened the church since 313 A.D. when it accepted political power (and coercion) as a legitimate instrument for advancing its own ends, thus losing its distinct identity. In order to distinguish the ambiguous links between church and politics, Augustine constructs “a system woven of contraries,” according to Sheldon Wolin (Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought). These contraries are expressed in the allegory of the two cities. According to this allegory, one city is ruled by caritas and the other by cupiditas. One city has been formed by the love of God and the other by the love of self.

While Augustine believes in the existence of two distinct cities, he presents them as distinguishable only from the eternal perspective. From the earthly perspective, the two cities remain indistinguishable. The two cities are “interwoven and intermixed in this era” and await separation at the last judgment (De Civitate Dei, Book 1). From the very outset of De Civitate Dei, Augustine defends the city of God against the earthly city. Yet these two cities are called cities only by analogy. The two cities do not coincide with any earthly kingdom, and they extend beyond any earthly intercity borders.

Looking at the symbolism of the two cities from the in-this-era perspective, Augustine aims not at the exclusionary sacred-profane distinction between the different spheres of the society but at the creation of a secular space. While antiquity distinguishes between the sacred (i.e., the realm pertaining to gods) and the profane, Christianity introduces the notion of the secular. According to Robert Marcus, the notion of the secular has in fact been an essential constituent of both the Christian belief and Augustine’s political theory. The secular is not the antithesis of the sacred. Instead, Augustine declares the saeculum as opaque to human scrutiny, much as the sacred is. In this sense, Augustine’s allegory of the two cities protects human culture and politics from the attempts of an outright sacralization. The attempts of several contemporary extremist groups such as Soldiers for Christ or even the terrorist group Al Qaeda to promote their allembracing religious views through political means and vice versa would find little or no support in Augustine’s thought. Even if Augustine’s religious views do call for a transformation of this world while aiming at the next, he does not deny the important value of the secular (or of the human in this world). This leads to the second critique of Augustine’s use of the doctrine of the two cities, namely his alleged indifference towards the character of the earthly city.

Opposing Earthly and Heavenly Justice?
Let us rehearse the “indifference critique,” which holds that true happiness can be achieved with God and through God alone. One can therefore embrace happiness only by embracing the city of God. Misery, in turn, is inherent to men, and happiness cannot be brought about through philosophy (or any other godless activity) alone. Thus, there is something inherently flawed, lacking or even tragic about political life. Christians should be concerned about their afterlife only. In order to bolster this argument, critics point to Augustine’s claim that so long as the sovereign does not impede one’s ability to be a good Christian, then the nature of regime does not make any difference (De Civitate Dei, Book 5). Moreover, some critics point to Augustine’s beliefs that human ability to act justly is profoundly damaged by sin. Augustine’s conception of justice would thus be fallible and make political life inherently limited. As justice is not conceivable in the earthly city (because the citizens of this city do not recognize the most just—God), peace becomes the lowest common denominator that everyone can agree upon. In short, the civil government could only be legitimated by guaranteeing peace and the worship of the true God.

While it is true that for Augustine earthly peace does not replace salvation, this minimal peace does represent a sign of heavenly peace. Earthly peace is imperfect but it reminds one of Jerusalem (literally “the city of peace”). As such, this peace becomes dear to the heart of all humanity. Even the heavenly city makes use of the earthly peace, while it seeks compromise among human wills so that people may be enabled to practice true religion. What is more, while Augustine highly praises the “earthly peace” against the “hell on earth,” political authority and enforcement are not a necessary consequence of sin, nor do they exist merely to hold the wicked back and to enable the virtuous to live untroubled among them. As convincingly put by Jean Elshtain, the nature and purpose of social forms and civic life demonstrate that these are not a brute consequence of sin but a work of sinful people who act according to their God-given reason, capacity for love and the lust for dominance (Augustine and the Limits of Politics). In other words, to combat the darkness that attends the life of human society, earthly institutions can only emerge with the virtuous endeavors of citizens who are plunged in the concreteness of this mortal life. As noted by Augustine himself, the things necessary for this life are used by the citizens of the two cities alike. What distinguishes the citizens of the two cities is their different aim (De Civitate Dei, Book 19).

I further argue that from Augustine’s perspective, justice cannot be totally absent from the earthly city. If that were the case, kingdoms would truly be but gangs of criminals on a grand scale. On the contrary, for Augustine no single human society can simply be unjust, because citizens of both heavenly and earthly cities cohabitate the earth. Moreover, while Augustine believes that all justice and all goodness come from the true God, humanity is not bereft of God’s grace but rather participates in this grace. The possibility of a just regime or, more precisely, the possibility of an imperfectly just regime, is therefore present in Augustine’s thought. Because of the Pelagian overly optimistic conception of the ability of humans to be just and righteous merely by the exercise of free will, Augustine is wary of perfectly just societies as a product of human endeavor. From his own experience, Augustine knows that neither the knowledge of the good nor human habit provides sufficient help against the relapse into sin. While he was carried to God by God’s beauty, he soon was torn from God by the weight of his own flesh, damaged by sin. While Augustine acquires much knowledge about God during the process of conversion, he still lacks the ability to amend his habitual appetites in accord to his new knowledge. Augustine realizes that a moral agent is not required to perform immaculately just acts but rather to offer himself susceptible to the action of God. Therefore it is not true that any earthly regime is fine provided that the rulers do not force citizens to impious and wicked acts. Christians are not invited only to worship God but also to work for a city pleasing to God.

Humility Instead of Separation
Christians are called to participate actively in the earthly city in all eras and in all places. Neither do Christians simply withdraw—because even the earthly city is an object of love—nor do they become indistinguishable—because Christians are pilgrims in the earthly city. As an example of Christian political involvement, Augustine argues that despite the mistakes of human judgment, Christians should be judges. Political and social arrangements are therefore needed for Christians in order to realize their calling. What they should be wary of, when exercising authority, is the lust for dominance.

Augustine calls neither for a complete (and alienating) separation of state and religion nor for a simplistic reduction of the state to an indifferent, minimalist and peaceful modus vivendi. What he does argue for is humility against pride, which puts God in the first place in all aspects of human life. Only through humility toward God are we able to build a fellowship of equality under God.