Reading Augustine in an Election Year

The “City of God” is especially relevant now because it can remind us who we are, and where we’re going.

Election years tend to incite fevered reactions because it seems as though everything is at stake. There’s much at stake, to be sure, but we should put it in a trillion-year perspective that can allow us not to panic. No one and nothing will take our country away from us—if we define correctly what we mean ultimately when we say “country” and what we mean when we say “us.”

 

Election years tend to drive some Christians crazy. This year promises to be especially tumultuous.

The world seems not more sinful in 2016 but more obviously precarious. Many note that this year feels different, as though what faces us isn’t just the possibility of culture wars but of even existential collapse. The question isn’t just which vision for America is best but rather whether democratic self-government is still possible. Many American Christians foresee an election year in which what confronts us isn’t so much choosing the lesser of two evils as much as facing a political culture in which both sides have chosen evil. That’s why I would argue that this is a good year for American Christians to revisit Augustine’s City of God.

I say this not because I believe the American order is about to go the way of the Roman Empire. That’s certainly possible, of course. Still, despite the disorder and decadence around us, I retain more optimism about the resilience of American democratic institutions than do even many of my friends and allies. I think City of God is especially relevant now because it can remind us who we are, and where we’re going.

To be sure, the book is not light reading, even in its abridged versions. It takes a panoramic view of all human history from the vantage point of both heaven and earth. That’s no small task. The complexity and ambition of the book could cause us to ignore it. But that would be a mistake.

Different Sort of Reign 

City of God is essentially a defense of Christianity from the prosperity gospel. Rome believed its piety—a cult of devotion to a pantheon of gods—protected its place in the world. Pagans could now say Rome’s fall was the result of Christianity. This strange new religion took the empire away from her traditional gods, and the result was calamity. The second implication, though, is one Christians could be tempted to believe. If Rome—the most powerful empire in world history—could fall, then how can we trust something that seems exponentially more fragile? In other words, what hope is there for the church?

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