Augustine the “Liberal”?

Augustine the “Liberal”?

In a recent issue of Providence, a group of scholars responded to Patrick Deneen’s provocative book Why Liberalism Failed. While staying away from engaging too much with Deneen’s provocative thesis, I want to address the label that many of the respondents claimed of “Augustinian liberalism.” What these essays have in common is the invocation of Augustine as theological source and justification for a Christian account of politics. One could hardly ask for a better set of essays to make the case. I found the essays engaging, persuasive, and nuanced. They do a good job of expounding basically what I believe about Augustine and liberalism, or more precisely, what I would like to believe. But there are some major hurdles that I cannot personally resolve so easily; namely, many things about Augustine are not liberal at all and would probably set him deeply at odds with American liberal democracy.

Perhaps most people do not stay up at night wondering what it means to be an Augustinian in the twenty-first century. I do, and I worry that we endanger his thought if we don’t honestly reckon with those differences. Some of the writers noted this but did not seem to think the tensions were insurmountable. I will note just a few aspects that might cause us to think twice.

Jonathan Leeman calls himself a “liberal Augustinian,” emphasizing the liberal as the adjective. If I were to call myself something, that would probably do. “Augustinian liberalism” makes liberalism the noun and Augustinianism the adjective. Paul Miller exemplifies this position, going so far as to call Augustine a “Christian Democrat” and formulate an account of “Augustinian Federalism.” Liberalism, in this account, is modified by Augustine’s anti-utopianism and realism. Here one is allowed to pick and choose how Augustine’s views will shape one’s liberalism. Of course, the American founders were not Augustinians, unless we count being influenced by the Puritans and Reformed theology as being political Augustinianism, but that is surely a stretch. They were not working with the idea of the two cities in their separation of church and state. But if one is a “liberal Augustinian,” on the other hand, then we must in some way be more bound to the letter of Augustine’s thought since we are attempting to square Augustinianism with the liberal circle.

As a side note, I find it fascinating to watch a large group of evangelical Protestants, myself included, who in reaching back into history for a theological grounding for politics have landed on Augustine, as opposed to the many other theologians who are more contemporary and have a stronger claim to being liberal. Historically, there is no unbroken chain of Augustinian political thought, unlike Thomism, which has a fairly strong continuous tradition. The closest Protestants have is the Reformed tradition, but this tradition, though deeply influenced by Augustine, was not self-consciously Augustinian in its political orientation. The invocation of Augustine as a political saint is of twentieth-century vintage and is mostly a creation of modern scholarship and not anything like a political tradition. And, so, the attempts to square the Augustinian peg with liberalism may have some arguments going for it, but it is a political tradition that is not in fact a tradition.

At a minimum, we must recognize that from the historical Augustine and his corpus we cannot deduce liberal democracy. Augustine was not into religious toleration, especially toward other Christian sects, let alone pagans. He may not have believed in the possibility of a Christian empire or nation, but he sure did embrace the idea that government should defend and preserve the one true faith. His use of coercion (disciplina) through the imperial apparatus in order to force heretical groups like the Donatists back into the sheepfold grew out of his stark views of human nature and grace. After all, if humans are as sinful and deluded as Augustine imagines, then it follows that coercion may be necessary to keep order and even assist the wayward Christians back into the church for their own good. Another influential Augustinian monk in the sixteenth century has a similarly coercive view of politics.

In AD 411, Augustine orchestrated the routing of the Donatists at the council of Carthage, where with the help of the military tribune and notary Flavius Marcellinus, he dazzled the audiences with his rhetorical mastery for the purpose of suppressing Donatism once and for all. After the council, the Donatists were repressed with the strong arm of the imperial government. The rest was history.

R.A. Markus, the great Augustinian scholar and patron saint of Augustinian liberals everywhere, believes Augustine supported the “autonomy” of the political sphere as a sphere neither wholly sacred nor profane. Later in his career, Markus hedges a bit on his stronger views, conceding that the sort of neutrality he envisioned earlier would not sit well with Augustine.

Often the distinction between the two cities is made into a distinction between church and state or earthly politics versus heavenly. I found this working assumption being deployed in most of the essays. But neither one of those actually gets at the distinction. The City of God and the earthly city are two transhistorical societies made up of angels and humans, one redeemed the other in rebellion. The earthly city is not worldly politics or the human community as opposed to the divine, but the awful community of demons which has Satan for its head. It is a community of rebellion against the rule of God defined by pride and self-love. God may use this community for his purposes, but it doesn’t give us a justification for politics, other than to say God’s hidden providence is always at work.

Liberal democratic politics in the West, at least the kind we see in the post-war era, is defined by a sharp distinction between church and state. But it’s not clear Augustine would recognize such a separation as legitimate or possible. Justice is about giving God his due. What is God owed? Worship. A state that is not properly ordered toward the worship of the one true God would seem to be at odds with justice. Oliver O’Donovan makes this point in his magisterial essay on Augustine’s political thought in Book 19. There is no proximate justice in Augustine, though there is proximate peace. This would seem to create a massive problem for governments since justice cannot be divorced from God, though liberal societies seem intent on asserting a strong view of separation.

Grounding justice in human rights and dignity has become the project for many Christians in recent decades. Leaving aside the theological problems endemic to this project, Augustine never grounds justice in human dignity but the command of God.

Roman Catholic social teaching is closer to the historical Augustine on this point. Traditionally, Roman Catholic corporatism asserted the necessity of the state recognizing the true faith and showing deference through its laws, thereby coordinating spiritual and political societies in a way modern-day liberals would find oppressive.

A closing thought on our use of democratic liberalism. Helena Rosenblatt’s recent book The Lost History of Liberalism has challenged my own beliefs on the historical development of liberalism. She presents a revisionist genealogy of liberalism in the West from Cicero forward that is learned and compelling. Rosenblatt is deeply skeptical that liberalism, as a word and concept, can be used as a historically stable adjective for the phenomena that is under debate. This is not just semantics. In light of history, our modern usage of the term “liberalism” seems mostly a creation of the post-war period, as Rosenblatt persuasively argues. The founders do not refer to the form of government they bring into being as “liberal democracy.” Woodrow Wilson is the first to claim the term for his own self-identification. The word doesn’t show up in dictionaries until the very end of the nineteenth century and does not become a term in public discourse until the early twentieth. Not that our current usage does not bear resemblance to John Locke or some of the ideas that the founders championed, but the whole conceptual package termed “liberalism” attached to “democracy” is a retrospective label that was projected backward. That should give us pause.

Whatever we decide liberalism is, I am generally in favor of it, especially the liberalism described by Deneen’s critics. They have enunciated a distinctly Christian account of liberal democracy that many Christians could and should sign onto. That said, if we invoke the name of Augustine for this project, I am comfortable only to the extent that we do so vaguely and with a strong realization that it sits uncomfortably with its supposed patron saint. If we are going to be faithful to Augustine, we must not seek to refashion him in our own image.


Daniel Strand, a Providence contributing editor, is a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Political Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University. His scholarly interests are in the history of political thought, religion and politics, and the thought of St. Augustine of Hippo.

Photo Credit: Saint Augustine Disputing with the Heretics, by Vergós Group, circa 1470–86. Located at Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya. Via Google Art Project and Wikimedia Commons.

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