I recently wrote a book review in which I characterized myself as more Augustinian than liberal. Providence, knowing I’m nonetheless an advocate of liberal institutions, invited me to contribute to this symposium on Augustinian Liberalism. Would I be willing to call myself an Augustinian liberal?

No, but I’ll call myself a liberal Augustinian. Make the noun Augustinian. Let liberal be the adjective, like “brown” is to “dog,” something that can come or go without altering the essence of the thing.

There has been a growing opposition to some or all of the claims of liberalism of late, and much of that opposition focuses on the old Enlightenment arguments for liberalism. Some of us are sympathetic with those critiques, but wonder if we can articulate a pre- or non-Enlightenment basis for liberal practices, such as religious liberty and disestablishment.

Nicholas Wolterstorff, too, has argued that Christians have good reasons to support a liberal political structure even if we disavow liberal political theory. After all, “the theory and the structure [can] be distinguished,” and “one can support liberal democracy without being a liberal theorist.”[i] Wolterstorff then roots his own view of individual rights not in Enlightenment theory but all the way back in Genesis 9:5-6.[ii]

I think Wolterstorff is pointing us in the right direction here.

Loose Grips & Two Gears

My political theology is Augustinian. I hold it with a firm grip because I think it comes from the Bible. Not only that, there are several liberal ideas I believe equally biblical, such as religious tolerance, the separation of church and state, the equality of all people, and certain individual rights. These, too, deserve a firm grip. To contravene them, I believe, is not just foolish, but sin.

Other liberal institutions, such as democracy itself or the host of structures that make up American constitutionalism, might be wise ideas, but Christians should not grasp them as tightly as anything from scripture. Democracy, for instance, might be said to rest on top of biblical principles, such as the equality of all people. We might say democracy is a wise means for putting the biblical principle of equality into practice. Indeed, I agree with Winston Churchill—whom Paul Miller quoted in his opener—who called democracy the best of the worst. But, yes, I am demoting democracy ever so slightly. The wisdom of man is not the wisdom of God. And democracy was not revealed in sacred writ, which means we should treat it as a matter of wisdom, not biblical law. I’m not convinced that an undemocratic government is “sin” in any and every situation. Indeed, “wisdom” recognizes that different circumstances require different solutions. Put me on an island of pirates, and I might prefer a king to the rule of the mob.

The deeper point here, and one I’ve tried to make in both of my books on faith and politics, is that Christians need to always hold our ideological perspectives with a very loose grip. Too many Christians in the West today have been wholly subsumed by one version of liberalism or another, whether of a libertarian or a socially progressive variety.

The solution is simple: recognize the need for two gears when doing political philosophy—a gear for biblical principles and a gear for practical wisdom. The first appeals to principles of sin and righteousness. The second appeals to principles of good judgment. The distinction captures, to some extent, why I would assign the noun to Augustinianism and the adjective to liberal. (Think of Aristotle’s distinction between substance and accident, if that helps. Augustinianism is the substance, signifying what’s essential; liberalism is the accident, or the non-essential.)

In the first gear, we describe something as a biblical must, by which we mean it’s true absolutely and universally. It cannot be changed. Acting against it, again, is an injustice and a sin. And therefore, we must hold it with a firm grip. In the second gear, we describe something as ordinarily wise. Something wise might be true in many situations, but not in every situation. Wisdom takes biblical principles into account, but then it looks at the circumstances of the moment and attempts to discern what’s best.

Think of Solomon standing in front of the two prostitutes, each of whom claims a certain baby as hers. When Solomon discerns the real mother, the people stand in awe “because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him to do justice” (1 Kings 3:28). Like Solomon, we must always pursue justice. That’s an absolute. To deny this is sin. But we have to figure out how to pursue justice moment by moment through wisdom. Wisdom recognizes there’s a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to build and a time to tear down (Eccles. 3:1-8). Solomon’s “bring me a sword” solution is wise, but to have adopted another strategy would hardly count as sin.

Augustinianism and, I would argue, a few liberal institutions should belong to the biblical must gear. You can find them in scripture. Other liberal institutions belong to the ordinarily wise. They will work in some moments, but not all. Indeed, a nation’s unique cultural and historical circumstances must be considered when writing a country’s constitution from scratch.[iii] A liberal democratic constitution cannot simply be plopped down on top of a nation without considering whether that nation possesses the social norms, civil society, and rule of law necessary to sustain democracy. A people with a long history of bribery, other forms of corruption, and military rule, for instance, will sometimes encounter very illiberal and unjust results when beginning with liberal institutions.

Augustinian How?

In what sense am I an Augustinian? Augustine knew there was no such thing as spiritual or religious neutrality. People are for or against the Bible’s God. All humanity, he observed, belongs to one of two societies—one city which “lifts up its head in its own glory” and “loves its own strength as displayed in its mighty men,” and another city that “says to its God, ‘Thou art my glory and the lifter up of mine head’” and “I will love Thee, O Lord, my strength.’”[iv] These two, non-overlapping cities are the city of man and the city of God. The division between them belongs not just to the Bible but “extends throughout the whole time of this time or age.”[v]

Contrary to John Locke and liberals after him, therefore, politics does not begin when we leave the state of nature and contract together to form a government. It begins with the reign of God. Our entire lives are political from start to finish, because we do all we can to arrange our days and relationships and societies according to the pleasure of someone’s glory and will, whether God’s or ours. That’s true even of Robinson Crusoe living by himself on an island. Either he employs the island’s resources for the love of self or of God. Statecraft and governance are merely one more place where people undertake that grand political project of rule. Politics, Augustine would teach us, always begins in love. We rule on behalf of him or her whom we most love.

To translate this into a biblical vocabulary, Augustine’s city of man is humanity’s activity of worshipping false gods and idols, which are really guises for worshipping the self. Such worship occurs at home, in the marketplace, on the ballfield, in the public square. It’s not restricted to one domain or another because such worship is the property of the heart, and we take our hearts everywhere we go. In the public square, then, people enter on behalf of their gods. We enter and try to pull the levers of state power in accordance with our worship—our worth-scipe, in the Old English, meaning, whatever we find most worthy. The public square, then, is nothing more or less than a battleground of gods.

Forget, therefore, any nonsense about state neutrality between religions. Your view and mine on murder, marriage, taxes, school choice, federal highways, and NASA all depend upon a moral worldview that is in turn rooted in a theology or anti-theology.

Think of Senator Dianne Feinstein’s critique in September 2017 of Amy Barrett, a nominee to the United States Court of Appeals. Feinstein sneered, “The dogma lives loudly within you.” Does the senator think her own dogma doesn’t live loudly within herself? Philosophical liberalism, it seems, has pulled the wool over her and all our eyes. It acts like a security guard at the entrance of the public square, rejecting any speech given on behalf of a big-G God while admitting all speech offered on behalf of nameless little-g gods. Too bad no one argues for the separation of idolatry and state.

We’re All Sectarian Wolves

To say that the public square is a battleground of gods is to say we’re all sectarian wolves, every one of us, and not religiously-neutral sheep. It’s time to take off the sheep’s clothing and admit it.

Does that mean dispensing with religious freedom or with the separation of church and state? For a Christian, no. Yet it does mean we’re forced into two conversations, one with people who believe like we do and another with those who don’t. The first is a principled conversation: do we (as Christians) have principled reasons, built on our own sectarian perspective, for affirming certain liberal institutions? The second is a pragmatic conversation: how can we convince non-Christians, who don’t share our foundational beliefs, to likewise adopt these liberal institutions?

In the first conversation, then, I can give Christians sectarian reasons—reasons built on my belief that the Bible is the Word of God—for why we should separate church and state and tolerate other religions. My argument is this: God explicitly authorizes governments to render judgment against injustice against God-imagers, and to provide platforms for peace, order, and human flourishing: “whoever sheds the blood of man by man shall his blood be shed, for man was made in God’s image” (Gen. 9:5-6; see also, Rom. 13:1-7). Nowhere does God authorize governments to prosecute false worship or blasphemy against himself (unless you’re a judge or king in ancient Israel). After all, how do you measure crimes against God, or recompense him? That means Christians must tolerate false worship, at least until harm comes to a human being. If you withhold medical care from your children on the grounds of your religion, for instance, I feel no compunction to tolerate your faith.

If governments possess the power of the sword, churches possess the power of the keys. The first is for building platforms; the second is for hanging signs. Churches hang signs on the what and the who of the gospel. They render judgment on right confessions and confessors (Matt. 16:13-20; 18:15-20; 28:18-20). “Yes, that is the true gospel” and “Yes, he is a true confessor.” You don’t want Donald Trump or Dianne Feinstein writing a church’s statement of faith or deciding who should be baptized.

In short, these are my biblical reasons for why I believe the First Amendment to the US Constitution is a remarkably good statement: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

But admittedly, these convictions and arguments are sectarian. Non-believers—whether adherents of another organized religion or not—won’t find them compelling. Therefore, we have to have a second, more tactical conversation. In this conversation, I adopt a posture I call “principled pragmatist,” just like Solomon in 1 Kings 3:28 pursuing justice (principled) through wisdom (pragmatist).

For a couple centuries now, for instance, the idea of a free conscience has worked as a practical and publicly accessible argument for religious freedom. Neither Christians nor non-Christians want their consciences molested, so they have agreed (each for its own sectarian reasons) to respect one another’s consciences and call it religious freedom. And such an argument worked when society broadly shared a Judeo-Christian morality. It works less and less, however, when people’s consciences demand very different things. For instance, “men and women of good conscience disagree” on abortion, said Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Perhaps then we should protect abortion as religious freedom? The present challenges of the conscience-based argument don’t mean we entirely ditch it. It does mean we recognize its limitations and that it can be used against us. Why should the Christian baker’s conscience count for more than the gay couple’s conscience who wants a wedding cake? Using a conscience-based argument for religious freedom, in other words, depends on a practical and wisdom-based judgment. Sometimes it will help; sometimes it will hurt. We therefore need to supplement it with other kinds of arguments for religious freedom, such as a statistical argument that make a case for the societal good of churches. Or a natural law argument. Or something else a clever reader might devise. What we should not do, however, is to repeat the Enlightenment mistake of thinking we can find some universal principle that will prove compelling to all people. We who believe in the noetic effects of sin and the necessity of regeneration should know better.

And What About Democracy?

As a Christian, then, I have sectarian or biblical reasons for affirming the separation of church and state and religious tolerance. I have sectarian reasons for affirming the equality of all people and certain individual rights—all people are made in God’s image.

Yet when it comes to affirming a particular form of government, we move into the realm of wisdom. The Bible never prescribes a particular form, but instead demonstrates God’s willingness to work through any number, from the patriarchal structures of Abraham and his sons, to Israel’s life under the judges, to a monarchy, to a diffused exilic people gathered in qahals under a larger empire. The Hebrew Scriptures never measure the governments of history against an ideal and abstract form of government—e.g., democracy vs. monarchy. Those were the Greek philosophers’ instincts. Instead, the scripture measures governments by whether they do justice and righteousness.

That said, God makes all humanity responsible for fulfilling what I call the “justice mechanism” provided in Genesis 9:6 (cited above). And there is something vaguely democratic in that universal obligation. Furthermore, God intended humanity at creation to abide together as a democracy of kings (Gen. 1:28; Ps. 8). The end of history, too, promises that the saints will “reign with” Christ (2 Tim. 2:12—literally, “be kings with”). History begins and ends with a democracy of godly citizens, vice-regents, who rule on behalf of the divine king.

Does that mean Christians should favor democracy in this fallen era between creation and consummation? As a matter of wisdom, perhaps, at least if we dwell among a somewhat virtuous people who are capable of just self-government. We might cite all the usual pragmatic arguments for democracy, such as the wisdom there is in dispersing concentrations of power among fallen sinners. Yet, to be sure, all this is subject to the constraints of wisdom.

To conclude, Christians should not be duped by any one ideology. We should keep a firm grip on scripture, a loose grip on everything else. We should acknowledge in Augustinian fashion that the public square is a battleground of gods. We should resolutely affirm several liberal institutions, such as the separation of church and state, religious tolerance, and a number of individual rights. Beyond that, it’s over to the considerations of wisdom. And democracy, best I can tell, remains the best of the worst.

[i] Nicholas Wolterstorff, Understanding Liberal Democracy: Essays in Political Philosophy (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2012), 305. See also Jeffrey Stout, Democracy and Tradition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 3, 11.

[ii] Nicholas Wolterstofff, Justice: Rights and Wrongs (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008).

[iii] See Lawrence Harrison and Samuel P. Huntington, eds., Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress (New York: Basic Books, 2000); see also Robert Putnam, Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994).

[iv] Augustine, The City of God against the Pagans, ed. and trans. R.W. Dyson (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), Book XV, Ch. 1, 634; Book XIV, Ch. 28, 632.

[v] Ibid., 634, 635.