This post is featured in the CAPC Magazine, October 2016: ‘Votes, Voices, and Vices’ issue of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine. Subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and receive a host of other benefits, too.

This year, we are told, we may have reached the end of American politics. Our major party candidates represent the worst of America: we despise them for their lack of decency, their lack of integrity, or worse. We suggest that the system might be rigged. We see deeper divides and less willingness to work together. We talk about values, believing that our political party has the moral high ground. (Of course, the other party is morally bankrupt.) And so we try to assure ourselves that, while we might not like our candidate, this year is an anomaly for our party. (Of course, for the other party, this year is no anomaly.) In Christian circles, we talk about who Jesus would vote for (or, worse, we conduct seminars that answer the question, with proof-texts ripped from their scriptural context), we listen to or give coded sermons in which one candidate or party is most clearly in line with Christian principles, and we talk about choosing the “lesser of two evils.”

Maybe Augustine would ask it this way: can we recognize the City of Washington D.C. growing up alongside the City of God?But to keep the focus solely on the events of a day in November is to take a short-sighted view. Instead, we in the church need to ask bigger, more formational questions: what if we have been so busy defending the bullet points of our party’s platform or analyzing the pragmatics of the upcoming vote that we have overlooked what that platform is training us to love? What if we have not reached “the end” of politics in America, but “the ends” of politics in America? And what if our political parties have been working together, so to speak, to form us into a people who are shallow, self-centered, pleasure seekers?

In his magnum opus, City of God, Augustine addressed a people who were wrestling with identity as the Western Roman Empire faced collapse. While we cannot make a one-to-one comparison between Rome and America, Augustine does have much to say about the ends of political life in America. From Augustine’s critique of Roman culture in City of God, we can come to see that neither of our political parties are the guardians of biblical morality; instead, both parties are actually colluding to form us into a people who value pleasure far above virtue or justice.

At heart, the Democratic and Republican parties are each giving us a story about identity. Augustine begins his critique of this identity by satirizing some of what we might call the “conservative values” of the Republican party. He argues that we can tolerate corruption in a people and their government as long as “our way of life” is not disrupted:

“So long as it lasts,” they say, “so long as it enjoys material prosperity, and the glory of victorious war, or, better, the security of peace, why should we worry? What concerns us is that we should get richer all the time, to have enough for extravagant spending every day, enough to keep our inferiors in their place. It is all right if the poor serve the rich, so as to get enough to eat to enjoy a lazy life under their patronage; while the rich make use of the poor to ensure a crowd of hangers-on to minister to their pride . . . if provinces are under rulers who are regarded not as directors of conduct but as controllers of material things and providers of material satisfactions, and are treated with servile fear instead of sincere respect. . . .” (II.20, translated by Henry Bettenson)

Does not this desire to maintain riches, glory, and a certain kind of stability contain the echo of “making America great again”? Here is the preservation of class divides, the “freedom” to be good consumers, and a hawkish desire to go to war in order to “protect our way of life” (in our case, isolationism, capitalism, and neglect of social justice). It reveals a people who have found their identity in being “the greatest nation on Earth,” where greatness is defined in measurables, such as economic prosperity and military power rather than true justice and relational human flourishing.

But Augustine is not just concerned with the economic and material desires. He goes on to address the more liberal “identity politics” most often espoused by the Democratic party. Why should we worry, Augustine continues,

if the people applaud those who supply them with pleasures rather than those who offer salutary advice; if no one imposes disagreeable duties, or forbids perverted delights; if kings are interested not in the morality but the docility of their subjects; . . . The laws should punish offences against another’s property, not offences against a man’s own personal character. No one should be brought to trial except for an offence, or threat of offence, against another’s property, house, or person; but anyone should be free to do as he likes about his own, or with his own, or with others, if they consent. (II.20)

Notice that, in this view, consent is all that is required to make an action virtuous. All desires and delights are valid. Here is the argument that it should be possible to do anything one wants, provided that it does not harm others’ property or bodies.

We could stop here, recognizing that both parties have their flaws. But Augustine goes further, linking the desires for unchecked economic prosperity and personal license:

It is a good thing to have imposing houses luxuriously furnished, where lavish banquets can be held, where people can, if they like, spend night and day in debauchery, and eat and drink till they are sick: to have the din of dancing everywhere, and theatres full of fevered shouts of degenerate pleasure and of every kind of cruel and degraded indulgence. Anyone who disapproves of this kind of happiness should rank as a public enemy: anyone who attempts to change it or get rid of it should be hustled out of hearing by the freedom-loving majority: he should be kicked out, and removed from the land of the living. (II.20)

And this is where we reach the ends of what we have been trained to love and value. The link between both parties and ourselves is the supremacy of pleasure. And so the Republican party asks, “Why shouldn’t we do what we want with our money and do all we can to maintain our nation’s power?” And so the Democratic party asks, “Why shouldn’t we fulfill every desire that is in our hearts?” Embedded in both is the same question: Why should we deny ourselves pleasures of any kind, and why should we let anyone disapprove of what we do?

Augustine’s staggering critique is often used to say that America sounds a lot like Rome as it neared collapse. But his observations reveal much more than “America is like Rome.” They suggest that the similarities between what both parties are teaching us to value—at root, pleasure—are far greater than the differences. In America, the problems in our political parties are linked to the problems with our individual and collective identity. We are the “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” that Paul speaks of in 2 Timothy 3. We value and pursue economic status. We value and pursue any desire we believe might bring fulfillment. Our desires drive our politics, our politics drive our desires, and so on.

From Augustine’s observations we can draw bigger, spiritually formational questions beyond whom to vote for this year. What do our political parties train us to value? What do they train us to love? When the candidates of both parties incite such vitriol, we should feel called to examine these questions with greater urgency and clarity. If our devotion to a party or to a couple of political ideals is so strong that we will endorse reprehensible behavior, can we really believe that either party is the party of virtue? Maybe Augustine would ask it this way: can we recognize the City of Washington D.C. growing up alongside the City of God?

In this election, we see howling, cartoonishly exaggerated examples of what we love. But maybe this isn’t a disaster. Maybe this is an opportunity to clearly recognize where our desires have led us. Maybe we can begin the hard work of retraining our loves.

Image: St. Augustine Teaching in Rome, by Benozzo Gozzoli via Wikimedia Commons.


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4 Comments

  1. Thank you for the fine article. I have been meaning to sit withmy dog-eared copy of City of God for a while. I guess it’s time.

  2. Are you kidding me?

    And this is where we reach the ends of what we have been trained to love and value. The link between both parties and ourselves is the supremacy of pleasure. And so the Republican party asks, “Why shouldn’t we do what we want with our money and do all we can to maintain our nation’s power?” And so the Democratic party asks, “Why shouldn’t we fulfill every desire that is in our hearts?” Embedded in both is the same question: Why should we deny ourselves pleasures of any kind, and why should we let anyone disapprove of what we do?

    You still have no idea what is going on do you?

    You have within your comment here declared one party a party of war and the other party a party of peace. What is worse you have flip flopped who they are although neither today can maintain a badge of courage.
    That those of you who write these articles would take the time to encourage people to pray. Closed eyes, stopped up ears, hardened hearts, deceitfulness and greed; these are the powers and emotions that drive the leaders and majority of people in the nation anymore. People no longer know who they are now they are beginning to have doubts about what they are!
    What grief we bring to our God, our creator, our sustainer; our Lord Jesus Christ.
    Forgive us Lord, forgive us.

  3. And so the Republican party asks, “Why shouldn’t we do what we want with our money and do all we can to maintain our nation’s power?”

    That’s not the Republican position in the least. We want to keep money away from the government’s social engineering mischief and usurpation of civil society, and take our global superpower status as a grave responsibility as one of the few defenders of life and liberty on earth.

    The link between both parties and ourselves is the supremacy of pleasure.

    That’s the Democrat position [and Libertarian] but not the Republican one. It’s not the GOP elevating the sexual revolution to sacred legal status. This “pox on both houses” stuff can get real facile sometimes.

  4. I’m teaching City of God right now and have been struck and how much of what Augustine says has direct application to the current state of American politics. In another class I teach, we watched Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech from 1983 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FcSm-KAEFFA). I was struck that the Republican Party vision of Reagan is so very different from that of Donald Trump. I think it’s accurate to speak of a Democratic Party position but not of a unified Republican Party position. The position of Reagan is very different from the position of Trump. In fact, I would even argue that the vision and values of Mike Pence are radically different from those of Trump. Augustinian virtues abound in Reagan’s speech but are wholly absent from the rambling reckless rhetoric of “The Donald.”

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