I was recently asked to offer some comments for a radio story on Philadelphia’s WHYY.
I was having a discussion with a friend about Christianity and politics yesterday. He was telling me how a prominent local pastor was arguing that churches ought to be able to endorse specific candidates for public office without jeopardizing their tax exempt status. The position isn’t just problematic for constitutional and tax reasons, though it certainly is that. But it also leads to a view of politics that becomes overly moralistic. Politics becomes a crusade, with politicians being potential crusaders. Augustine’s view of political life is the antithesis of this approach. Consider this passage in Book XIX of The City of God:
Wherefore, as the life of the flesh is the soul, so the blessed life of man is God, of whom the sacred writings of the Hebrews say,Blessed is the people whose God is the Lord.Miserable, therefore, is the people which is alienated from God. Yet even this people has a peace of its own which is not to be lightly esteemed, though, indeed, it shall not in the end enjoy it, because it makes no good use of it before the end. But it is our interest that it enjoy this peace meanwhile in this life; for as long as the two cities are commingled, we also enjoy the peace of Babylon. For from Babylon the people of God is so freed that it meanwhile sojourns in its company. And therefore the apostle also admonished the Church to pray for kings and those in authority, assigning as the reason,that we may live a quiet and tranquil life in all godliness and love.And the prophet Jeremiah, when predicting the captivity that was to befall the ancient people of God, and giving them the divine command to go obediently to Babylonia, and thus serve their God, counselled them also to pray for Babylonia, saying,In the peace thereof shall you have peace,Jeremiah 29:7 — the temporal peace which the good and the wicked together enjoy.
Citizens of the City of God are by nature pilgrims in this life. The peace of Babylon, the City of Man, is to be esteemed, utilized and cultivated. But the pursuit of earthly peace, the true function of politics, is not a crusade because its pursuit is not an ultimate good but a penultimate and relative one. So perhaps what we ought to look for is not candidates who consider politics as a moral crusade, but politicians with a prudent sense of political morality. At the heart of such morality would be a true sense of what politics is: the tricky art of cultivating a relative peace in Babylon. True knowledge of god makes politics an utterly earthly, not a heavenly endeavor.