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Posted January 4, 2003
From the Washington Theological Union Lectures

Augustine, Citizen?

Dr. Peter Kaufman
September 29, 2002
Article By Michael Goggin

The rapidly approaching election season provided an interesting backdrop for a consideration of "Augustine, Citizen?" -- a lecture by Dr. Peter Kaufman, professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, on September 29.

In 1501, Kaufman notes, this same topic was considered by St. Thomas More, but the contents of More's lecture have been lost. Kaufman bemoans the fact that the thought of Augustine and More both have been twisted beyond recognition by modern commentators. Kaufman believes former New York Governor Mario Cuomo has turned More into a Clinton Democrat. Augustine's teachings have likewise been made relevant to today's world, leading to a corruption of his original intent. Kaufman believes that both More and Augustine would agree on how to be "religiously political."

Augustine wrote, "The state was a disposition rooted in sin." Yet Kaufman observes that Augustine was happy to collaborate with the government around Carthage to defeat his main foe, the Donatists. Augustine's church in Hippo would have closed without government intervention, Kaufman asserts. Augustine seemed to adopt an attitude that while government should be used, it should not be enjoyed nor improved. All in all, Augustine would be happier reading than being called into the political process to mediate disputes.

Changes in the political scene of his day made Augustine a bit more of an activist for a time. Augustine typically presided over diocesan courts or hearings as a bishop. The jurisdiction of the bishops over criminal and civil matters was scaled back in 399, making it harder for his voice to be heard. Nonetheless, he tirelessly lobbied the imperial magistrate Macedonius to abolish capital punishment.

Earlier in life, Augustine recognized hypocrisy in the political process that convinced him to seek his livelihood elsewhere. In 380, when Augustine was still only a casual Christian, his father served as a lesser government official. Augustine himself had some political ambition, but he seemed to tire of the deceit and chicanery that politics required of him. Writing in Confessions, he says, "how unhappy I was, and how conscious you made me of my misery on that day when I was preparing to deliver a panegyric on the emperor! In the course of it I would tell numerous lies and, for my mendacity, would win the good opinion of people who knew [them] to be untrue."

Augustine was ill at ease among the powerful, lacking the political skills of someone like St. Ambrose of Milan. From about 410 until the end of his life, Augustine remained completely disillusioned with politics. Never convinced that he was living in Christian times, Augustine only once mentioned that Christianity might sanctify the empire. It was not a major thrust of his teaching.

Kaufman concluded by considering Augustine's position in light of citizenship concerns in the United States of America today. Kaufman observes that citizenship is often equated with patriotism in the U.S. Witness the ubiquitous American flag after the events of September 11, strong bipartisan support for the war against the Taliban government of Afghanistan and even the absence of a strong voice of restraint against the proposed first-strike war on Iraq. With another Election Day fast approaching, we must also realize that Augustine's frame of reference was the Holy Roman Empire, not a post-modern democratic republic. Augustine calls us to a citizenship that has little to do with voting.