What are the precise rules of the liberal-secular state? To what degree should Christians accept these rules? And what theological sources should Christians use to find a way forward? These thorny questions have come into stark relief in the last decade through a series of high profile cases in both Britain and the United States involving legal standoffs between conservative Christians and citizens in same-sex relationships. These ‘Culture wars’ over ‘religious liberties’ were exemplified in 2013, when the owners of an Oregon bakery denied service to a same-sex couple. The ensuing protests, fines and recriminations, revealed a a deep conflict of world-views: Should the consciences of religious believers be left unmolested by the secular state, or should tax-paying citizens be compelled to follow a rule of neutral equanimity- regardless of their fundamental convictions? A similar case in Northern Ireland in 2015 merely restated the same conundrum. As the judge in the case noted:
“The defendants are entitled to continue to hold their genuine and deeply held religious beliefs and to manifest them but, in accordance with the law, not to manifest them in the commercial sphere if it is contrary to the rights of others.”
Behind the formulation of this ruling is an age-old controversy between Christianity and the public sphere. In the end, the conflict comes down to whether Christians feel they can accept the existence of a realm of moral deliberation beyond the authority of the Church. In the following post, I want to offer one possible answer to this these quandaries through the voice of the Church Father Augustine of Hippo (354 –430). I will suggest that Augustine provides support for what we might regard as a secular state, and that this framework should cause those Christians who rally against liberal secularism to be cautious. At the heart of this plea is an examination of Augustine’s double-edged repudiation of a publicly sponsored Paganism and a politicised Christianity. Within both these critiques Augustine develops a vision of civil society and government, which, I suggest, challenges Christians to look at issues of secularism, pluralism and tolerance in a fresh way. Firstly, let’s consider what Augustine thought about the role of religion in public life through a consideration of his attitudes towards Roman ancestral religion.
The Problem of Religion and the Secular
In recent decades, some have suggested that among early Christians writers, Augustine is the great collaborator; a theological architect for the corruption of the Church by the State. As John Howard Yoder articulates the problem, Augustine can be seen as a learned gentleman, who acclimatizes the Church to the rules of Roman public life. Such acclimatization emerges for Yoder graphically when we consider the issue of Christian ‘public influence’. The fact that Augustine thought Christianity should be a player in reconstructing society through an alliance with civil interests, proves for Yoder that Christianity in Augustine has become captured by motives other than those of the Gospel. Looking at this portrait in the round, one can certainly understand where Yoder’s disquiet comes from. Take for instance Augustine’s attitudes towards ancient Roman religion. Here, Augustine stands in the tradition of his mentor Ambrose of Milan, in detesting the old conservative cults of family, tribe and war which still dominated the civil and mental architecture of fourth-century Rome.
Ambrose’s plea in 383 to the emperor Valentinian II against the reinstatement of the Altar of Victory in the Senate House was not merely a repudiation of idolatry in the abstract, but a vivid expression of a developed theological politics. By rejecting the cult of Victory, Ambrose expressed a desire to disinvest the mystical and absolutist qualities of the state- fostered by Imperial decree since Augustus. The blood and cruelty of the governing powers must stand without providential justification, argued Ambrose; a secularisation which is paradoxically achieved by the judgment of Christ. Such a radical de-sanctification of state action has far-reaching consequences for the offices of Empire by subjecting them to invasive new values which disrupt the moral immunities offered by Roman Paganism. Such disorder was vividly illustrated in 390, when Ambrose forced the emperor Theodosius to perform public penance for his bloody conduct in Thessalonika.
Incorporated into a new theology of peace over victory, Ambrose was clearly determined that Theodosius would no longer act as his pagan predecessors had done. Following in Ambrose’s footsteps, Augustine attempts to unmask the destructive political dynamics of civil religion through a sustained analysis of traditional Roman institutions, rituals and attitudes. Augustine concludes that key sites of cultural education- from public games and theatrical performances to the rhetorical schools- were all contaminated by a civil theology which inculcates viciousness and moral license in the lives of citizens. As John Milbank observes:
In the story which Rome tells about its own foundations, the principle of a prior violence ‘stayed’ and limited by a single violent hand is firmly enshrined. Romulus, the founder, is the murderer of his brother and rival Remus; he is also the enslaver of the clienteles to whom he offered protection against foreign enemies. In battle, Romulus invoked the staying hand of Jupiter, who then received the title stator. The supreme God, therefore, like the founding hero, arises merely as the limiter of a preceding disorder… Mythical beginnings of legal order are therefore traced back to the arbitrary limitation of violence by violence, to victory over rivals, and to the usurpation of fathers by sons. And, according to Augustine, the Romans continued to ‘live out’ the mythos: within the city gates the goddess most celebrated was Bellona; the virtues most crowned with glory were military ones.
Pluralism and Roman Violence
What sustains this predilection to cruelty in the Roman story? Recent attempts to understand Augustine’s reception of Paganism through Milbank’s prism of primordial violence have tended to focus on the internal plurality of pagan theological praxis. As Graham Ward suggests, Augustine’s combat with Paganism in the fourth-century is ultimately about the nature of truth- possessing equivalence with the Church’s confrontation with radical postmodernity today. While such a reading has plausibility, it confuses our present anxieties about pluralism (namely relativism) with Augustine’s cultural concerns. While the post-Christian plurality of contemporary societies hinges upon liquidity and atomisation, the non-Christian plurality encountered by Augustine is explicitly allied with forces of cultural hegemony which wholly envelopes the public space.
While the Roman pantheon offered an image of radical pluralism to its worshippers, Augustine realized that these personalities were illusionary, not merely because they were idols, but because their personalities epitomised a single tendency- the quest for power. Much earlier in the Western tradition, Plato had suggested that collective strife among the Olympian gods deprives the pagan theologian of the ability to give a coherent account of piety. As Socrates pointedly observes in Plato’s Euthyphro, how can one decide what is just or unjust on divine example, if ‘different gods consider different things to be just, beautiful, ugly, good and bad’? Radicalising this Platonic claim, Augustine suggests that the anarchy of polytheism does more than deprive human beings of a consensual conception of divine justice. It deprives human culture of the ability to sustain commitments to virtue, good order and peace as well. In the vindictiveness of Juno the Stoic apatheia of the semi-divine Aeneas and the adultery of Venus, Augustine observes the hard and fast exclusion of compassion, righteousness and affection from public life. In turn this leads to a uniformity of morally degenerate characters- which passively imitate the objects of their worship. As Augustine observes in a letter to Nectarius:
‘[You] might object, ‘all the old written traditions about the gods’ lives and characters ought to be understood and interpreted by wise readers in a quite different way.’ Yes indeed; just yesterday or the day before, we heard a wholesome interpretation of this sought being read out in the temples to the assembled people. I ask you: is the human race so blinded that it cannot grasp such clear facts? Jupiter is celebrated everywhere committing his acts of adultery; in paintings, in statues-cast, hammered or sculptured- in writing, in public readings, on the stage, in song, in dance. Why could he not have been described as prohibiting such behaviour, at least in his own Capitol? If such wicked, such completely shameless and impious acts are allowed to blaze without prohibition among the people; if they are worshipped in the temple and laughed at in the theatres; if even the poor man’s herds are wiped out as his animals become their sacrificial victims; and if the rich man’s inheritance is squandered on actors to imitate in plays and dances- then, how can you say the cities are ‘flourishing’?
Augustine: The Pluralistic State
What then is Augustine’s definition of civic flourishing? It is certainly not a monochrome and inflexible conception of the good. Such mirror images of a permissive polytheism have their own risks-namely the confusion between social conformity and genuine righteousness. Indeed, as Augustine reminds us, if one judges the worth of an individual according to the metric of social condemnation alone, then one would have agreed with the Roman persecution of the Apostles. Consensus is not always the same as goodness Augustine warns. In place of an uncritical adoration of unity, Augustine is sensitive to the far-reaching consequences of Christianity’s affirmation of a Triune God. Just as the harmony of the Trinity consists of a loving relationship between distinct yet interrelated Persons, the Christian practice of loving-kindness invites the disciples of Jesus to find unity in their differences. Consequently, the Christian who searches after love can live variously- as a married householder, a public rhetorician, or even a desert hermit ‘without any texts of the scriptures.’ This tentative Augustinian account of vocation is significantly strengthened when we consider the distinctive character of his hermeneutics. In place of a purely literalistic reading of the Scriptures, Augustine suggests that since the Word came into the world to communicate the love of God for human beings (1 John 4:8) any interpretation of the ‘words’ of Scripture which prompt us to charitable action must be consistent with divine revelation. As Augustine notes in On Christian Teaching:
Anyone who derives from them an idea which is useful for supporting this love but fails to understand what the writer demonstrably meant in the passage has not made a fatal error . . . Anyone with an interpretation of the scriptures that differs from that of the writer is misled, but not because the scriptures are lying. If as I began by saying he is misled by an idea that builds up love, which is the end of the commandment, he is misled in the same way as a walker who leaves his path by mistake but reaches the destination to which the path leads by going through a field.
Of course this did not mean an infinite elasticity of meaning. Like Plato before him, Augustine understands true love as consisting of a will directed towards the good. Yet, regardless of such Platonic qualifications, Augustine affirmed the value of social pluralism- not in a multitude of gods, but in the multiplication of good lives lived. Yet, such pluralism of virtue could not truly take root while the false plurality of Latin polytheism held sway in the public square. There must be room to imagine another moral universe beyond the squabbling Olympians- a culture in which Christ could be heard and heeded in acts of healing and justice. Yet, as Robert Dodaro has pointed out, such acts were not intended to undercut the role of the appointed magistrates. While Christians can advice, support, even condemn, Augustine did not envisage Christians as the final arbiters of public space. Indeed, as Dodaro observes; ‘Augustine demonstrates ‘underlying respect for the authority and legitimacy of the public sphere (res publica)’ in despite of its evident flaws.
What does this respect mean for Augustine’s understanding of civil society? Augustine’s desire to remain a petitioner in relation to secular power rather than its director is illustrative of a significant difference between himself and Ambrose. Despite the failures of the Emperors to live as Christians, Ambrose still held out hope for the Constantinian settlement in which the peace of the Empire was identical with the peace of Christ. According to this latter-day civil theology, Rome’s conquering armies were guided by divine Providence, while the power struggles of the emperors were the vulgar manifestation of a titanic struggle between the forces of light and darkness. In the midst of this ordered universe, Augustine introduces a rupture which Ambrose cannot cross. For all his condemnation of Roman Paganism, Augustine does not seem to believe that counter-absorption of the public space by Christianity is the answer to violence and or immorality.
Indeed, any kind forceful alliance between religion and the state is merely an invitation to corruption; whether such corruption is pagan or Christian. In both cases, Augustine repudiates a conception of the sacred which is made subservient to the demands of public power. It is for this reason that Augustine is so keen to break the link between Christianity and civic stability in City of God. Augustine is certainly not sympathetic to the Constantinian suggestion that Imperial Power and the Church should be identical. The Church must be free to be the Church. Yet, at the same time, the Church should not attempt to become a counter power to the state. In this way, the church should accept secular institutions of justice when it can be shown that such institutions serve the object of ‘general peace’. To accept such a settlement is also to accept that individual Christians or church-communities will not always be ‘winners’. This is the price of refusing the idolatry of state-power. This does not bar Christians from mediation, protest and campaigning- but it does bar them from condemning the whole secular order. This is the tightrope which Augustine believes the Church in order to be authentic to itself. Behind this nuanced position is probably Augustine’s own reading of Romans 13: ‘Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves’.
Would Augustine Bake the cake?
This brief mention of Romans 13 brings us to another question; what kind of state might Augustine have prefered given his theological starting-point? In many respects what Augustine is arguing for in City of God (and earlier) is something remarkably similar to the pluralistic public space supported by the liberal theorist John Rawls. The public sphere must be a space where those of different lives can meet together, dialogue and find peaceful solutions to common problems. And as Dodaro’s mention of the appointed magistrates alerts us, there must be mechanisms for dealing with conflict which extend beyond the wishes of this community or that. There must be retraint and trade-off. Of course, the Church will not always agree with the way secular opinion-formers think, but it must trust that there are aspects of secular neutrality that serve the interests of the Church; supremely, the space for the Gospel to be proclaimed, for prayers to be given and the Church to act. To throw these goods away for some illusive vision of purity is at the very least theologically problematic. This was a hot issue in Augustine’s own life-time, when sectarian Christians (the Donatists) broke away from their local Churches, in their quest for absolute moral conformity. Yet, as Augustine consistently pointed out, on this side of the fall, no Christian can hope for complete purity in the moral realm. The Church was not called to be absolutely good, but to rather proclaim the goodness of God. The final moral status of Christian entanglements will be decided, not by the partial understanding of individual Christians, but by the judgment of God. If the world is a field, we who grow in it, do not know which crop God prefers from this side of eternity. What is currently wheat can become a weed, and what is a weed can still become wheat “and no one knows what they will be tomorrow.” Where the cake shop owner and the gay client will be- no one but God knows. In the meantime, a pluralistic state permits the Church to do its best and for the state to be unhypocritical. This is perhaps the best we can hope for in the ‘earthly city’.
There are costs to this generous settlement to be sure. The culture which has given up on a unified mythology of faith and state maybe less idealistic and more cynical, yet it is more likely to be persuaded of the necessity for change. A society devoid of a single narrative is in this sense more susceptible to the transformative, loving narrative that Christianity at its best offers. If there is only one narrative, only one perspective can be heard. This is not a basis for peace and love. Augustine’s affirmation of exegetical plurality, suggests that he thought the Christian life always had to be larger than a single interpretation of any given issue would allow. Given these hospitable features, would Augustine bake a cake for a gay couple? A trivial question perhaps, but it brings so much into focus. We might answer this question by posing a series of other questions. Would Augustine expect everyone to assent to his interpretation of public ethics? Either within the Church or without? Does baking the cake amount to negating the ultimate goods that the Church proclaims? Is it equal perhaps to the worship of those false gods which promote violence? Augustine’s pluralistic conception of love suggest a negative answer to both these subsequent queries. To render a service to one with whom one disagrees does not mean one necessarily jepodises the truth of one’s position. What if one did it out of love, despite profound reservations?
Perhaps this is all down to the same kind of issue addressed by Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians. Here he speaks of two different kinds of Christian; the ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ bretheren. The ‘weak’ brethren are still ‘recovering pagans’- their minds still captured by the notion of ‘purity’. They would not eat food sacrificed to pagan gods for fear that their use somehow tainted the food with the sin of idolatry. The ‘strong’ Christian on the other hand realized that these images had no power- and the food sacrificed to idols was just that- food. These sacrifices had no corrupting power. As Paul concludes, “Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience’ (1 Corinthians 10:25). To draw a modern comparison, conservative Christians’ objections to baking wedding cakes for same-sex couples have the same feeling of obsessive purity about them. There is the implicit assumption that by baking the cake they are condoning what they do not believe in. But as Paul might have said; “it’s just cake”; it does not tell us anything about the purity of the agent that bakes it. Augustine, a good Pauline theologian is equally keen to detoxify Christians of the notion that they must seperate themselves wholly from the world around them; even when baking a cake! It turns out then that this matter is far from trivial; encompassing as it does matters of conscience, purity and Christian wordliness. Much is at stake here from the perspective Christian ethics, not least Paul’s insistence in the neighboring passage in Romans 12 that: ‘If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone’. By baking the cake one affirms both the above imperative of coexistence and the fact that God desires an autonomous public sphere which is not polluted by a conflict between public and sacred interests. For therein the temptations of idolatry and insinereity are averted. By refusing to separate ourselves from our neighbours (from those who walk a different path from ourselves) and by conforming peacably to public authority (within limitted bounds) we walk the tightrope Augustine and Paul believe is at the heart of the Christian life.