The City of God or the City of This World: Which Christians are right about politics?

Augustine writes about the city of this world in his preface to the City of God (Penguin ed., H. Bettenson, trans.):

Therefore I cannot refrain from speaking about the city of this world, a city which aims at dominion, which holds nations in enslavement, but is itself dominated by the lust of domination.

Andrew, who is a frequent contributor on these pages, wrote a post at The City of God in which he suggests that Christians could resolve their political differences if they focussed on their common dislike of crony capitalism:

As I’ve been listening to the positions and representatives of the progressives, conservatives, and libertarians, it occurs to me that they can all agree on certain social justice matters. They can agree on the rule of law in a true sense: where the law does not favour anyone due their financial status. And this principle has many applications. I believe all three positions can agree that crony capitalism, or welfare for the rich, is not just. Conservatives and libertarians (in our context) are both supposed to be free-market, which opposes welfare as a general rule, and progressives oppose welfare for the rich in specific; why then, cannot all three wings of the church agree to co-operate in opposing this?

I really wonder, too, if focusing on just bringing our political order into accord with this one principle, in all its many applications, would not drastically improve the plight of the poor, more than any other political principle. This is something that could be challenged, but I have a feeling that it might be the single most important issue in terms of helping the poor, considered in its widest significance.

My first response to Andrew was that the problem today isn’t just crony capitalism which has become very bad lately, but then socialism exists in the form of handouts of all kinds, to the point that governments are even borrowing money to give to the poor. The end result will be a meltdown of the economy, and then reality sets in and shows that socialism can’t work.

But then I wrote a second response, which I repost here in full:

I would also like to point out that a large part of the difference between libertarians on the right and statists on the left is their understanding of the role of government. Libertarians truly desire smaller government because they rightly see government as a usurper of rights while its true role should be to protect rights. So I would wish above all to downsize government to the point where it serves the function of protector and nothing else.

The statists, on the other hand, view government as a panacea, the solution to all the woes of humanity, whether poverty, sickness, inequality or ignorance. In their quest to create the kingdom of heaven through government they enlarge the government to the point where it becomes the biggest threat to freedom–and this includes Christian freedom, because historically governments have largely failed to protect Christians but have instead murdered them by millions. This emphasis on state as panacea is fundamentally opposed to the Christian world-view that  God’s intervention only can accomplish the Kingdom of Heaven–it is not something which sinful men who rebel against God can bring about–it is likewise impossible even for kind-hearted Christians with good intentions to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven through political means, because it requires a change in hearts of all men, a change that is only possible through the power of the Holy Spirit.

I have experienced personally the threat of big government–having been threatened with imprisonment and fines only because I am unwilling to relinquish my rights which are guaranteed by law–but who am I to challenge the evil and raw power of a rogue state which no longer protects but usurps rights? So I have quietly withdrawn from the battle, but I have only loathing for the state.

Thus, in my opinion, it is a mistake for Christians, who see government as the solution, to believe that good policy can somehow transform the Kingdom of this world into the Kingdom of God.  Augustine would say that that attempt is futile, for the city of this world aims at domination, which results intrinsically, as I suggested, in the curtailing of human freedom.  Thus, as a Christian libertarian, I desire the state to content itself with the protection of rights and to stay out of the business of making heaven on earth.

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2 thoughts on “The City of God or the City of This World: Which Christians are right about politics?

  1. Andrew responded with a post at City of God (http://www.civitatedei.com/2011/07/further-thoughts-about-a-common-effort/ ):

    P.W. Dunn has written a helpful response to my earlier post about a possible way for Christians of all political stripes to co-operate. Here’s an important excerpt:

    Libertarians truly desire smaller government because they rightly see government as a usurper of rights while its true role should be to protect rights. So I would wish above all to downsize government to the point where it serves the function of protector and nothing else.

    The statists, on the other hand, view government as a panacea, the solution to all the woes of humanity, whether poverty, sickness, inequality or ignorance. …

    Thus, in my opinion, it is a mistake for Christians, who see government as the solution, to believe that good policy can somehow transform the Kingdom of this world into the Kingdom of God. Augustine would say that that attempt is futile, for the city of this world aims at domination, which results intrinsically, as I suggested, in the curtailing of human freedom.

    As a brief response, I would say:

    (1) I certainly recognize that libertarians and progressives have very different views of what the state should be about in general, but the central point of my post was a suggestion about how the two could co-operate in specific ways in spite of that. I don’t think the remaining differences provide a good reason not to.

    (2) With regards to what is possible: I think this is ultimately a debate about eschatology. While I agree that violence alone will not bring about the kingdom of God on earth, I do believe that the Spirit will work through Christians to change the hearts of the worlds in increasing proportions throughout history, to the point where the world will be Christian by the return of Christ. In the process, rightly used violence is appropriate in specific circumstances for enforcing the will of God for a public order and the common good (and not for bringing about a perfect utopia).

  2. Hi, Peter. I agree with you on this issue of the purpose of the state and how a Christian should view the establishing of the Kingdom of God. I was wondering if you could email me sometime. I’d like to discuss some of your thoughts on giving and care for the poor. I found your blog last night and read through quite a bit of it for several hours. I have to say it was helpful in working through some of the thoughts I’ve had about giving. What I’d like to discuss with you is balancing extravagant generosity with the freedom to enjoy the wealth God has given us – specifically, how do we find that balance and how do we know when we’ve gone too far in our freedom. Looking forward to talking with you!

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