In the March 2021 issue of First Things magazine, Francis X. Maier reminds the reader that as the Roman Empire was crumbling, Augustine was writing the City of God, drawing from what he witnessed first hand in Rome, notably pride, corruption, and brutality. Yet, he did not advocate for a Christian cloistering from the polis but rather Christian perspective, ethic, and engagement.
Maier reminds the reader that “Augustine never offers a political theory, for good reason. He doesn’t believe that human beings can know or create perfect justice in this world. Our judgment is always flawed by our sinfulness.” With this serving as the basis of the Christian’s perspective, Maier summarizes Augustine’s teaching of the Christian’s role in politics into four succinct points (drawing from other scholars):
- “First, . . . the starting point for any Christian politics is humility, modesty, and sober realism.”
- “Second, no political order, no matter how good, can ever constitute a just society. Errors in moral judgment can’t be avoided. These errors also grow exponentially in their complexity as they move from lower to higher levels of society and governance. Therefore, the Christian needs to be loyal to her nation and obedient to its legitimate rules. But she also needs to cultivate a critical vigilance about both.”
- “Third, despite these concerns, Christians still have a duty to take part in public life according to their God-given abilities, even when their faith brings them into conflict with public authority. We can’t ignore or withdraw from civic affairs. The classic civic virtues named by Cicero–prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance–can be renewed and elevated, to the benefit of all citizens, by the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity. Therefore, political engagement is a worthy Christian task, and public office is an honorable Christian vocation.”
- “Fourth, in governing as best they can, while conforming their lives and their judgments to the content of the gospel, Christian leaders in public life can accomplish real good. Their success will always be limited and mixed. It will never be ideal. But with the help of God they can improve the moral quality of society.”
These are helpful reminders in a time when many Christians want to curse the government and withdraw from engagement. Instead, as citizens in a secular society, our Christian influence matters and contributes to a just society. Such contributions, as Maier lists them, are: “a zeal for Jesus Christ and his Church; a conscience formed in humility and rooted in Scripture and the believing community; the prudence to see which issues in public life are vital and foundational to human dignity, and which are not; and the courage to work for what’s right.” These are indeed worthy contributions to any society but notably one in which Christians live.