It’s hard not to be uneasy about politics these days. Even among those most sober and prayerful and encouraging toward a settling-in administration wonder if this current White House is one uniquely in over its head, at best. A quick survey on my social media networks confirms that even reactions from those who support President Donald J. Trump wholeheartedly can sometimes only further expose the problem of our day: a tendency to look for a savior in the political.
One-hundred days into the Trump White House, our political health would seem to be the same as it ever was lately: in need of a healing remedy.
Chad Pecknold, associate professor of systematic theology at The Catholic University of America, has been doing his part to try to provide just that. He has spent every Thursday during these 100 days leading a two-hour discussion on Twitter about St. Augustine’s “City of God.” The informal seminar began for many, myself included, as a little bit of an escape, or, at the very least “changing the channel on a very unsettling political show” as Pecknold puts it. “It was a chance to get distance and perspective on where we were in the larger scope of history in which 100 days seems like a laughable measure.”
So instead of trying to read the daily tea leaves from (presidential) tweets, Twitter has led people in different time zones and continents to a 1,000-page classic by a Church Father. To recover focusing gems like: “My God is present everywhere, and wholly present everywhere. No limits can confine him” (1.29), and “In order to discover the character of any people, we have to observe what they love” (19.24) and an explanation of how virtues can actually be vices if one doesn’t have God in mind and is instead inflated by pride (19.25).
Augustine also advises: “In the household of the just, ‘man who lives on the basis of faith’ and who is still on pilgrimage, far from that Heavenly City, even those who give orders are the servants of those whom they appear to command. For they do not give orders because of a lust for domination but from a dutiful concern for the interests of others, not with pride in taking precedence over others, but with compassion in taking care of others” (19.14). All as timely as it ever was.
About Trump, Pecknold voices what many tell me. So far, “his administration is in some respects a relief. It’s too much to see President Trump as a kind of Constantine Redivivus, a strong emperor who has a conversion to Christ, and so makes it legal to be Christian. I have some friends who see him that way, romantically, as a kind of savior. That’s not a healthy view of any politician. I hated that messianic view of Obama too.”
Of course, there is the fact that we went from an administration that made the Little Sisters of the Poor and so many other Catholic entities across the country seek relief from the Supreme Court for religious liberty protection against regulatory mandates. Consider it a reprieve in a culture where even churchgoers have been known to try to keep their faith hidden from view in a society that finds real religion foreign at best; bigotry, commonly; or a dangerous declaration of war at worst.
“I certainly agree that President Trump has brought some relief to citizens who have felt that progressive politics had become coercive, prepared to discipline and punish religious dissenters, and even those who just believed in basic truths about the human body, like that we are made male and female for a reason,” Pecknold told me, reflecting on some of the observations made about the contemporary scene during the “City of God” discussion (marked by the hashtag #CivDei during the 15-week seminar).
“Once in a while,” Pecknold noted, “Augustine’s criticisms of the lust for power and the dangers of tyranny would land on Trump, but usually the contemporary connections were to our sexually disordered age. That tracks in a sense with Augustine’s view that it’s the highest common goods (or objects of love) that determine the quality of a culture, and it’s the quality of a culture that determines its politics.”
Pecknold wonders if Augustine would have seen Trump as having a clear opportunity and mandate “to recover a common vision of what makes America a ‘res publica,’ that is a common or public thing that everyone has a share in, a stake in.” And on one of the most frustrating, heartbreaking, confusing, demanding issues of the day, immigration and refugees, Pecknold believes Augustine would have seen the Church as a refuge for all, while also respecting “a fundamental concern not with borders so much as having a sense of what made America a ‘people’ or a ‘nation.’”
“Augustine would be particularly worried about legislating immorality,” Pecknold noted. “That’s one of his non-negotiables. Legislation is itself a kind of moral counsel so it matters when many citizens see legislation that enshrines error, falsehood, vice into a common code to which the people must consent. Augustine believes that law should advocate for the good and avoid evil. But what America lacks is a common sense for what is good and evil, and Augustine would say that we’ve come to lack this because we’ve forgotten even philosophically legitimate ways to recognize that there’s a supreme good to which all genuinely common goods are ordered, namely God as uncaused cause, the self-diffusive Final Good.” Pecknold thinks Augustine would “probably cite Lincoln explaining why America was being torn apart by civil war: ‘We’ve forgotten God.’”
And therein lies the point of reading St. Augustine’s “City of God” while looking on the political landscape and scratching your head. Pecknold calls it “therapy.” Augustine “teaches you that your own time isn’t quite as special as you think, that things can get better or worse on a scale keyed to common goods, and most of all keyed to the highest common good which is God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. This is the only way for all cities to re-order themselves towards God’s Eternal City. That’s how the earthly city gets pulled up rather than pulled down. At the moment, America seems to be in a kind of suspended middle.”
That starts in prayer. And taking up the counsel of the likes of Augustine and so many holy men and women who lead with the courage of the Holy Spirit, leading in their parts of the world. “How is Donald Trump doing?” “Where is America going?” That’s a story still being written, and not just on the national level. Are we worrying and complaining — or cheering? Or are we encouraging the good and building something beautiful in front of us. That may be lifting up the destitute or raising our family or leading in the church or school or neighborhood or the workplace. Don’t watch the next 100 days like a spectator; realize we’re all vital players in what this country looks like and where it is headed.
The seminar closed with some of the ending of “City of God”: “After this present age God will rest, as it were, on the seventh day, and he will cause us, who are the seventh day, to find our rest in him.”
Augustine writes: “There we shall be still and see; we shall see and we shall love; we shall love and we shall praise. Behold what will be, in the end, without end! For what is our end but to reach that kingdom which has no end.”
Every political choice and analysis of ours should have this future in mind.