Thoughtful Thursday: Back to the Future, Courtesy of St. Augustine


Skepticism is the chastity of the intellect, and it is shameful to surrender it too soon or to the first comer: there is nobility in preserving it coolly and proudly through long youth, until at last, in the ripeness of instinct and discretion, it can be safely exchanged for fidelity and happiness. -- George Santayana

In my first post as “resident skeptic” for Cloaked Monk, I wrote of what I regard as the irreconcilable conflict between the Augustinian foundational principles of the evangelical / fundamentalist Protestant religious right, on the one hand, and the Enlightenment principles embodied in the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights, on the other.  In that case, the overall context – the primary topic being discussed then – was marriage equality and the Augustinian roots of conservative-evangelical, especially Reformed, Christian opposition thereto.  But it occurs to me that the conflict between the Augustinian roots of conservative Protestantism and the Enlightenment roots of American constitutionalism is important enough to deserve a discussion in its own right and as its own subject.  For the conflict between these two great ideological streams is strong enough, in fact, that, no matter how much conservative evangelical Protestants of the religious right wave the Flag, they cannot – on their own terms – be altogether comfortable and “at home” in a polity governed by the Constitution and Bill of Rights, which insists on the strict equality before the civil law of all religious faiths.  By the same token, a person deeply committed to the Enlightenment principles embodied in the Constitution and Bill of Rights cannot be altogether comfortable and “at home” in a religious tradition that emphasizes the sovereignty of (one interpretation of) the Bible and that interpretation’s conception of morality and of God’s will.  For conservative evangelical Christians, there is an incorrigible conflict between Augustine’s City of God and the Enlightenment’s City of Humanity.  An understanding of the incorrigibility of this conflict and its historical roots clarifies many contemporary controversies.

St. Augustine
Common Domain
Wikimedia Commons

The Augustinian attitude, on which conservative Protestantism is founded – Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk, after all – partakes of a deep, pervasive, and all-consuming pessimism about the interrelated capacities of human reason and, consequently, about the ability of human beings to govern themselves.  (Actually, the implications are much wider than that, but I can only deal with so much in a brief blog post.)  Both these sets of implications – about the human capacity for self-government and the human capacity for knowledge – are traceable to the Augustinian conception of the utter devastation visited upon the human condition by Original Sin stemming from the Fall of Humankind.  For my purposes, the greatest consequence we see today pertains to the “religionization” of government.  On this issue, and on virtually all others that lie outside the scope of this blog post, conservative evangelical Augustinian Christianity was, and still is, in conflict with the corresponding principles of the Enlightenment, in particular, with American constitutionalism.

City of God Manuscript Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

By the “religionization” of government, I mean the belief that secular / civil law should be based upon what are often, among conservative evangelical Protestant churches, referred to as “biblical principles”.  Now, we should be clear that this belief is not only traceable back to Augustine, but was a characteristic of all political discourse, irrespective of theological roots, up until the great contractarian political theorists of the 17th and 18th centuries published purely secular alternatives to the “Divine right” account of government authority (e.g., Hobbes’ Leviathan, Locke’s Treatises on Government, Rousseau’s The Social Contract, et al.).  But Augustine was especially explicit and insistent that the only legitimate basis for civil government was the Church.  For Augustine, and for his latter-day theological descendants, Original Sin had so blighted humans’ capacity for moral judgment and moral decision-making that they are incapable, on their own and apart from God’s enlightening grace, of making correct moral and ethical decisions.  The tutelage and counsel of the Holy Spirit, working through the biblical Scriptures, are required.  In practice, this requirement means two things:

(a)    One needs the interpretive authority of the Church in order to correctly interpret the indispensable guidance of the Bible, so therefore

(b)   The civil government should always be subordinate to the authority of the Church as the only infallible interpreter of the Scriptures (cf. Augustine’s great work The City of God)

This schema actually worked pretty well, beginning in the early 5th century, when, e.g., The City of God was written.  The Catholic Church, in both the Latin and Byzantine worlds, became, for all practical purposes, the government of all the nations of Europe through the middle of the 16th century. The Roman Empire in the west was well along in its process of disintegration when Augustine was born in 354.  In fact, he wrote The City of God during the Lombard siege of the city of Hippo in North Africa, where he was bishop.  Roman power was waning, and, if its culture were to survive, the civil power of Rome had to be replaced by the spiritual power of the Church, with the temporal power of the state as, at most, an appendage.

What enabled the Augustinian schema of the spiritual superiority of the Church to temporal authority to work as well as it did for as long as it did was what we now realize was the sheer historical accident of the monopoly of the Church over both politics and religion – and, perhaps most crucially,  over the interpretation of the Bible.  But with the coming of the Protestant Reformation, this unanimity was broken.  There was no longer anything like consensus, much less unanimity, over what the Bible said on many issues, issues of theology, morality, and politics in particular.  The result was the period of religious warfare of the 1500s and 1600s, culminating in the bloodbath of the Thirty Years War.  Once the unanimity of Christianity was broken, religious conflict, long simmering, came into the open in the form of bloodletting on a scale that would not be equaled or exceeded until the First World War.  Only with the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 (and the earlier, but much less comprehensive, Peace of Augsburg of 1555) did European civilization achieve the skill of “agreeing to disagree” on matters religious.

Soldiers Plundering by Sebastian Vrancx
Public Domain, US
Wikimedia Commons

But in many quarters of contemporary conservative, evangelical / Augustinian Protestantism, one still hears rhetoric about “biblical principles,” as if the unanimity of pre-Reformation and High Middle Ages Europe still prevailed among the multitude of Protestant denominations -- which owe their origins and existence to the very lack of such unanimity.  Also, as in the time of Augustine and the unitary Christian consensus, one customarily also hears rhetoric about how these biblical principles – not the US Constitution -- should serve as the basis of American civil law.

Try an experiment sometime.  In fact, try a couple of experiments.  First, find a conservative evangelical blog or bbs where issues like abortion are being discussed, and – strictly as a “lurker”, not as a participant – note, first, how often the pro-life position of the participants is predicated, not on the civil law, not on the US Constitution, not on case law like Roe or Casey – but on the particular blog / bbs poster’s interpretation of the Bible, and, secondly, how often this interpretation is presumed to be almost universal across virtually all of Christianity, Protestant and otherwise.  Secondly, try the same experiment with the gay-rights and gay-marriage issues.  You will find that most conservative evangelical Protestant discussions of these issues, too, are founded, not on, say, case law like Lawrence v. Texas and Romer v. Evans, or on potential interpretations of the “due process” clause of the Fifth Amendment or of the “due process” and “equal protection” clauses of the Fourteenth, etc., etc., but instead on purely biblical proscriptions forbidding homosexuality. And all such discussions will at least tacitly assume an almost monolithic consensus, practically indistinguishable from literal unanimity, on this interpretation. The usually tacit assumption is that everyone, the entirety of Christendom, agrees with the conservative evangelical Protestant position on these issues.

The irony is that the Protestant Reformation, which broke the religious unanimity of Europe by enabling dissident religious communities to rebel against the authority of the Roman Church, culminated, 1500 years later, in a kind of unacknowledged hankering after the very unanimity and ecclesial authority from which the architects of the Reformation fought to escape.  This nostalgia expresses itself as an aspiration to achieve through political means a degree of unanimity no longer available to churches ecclesially and theologically.  Hence the latter-day version of the “religionization” of politics on the part of the religious right.

14th Amendment By National Archives of the United States Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The reason this unanimity through religion-based law is no longer an option is because the US Constitution, especially though not exclusively the “establishment” and “free exercise” clauses of the First Amendment, inherited, through the Framers, some critically important “lessons learned” from the European Enlightenment of the 18th and early 19th centuries.  One of those lessons was indeed how to “agree to disagree” on religious and even moral issues.  The earliest expression of this attitude was contained in the principle of cuius regio, eius religio (literally, “whose rule, his religion”) that originated with the Peace of Augsburg (1555) and was continued and extended to all Christian sects by the Treaty of Westphalia (1648).  (I say “extended to” because the Peace of Augsburg pertained only to Catholicism and Lutheranism, but in the following century, Christendom had fractured into many more sects than just those initial two.) In its original form, this principle simply meant that the religion of a given nation’s sovereign was the official religion of the nation itself:  Catholic sovereign, therefore Catholic nation; Presbyterian sovereign, therefore Presbyterian nation; Lutheran sovereign, therefore Lutheran nation; etc.  But by the time of the framing of the US Constitution, this principle had been extended to mean that matters of religion – and, within limits necessary for social cohesion, even matters of morality – may not be matters of government compulsion for individual people.  The US government was out of the religion business, and, to a great extent, even out of the morality business.  The architects of the Constitution, most prominently though not only James Madison, had read widely and deeply in the writings of the architects of the Enlightenment – Locke, Kant, Rousseau, Condorcet, Diderot, Montesquieu, etc. – and both groups understood that making religion a matter to be enforced by the blunt instrument of the civil law was an invitation to loss of government legitimacy, discontent, and even bloodshed. The only way to “cabin” religious passion was to remove it entirely from the sphere of politics and make it a matter purely of one’s individual conscience.  Behind the “establishment” and “free exercise” clauses of the First Amendment is the quintessentially Enlightenment principle that, while one is free to form one’s own conscience according to one’s own religious beliefs, one is not free to coercively form the consciences of others.

Bill of Rights, US Common Domain via Wikimedia Commons

So the nostalgia of the religious right – and, to varying extents, of conservative / evangelical Protestantism generally – runs diametrically counter to both the bloody religious history of Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries, and also counter to the historical lessons inferred from this history and given tangible and textual expression in the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights from 1787 to 1791.  Augustine is at one extreme; James Madison, at the other.  (So was Thomas Jefferson, though Jefferson was in France during the writing and ratification of the Constitution.) The conservative evangelical Protestantism of the religious right aspires to base American law on a single, monolithic interpretation of the Bible – which has not existed for 500 years.  Enlightenment principles based American law on an insistence that, while religion may be critically important, arguably indispensable, in the conscience formation and moral decision-making of individuals, in terms of the society as a whole, all religious beliefs must have a strictly equal and strictly non-privileged place in the public square – the only attitude consistent with the religious diversity and “agreement to disagree” that emerged from Europe’s religious wars.

(c) 2014, James Cowles

Skeptic Collection graphic from

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