By Mark Clavier
I admit that I occasionally can be a theological curmudgeon. I say this not to boast nor even to excuse myself since I’m not quite prepared to repent of it. It stems, I think, from a sensitivity on my part to how theology can obscure or how it can reveal the underlying assumptions we make. Maybe I’ve just attended too many clergy workshops.
Because of this personality tic, please don’t be unduly alarmed if I take issue with President Biden’s invocation of my hero Augustine in his otherwise remarkable Inaugural Address. If you’re one of the people who (judging from Facebook) thought of me during the address, you may be surprised to hear this. What could be more affirming of my work than a major Presidential speech that explicitly employs Augustine’s thought? And if you consider Augustine’s sinister reputation among many on the left, then it would seem that Biden’s brief foray into The City of God must be praiseworthy.
Yes and no. And I think the sic et non on which my curmudgeonly radar fixed highlights a mistake we American have been making throughout our history. This error — may I call it idolatry? — is American exceptionalism based on a continual confusion of our country with the Kingdom of God. So, my issue here isn’t with Biden himself (whom I’ve long admired), only with the common sentiment that his words betrayed.
Let’s consider Biden’s words:
Many centuries ago, Saint Augustine, a saint of my church, wrote that a people was a multitude defined by the common objects of their love. What are the common objects we love that define us as Americans? I think I know. Opportunity. Security. Liberty. Dignity. Respect. Honor. And, yes, the truth.
Like many, I was initially struck by Biden’s reference to Augustine (giving him bonus points for pronouncing his name correctly). For me, little could contrast the 46th President from the 45th than this appeal to Saint Augustine. It was a shorthand way of communicating his Catholicism and the presence of some good theology operating behind his political convictions. Surely, he must be the first president to invoke the great Bishop of Hippo.
Moreover, Biden didn’t just refer to Augustine, he also made part of his political theology a key element of his own Inaugural vision. For the first time in my career, it’s hip to be an Augustinian! More seriously, understanding the United States of America as a “people defined by the common objects of their love” is potentially a rich vein to mine for promoting unity and concord in a country wracked by deep-seated and long-standing divisions. Not just America but much of the Western world would benefit from a shift away from a collective obsession with our differences and back to a meaningful promotion of our common virtues. There are few places better to begin for pursuing the common good than the thought of Augustine. So, top marks for Biden.
The President then offered his own view of the common objects of America’s love: opportunity, security, liberty, dignity, respect, honor, and truth. I found his list striking because I had expected him to say something trite like, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” or “freedom and justice for all.” Instead, he offered civic virtues that he probably considers among those most absent in contemporary political discourse and debate. The subtext here, I presume, is that America has lost its way during the past four years and, by neglecting these common objects of its love, has also lost its unity and social cohesion.
I found his words up to a point commendable and so I now eagerly anticipate seeing how he puts this Augustinian conviction into practice. What will he do to encourage Americans to embrace and undertake the civic virtues he enumerates?
Once I got past my initial elation, however, my theological curmudgeonliness began to re-assert itself. A couple of questions sprang immediately to mind. First, are these in fact the common objects of American love? Some might have included hospitality or neighborliness, others ingenuity and optimism, while cynics might have insisted on the Almighty Dollar or access to guns. Moreover, are the objects of love that Biden lists unambiguously good? The love of opportunity justified the wholesale conquest of Native American lands. The love of security has not been without its own issues since 2001, and the land that invented mass marketing and PR has a questionable claim on truth. One could go on.
That Biden’s list is meant to express only good objects of American love starts to highlight the way he misinterprets the Bishop of Hippo. For Augustine, the “common objects of love” that unite a multitude aren’t necessarily good or virtuous. If individuals can love and delight in sin, so too can peoples and nations. Indeed, the objects of our collective love never are good, at least not entirely. The problem, as Augustine saw it, is that many of the common objects we love are actually sinful and therefore evil.
In his great work, The City of God, Augustine formulated his definition of a people that Biden paraphrases:
A people is the association of a multitude of rational beings united by a common agreement on the objects of their love, then it follows that to observe the character of a particular people we must examine the objects of its love. (The City of God 19.24)
His examination of the objects of Rome’s love permits him to define Rome not by its constitution or even its self-image, but by the characteristics that marked it: the pursuit of glory, violence, and war. In other words, Romans may claim superiority and high virtue, but their common objects of love revealed them to be enthralled to selfishness and ungodliness.
Augustine’s definition appears in his massive volume in which he distinguishes sharply between two cities: the worldly city and the City of God. What marks one from the other are the common objects of their love. In the first, the overarching object is the self that results in contempt for God, and in the second it’s God, which results in contempt for the self. The self-love of the first manifests itself in glory, violence, and greed; the love for God of the second manifests itself in justice, mercy, and peace.
The temptation faced and mistake made by many is to equate these two cities too readily with the Church and the world. There has been some of this in the conservative Catholic responses to Biden’s address. Augustine himself believed that the City of God will only be perfectly realized when Christ comes in glory. For now, even the visible Church is a mixture of the two cities, and even devout Christians dual citizens struggling with their divided loyalties.
In terms of Biden’s speech, there are two important things to recognize here: first, that a people can and always will be characterized as much by their love of vice as by their love of virtue; and second, that a unity based on what might be called common objects of godly love pertains only to the City of God. Contrary to over two hundred years of our own rhetoric, that City is not the United States of America.
The first point should serve as an encouragement for us to recognize the common objects of American love that are corrupting, damaging, and even evil. Continental conquest, racism, extreme individualism, exploitation and ecological destruction, rampant violence, moralism, and a love for money are not mere accidents of the American experience but manifest our own shared loves possibly as much as the ideals we uphold.
The second point should serve to remind us that the “shining city upon the hill” is God’s Kingdom and not America. Our tendency to confuse the two manifested itself clearly in the responses to the sacking of the Capitol Building. In fact, there’s nothing sacred about that building or the business that occurs within it. It isn’t a “temple to democracy.” Rather, it is a lavishly designed government building — like the Palace of Westminster, the Reichstag, or the State Duma Building — where our federal legislature conducts its business. No more, no less. From it come laws that have done great good and laws that have caused much mischief. America and its institution may be important to us, they may be worth preserving and dying for, they may even be a beacon of hope for people around the world, but they aren’t sacred.
This isn’t to say that the common objects of American love aren’t good. But they aren’t the whole story. The key is not to divide America between our “better angels,” now represented by Biden, and our “demons,” represented by Trump. It’s not even, in the words of Biden, a “constant struggle between the American ideal that we are all created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, and demonization have long torn us apart.” Rather, we must maturely and humbly accept that both the good and the bad may manifest common objects of love that unite Americans — that among our virtues are also objects not so different from the ones Augustine associated with Rome: violence, greed, and the pursuit of glory. To claim a common share in the first without confessing our common share in the second is to continue the fantasy that has marred our self-image for generations.
Collectively recognizing our own self-love and refusing to pretend any longer that our institutions are somehow of divine origin might just begin to steer us away from exceptionalism and blurred boundaries between our political institutions and the Kingdom of God. Such would both require and result in the humility that Biden strikingly encouraged us to embrace in his speech. A humbler America would be a far nobler America.
Perhaps the place to begin, thanks to Biden’s invocation of an influential Catholic saint, is with Augustine himself. Tolle, lege. Take up and read The City of God and begin to see our country as it truly is: no better than its citizens, each and every one of whom is (as Augustine saw well) a fallen person in need of divine grace.
The Rev. Canon Dr. Mark Clavier is the residentiary canon of Brecon Cathedral in mid-Wales.