Thought that is real and not merely, as John Henry Cardinal Newman put it, “notional,” is thought that is sympathetically situated in time and place. The Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that Christians have here no abiding city. In the third eucharistic prayer of the Catholic Mass there are the words, “Strengthen in faith and love your pilgrim Church on earth.” Christians are a pilgrim people, a people on the way, exiles from our true home, aliens in a strange land.
There is in all the Christian tradition no more compelling depiction of our circumstance than St. Augustine's City of God. Short of the final coming of the Kingdom, the City of God and the earthly city are intermingled (XIX, 27). We are to make use of, pray for, and do our share for the earthly city. Here Augustine cites the words of Jeremiah urging the people not to fear exile in Babylon: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its peace you will find your peace” (Jer. 29:7). This is a continuing theme in the way Christians think about their place in history.
It is often forgotten how very much of a Roman Augustine was. The City of God is, among other things, a sustained argument with pagan interlocutors whom we might today call “public intellectuals” in which Augustine is contending for the superiority of the Christian philosophy and understanding of history. It is sometimes suggested that Augustine knew he was writing in the ruins of a collapsing empire that he dismissed as terminally corrupt. In fact, he wrote, “The Roman Empire has been shaken rather than transformed, and that happened to it at other periods, before the preaching of Christ’s name, and it recovered. There is no need to despair of its recovery at this present time. Who knows what is God's will in this matter?” (IV, 8).
Knowing that we do not know God’s will does not mean that we do not think about God’s will in this and all matters, for, as Augustine writes in the same text, “It is beyond anything incredible that God should have willed the kingdoms of men, their dominations and their servitudes, to be outside the range of the laws of his providence” (V, 12).
Christians have, at least until fairly recently, tried to understand the part of the American experiment within what Augustine calls the laws of God’s providence. In this they followed the precedent of the Great Tradition of Christian thought in other times and places. In the early fourth century, Christianity was made legal under the emperor Constantine, and later it became the established religion. Eusebius (d. 340), the bishop of Caesarea and often called “the father of Church history,” saw this as the providentially guided triumph of the gospel. Today, especially but not exclusively among Protestant scholars, the conversion of Constantine and the establishment of what would come to be called Christendom is more often viewed as the fall of the Church from its primitive purity.
As the Anglican Oliver O’Donovan reminds us in Desire of the Nations and his more recent The Ways of Judgment, “Constantinianism,” far from being a term of opprobrium, represents a considerable Christian achievement of that place and time. The distinguished Church historian Robert Louis Wilken convincingly argues that the toleration and later establishment of the Church was not a corruption in which, as it is sometimes said today, the Church ended up "doing ethics for Caesar." When, in the year 390, St. Ambrose excommunicated the Christian Theodosius for his massacre in Thessalonika, he was holding Caesar accountable to the ethics of the Church. Similarly, what is often dismissively referred to as medieval “Christendom” can be seen as a creative coordination, for its time and place, of the tensions between, and the mutual interests of, the earthly city and the City of God.
A.D. Lindsay, the British author of the classic work, The Modern Democratic State, puts the matter nicely:
The adjustment of the relation between these two societies was, of course, no easy matter. The history of the relations between church and state in the Middle Ages is a history of a long dispute waged with wavering fortune on either side. Extravagant claims made by one side called forth equally extravagant claims on the other. The Erastianism of post-Reformation settlements was the answer to earlier imperiousness on the other side. But the disputes between the secular power and the papacy, however long and embittered, were boundary disputes. Neither party denied that there were two spheres, one appropriate to the church, the other to the state. Even those partisans who made high claims for their side did not deny that the other side had a sphere of its own. They only put its place lower than did their opponents. The Christian always knew that he had two loyalties: that if he was to remember the Apostle’s command “to be subject unto the higher powers,” he was also to remember that his duty was “to obey God rather than man.” There are things which are Caesar’s and things which are God’s. Men might dispute as to which were whose, but the fact of the distinction no one denied.
The Erastianism of which Prof. Lindsay speaks is a doctrine named after a sixteenth-century Swiss theologian, Thomas Erastus, who argued for the state’s control of spiritual and ecclesiastical matters. The idea was very dramatically implemented by Henry VIII who declared that he, and not the pope, was supreme head of the Church in England. The supremacy of the secular power was very influentially defended by Richard Hooker in his treatise of 1594, Ecclesiastical Polity. The political theory and practice of the Western world is the story of a growing Erastianism in which the modern state, brooking no competition from other claims to sovereignty, has attempted to eliminate the “boundary disputes” between temporal and spiritual authorities. The United States in its founding, as is evident in the Religion Clause of the First Amendment, is the great exception to this general pattern. But “American exceptionalism,” also on this score, needs constantly to be reexamined and, when necessary, defended. Without that, the state drives out prophetic religion and establishes a monopoly on public space and public meanings. That is the circumstance referred to as “the naked public square.” Which, as we must never tire of recalling, does not remain naked but is taken over by the pseudo-religion established by state power.
Richard John Neuhaus is editor in chief of First Things.