American conservatives are confusedly divided over how to judge our politics. They are disputing whether we need a purer and more perfect liberalism to save the republic, or whether liberalism is itself a spent political philosophy which systematically fails to recognize the primacy of the common good and the right order of liberty for our families, friends, and neighbors.
I hope that a new conservative consensus will emerge out of the old, but first we must put to rest the foolish notion that the common good is a socialist idea, or that its relationship to the highest good is fascist or Leninist. Nothing could be further from the truth, as fascism and Leninism are godless and atheistic, and have no transcendent standard for discerning what is politically excellent, just, or true.
The founding fathers best versed in the classical and Christian political tradition would never have considered it controversial to refer our republic to “the highest good,” which they were happy to call God. So if thinking about politics according to a divine standard is “theocratic,” as some godless critics have suggested, then America is a theocratic nation—a city on a hill—all the way down. Let’s not pretend that calls to reorient our politics around the common good illumined by God are foreign to the American tradition or the Western political imagination.
The deepest political question of the West has always been about this question of political standard: How can we determine what is proper and just for a republic, and by what standard can we judge what counts as a perversion? This question is at the heart of Aristotle’s Politics, and near the heart of Augustine’s City of God. Just as Aristotle describes a proper constitution, and how to flourish under less than ideal ones, Augustine provides two definitions of a republic precisely in order to help us have a just measure for politics.
His first definition is taken from Cicero's description of an ideal and noble regime. This republic requires “complete justice” in “supreme governance.” To realize this ideal government, Augustine insists, you would need a republic that could render not only “to each his due,” as Cicero had it, but could render to God what was due to him. Since only Jesus Christ renders what is due to God on our behalf, a true and proper Ciceronian republic would only be possible in union with Christ’s Body, the Church.
At this point we might expect Augustine to conclude his description of the best regime—any political form that seeks the common good perfectly united to the highest good by true religion. Yet Augustine goes further to give a second definition. This regime is not the ideal form of a republic, but might be said to drop down from its hinges like a ladder from the ceiling. Augustine says we can judge human regimes on a kind of metaphysical scale weighted by common objects of human love. The greater the common objects of love, the greater the people—and the greater the people, the greater the republic. Now we have a scale for judging, something more than a simple toggle switch for political being and non-being.
Augustine would not have recognized America as ever having met the Ciceronian standard of a republic in union with true religion, but he certainly would have recognized America as a republic according to this second definition. He could even place our republic quite high up the scale, since most Americans recognized that the common temporal goods of their newly founded nation were gifts from God—to whom they gave thanks.
Augustine the realist knows that not every regime will be perfectly united to the highest good through true religion, but he still urges us to judge regimes according to that highest good, which is God. A republic that recognizes God as the cause and end of all created goodness will be a better republic than one that does not. Indeed, such a standard helps us to see how any political society fleeing from God will also actually flee from its own common good, and into tyranny. This is evident in communist regimes, but also in liberal orders beset by moral relativism and a turn away from God.
If Rome prefers to tolerate false gods, or is hell-bent on blaming Christianity for its decline, Augustine is prepared to say: “I have shown you that the proper Ciceronian type of republic is only to be had in communion with the Church, which renders to God his due, but if you will not have it and insist on living under a perverted form, I’ll give you a rational way to judge your politics.” Uniting the speculative vision to the prudential and the practical also helps Christians to cooperate with God in moving those common objects of love we share with our neighbors up the metaphysical scale—even under less than ideal conditions.
So Christians should take seriously Augustine’s great insight—and should always recall that the founders also understood that if you detach the common good of a nation from God, if you detach what people love from the love of God, then the nation will no longer be a city on a hill, but will become a Babylonian city determined by the strongmen.
American conservatives are right to feel confused. But their confusion and rancor will only deepen so long as they fail to think about the nature and end of the political good they call home. The “common good” is not socialist propaganda, and the “highest good” is not fascist doctrine. Both are rooted in the classical and Christian traditions, and both have a central place in our own American tradition.
Without God, without the transcendent standard, the capricious whims of human desire will continually drag us down the metaphysical scale, away from the common good of our country, our homes, our families, and ourselves. The return to the primacy of the common good is a new way to stand athwart history yelling “stop,” but it’s also an old way to think about how to move those common objects of love such as the human person, the family, the university, and the country back up the scale. There should be nothing controversial about that.
C. C. Pecknold is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at The Catholic University of America.