The Republic of Grace
Augustinian Thoughts for Dark Times

Charles Mathewes
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, $20, 279 pp.

Migrations of the Holy
God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church

William T. Cavanaugh
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, $18, 206 pp.


With the psalmist, these theologians urge, “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no help. When his breath departs he returns to his earth; on that very day, his plans perish” (146:3–4). Both Charles Mathewes and William T. Cavanaugh claim the mantle of Augustine’s political theology. Yet Mathewes’s text seems guided by Reinhold Niebuhr’s concerns and Cavanaugh’s by radical orthodoxy’s polemics. For Cavanaugh, the two cities seem separable; for Mathewes, they are intricately and inevitably intertwined.

Cavanaugh’s essays argue that the modern nation-state has usurped God’s place by promising salvation to its citizens, while its citizens have treated the state as savior—from time, fate, sickness, and death. He claims that the modern nation-state has no analogue in earlier political arrangements. It originated in the emergence of secular power and sovereigns’ wars to solidify their rule over a region. The modern nation-state uses violence to demand absolute allegiance, which can become a diabolical form of idolatry. Christians are being seduced to worship the saving god of the nation rather than the God of Jesus Christ.

According to Cavanaugh, the church must engage in “practices that resist the colonization of the Christian imagination by a nation-state that wants to subordinate all other attachments to itself.” Who could gainsay that? His strategy is for the church to form local and transnational communities that “disperse and resist the powers invested in the state and the corporation.” That international capitalism is the real engine of the contemporary, imperial nation-state is suggested by one essay’s title, “Killing for the Telephone Company.”

While Cavanaugh claims Christians have already been seduced by the state, Mathewes is more confident Christians can resist such idolatry. Likewise, while Cavanaugh seems to think humanity is more violent now than in earlier periods, Mathewes argues the opposite. While Cavanaugh believes the state systemically opposes faith communities, Mathewes writes that the only way for liberal democracy to avoid devouring itself is liberalism’s commitment to tolerate “illiberal” faith communities. Cavanaugh calls Christians to develop a polity that is different from the idolatrous nation-state; Mathewes argues that the United States was designed to resist becoming a pseudo-church and that Christians should support this polity—however provisionally and always under God—in a “complicated minuet with Caesar.” Mathewes finds Christians’ relationships with the state to be difficult, dangerous, and demanding; Cavanaugh says we should “enact” another city—the city of God. Cavanaugh’s position is in danger of making Christians practically apolitical; Mathewes’s risks making Christians supportive of a problematic status quo.

Both books recognize the ambiguity of being religious in a secular state. Both advocate Christian witness to society and confession of Christian convictions in the political sphere. Both call believers to get involved in the political arena. Their political and ecclesial recommendations often, but not always, overlap.

Cavanaugh aruges that John Courtney Murray’s notion that Catholicism was essentially compatible with American democracy no longer applies, if it ever did. Cavanaugh persuasively calls for the Christian community to live out God’s reign as its polity. His best essay defends a Hauerwasian position against Jeffrey Stout’s criticisms. He uses Hauerwas’s engagement with radical democrat Romand Coles. Yet, in the end, democracy and Christianity are irreconcilable in Cavanaugh’s view: “Insofar as ‘democracy’ indicates the rule of the demos, however, a gap remains between democrats and those who believe that God rules.” And this alleged “gap” shows the key problem in Cavanaugh’s work.

God’s rule is always mediated. Whether the voice of God is the voice of the king or the voice of the people, the heavenly One rules through the terrestrial authorities. In seeing no analogues to the modern nation-states in premodern time, Cavanaugh seems to ignore the fact that all polities can be failed churches or pseudo-churches undergirded by bad theology. There are examples of this problem throughout history: the imperium of the Roman Empire whose pagan soldiers’ grave markers promised an eternal memory; the political hegemony of the medieval church over the papal states and its use of canon law to rule clerics no matter what sovereigns ruled the lands; or the spiritual hegemony of the late medieval and early modern church symbolized in the sale of indulgences. All polities can sink into idolatry. No polities are direct theocracies.

How, then, do we solve the political problems of dual citizenship? When Cavanaugh criticizes Charles Curran for claiming that “the state” is “natural,” he commits a category error. The Catholic tradition makes the generic claim that polities are “natural.” That does not conflict with the claim that every polity is a human construct. The question is not whether we are to be citizens of our country, but how we can live as Christian citizens in a community whose ultimate allegiance is to God and whose proximate allegiance is to our nation. Cavanaugh seems to think this impossible in modernity; but it is necessary, so it must be possible. Cavanaugh’s misreading of Curran relies on Cavanaugh’s mistaken view that the modern nation-state has no earlier analogues.

While Mathewes mostly recognizes the same political and economic patterns that affect the Christian community, he differs from Cavanaugh by subscribing to a modest form of American exceptionalism. Mathewes sees “empire”—human rule without allegiance to God—as the problem in every age, not one afflicting only the modern Western nation-state.

For Mathewes, the problem is authority. How can Christians properly exercise authority in any realm? He calls for an “asceticism” of authority that begins with mercy. Christians cannot avoid exercising “secular” political authority. For example, he defends just-war theories as not “exculpatory, but obligatory.” When we have reached the judgment that the criteria for going to war apply, we are not only permitted but tragically obliged to go to war to defend the good. In contrast, I cannot imagine the circumstances under which Cavanaugh would recognize the legitimacy of Christians’ participating in a war undertaken by the contemporary nation-state. But I take Mathewes’s point to be that whenever we are obliged to use authority, even invasively, we can do so. Conversely, whenever we have other options, we cannot use our authority.

Mathewes highlights the ambiguity of each political order. We must neither demonize nor idolize it, but find ways of “giving ultimately provisional allegiance to some nations while still vividly acknowledging their faults.” Even contemporary American “hyper-hegemony” may be terrible, but the alternatives seem even worse. Cavanaugh recognizes American power, as does Mathewes, but provides no real political alternatives for living in the world and for maintaining some forms of order and tranquility, even if these are not finally God’s justice and peace perfectly instantiated (but then, they are not perfectly instantiated even in the church, as both authors make clear).

Idolatry is ultimate loyalty to what is only proximate, whether self, family, community, church, nation, or the symbols that shape our allegiances to them. While Mathewes’s text is far too long, his recognition that we cannot avoid dual citizenship—and his invocation of Augustine to provide ways of seeing how to order those patterns of citizenship and loyalty—seems correct. I fear that Cavanaugh may be right in claiming that Christians are so seduced by idolatry that we must form communities of contrast as our polities, but I hope it does not require abandoning any exercise of political authority.

How does the so-called Arab Spring fit into these frameworks? The political questions are whether and how Christians can understand and advocate interventions, military or otherwise, to try to bring some justice and order to these situations. President Barack Obama defended the necessity of establishing a “no-fly zone” in Libya and aerial bombardment of loyalist Libyan troops as necessary to diminish or end Qaddafi’s attacks on his own people. Neither Cavanaugh nor Mathewes tries to solve such practical political issues, but they do provide principles and practices for a Christian politics. Neither book is applied theology. But I suspect that Mathewes’s principles offer a better way than Cavanaugh’s to help us put ultimate trust not in nation-states but in God.

Terrence W. Tilley is the Avery Dulles, SJ, Professor of Catholic Theology at Fordham University.

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Published in the 2011-10-21 issue: View Contents
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