Works without Faith? Some Thoughts on Religion and Politics

In an earlier blog, I critiqued some aspects of Oliver O’Donovan’s political theology. O’Donovan notes that, contrary to the charge of his critics, his thesis does not espouse an idealized Christendom in which the priest is the king. These roles, for O’Donovan, should remain distinct and separate. O’Donovan’s view can be summarized as follows: (1) all political authorities are subject to God’s sovereignty under the kingly reign of Christ; and (2) this Messianic reign is yet only dimly apparent as it awaits the full and final return and presence of Christ. Accordingly, since any secular authority ‘presumes neither that the Christ-event ever occurred nor that the sovereignty of Christ is now transparent and uncontested’, it is necessarily misguided. Thus, insofar as the ‘state exists in order to give judgment [it does so] under the authority of Christ’s rule’; all ‘secular rules are subject to law [i.e.,] the law of the ascended Christ’ (quotations from, O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations, p. 146 and pp. 234-35).

Centuries ago the early Christian thinker St Augustine wrote: ‘no one without true piety – that is, true worship of the true God – can have true virtue’ (Augustine, City of God, Bk. 5, Ch. 19.). While Augustine makes allowances for a kind of ‘pagan justice’ not based on true piety as being a version of justice, he maintains that it is an imperfect kind. For there to be true justice, Augustine argues, there must be a common conception of ‘the good’:

‘If the republic is the weal of the people, and there is no people if it be not associated by a common acknowledgment of right, and if there is no right where there is no justice, then most certainly it follows that there is no republic where there is no justice’ (City of God, Bk. 19, Ch. 21).

In order for there to be a true republic, there must be justice which Augustine defines as ‘that virtue which gives every one [sic] his due.’ For this reason, only a faith-grounded justice (Christian justice) can fully support a republic: For, Augustine asks, ‘[w]here, then, is the justice of man, when he deserts the true God’ in whom alone true justice is found?’ Where justice is prerequisite to a just society, worship of the true God is prerequisite to human justice

In this way, as O’Donovan notes, all earthly political authority is derivative of divine authority. Since at least the time of Augustine, ‘the distinction between secular and spiritual was a distinction between two kinds of governments within one society’ – with the former strictly concerned with the affairs of this age, and the latter concerned with affairs of both this age and the next. ‘In pre-modern Christianity’, there was only one society comprised of two ‘realms’ or ‘cities’ which consisted of ‘the saved’ and ‘the damned’ (The Desire of the Nations, p. 247)

One significant implication of this post is to note how through the centuries there has been a careful and important balance to strike at the nexus of religion and politics, or faith and justice: they are interpenetrating and overlapping. As Augustine puts it, ‘the laws of the earthly city [too administer] the things necessary for the maintenance of this mortal life’ (City of God, Bk. 19, Ch. 17). The question is not about whether religion and politics should mix: it is how we can make sure it does so best. Another important matter to consider is to what extent our Christian political theology allows for a political pluralism that seems increasingly necessary in a pluralistic age.

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