Religious Liberty / Public Square

Professing Augustine, Playing Machiavelli


Roberto Rivera

Something to think about.

If the past several years have proven anything, it’s that American politics are a mess. And perhaps nowhere is the mess more on display that in our little corner of the world. By “our” I mean the Evangelical subculture of which the Colson Center is a part.

By now you may have heard of the about-face among self-identified Evangelicals regarding the importance of character in our political leaders. In a five-year period, they went from being the group least likely to agree with the statement that “an elected official can behave ethically even if they have committed transgressions in their personal life,” to the group most likely to agree with that statement. (The Babylon Bee unsparingly satirized this about-face with the headline “Poll: Majority Of Evangelicals Would Support Satan If He Ran As Republican Candidate.”)

If you’re expecting a harangue or handwringing, you’ve come to the wrong place. (All 14 of you.) I have no desire to become a bore or “that guy.” I don’t want to become a kind of Cato the Elder, ending all of my speeches with the equivalent of “Carthago delenda est.”

Instead, I want to direct your attention to some articles that may help you to make some sense of our political moment. In the first of these, Samuel Kimbriel of the Center of Theology and Philosophy at Nottingham University writes that a certain recent event “betokens a Protestant right that is open to establishing a pattern whereby even egregious moral failure is a price worth paying for political and cultural power, and whereby one need not seek actual goodness, but rather need only not to exceed the badness of one’s opponents.”

As Kimbriel tells readers, this pattern represents a departure from the way American Protestants have approached politics in the past. One model, born of the conviction that political power is inherently dangerous, “[advocates] for a minimalist vision of the state and a privatization of religious virtue and devotion.” In this vision, “Christianity . . . adopts an essentially depoliticized vision of itself, taking its role to be about local charity, ‘a personal relationship with Jesus’ or ‘the salvation of souls.’”

In the second model, associated with the “rise of the religious right in the late 1970s,” while “suspicion of state power remains,” evangelicals seek to put this power to good use by striving to enact policies that they perceive to be embodiments of Christian values. What makes this model possible is the insistence that “internal virtue and political fitness” are “intertwined.” “Figures like President George W. Bush are praised not because they are simply superior to the alternatives, but because they are ‘Godly’ people.”

What both models have in common is “the conviction that inasmuch as Christians have a role in the public sphere, this is in principle an overflow from the virtues cultivated on a local level.” That’s why “evangelicals have often been highly demanding with regard to the conduct of their religious and political leaders.”

The aforementioned about-face is in radical discontinuity with either of these models. “What is needed for public life is divorced from the ideals that obtain in private.” This has the ironic consequence of validating the “further privatization of religion.”

As Kimbriel warns, “If these habits of disregarding character and measuring oneself against one’s opponent persist, evangelicals will have taken a further and decisive step toward discarding the very idea of Christian politics itself.”

Reading Kimbriel, I thought of an essay by the philosopher Isaiah Berlin entitled “The Question of Machiavelli.” Berlin wrote that for Machiavelli, “There are two worlds, that of personal morality and that of public organization. There are two ethical codes, both ultimate; not two ‘autonomous’ regions, one of ‘ethics,’ another of ‘politics,’ but two (for him) exhaustive alternatives between two conflicting systems of value.” As Machiavelli put it, “The state and people are governed in a different way from an individual.”

This “way” requires a degree of ruthlessness that you may find objectionable and even frightening. In that case, “you are perfectly entitled to lead a morally good life, be a private citizen (or a monk), seek some corner of your own. But, in that event, you must not make yourself responsible for the lives of others or expect good fortune; in a material sense you must expect to be ignored or destroyed.”

Berlin, who was one of liberalism’s great champions (“liberalism” in the sense of the “political doctrine that takes protecting and enhancing the freedom of the individual to be the central problem of politics”), was speaking descriptively, rather than prescriptively. After all, his family fled the Bolsheviks, whose leader, Lenin, was strongly influenced by Machiavelli.

But he did conclude that if Machiavelli were correct about political morality versus personal morality, then it “[undermined] one major assumption of Western thought: namely, that somewhere in the past or the future, in this world or the next, in the church or the laboratory, in the speculations of the metaphysician or the findings of the social scientist or in the uncorrupted heart of the simple good man, there is to be found the final solution of the question of how men should live.”

Berlin was wrong. St. Augustine was no less “realistic” about what was required to obtain and hold political power than Machiavelli. But as political philosopher Fr. James V. Schall has written, while for Machiavelli the “pervasiveness of political corruption was an argument for lowering the standards of justice in civil society,” for Augustine it was “further proof that morality needed to be grounded in divine justice and not merely in the chimerical promises of natural justice.”

Machiavelli urged “fighting fire with fire,” whereas Augustine urged the pursuit of the “perfect justice that comes only through the mediation of divine grace.” For Augustine, as for all Christians, the question of how men should live has been definitively answered in Jesus Christ.

This doesn’t make politics a “mess-free” zone. Conflict and the tragedy that arises from competing visions of what a good society should look like make messiness inescapable. But acting like a Machiavellian while insisting you’re an Augustinian only makes it worse.

Something to think about.


Image: Wikipedia Commons


Roberto Rivera is senior fellow at the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview. For nearly 20 years he has been chief writer for the BreakPoint Radio commentary program. His “Internally Displaced Person” is a mostly regular column at His writings have appeared in Touchstone, First Things, and Sojourners. He lives with his son in Alexandria, Virginia.

Articles on the BreakPoint website are the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the opinions of BreakPoint. Outside links are for informational purposes and do not necessarily imply endorsement of their content.


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