. 6
( 12)


Stanley Fish ¬nds this even in the arguments of self-proclaimedly
˜˜religious™™ thinkers ˜˜who set out to restore the priority of the good
over the right but ¬nd the protocols of the right “ of liberal proce-
duralism “ written in the ¬‚eshly tables of their hearts™™ (1999: 262).4
Such thinkers impose ¬nally Procrustean frameworks on religion™s
place in public life.
So theorists are captive to such Eisenhowerian mindsets; but
religious practitioners are far less obedient. Such believers often
engage in religious political action that is, to recall Jason Bivins™s
helpful phrase, ˜˜politically illegible™™ “ menacingly opaque for those
working with the received political vocabulary of the mainstream
(2003: 10). And states tend not to look fondly on what they cannot
understand. Again, they are jealous gods, bureaucracies with theo-
cratic pretensions, hungry for their citizens™ unquestioning obedi-
ence. Hence thinkers like Rousseau and Tertullian are, to some
degree, right: an ineliminable animus exists between Christian faith
and totalizing civic commitment of the sort that is the grativational
tendency of political states. Neither readily allows its demands to be
subordinated to the other. The struggle between Jerusalem and
Washington is perpetual in this dispensation.5

4. See S. D. Smith 1995: 68: ˜˜Theories of religious freedom seek to reconcile or to
mediate among competing religious and secular positions within a society, but
those competing positions disagree about the very background beliefs on which
a theory of religious freedom must rest.™™ For a response to Smith™s challenge,
see Guinn 2002.
5. For a different theological account of the enmity between religious and civic
faith, see Kraynak 2001.
172 A Theology of Public Life

Still, this is not a reason for theorists to despair, or for believers to
retreat to the hinterlands, buy lots of guns, and have many children
whom they dress in homemade clothes. For the contemporary lib-
eral state is at least theoretically more accepting of limits on the
demands it makes of its inhabitants than previous political struc-
tures have been. Contemporary democratic polities permit religious
citizens opportunities for faithful citizenship undreamt of in other,
earlier, political dispensations. Nonetheless, we must keep aware of
both the inevitable entropic tendencies of states toward absolutism.
Even self-professedly secular political thinkers are alert to these
dangers. Speaking civically, how might we use the opportunities of
democratic participation to counteract the dangerous effects of
polities™ inevitable idolatrous tendencies?
Commitment to the Christian faith reveals and keeps before our
eyes the endlessness of political activity, its fundamentally provi-
sional and accidental character. Public engagement should be
faithfully undertaken, given certain minimal conditions, as part of
the larger mode of ascetical and evangelical engagement with the
world today. But such engagement teaches us that political institu-
tions must not be the object of ultimate faith, and so should be
af¬rmed only in a quali¬ed way. Yet they must be so af¬rmed, again
on grounds of faith, in order to encourage citizens both to be gen-
uinely engaged and also to recognize the ˜˜mundaneness™™ of any
particular political dispensation. But we cannot speak only in a civic
register. We need a properly theological argument for why such
civic engagement is good for faith, on its own terms “ why, that is,
such engagement is ascetically as well as civically fruitful. We need
a theology of public engagement, a theology of citizenship “ a vision
of the relationship between Christians™ commitments to their
earthly polities and to the kingdom of heaven.
This chapter explores one such theology of faithful citizenship. It
does so in three stages. First, it identi¬es two emerging proposals for
responding to democracy™s discontent “ ˜˜communitarianism™™ and
˜˜civic republicanism™™ “ explaining how these proposals attempt to
recover ˜˜the political,™™ and thereby to af¬rm that real political life
is possible today. It next suggests that these proposals urge us to
rethink the central political concept of ˜˜sovereignty,™™ and shows
how we might do that. Finally, it develops an Augustinian Christian
theology of citizenship that offers both a fruitful model of faithful
Faithful citizenship

civic engagement, and a promising picture of how such faithful
civic engagement will be ascetically fruitful for believers.

Beyond liberal political theory
While much of what passes for ˜˜liberal political thought™™ today
does not help us address the challenges we currently face, some
thinkers appreciate these challenges. They try to address them by
appeal to a more capacious sense of what politics might be than
liberal theories allow. For these thinkers, politics is a human good in
a way that the received liberal pictures have a hard time acknowl-
edging.6 There are at least two ways in which this insight can be
developed. ˜˜Communitarians™™ harness the energies of politics as a
powerful force for community cohesion and thus for a group™s self-
identity, typically in modernity through the concept of the ˜˜nation.™™
˜˜Civic republicans™™ use those energies not simply for communal but
also for individual purpose, as part of a belief that politics is a con-
stitutive part of the good life, one in which we must participate in
order fully to ¬‚ourish. Neither of these accounts is wholly satisfac-
tory, but each captures worthwhile insights. Communitarianism can
see the problems we face, and it suggests an attractive way to respond
to them, but it ¬nally turns the ideal of community into an idol. Civic
republicanism avoids this problem and is thus more attractive still,
but its ¬xation on wholly immanent this-worldly goods makes it
prone to temptations of fanaticism and apocalypticism.
We can do better than either. Like them, we can af¬rm the value
of commitment as a way of recognizing the longings manifest in
political life. But we must also recognize, with a properly under-
stood liberalism, that all human community in this world “ which is
all any political community can be “ is inevitably a ˜˜failed church,™™
and to ignore its failure threatens to tempt us toward idolatry.7

The communitarian proposal
Communitarians aim to offer a vocabulary for a richer account
of politics, or at least make such a politics™ absence more palpable,

6. See Berkowitz 1999 and Polletta 2002.
7. I borrow this phrase from Robin Lovin, though he would probably disagree with
the use to which I put it.
174 A Theology of Public Life

in order to help us re-energize the public moral consensus that is
their goal. Building on a root description of the problem as civic
disaf¬liation, communitarians suggest we need to recover a lan-
guage to af¬rm a vibrant civil society “ a kind of model Tocque-
villean polis of volunteer organizations, town meetings, and
knitting circles, all doubling as latent political discussion groups “
and that attention to cultivating civil society promises to reinvig-
orate civic discourse and public culture in crucial ways.8
Ironically, the state has the central role to play in this picture.
While initially the language signi¬ed the broad dispersal of power
and political sovereignty among a multitude of heterogeneous
social organizations (e.g., professional guilds, associations for civic
betterment, and the like), today “ after Rousseau, the Romantic
nationalists, and Hegel “ it is invoked as a necessary tool for social
unity, the mediating device whereby the ˜˜ethical substance™™ of the
nation, what Rousseau called the ˜˜general will,™™ was articulated and
secured. And the state returns the complement: civil society is an
energizing force for the state, and ˜˜the central purpose of the state
is to construct ethical unity within the modern context™™ (Beem
1999: 227).
This view has its advantages. In an age suffused with concern
about apathy and anomie, the need for fellow feeling is funda-
mental, and the nation seems the most appropriate focus for con-
structing such fellow feeling. But it only seems natural. First of all,
incantations of the idea of civil society ignore the material condi-
tions underlying its demise, such as the changing nature of work and
of private leisure time.9 Secondly, as scholars of nationalism argued,
social identities are fundamentally arti¬cial, and should not be
granted unquestioned legitimacy. Here recent liberal critiques of
communitarianism, as not only fundamentally nostalgic but practi-
cally disastrous, have teeth. There is such a thing as bad civil society “
racist groups, exclusionary country clubs, and other associations
that corrode the common good.10 And third, communitarians share

8. See Glendon and Blankenhorn 1995: 278“81, Portes 1998, Hann and Dunn 1996,
Ehrenberg 1999, Arato and Cohen 1992, Seligman 1992, and Rotberg 2001.
9. See Kumar 2001, Chambers and Kymlicka 2002, Edwards and Foley 1997,
J. Cohen 1999, Kim 2000, Walzer 1998, and Seligman 1995.
10. See Chambers and Kapstein 2001, J. Cohen 1999, Rosenblum 1998, and
Hoffmann 2003.
Faithful citizenship

too much with liberals; they still believe that there is some sort of
¬nality to the political process, that it is ¬nally a technological
process, with some ¬nal telos being a uni¬ed nation. Like many
contemporary liberals, communitarians dream of a worldly condi-
tion without politics.
Christians have further reasons to suspect it, because this vision
can actually subvert religion in society “ in part precisely because of
the particular way it values religious commitments. Commu-
nitarians typically appeal to religion as a device for thickening
social bonds and strengthening civic associations, cultivating the
˜˜habits of the heart.™™ Yet even civically, there is a tension between
what this theory dictates and what actually happens to religions too
tightly tied to the civic order; socio-politically, any such intentional
association will eventually undercut religious faith™s power.11
The ˜˜communitarian™™ inclusion of religion in civil society often
tends towards the monotheism of the state “ a nationalist idolatry
that makes religion serve some immanent end. Yet recognizing that
danger does not license a retreat into liberalism, for commu-
nitarians rightly insist that humans long for true community. All
political entities are failed churches, faulty attempts to replicate the
body of Christ. Any useful vision of politics must recognize and
respect this longing even while it helps us resist its dangerous
tendencies. Rather than thinning out the telos to be attained, we
may want to rethink the idea of a telos to politics at all. The possi-
bility exists of another route for reimagining politics after liberal-
ism that may help us do just that.

The civic republican strategy
Complexly intertwined with communitarianism lies another
vision of political life, which we may call ˜˜civic republicanism.™™ Just
as with communitarian and liberal thought, civic republicanism is
manifold and diverse.12 But even generically it captures insights to
which we must attend.

11. There is an enormous literature on civil religion. See Shanks 1995, Bellah 1974,
and especially Deneen 2005.
12. The challenges (brought, for example, by E. Nelson 2004) to talking about civic
republicanism as an ideal-type are too ¬ne-grained to worry me here.
176 A Theology of Public Life

For civic republicans, political life is most valuable not for its
institutional outcomes (as liberals assume) or its solidaristic social
effects (as for communitarians), but rather for its more immanent
rewards for citizens. On this account public life lets us realize the
fundamental good of participating in public life for a full human
life.13 As Hannah Arendt argued, political action creates agents as
well as ensuring a vibrant political community. ˜˜Political freedom,
generally speaking, means the right to be a participator in govern-
ment, or it means nothing™™ (1963: 221). But their strategic goal, the
end to which they understand that project to be oriented, differs
from communitarians, for its telos is fundamentally positive, indi-
vidualistic, and immanent. The end of such participation is
authentic self-rule, the ˜˜positive™™ liberty of political virtue. Civic
participation both ¬‚ows from virtuous formation and further trains
us in the virtues. While civic republicans fear moral corruption,
typically through commercialism, they are more deeply motivated
by a positive vision of human ¬‚ourishing. Unlike both liberals and
communitarians, republicans see actual political structures as sec-
ondary ef¬‚orescences of the character of the polity™s citizens.
Questions of obedience are fundamentally secondary to questions of
This is not a recipe for anarchy; republican theorists have delib-
erated thoroughly about what institutions enable real political life
to ¬‚ourish. Sometimes they endorse a fundamental populism, such
as they imagine in the direct democracy of the Athenian assembly;
sometimes they detail a populism mediated through institutional
˜˜channels™™ for political life, such as the constitutionalism favored
by thinkers such as Cicero and the American Founders. Either way
they seek structures that function as anti-structures “ systems that
shake up rather than channel political authority, and thus keep
things unsettled (or at least regularly unsettle them, though even
that latter ˜˜regularity™™ is accepted only begrudgingly).14 In contrast
to communitarians, civic republicans see ˜˜civil society™™ as a lively,

13. See Gibson 2000, Pettit 1997; and for a critique see Millar 2002: 146“7.
14. There is a powerful strand of civic republicanism that endorses the state as
unproblematically the goal of a virtuous citizenry, and is willing to use
religious rituals and language to magnify the state™s sacrality for citizens; but
this strand of republicanism seems to me to be least usefully distinctive from
communitarianism; for more see Wright 2005.
Faithful citizenship

because perpetually disrupted, political order. Far from being the
furnace in which a national identity is fused, politics ensures that
no civic consensus gains a stultifying grip on the body politic.
Political engagement does not make the nation; it makes citizens,
political agents who are not somnolescently dependent upon the
social largess of the government (where ˜˜government™™ includes also
the hegemonic force of the opinion of their fellows), and thus who
do not succumb to tyranny.
The key task for such a republicanism is the sustenance of a rich
and vital civic order that will infuse political life with suf¬cient
heterogeneity to resist the structural ossi¬cation and political
arteriosclerosis that inevitably ends in the ˜˜naturalization™™ of
political authority in the hands of some over against others. The
political equation expressed in Lincoln™s ˜˜Special Message to Con-
gress™™ in 1861 captures something of this republican mindset;
Lincoln says therein that government is always either too strong for
people™s liberties, or too weak to sustain itself. We should want a
state that is always threatening to decline, for if we do not have that,
the state is growing in power, which is typically worse. The ideal is
not unity of national purpose (though such is not the anti-ideal
either “ national unity is not inevitably a disaster whenever it
appears), nor is such unity necessary for the full realization of our
individual humanity; the ideal is the citizenry™s genuinely moral
autonomy, an autonomy that is always at least distantly imperiled
by society™s ˜˜immanentist™™ urges, its desire to focus on the here and
now as the summum bonum.
Communitarians™ form of civic critique centers around their con-
cern for apathy; apathetic disengagement is the problem, they feel,
and the state must work hard to encourage engagement. Repub-
licans, by contrast, worry not about apathy but about tyranny and
luxury, which lead to oppression and, ultimately, slavery. This is the
core motivation of their political criticism. For republicans, the state
makes an unceasing if implicit claim on our obedience, merely by
existing; and it is ultimately up to us to decide whether and how far
we obey. But the state is ravenous for our loyalty, and it will always
want more obedience than we offer. Ultimately this is bad even for
the state, as it turns us from citizens into subjects. So part of our
obligation to the state “ which is also indirectly our obligation to
ourselves “ is to resist its siren song of in¬nite obedience. To borrow
178 A Theology of Public Life

an idea from Ian Shapiro, the best strand of civic republicanism
imagines democracy not so much as a political structure as an ˜˜ethic
of opposition,™™ a means to resist the abandonment of responsibility
that political structures tend inexorably to encourage.15 Such an
ethic re¬‚ects a deep skepticism about political structures; as William
Galston says, quoting Jon Gunneman, ˜˜the liberal state, like any
state, is not and cannot be fully legitimate,™™ and the degree to which
most thinking persons feel vaguely scandalized by that idea is a sad
metric of the perverse success, in our society, of a corrosive civic
complacency (Galston 1991: 117).
This republican picture is not what typically goes by the name of
˜˜politics™™ in our culture; but that may not be a bad thing, for, as we
have seen, such ˜˜politics™™ largely refers to the hegemonic and
bureaucratic management of our lives by other people. And its
intrinsic attractions are manifold and profound. It offers a picture of
politics that is not tied to the idolatry of a rights-bearing individu-
alist privatism or to that of a group-based communitarianism, while
seizing elements of both for its own purposes. Of course, such a
strategy may drive civic life perilously close to anarchy. But its basic
insight is sound: politics is what we make of it “ and we are what it
makes of us.16
Such a view could be quite welcoming of religious citizenry, for
such citizens™ faith helps challenge the state™s perpetual desire for a
too thorough worldliness, by constantly reminding citizens of a
˜˜beyond™™ to which they should attend.17 It conceives of that beyond
in an immanent moral or civic vernacular, but structurally it is
analogous to Christian transcendentalism, and so has resonances
with Christianity. But civic republicanism is as much a challenge
to Christians as it is a help. Christians can take from civic repub-
licanism its af¬rmation of civic participation as the primary
public good, its suspicion of all attempts at political closure, and its
insistence that explicitly political structures are fundamentally

15. See Shapiro 1990: 266: ˜˜Democracy™s principled hostility to hierarchy and to
claims of political expertise . . . makes it uniquely attractive as a system of
political organization . . . Democracy as I describe it is better thought of as an
ethic of opposition than a system of government.™™ See also Shapiro 2003. A
similar position is that of J. Stout 2004.
16. Thanks to Catherine Oliver for this formulation.
17. See Deneen 2005, Hatch 1989, Morone 1998, and Sandel 1996: 320“1.
Faithful citizenship

secondary to and derivative of what politics is really about “ namely,
civic participation. But Christians ¬nd in republicanism a dangerous
immanentism, a ruthless insistence that whatever goods are to be
found through politics are found in the here and now, in the ¬‚ow of
time itself. Christians see this immanentism as the root motor
driving two problems vexing even the most interesting republican
positions, namely fanaticism and apocalypticism.
Many republicans want commitment to the republic “ the
immanent ˜˜public thing™™ “ to be as absolute as any communitarian
would. Indeed, individual republicans must be ¬nally absolutely
committed to the greatness of their patria; to borrow from
Machiavelli, they must love their city more than their souls. The
idea of an ˜˜open-minded™™ republican, or a ˜˜relaxed™™ one, is
unthinkable given the commitment republicanism demands. Ironi-
cally, traditional republicanism is both highly individualistic and
highly authoritarian, emphasizing a vigilant citizenry but one
whose vigilance abases itself before the god of the city. This absolute
commitment, coupled with the republicans™ philosophy of history,
gives republicanism its tragic fatalism. Individuals must bind their
fates to the wheel of history, and they are helpless to stop the wheel
from rolling with them on it. Yet ironically, that this is a tragedy can
be appreciated only by those outside the republican mindset. On
their own terms, as Augustine said about the Roman republicans,
they have no grounds for complaint, for they receive the reward
that they sought (DCD 5.15“17). They are tragically mute and deaf.
Fanaticism is a tragedy, but it cannot be seen as such by fanatics.
Along with this temptation towards fanaticism, and internally
connected to it, republicans also face the problem of perpetually
slipping into apocalypticism. They are always tempted to presume
that now, this time, at last, they have built a political order that will
¬nally escape the Polybian cycle of birth in virtue, growth into
greatness and glory, and decay through luxury into slavery and
collapse. But because this cycle is identical with history itself, they
thereby become enemies of history, warriors against time, hoping
that history has reached its end in their republic, and trying to
convince themselves that it really has.18 (There is something awe-
some about our human capacity, throughout history, repeatedly to

18. See Pocock 1975 and Shapiro 1990: 169“72, 211.
180 A Theology of Public Life

convince ourselves of something like this “ sometimes even in full
historical knowledge of the ultimate futility of such fantasies.)
Republics may sound like they have transcendent goals, like the
sacralization or sancti¬cation of the nation; but the sacri¬ces they
demand, the martyrs they make, for the sake of glory or fame are
ultimately reduced to immanent (and ultimately narcissistic) ideals
because of the apocalyptic frame within which they are con-
Civic republicanism offers many insights. Christians can appro-
priate its af¬rmation that the primary good of politics is civic par-
ticipation, its concomitant resistance to the idea of the state as an
ultimate good, its challenge to the rei¬cation of authority, its
recognition that ˜˜politics™™ cannot be escaped, and its emphasis on
the prime necessity of cultivating robust political virtue in its citi-
zens. But Christians should resist the apocalyptic idea that the
immanent goods of politics are humanity™s ultimate goods, as civic
republicans often claim. Christians ought not to be sheer civic
republicans, not because they do not agree with its critiques of the
state, or because they do not recognize the Polybian cycles, but
because they af¬rm that such cycles are not the ¬nal end, that there
is something ˜˜beyond tragedy.™™ Indeed, more thoroughly than civic
republicanism allows, Christians should see politics as endless but
worth engaging in anyway, in order to help cultivate real human
virtue and piety. Christians have good reasons to refuse to be trap-
ped in immanence; and in refusing this, they can offer a different,
perhaps purer republicanism, one purged of its immanentist leaven.

Reconceiving sovereignty: faith in but not
of politics
In sum, then, we are in an interesting and possibly promising
position. We see beyond the assumption that politics is a device to
make government a form of service industry. And we can
appreciate the somewhat problematic communitarian recoil from
that, and the more constructive, though still problematic, civic
republican alternative. To do better, we should move towards a
˜˜theology of citizenship™™ that places republican themes within a

19. For an interesting analogous criticism of republics, see Shapiro 1990.
Faithful citizenship

larger framework of Christian ascesis. Christians af¬rm the com-
munitarian insistence that community has theological valences,
while also exploiting the republican insistence on the endlessness
of politics. Politics is endless, both in the vulgar temporal sense of
perpetually un¬nished, like a running sore, and in the more
properly philosophical sense of refusing to see any distinct and
discrete ˜˜end™™ for politics or political activity outside of the
eschatological logic of Christian redemption. Politics, during the
world, neither moves in some natural cycle, nor possesses an
intrinsic end. Yet public engagement is not optional; it is simply
never justi¬ed immanently, but has a transcendent legitimation.
Political life as we experience it today is not the proper form of
public life “ it is an ersatz practice, at least as much a way of
coping as a means of grace, an inescapable activity that is, like
everything else, a mixed blessing.
Our theological account can begin where there is at present a felt
absence “ around the concept of ˜˜sovereignty™™ itself. If, as some
argue, we live in a ˜˜post-secular™™ era (Coles 1997: 8), it is because we
live in an era that has begun to resist re¬‚exive obeisance towards all
immanent “ that is, modern “ sovereignties, even the post-Ock-
hamist sovereign autonomous subject (itself derived from Ockham™s
doctrinally and conceptually dubious picture of a wholly voluntarist
God). What is political community when the ideal of immanent
political sovereignty is absent “ when faith in a transcendent
sovereign replaces the keystone of sovereignty with an open-air
The most interesting and detailed recent vision of Christian
commitment to political life is offered by Oliver O™Donovan.
O™Donovan argues that Christians worship God in obeying the
political authorities, and that such obedience is the acme of the
political realm. But this account is ¬‚awed because it obscures the
role of citizen in politics: where Christian citizens are needed,
O™Donovan promotes Christian subjects. Pace O™Donovan™s account,
the political order remains, until the eschaton, far more ˜˜unre-
deemed™™ than he allows; hence political life can never ¬nally be a
matter of simple obedience. As a counter to O™Donovan, we will
sketch a ˜˜Christian republicanism™™ that tries to avoid the danger-
ous immanentism inherent in secular civic republicanism.
182 A Theology of Public Life

Recovering traditional sovereignty
For O™Donovan, ˜˜politics was changed by the Incarnation™™
(2001: 139). It brought the political powers into the economy of sal-
vation. But these powers are not redeemed “ their ties straightened,
their shirts tucked in “ and then allowed into the heavenly City of
God; rather, they have now been subjugated, their false sovereignty
broken, and the authorities and their subjects reminded that they are
fully in debt, for their authority, to the Triune God. This reminder
should make the authorities and their subjects understand their
political behavior along the model of how they obey the divine. For
O™Donovan, that is, politics must be understood as a form of liturgy,
worship, and the church™s particular political mission is evangelical:
˜˜If the Christian community has as its eternal goal, the goal of its
pilgrimage, the disclosure of the church as city, it has as its inter-
mediate goal, the goal of its mission, the discovery of the city™s secret
destiny through the prism of the church™™ (286).20 Because of this task
of mission, understood as the ever deepening ˜˜Christianization™™ of
the whole society, the church has a ˜˜political™™ valence, and in sup-
port of its missionizing activity it can call upon the power of the state
(217“18). What we today call ˜˜politics™™ should be understood as a
form of mission, an extension of the mission of the church. After all,
it is the church, and not the ˜˜nation,™™ that bears the seeds of the true,
eschatological, political form: ˜˜The church never was, in its true
character, merely the temple of the city; it was the promise of the city
itself™™ (285). In the end, the ˜˜desire of the nations™™ is for the nations
to be overcome, disintegrated, and reconstituted in the church.
On this account, politics is ˜˜the theatre of the divine self-disclosure™™
(82), the arena in which we most fundamentally witness (to) God™s
glory. Set in this theological context, the tradition™s concept of
authority is remote from both poles of the modern dichotomy of
˜˜state sovereignty™™ and individual sovereignty (81); authority is the
possession neither of the sovereign nor of the people, but is a gift
from God for the good of both.21 This is not in any way simply a

20. Unless otherwise noted, page references throughout this section are to
O™Donovan 1996.
21. The similarities with Augustine™s understanding of authority should be clear;
but O™Donovan equally suggests that Augustine ˜˜smudged over™™ the ˜˜sharp
distinction between political and pastoral tasks™™ (202).
Faithful citizenship

divinization of political power. Quite to the contrary: in this vision,
the church teaches the state to be humble, in large part by teaching
it to acknowledge God as the only sovereign, and to recognize that
all sovereignty, including its own, is a potestas alienatum, borrowed
from the divine (219). But this equally means that that borrowed
sovereignty is really very powerful; and that we should recognize in
it the will of God.
The power and value of this account cannot be gainsaid. There is
something refreshing and right in O™Donovan™s brisk rejection of
the ˜˜customary affectation of dismay at the supposed quietism of
this picture™™ (147). And his assault upon the pieties of contemporary
political life always provokes thought. He resists the idea of civic
engagement as an absolute good (225) and he dismisses the idea of
modern democracy as ˜˜strictly a ¬ction™™ (270), for democracy
must always amount to the creation of a special political class
which differs from other ruling classes in other forms of polity not
by being representative (for they too are representative) but by
having its representative status clari¬ed by stringent electoral
procedures . . . The attempt to give substance to the notion of
universal rule . . . is not what is important about Western
democracy. (269“70)
Because of this, he criticizes accounts of politics that do not
acknowledge the primordiality of authority, that depict ˜˜political
responsibility in a vacuum™™ (17).
O™Donovan is right that too often we settle for the nostrums of
˜˜liberty™™ without really thinking through its deep meaning. But his
focus on authority, and on the idea that the political realm is most
fundamentally one in which we apparently passively witness the
glory of God, does, after all, seem problematically quietistic. For
him, in the end, the essence of politics lies in the act of obedience to
authority, and authority in our world inevitably possesses a reli-
gious cast. It is not simply that the fundamental political act is that
eschatological moment when, at the name of Jesus, every knee shall
bow; it is that political obedience today is legitimate only as a form
of worship. In consenting to the state, you consent to God.
How has he reached this point? He begins by arguing that the
basic political problem is authority “ or rather, the lack of a work-
able concept of authority in modernity. While ˜˜authority is the
nuclear core, the all-present if unclari¬ed source of rational energy
184 A Theology of Public Life

that motivates the democratic bureaucratic organizations of the
Northern hemisphere™™ (16), in the ˜˜northern democracies™™ there
seems no way to acknowledge the necessity, and even the good, of
authority; instead all we hear, and all we seem able to speak of, is
the knee-jerk and massive suspicion of authority (16“18). Political
authority mediates our good to us in an ˜˜alienated and alienating
form,™™ to be sure, yet it remains our good (31). But to recognize it we
need fundamentally to recover a more adequate picture of politics.
Part of our problem here is fundamentally philosophical, rooted in
our lack of any adequate ˜˜ontology of human freedom,™™ which
would reveal our anxieties about obedience to be the result of our
bad voluntarist inheritance (30“1). But correcting our philosophy is
not enough; more than simply downloading the right theoretical
software into our heads, we must sketch a ˜˜normative political culture™™
(230) in which authority has a workable place.
All this is meet and right. The invisibility of authority in con-
temporary political culture is quite problematic, as others have
noted as well.22 But O™Donovan™s preemptive dismissal of the tired
pieties of modern politics does not really avoid the problem here,
for the complaint against him is not fundamentally political but
theological. Ultimately his problem is not his bracing dismissal of
delusions about the realities of modern democracy “ a dismissal that
differs from many political scientists only in its vehemence “ but
rather his assumption that that dismissal leaves only a premodern
picture of power for any possible politics. I agree we must beware a
˜˜liberal™™ account of ˜˜democratic faith™™ as a substitute for the
church (219); but is there no space between a politics built around
obedience to concrete authorities and one built around anarchic
individualism? We need a picture of authority more supple than this
dichotomy allows.
O™Donovan is obstructed from so imagining an alternative by his
implicit understandings of ˜˜rule™™ and ˜˜power.™™ In a sense ˜˜rule™™ is
his principle concept; as he says, ˜˜It is not clear how we can see
political authority as conferring freedom, rather than taking it
away, unless we have ¬rst learned to think in terms of a rule that is
salvi¬c™™ (127). But he does not really think through the concept of
˜˜rule™™ “ to uncover a deeper theological sense of it “ in the same

22. See especially Seligman 2000.
Faithful citizenship

way that he rethinks ˜˜authority.™™ To do that, he would also need to
rethink the concept of power that lies behind his concept of rule.
And, ironically enough, he seems simply to accept an essentially
secular picture of rule itself. For O™Donovan, to have proper
authority, to rule rightly, is to wield the power to have others
voluntarily obey you. But is this an adequate concept of power,
either politically or theologically? After Arendt™s mediations on the
difference between ˜˜power™™ and ˜˜violence,™™ and the many libera-
tionist theologies™ insistence on empowerment as a reality for the
whole populace, it is hard to accept such a monochromatic picture
of power. O™Donovan™s failure to expand his understanding of
power infects his understanding of politics, causing him to identify
it too totally with the concept of ruling.
This failing is caused by his too sanguine picture of political order
in this world, driven by his too immanent and ˜˜realized™™ account of
sancti¬cation: Christ™s redeeming power works here and now, and it
works on the political order itself. O™Donovan too tightly joins
together heaven and politics, the kingdom of God and the kingdom
of this world. He makes the eschatological kingdom of God too
much like a this-worldly political entity, and the political structures
of this world too much like the kingdom. These assumptions
undergird his excessively con¬dent assessment of prospects for a
contemporary Christendom. So to do better than O™Donovan, we
must rethink his concept of rule, which involves rethinking his
understanding of Christ™s presence in history.
As regards the consummation of the kingdom, O™Donovan
assumes a stronger than warranted continuity between our worldly
anticipations and the supra-worldly satisfactions that await us. By
suggesting that Christ™s effect is largely accomplished, O™Donovan
obscures the possibility that our current vision of salvation may be
revealed to be problematically provincial, too tightly tied to our own
limited perspective in space and time. Salvation is not fundamen-
tally a condition of obedience or consent, but of liberation. To
describe it most fundamentally as consent is to encourage too
complacent a continuity between what we are called to accept here,
during the world, and our ultimate destiny. But this, as I said, sug-
gests a bit too easily that we can ˜˜read off™™ of our current condition,
with some con¬dence, what our properly sancti¬ed lives will be
186 A Theology of Public Life

like. And this seems highly dubious, not to mention potentially
dangerous soteriologically.23
Secondly, as regards worldly life, O™Donovan con¬‚ates political
structures with divine ordering. It is less clear than O™Donovan
thinks that Christ redeems not only the world, but the political
order itself. Christ has certainly changed everything, but not by
baptizing the structures of ordo established east of Eden. This
resistance need not move, as O™Donovan insinuates, towards a
vision of the political authorities as demonic ˜˜powers,™™ nor does it
compel us to urge Christians to ¬‚ee to the church as the only
alternative: the church is no more pure in this life, no more a haven
of righteousness, than any other institution. Furthermore, O™Dono-
van™s con¬dence is too generally determinate; he is unwarrantedly
con¬dent that we can know the determinate shape of today™s world
from the Gospels. We should rather af¬rm a more open-ended
eschatology, one that encourages us to af¬rm more vigorously that
we know neither the day nor the hour of Christ™s coming. If politics
has truly changed because of the Incarnation, it has done so in ways
that do not lessen our need to understand ourselves, and the rest of
the world, as under a judgment we do not fully, and cannot fully,
Construals of our current condition and our ultimate aim should
differ from each other more dramatically than O™Donovan™s account
allows. We can do better by determining how Christians should
exercise authority, and participate in political sovereignty, without
succumbing to the idolatry of identifying God with the political
structures they inhabit. To determine this we must answer two
questions. First, how should we inhabit authority, in order best to
remind ourselves that we undertake that inhabitation in fear and
trembling, and to signal to others that we recognize the difference
between the of¬ce we occupy and the person we are? Second, how
should we properly acknowledge political authorities, devolving
into neither anarchic resistance nor robotic obeisance? Help in
answering the ¬rst question can be found in Augustine™s own
thought and example. Help in answering the second can be found in

23. This is an epistemological, not an ontological, point; it is our comprehension of
the continuity that I challenge, not the continuity itself. The continuity is real;
but it will be properly visible only from the perspective of redemption, not
Faithful citizenship

civic republicanism. Both appropriations, we will see, turn on
returning to and thinking through our received understanding of
sovereignty. We turn to these topics next.

Augustinian politics: an endless secular republicanism
In thinking about authority we do well to turn to Augustine™s
thought. Certainly Augustine was in no sense a democrat, egalitar-
ian, or populist. But his thought was very complex and chagrined
about the nature of human authority. If participation is funda-
mental to Augustine™s overall thought, how can we develop it for
our purposes?
We saw earlier that Augustine can offer us at best indirect help.
But such indirect help as there is, is considerable. First of all,
Augustine™s basic socio-political analytic apparatus is decisively
shaped by republican concerns and concepts. His critical analysis of
the moral state of society derives heavily from earlier Roman
republican sources, and he agrees with them that a society™s civic
health is determined largely by its moral health.24 This gives rise to
Augustine™s assessment of culture, which is essentially that Chris-
tians should oppose chaos and immorality (which is simply chaos
internalized). Given this latent ˜˜civic republicanism™™ in Augustine,
we can generate the following argument. In our setting, Christians
are well advised to care about the civic order for negative reasons,
for fear of what it might become “ and what, by extension, it might
do, in a degenerated state, to the character of its inhabitants.
Because the contemporary drift of civic life, as we have argued, is
towards the corrosion of citizens™ character, Christians should be
involved in civic life to resist its slide in consumeristic directions “
which corrode both real politics and the prospects for proper
Christian character formation.
Furthermore, his thought is surprisingly anti-elitist, in ways
that help us develop a theology of faithful citizenship that is recog-
nizably Augustinian both in contour and in content. Augustine™s
anti-elitism is most visible in his theology of grace, which is, in

24. See, e.g, his use of Ciceronian civic republican rhetoric in his correspondence
with Nectarius, ep. 90, 91, 103, 104. More generally see Inglebert 1996: 399“592,
esp. 502.
188 A Theology of Public Life

R. A. Markus™s felicitous phrase, a ˜˜defense of Christian mediocrity™™
against monastic virtuosi elites of various sorts, most notably the
Pelagians. On the one hand, no real perfection is available in this
life, so the highest aims of the most rigorous Pelagians are impos-
sible, and re¬‚ect a delusionary and sinful self-understanding. On the
other hand, he thinks asceticism is not something pursued exclu-
sively in the monastery; ordinary rudes “ the unlettered ˜˜great
unwashed™™ of his congregations “ need be no further from the life
of struggle than the most rigorous monks, and when presented with
the opportunity Augustine expected them to treat their suffering in
properly ascetic ways. Asceticism was for him not something some
select group undertook for the rest of us; it formed the shape of the
Christian life in general. (Indeed, Augustine delivered sermons on
the ascetical opportunities “ even the obligations “ available to the
rudes.) This anti-elitist ˜˜popularizing™™ of asceticism was far from
Luther™s ˜˜priesthood of all believers,™™ of course; but it does stand in
some af¬liation with it, however distant.25
Alongside this anti-elitism, Augustine™s analysis of sin made him
deeply ambivalent about the prospects for solid human authority.
He typically hedged his theoretical arguments for authority with an
insistence on the importance of a scrupulous and meticulously self-
critical attitude on the part of the authority himself; furthermore,
his actual behavior as an authority was often self-subverting and
self-critical in ways that made his contemporaries (both those of his
own rank and those ˜˜beneath™™ him) uncomfortable, and his theo-
logical descendants un-Augustinian, precisely to the degree that
they forgot his example and relaxed into claiming an untroubled
authority. Augustine™s theocentricism does not ¬nally support all
this-worldly authoritarianism, but aims to subvert it. This can be
seen even in his early defense, against the Manicheans, of the
rightful role of authority in inquiry; far from presenting an apologia
for authoritarianism, his account of authority in texts like de
magistro is meant to secure an appropriate place for authority while
acknowledging the impossibility of any human ever ful¬lling the
of¬ce of ˜˜author.™™ Augustine™s insistence on the need for explicit
authorities is really an appeal to humility on our part when faced

25. See Markus 1990a, Cooper and Leyser 2000, Leyser 2001, Mathewes 2002c, and
Cavadini 2004. More broadly see Salzman 2002.
Faithful citizenship

with authorities of the past, not an arrogation of power and pride
into the of¬ce of bishop. He emphasizes the fundamental impor-
tance of participation by the whole community. Differences in rank
and function among humans shrink to insigni¬cance when com-
pared both with the common task set before us “ the task of coming
to praise God “ and with our common condition of being sinners.
When placed in the context of ancient accounts of authority,
Augustine™s account is remarkable for how it recognizes that all
human imperium stands under the judgment of a transcendent
dominium that always escapes perfect representation.26 In his view, a
truly ˜˜prudent™™ authority accepts the burden of authority with fear
and trembling, for to be an authority is to become an instrument of
God in an altogether new way “ and it means that one must seek
constantly to understand how God is using one to advance God™s
This prudent authority is visible in Augustine™s understanding of
how humans ˜˜borrow™™ divine authority in teaching, and in all
issues of authority simpliciter. How can one prudently be an
authority, when one knows one™s own sinfulness and one™s temp-
tations towards superbia? This was a problem Augustine struggled
with, both theoretically and existentially, throughout his life.
Augustine knows the power of auctoritate in his culture, both by
witnessing its impression (at times quite literally) on himself as a
pupil, and by his own exercise of it as teacher and master. But he
came to see that all such authorities, inasmuch as they attempt to
grasp authority, fail to grasp it: they both fail to grasp the concept of
authority (and hence fail to understand themselves as vessels
through which authority works and so fail to understand the inner
nature of authority itself) and they fail actually in their self-pro-
claimed project, to become the fons et origo of their own authority
(and are thus engaged in a futile task which likely works to stymie

26. See Grif¬ths 1999: 69, 161“4, Doyle 2002, and T. Martin 1998 and 2005; see also
the work on Augustine™s concept of church, e.g. Harmless 1995, Leyser 2001,
and Schlabach 1994. On the question of toleration in premodern thought, see
Laursen et al. 1998.
27. For a magisterial example of this see Augustine, sermo. 13. In fact it is at least
possible that it was the textual enactment of this vision of authority in the conf.
that provoked Pelagius™ famous hostility to that text upon ¬rst hearing it “ that
his theological disapproval was secondary to his social-pedagogical
disapproval. See Mathewes 2002c and Cavadini 2004.
190 A Theology of Public Life

their proper exercise of authority). The classical Greco-Roman vision
of stern authority, with its apparent marble con¬dence in the con-
trolling hand of the master, was cunningly subverted by God™s
uncanny providence. In fact, insofar as people have any real
authority, they have it from someone else, not just socially (by the
grace of etiquette and deference) but also more deeply ontologically.
Augustine saw this early on, in his confrontation with the
Manichees, and it is the deep point behind his claim, in the early
dialogue de magistro, that Christ is ultimately the only teacher, and
we are all at best ˜˜occasions™™ for learning, but not ourselves insti-
gators of it. Recall Augustine™s discussion of his own education in
the confessiones: education does things to the students that neither
students nor teachers fully comprehend, and plants seeds that nei-
ther can control.28 Authority is legitimate only on theological
grounds; because sin disorders human society and human indivi-
duals, authority can ultimately be grounded only on divine
authority, and all human authority is borrowed, and should be
exercised humbly and with hesitation and the constant confession
of the authority™s own weakness. In all these ways Augustine™s
account suggests how to inhabit authority in fear and trembling.
Civic republican thought can help as well, particularly in its
challenges to the rei¬cation of authority and its recognition that
˜˜politics™™ can never be settled. But Christians ought to resist the
civic republicans™ idea that the immanent goods of politics (˜˜glory,™™
say, or ˜˜fame™™) are the ultimate goods. Civic republicanism™s
emphasis on participation, and its sense that there is more value in
political engagement™s indirect goods than in its direct bene¬ts,
resonate with Christians, who can develop these ideas through their
understanding of liturgy. As O™Donovan argues, the fundamental
Christian act “ the act that serves as a paradigm for all other acts “ is
worship, the communal liturgical devotion to God. But worship is
not fundamentally an act of mere obedience to a God of alterrifying
sovereignty; it is proleptic participation, through Christ, in the
endlessly self-giving love of the divine perichoresis which is our
eschatological destiny. Conceiving of politics as a form of liturgy lets

28. See conf. 1 and, later, the example of Alypius being warned away (futilely) from
the games by an offhand remark of Augustine™s, an event that Augustine did
not intend to apply to Alypius (conf. 6.7.12). For more on this, see Mathewes
Faithful citizenship

us see politics as a properly soul-forming activity “ but, contra
O™Donovan and civic republicans, in a thoroughly non-immanentist,
anti-apocalyptic, eschatological manner.
Christianity™s relation with civic republicanism is ambivalent.
First of all, elements of a republican mindset saturate the history of
Christian political thought.29 More basically still, the ˜˜logic™™ of
basic Christian theological claims support radical challenges to all
forms of political sovereignty when they present themselves as
˜˜settled™™ and not contingent.30 But traditional republicanism, both
as a political philosophy and as a political reality, is at odds with
Christian commitments. Again, the most obvious danger of civic
republicanism is its tragic af¬rmation of immanent good as the
ultimate aim of politics. As Augustine said, the civically virtuous
have had their reward (DCD 5.15). In contrast, Christians see the
republican af¬rmation of immanence and self-rule as merely one
more species of apocalypticism, a bad orientation towards our
existence in time that needs to be diagnosed and critiqued. They can
take a more relaxed attitude regarding concerns about the decline of
civic decency and civic community because they do not identify
their good with any particular civic order. They can render repub-
licanism more radical by underscoring the wholly indirect goods of
political life, fully purging its immanentist leaven. They do this by
keeping a ¬rm grip on the difference between an eschatological
imagination and an apocalyptic one, and by holding on to the for-
mer while holding off the latter “ and thus incarnating a distinct
way of inhabiting temporal existence.
For Christians, ˜˜political life™™ is endless, in two senses. First, it is
endless in having no goal, no end; it has no fundamental, immanent
purpose of its own, and any political program that reaches for a
more than provisional purpose fundamentally misconstrues the
nature of its project, and threatens to set up a political idol that it
will expect all, ultimately, to worship. It may have tactical aims, and
micro-purposes “ such as the ordinary stuff of political life, legis-
lative activity, campaigns for workers™ rights, fair wages, changes in
criminal law, etc. “ but none of these should gain total theological

29. See Pocock 1975, Thompson 2005, Black 1997, Walzer 1970, Hill 1991. For
connections between republicanism and millennarianism in early America, see
Hatch 1977, R. H. Bloch 1988.
30. See Tanner 1992 for a similar argument.
192 A Theology of Public Life

sovereignty over Christians™ imaginations. (The impetus we feel
towards assuming that politics has such a purpose is due to its
participation in our properly transcendent longing for the escha-
tological community.) Christians engage in politics because they
cannot do otherwise, but they do not understand themselves to be
doing messianic work thereby.
Second, political life is endless in that it should seek no closure or
stasis: the goal is to keep it unsettled, resisting closure. This is as
true in terms of the ˜˜spheres™™ of life that can become political as it
is of the idea that there could be an ˜˜end™™ of politics in history. Any
realm of human life can become a topic of political debate, and
there is no temporal cessation of political concerns. Political life is
supposed to be unsettling, not calming; disturbing, not reassuring; a
pilgrimage, not a homestead. Nor is it simply politics™ accidental
character that is a function of sin; rather, politics itself, and the
form of life that requires politics, is our lot only because of sin. It is a
way of coping, recognizing our need to cooperate with people often
quite unlike us. It is an inescapable mode of life in which we ought
to be engaged, until the eschaton, but it is not one that we ought to
expect to enjoy.31
This may sound pessimistic. But it is not “ it makes politics pro-
leptic play, and thereby makes palpable the theological longing that
communitarians recognize in it, but republicans deny. Refusing to
grant politics its own ˜˜proper™™ sphere makes public life just one
more aspect of the true life we are trying to live “ the true life of
communion with God and our neighbor. So conceived, the ultimate
aim of engaging in political life is not to seek the republicans™ closed
telos of self-rule, but rather the open-ended, un-teleological telos of
securing for us the relative stability, during the world, to participate
in the endless ecstatic praise that is our ultimate end.
The recognition of transcendence does not devolve into an
otherworldly escapism, because it trades on no perniciously
dichotomizing dualism between this world and the next. Politics is
not what we do ˜˜here,™™ in some sort of semi-autonomous ˜˜sphere™™
as an antechamber to heaven, where we will do something funda-
mentally different; there is only one sphere, and that is God™s
creation. There is no fundamental qualitative difference between

31. See Polletta 2002.
Faithful citizenship

what the church qua church does now and what it will do in para-
dise, and the dualism of ˜˜this-worldly™™ versus ˜˜otherworldly™™
structures is overcome in principle; but, contra O™Donovan, there is
an in¬nite qualitative difference between Christians™ current parti-
cipation in divine joy and their delight on that eschatological
How should Christians act civically in ways faithfully alert to that
difference? To begin to answer that question we should address the
fundamental danger of instrumentalizing faith for civic order. We
turn to that now.

Faithful citizenship: resisting immanence
The dangers here are large. Much of modern life is profoundly
inimical to real belief or disbelief; our economic, social, and cultural
environment encourages us to eschew strong conviction. Genuine
faith is sticky and entropic, and can bind us to people and positions
in ways that make life in market societies “ which reward ease of
attachment and detachment “ dif¬cult and awkward. Furthermore,
phenomenologically speaking, conviction needs concentration;
and in our world such concentration is becoming increasingly dif-
¬cult to achieve, much less sustain. We are continuously pushed
towards the kind of compartmentalization and ˜˜multitasking™™
that corrodes our integrity, and increasingly lack the time or
silence needed to cultivate the disciplines (such as patience and
obedience) required by the capacity for genuine belief.32 Finally, life in
our hyper-complex and often self-contradictory societies strongly
encourages the cultivation of a self-distancing cynicism and ironism
which, whatever their value as defense mechanisms, are deeply prob-
lematic modes of inhabiting public life and politics.33 Contemporary
society is a rocky ground on which the seed of faith ¬nds it hard to
gain purchase.
But the problem here is not ¬nally historically contingent, but
perennial. Our (self-described) need to be fully in charge of ourselves “
to be in control “ encourages us to ˜˜loosen™™ our attachments to one

32. See Berger 1979, Gergen 1991, Wuthnow 1998a, Carter 1994, Sennett 1998, and
C. Smith 2005.
33. See Sloterdijk 1987, Bewes 1997, and Chaloupka 1999.
194 A Theology of Public Life

another and our beliefs. Ironically, our desire for control, manifest in
the governing ideas of preference and taste, represents us to ourselves
as less self-controlled than ever before, as we are captive to the tyr-
anny of our whims, slaves of our passions.
Of course, as Chapter 1 argued, everyone in fact does live out of
some core con¬dences, insofar as they have an identity (even if their
core conviction is that they refuse such convictions). So the danger
is not radical skepticism per se, but a super¬ciality in which we
simply never directly re¬‚ect upon our act of believing. In this
ignorance we fall into a deluded response to our condition, a pose,
the pose of knowingness.34 We assume we fully understand what we
say we know; or rather, because ˜˜assume™™ invests our act with too
much self-consciousness and agency, we never think about what we
know at all. We refuse to see the depth of mystery ˜˜behind™™ our
con¬dence. What we take to be both knowing and doubting are
really strategies of avoiding thinking about faith, avoiding the risk-
iness central to it. There is an enormous tension between what we
tell ourselves we know, and the realities to which our ˜˜knowledge™™
refers “ what Vaclav Havel calls the ˜˜tension between the living
experience of meaning on the one hand, and its unknowableness on
the other™™ (1989: 152) “ and we tacitly acknowledge that tension by
frequently changing our opinions about things, deepening them or
simply tossing them overboard. But we avoid confronting the fact,
or investigating the implications, of how frequently our beliefs
change, and so those changes do not become signi¬cant, and are not
incorporated into a rich narrative of growing in wisdom about the
¬‚imsiness and shallowness of our knowledge. We do not admit we
live in history, and are thus ourselves ongoing projects; we would
rather die than change, so we try to avoid having real beliefs, rather
than confront what it would mean to have faith, and especially its
implications for who we are. We cannot stand live questions, and
because such questions are part of life, we try hard not to be alive at
all. We presume to epistemological purity, a condition of having
fully realized one™s goals, no longer needing to question, to exist in
time. Our knowingness has apocalyptic pretensions, tempting us at
every moment to think we know, at last, the way we will at the end
of history.

34. For more on this ˜˜knowingness,™™ see Lear 1998 and Phillips 1996.
Faithful citizenship

Our explicit convictions are analogous to a crust of ice of
unknown thickness covering an abyssal sea that we must cross.35
Yet only faith itself can teach us the danger that it faces, by teaching
us the real fragility of our grasp on our faith, and the profundity of
its grasp on us. (Just as Barth said that only Christians sin, we can
say that only true believers know the shallowness of their faith.)
Faith teaches us this by forcing us to confront both how and how
much we rely on our faith; it thereby helps us become more fully
eschatologically minded beings.
But how does it do this? How can we capture the dynamic ener-
gies, both intellectual and psychological, of true belief? How do we
cultivate faithfulness?

The practice of suffering faith
To see how to cultivate faith we must understand what it
properly is. Faith is complex, and possession of it is ambiguously
related to conscious human agency. One™s faith is the deepest thing
about one, the most profound orienting guide in life; and yet at
those foundations, Christianity has claimed, we ¬nd a struggle
between belief and unbelief, righteousness and unrighteousness. In
this life faith is never fully realized, incompletely apprehended in
the ˜˜now,™™ existing as we equally do in the ˜˜not yet.™™
Because we exist in this tension, our inhabitation of faith takes
time, and because it takes time, it is best understood not simply as
an epistemological state, but as a way of life, a spiritual practice. It is
dif¬cult, so we must labor to achieve it, and it is painful, so when we
achieve it we are in a certain way suffering. But this suffering is
simply a way of inhabiting the world in a rawer fashion than before “
a way of attempting not to avoid or sugarcoat the real and painful
changes that the world continually forces upon us. Suffering is part
of Christianity™s fundamentally kenotic, non-apocalyptic orienta-
tion in the world, best understood, not as a fully realized satisfac-
tory answer to questions that we have been self-consciously asking
ourselves all our lives, but rather as an orientation to a reality which
gives us ˜˜fullness of life.™™

35. So Christians cannot claim any copyright on this faith; for corollaries see
Phillips 2001b, van Fraassen 2002, and Elster 1993.
196 A Theology of Public Life

What is the nature of proper Christian faith? The ¬rst thing to
note is faith™s stabilizing power, its capacity to organize and orient
our life plans through its af¬rmations. Cognitively, faith is often a
matter of ¬nding a history for ourselves, of telling a story about
ourselves that gives us a comprehensive narrative; affectively, it is a
way of understanding and af¬rming some loves or commitments in
ways we were not doing before, ways that begin to harmonize our
various affections. This cognitivity and affectivity are mutually
reinforcing: by rendering the story of ˜˜how I got to be the way I am™™
more intelligible, these cognitive transformations deepen our
affective commitments, while this affective transformation reduces
the discom¬ting dissonances among our attachments and valua-
tions, and hence renders more luminous and intelligible our cares
and commitments.
Every organizing ˜˜faith™™ has these marks. But Christian faith is
more complicated in its concreteness. Its stability is leavened by a
deep dynamism and open-endedness, for Christians confess a loving
and free God, whose plan is not yet accomplished and whose ways
cannot be fully known. Hence this faith implies an active disbelief,
the decisive renunciation of certain idolatrous claims, and also
challenges the faithful™s achieved understanding of those proposi-
tions that they af¬rm.36 Christian faith resists apocalyptic conclu-
sion, and cultivates an eschatological attitude toward it, by
continuing to question and by remaining open to those who would
question it. Growth in faith is inevitable, and should work towards a
deeper narration of our lives, a narration that depicts us as pilgrims,
journeying towards a goal whose reality is only partly apprehensible
to us before we reach it. In our youth we believe and go where we
will; but with age we discover that our beliefs take us where we do
not want to go. To be not a ˜˜true believer™™ but truly a believer is
always, in this life, to be enduring, to be discovering the narrat-
ibility of our lives, and thereby how we will participate, in integrity,
in eternity. The soul™s ascetical struggle to be faithful is one of
resisting its own sinful desires for closure, cessation, and death in
favor of participating in God™s endless ecstatic love of the world.
Where once we sinfully feared the naked exposure that faith™s
ascesis leads us toward, in graceful faith we come to see it as

36. See Morse 1997.
Faithful citizenship

another mode of wonder and awe at God™s will. Faith “ or the con-
version and reordering of the soul to which our term ˜˜faith™™ really
refers “ is in no way a conclusion; it is only the beginning.
This faith is not a matter of tepid agnosticism or an indifferent
skepticism, but a passionate seeking after, driven as it is by the
desire for deeper knowledge, and not the skeptical shrugging off of
that desire.37 Nor is this primordially a voluntary act; there is no
hyper-voluntary ˜˜leap of faith™™ because we are always already
˜˜faith-full,™™ always already committed to worldly con¬dences in
ways we do not know. We seek after because we are sought, because
we are called out by name. Christian faith offers us a grounding and
an identity, to be sure, but only by anchoring us, our cares and our
narrative, in something ˜˜beyond™™ ourselves. In this way faith is
ecstatic in its very nature; indeed, properly speaking our faith itself
is not our own but ˜˜borrowed,™™ as with the ¬rst principles of sacra
doctrina for Aquinas. We have faith because God keeps faith with us,
because God gives us faith.
Nor is faith apprehended merely negatively, the absence of con-
clusion; it has positive content as well, apprehended in hope. Hope
informs the content of our faith, the knowledge it gives us. Faith is
not in¬‚exible or impervious to criticism; it knows (hopefully) that
other voices speak God™s will, and that it is good to listen carefully
to them. Furthermore, faith has hope that its deeper sense is yet to
be revealed. Hope reveals our faithful knowledge™s temporal
dimension; it infuses our knowing with a ˜˜not yet,™™ with a resis-
tance to the delusion that we know anything completely, even the
most mundane things. This is true because we are sinners, of course,
but it is also true because nothing yet bears the full weight of its
eschatological glory. (The wonder we feel, from time to time, at
the trans¬guration of the mundane is in this way a proleptic
foreshadowing of what we will see in the eschaton.) As Jurgen ¨
Moltmann says, even our most homely metaphysical concepts are
eschatological, prophetic, ˜˜pro-visional™™ (1975: 270). Hope teaches
us to see all things, in Adorno™s phrase, in the light of redemption.
This is especially so concerning particularly religious knowledge:
˜˜Theological concepts do not give a ¬xed form to reality, but they
are expanded by hope and anticipate future being. They do not limp

37. See Turner 1995a and Davies 2001.
198 A Theology of Public Life

after reality and gaze on it with the night eyes of Minerva™s own, but
they illuminate reality by displaying its future™™ (Moltmann 1975:
36). Hope is the source of our reasons, yet it also relativizes our
reasons eschatologically.
But faith is affected not only by hope, but also by love. Faith™s
loving energy makes the faithful person seek to share her faith with
others, out of care for them. This care takes many forms. But the
faith that God is in charge, and the deepening sense of the detailed
contours of God™s sovereignty, coupled with the hopeful and
grateful con¬dence that this sovereign God is a loving God, coalesces
in an energized concern for others that opens faith to others™
counter-claims and checks on oneself, compassionately and keno-
tically.38 Hence as hope vexes all pictures of the mind as a camera,
love opposes all presumptions that the mind is fundamentally self-
suf¬cient. Most of our faith comes from others; and our knowing
occurs in a larger community of knowing and unknowing. The
believer is part of a communal project “ not of individuals acquiring
true beliefs, but of a community collectively moving through time
towards understanding.
Together, hope and love help shape faith into a confessional
practice. Confessio was originally a public, legal term. The confession
of faith is not so much a revelation of some otherwise private,
subjective inner world, but a commitment to a particular public
stance, and to a particular eschatological community. And it is not
fundamentally an act or an achievement “ the exhibitionism of
modern television talk-show confessions “ but rather an acknowl-
edgment, the public acknowledgment of our common condition as
those on the way of faith, wounded by God and now led forward in
our lives by another.
The confession of faith is a communal confession of a common
faith, the church™s faith in which all participate. We believe, and
often even our doubts and questions can be asked best in communal
ways, so that the inquirer is not the solitary mind, but rather the
community as a whole.39 It does not impose on others, but invites
them to share, and recognizes a common ground with others, a
common ground on which we can then go on with our public

38. See Davies 2001.
39. See Pettit 1993, Norris 1998, and Burton-Christie 1993.
Faithful citizenship

things. As such, confession is an act of love. But love also shapes
faith by being the motive for its confession. Our faith is what mat-
ters to us; it is what we most want to be. And so when we show
ourselves to others, we inevitably show them, if they know us long
enough, our faith. Faith cannot be kept a secret; it must be shown.
And what faith grasps is that God is love, that love is the funda-
mental character of the world; it acknowledges this in blossoming,
not in the recitation of certain dogmatic formulae, but rather in
works of love, the ¬rst of which is grateful praise. As such a dynamic
and open-ended mode of responsive and ecstatic praise, this con-
fessional faith is akin to philosophical wonder and Christian
prayer “ an awed, joyful apprehension of the basic truth of reality.
When we understand faith ascetically, then, we see it as a con-
fessional practice and a form of prayer, ending in doxological
wonder. But wonder is not faith™s only practical implication. Faith
confesses that God is in¬nite “ not a brick wall into which we
ultimately smack, but an endless expanse into which we journey
ever more deeply. It also af¬rms that history is signi¬cant, that it
˜˜matters™™ in a way that is not ¬nally ˜˜undone™™ or cancelled out in
paradise. The end is not the same as the beginning. Furthermore,
because this faith is inspired by a living God, and because it is
inhabited by a people who know their sinfulness, it resists our
apocalyptic, instrumentalizing, and technological attitudes towards
the world, and instead promotes an ethics of reconciliation, an
ethics of relinquishing control, of refusing to try to tell things what
they are, and accepting that God will tell us, through them, just
what they will become.
In these ways proper Christian faith exhibits the soul™s ascetical
struggle to resist its own sinful desires for closure, cessation, and
death in favor of participating in God™s in¬nite, endless ecstatic love
of the world; it reveals the endlessness of our inquiry into God and
God™s love, the dynamic turbulence of our inquiry into God.

Faith in public: confessing faith beyond identity
Given this general picture of faith, how might faith be publicly
manifest in ways that enrich public life? Simply put, faith helps us
resist the magnetic agglomeration of power and authority by the
institutions of the saeculum, in order more fully to share with one
200 A Theology of Public Life

another genuinely public community by responsibly confessing our
convictions. Faith helps us live more fully public lives by resisting
our political institutions™ tendencies to foreclose the ambiguities
and ambivalences of real public community.
As we saw earlier, the state is a jealous god. But that is just one
more reason why we must not allow it to become the only fact of
civic life. The state implicitly presumes to be the ultimate arbiter of
public life, and the ultimate topic of it. But both of these assump-
tions are false. In democratic societies, the state is simply the con-
densation of popular sovereignty, so the people ¬nally govern; and
while various proposals for and evaluations of the state™s actions
certainly occupy most conversation in public life, that conversation
concerns society™s public life as a whole, not just the explicit work
of the state. The ˜˜public™™ and the (narrowly, ˜˜literally™™) ˜˜political™™
do not coincide. We should resist what Michael Taussig has called
the ˜˜state fetishism™™ of modern political life (1992: 119“46). The
state does not determine the properly public, and we must not
identify the ˜˜public sphere™™ with the legislative process, or what
you can say in public schools, or what the law allows the govern-
ment to fund. That frame is far too constraining; a ¬xation on the
state, and on what the state recognizes as public matters, renders
invisible some of the most interesting movements in public life.40
(Thus the political mobilization of conservative Christians was well
advanced before it began to achieve legislative victories in the 1980s;
Jim Crow era African American civic life, out of which the civil
rights movement of the 1950s and ™60s sprang, was never recognized
as part of American public life, and is only now being studied as an
example of what civic life can be and can do.) The nation-state is
both too small and too large for many of the most important prob-
lems facing us today, problems such as the environment and glo-
balization on the one hand, and how to mobilize local civil
society on the other.41 We must remind ourselves and the state to

40. Again, see Bivins 2003 on the ˜˜political illegibility™™ of many religious
movements in public life.
41. Clearly, citizenship in some nation-state is not a prerequisite for a political life.
The modern bureaucratic state is absolutely necessary to manage the
complexity and galactic size of the global forces bearing down upon us and
sustaining us in our societies every day. But it can also hinder us in realizing
the goods of politics, because its ˜˜administrative logic™™ clashes with the
collective, open-ended deliberations intrinsic to ground-level public life. See
Faithful citizenship

acknowledge the gap between the state™s vision of the society it
governs and the reality of that society itself.
Furthermore, religiously faithful citizens, Christian and other-
wise, are committed to a ˜˜higher™™ community, and so they inevi-
tably resist the monotheism of the state, an idolatry to which
republicans are susceptible.42 More particularly, Christian faith
encourages civic engagement, but also recognizes the limits of
nationalism and all forms of identity politics, demanding that we
distinguish between all the identities, all the ˜˜faiths™™ that we cur-
rently inhabit, and the faith that teaches us that our identity is only
eschatologically achieved.
Many churches possess substantial, though latent, resources in
their traditional political behavior that could encourage their
faithful towards this kind of civic participation.43 But these chur-
ches today typically do not see their civic programs as more than
acts of purely optional, merely individual ˜˜charity™™; they lack
articulate ways of talking about their behavior in terms of their
being both citizens and believers. The Roman Catholic Church has
done a remarkable job of articulating an integrated vision of life,
with encyclicals and the various bishops™ statements; but their
congregants, at least in the West, seem less able to do so. Most
Mainline Protestants, and many of their church bodies, think that
they are best able to serve public life by being sites of opportunity
for public discourse, rather than participants within such discourse;
so they offer themselves as crucial nodes in civil society, funda-
mental because they offer spaces “ networking spaces, ˜˜bridging™™
spaces for citizens to meet and work together in public, open spaces
for people who would not have other opportunities to meet. But this
approach con¬nes civil society within the horizon of secular life,
and thus renders it fundamentally needing to be addressed within
that horizon.44 Finally, evangelical Christians seem haphazard in

Benhabib 1999: 728. For discussions that connect these challenges with the
supposed decline of the Westphalian state system, see Paul 2004, Buchanan
2000, Krasner 2001, Scharpf 2000, Strange 1996, and Fukuyama 2004.
42. Wilson Carey McWilliams has it right: faith ˜˜counsels us . . . not to expect from
the Framers™ extended Republic a warmer brotherhood than it can afford™™
(McWilliams 2003: 157).
43. See Wuthnow 1998b, Gill 1999, and McGreevy 2003.
44. See Jacobsen 2003, and Evans and Boyte 1986, on the need for ˜˜free spaces™™ “
˜˜free™™ in sense of not beholden to any particular or speci¬c political agenda “ to
help organize and mobilize for political action. For evidence that churches
202 A Theology of Public Life

their civic engagement, and have not yet developed a ˜˜social gos-
pel™™ of their own; limited by their lack of a rich ecclesial and social
imagination, they often end up with remarkably imbalanced and
partial accounts of religious civic engagement, when they are
engaged religiously at all.45
For all their engagement with civil society, then, most Christians
support it fundamentally as an addendum, an ˜˜alien work™™ whose
reality does not internally ¬‚ower from the logic of their own exis-
tence, either as citizens or as believers. And their churches suffer
from a theological aphasia when they try to think about why it
would be good theologically for them to participate in civic life. This
aphasia renders them civically mute “ that is, unable to speak in a
thick and comprehensive language about the overall ordering,
character, and purpose of the society as a whole. And when church
authorities attempt directly to intervene in public life, they typically
do so clumsily, in ways that seem to try to exploit spiritual authority
for partisan political gain. Whatever the short-term advantages such
interventions may bring one™s chosen political candidates, it tends
over the long term to blunt the effectiveness of religious partici-
pation in public life.46 In both their silence and their speaking, they
implicitly accept the master frame of the civil religion of the state
or secular civic order without offering the radical challenge to
that order that they should. They practically admit civic life™s

offer such space for community activity and organization, and generally
provide many social service programs, see McCarthy and Castelli 1998,
Independent Sector 1988, and Cohen and Jaeger 1997. This last report notes the
remarkable fact that 91 percent of the congregations under study (113
randomly selected congregations) offer community services, and 81 percent of
the bene¬ciaries of those services are not members of those congregations.
45. See Lichterman 2005 and C. Smith 1998 and 2000.
46. Of course bishops should speak out, as bishops, on matters they consider
central to their faith, and they ¬nally have the right to decide what is central.
But the danger of such interventions is that, unless they are tied to a long-term
and systematic campaign of public intervention, they simply get folded into
the vision of a wholly secular political struggle. It is certainly appropriate for
bishops to talk about these things; but to do so only when a pro-choice (but
personally anti-abortion) Roman Catholic is running for president smacks of
mere Machiavellianism. And it is certainly appropriate for the Methodist
Church to have views about whether its congregants should go to war; but to
offer the occasional statement without addressing the larger geo-political
context in a sustained way simply sounds like it is trying to jump on the anti-
war bandwagon. Churches that act in these ways sound sinister, bullying, or
pathetic, and effectively harm both their own causes and their societies™ civic
life. For an earlier version of these worries see Ramsey 1967 and 1988.
Faithful citizenship

importance, but cannot fully explain its import in a satisfactorily
theological manner.
This encourages congregants to assume that the energizing
sources for actual participation in public life are fundamentally non-
theological, that they must come from elsewhere than their chur-
ches and religious life; but this simply reinforces the general sense
that civic engagement is one more ˜˜personal choice,™™ one more
lifestyle option, fundamentally a matter of sheer individual taste.
This is problematic because it forgets that such participation may
well be a duty to oneself and the community. Even more, it effec-
tively discourages the sancti¬cation of ordinary life, and hence is in
profound tension with the deep encouragement of the full partici-
pation by the laity in the full work of these churches.47
To do better, the churches should be involved directly in the
conversations that comprise civic life, articulating to the whole
community, in richly theological terms, a comprehensive civic
vision. (The Roman Catholic Church has a vision, but one that does
not resonate with many believers nearly as fully as it should.) In so
doing they will give an account of the purposes of politics that
should underwrite their congregants™ commitment to the common
life as a theological task, and not simply a civic one.
An example of this more fruitful approach is not hard to ¬nd.
Take poverty: even on the narrowest de¬nition of ˜˜charity™™ “ say, in
their concern for impoverished, homeless, and unemployed in their
communities “ these churches work for political changes that make
those ˜˜lost people™™ more visible and more a topic of direct public
concern. Indeed, simply paying attention to the lived reality of
impoverishment is political; a crucial part of the problem that the
poor face is the blindness on the part of privileged groups to the real
nature of poverty “ the dif¬culties of living on the minimum wage,
the dif¬culty of ¬nding work you can commute to, of getting
healthcare for those in your care (both elderly and young), of ¬nding
regular and secure childcare, even the compounding dif¬culty of
simply making any of this unavoidably visible to those who are
blissfully unaware of it. The churches™ work on poverty is impor-
tant, then, not simply for the direct legislative changes they may or
may not achieve; more basically, it is valuable as a way to help us all

47. See Galston 2004 and Hatch 1989.
204 A Theology of Public Life

stay aware of the reality of poverty in a society where it is easily
shunted off to special of¬ces of the government (after all, over the
last half-century, the state has become the largest source of social
assistance), and by doing so, help all citizens live more fully in the
reality of the world we inhabit, by recognizing those whom we so
easily make invisible. Furthermore, in working with others “ not
simply with the marginalized members of society, but with other
civic groups, secular and religious, committed to their empower-
ment “ they are not only engaging in direct civic activity; by
attempting to politicize these marginalized populations, they are
encouraging them, and others, to become fully participating citi-
zens as well.
This will make the state nervous, as the state tends to promote its
own monotheism “ the pretension that the state is the only
important reality in public life. There may be worries that churches
are seeking converts, or seeking a theocracy, in so doing. But if
Christian citizens are faithful in their work with their fellow citi-
zens, they will be living witnesses that this is an ungrounded pre-
judice. The goal of such action is not to install a permanent ecclesial
ideology but rather to resist the inevitably immanentizing entropy
endemic to all human realities.
An example may be useful here; how faith challenges ˜˜identity
politics™™ will serve as one. Christian citizens face a profound pro-
blem in contemporary civic life, of being faithful without pigeon-
holing themselves as simply one more interest group. Many
Christians, especially those to whom their faith seems most fun-
damental to their existence, are prone to falling into this trap.
(I keep waiting to hear someone call himself or herself a ˜˜Christian-
American™™; I keep waiting to hear the hyphen.)
Yet while religious conviction may be a kind of identity politics,
the converse is also true: identity politics is a kind of faith ascription
as well. And all such public professions of faith, purportedly secular
or patently religious, tend both to particularize and to polarize. Any
such profession particularizes because it offers a more determinate
picture of the person professing the faith; and it polarizes because it
tacitly contrasts the believer with her or his audience. Recognition
of this dynamic motivates many worries about religion in public:
perhaps faith is inevitably a fractious force in public life, because it
inevitably undercuts the possibility of actual association, expecting
Faithful citizenship

too much genuine existential communion, setting the bar too high
for others to join in projects with the believer.
But what goes unnoticed in such cases is that such a profession of
faith is also bad for the identity of particular believers, because of
how they themselves understand their faith claims. Most believers
do not know how to present their commitments in non-apocalyptic
terms, in a way that invites their interlocutors into a conversation
about the meaning and validity of those commitments. They thus
become trapped into defending a particular understanding of their
commitments at a particular time, and cannot allow themselves to
acknowledge any change in these convictions. Their faith ossi¬es;
their identity becomes apocalyptically ¬xed.
Of course, such apocalyptic identity ascription is a temptation felt
by all citizens, religious and non-religious. And in a way identity
politics is all we seem able to manage today; the modes of self-
presentation dominant in contemporary public life encourage us to
present ourselves either as too shallow to offer much of substance,
or as too in¬‚exible to collaborate and bargain. Public life is caught
between too slippery super¬cialities and too enclosed and militant
ethnic, nationalist, and religious particularisms “ between what
Benjamin Barber (1996) has called the hostility of ˜˜McWorld™™ and
˜˜Jihad.™™ What is it about our condition that tempts us towards a
rigidly dogmatic mode of public self-presentation?
Identity politics is fundamentally a defensive and protective
strategy, normally used to secure a group whose existence as a
group is perceived to be under threat. Such a strategy may be nee-
ded at some points and for some people or groups of people.48 But it
inevitably has damaging effects, for it closes us off from one
another. It both expresses a genuine longing for community and


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