An Augustinian Critique of American Culture and Politics: quite a broad, if not bold, topic to tackle. The deeper I read into The
City of God the more I realized this imposing fact. However, St. Augustine’s critique of the Roman pagans was just too enticing to disregard, particularly in light of American culture and politics, which has clearly began to experience the consequences of modern secularism. Therefore I set out on my task to
thsttransform the 5 century criticisms of an ancient empire into 21
century criticisms of a modern empire.
My plan is not to draw any profound historical parallels; rather it is to expose cultural and political parallels between Roman paganism, as described by St. Augustine, and modern day American secularism, as experienced by each of us here today. What I hope to point out is how secularism has, through equivocation, taken the words culture and politics and used them
to rationalize base and nefarious goals antithetical to the goals of Christianity and ultimately the common good of humanity. In Book II, Chapter 20 of The City of God, St. Augustine
describes “The kind of felicity the opponents of Christianity wish to enjoy and the morality by which they wish to live.” After dissecting what felt like every single page of the book, I kept finding myself referring back to this particular section over and over. It is essentially a comprehensive description of what the Roman pagans understood as the ideal cultural environment. Therefore, to begin our critique of American secular culture I’ve divided this very chapter up and I intend to briefly address and interpret it line-by-line as it may pertain to the ideal of secular culture.
These ambitious and morally corrupt goals of secularism as described by St. Augustine require a certain political agenda to ensure their preservation. However, it is difficult to indulge
oneself in anything one’s heart can desire when one does not
have access to all that one’s heart could possibly imagine.
Therefore international sovereignty and domestic security become the primary goals of politics in the running of an empire. “For when can that lust for power in arrogant hearts come to rest
until, after passing from one office to another, it arrives at sovereignty? Now there would be no occasion for this continuous progress if ambition were not all-powerful; and the essential context for ambition is a people corrupt by greed and sensuality.” (I.31) This continuous progress through victory in battle has its domestic effects in the form of what Augustine calls a “more deadly invasion than any human enemy… Asiatic luxury… Bronze-plated beds and expensive coverlets!” (III.21)
Basically, the people became too comfortable. So what is the political reaction to such comfort? Augustine tells us, “Scipio’s
desire was that you should be threatened by [an] enemy, to prevent you from wallowing in sensuality.” (I.33) While Nasica
in his wisdom maintained that greed and sensuality should be guarded against by preventing too much prosperity; he opposed the removal of a great and strong and wealthy enemy state. His intention was that lust should be maintained by fear” (I.31). Does this sound familiar? It should for a nation who has been convinced to fear everything from an evil German Empire (twice!), an evil Communist-Russian Empire, and an extremist Islamic terror threat all in the last century! Not to mention we’re
now arguably being condition to fear China!
The people have been spun into a perpetual cycle of fear and sensuality. The fear being generated by the possibility of a
revocation of the freedom to pursue sensual desires; and sensuality is being stirred by movies, sports, and entertainment.
Therefore we can see the empty promises of secularism by comparing them to the empty promises of the pagan gods of Rome. Both establish culture as the means by which one can freely pursue their passions (namely: lust, avarice, and power); and within both, politics are used merely as the means by which culture (as understood within secularism) is domestically protected and internationally expanded through war, public opinion, and economics.
So where is the hope? Well, St. Augustine reminds us that, “Custom is the most effective agent in soothing or shocking human sensibilities.” (XV.16 p.624) The richness of Catholic
culture can cleanse a society of its vices; history has shown at least this much is true. And if the early Christians of Rome
could purify a pagan empire and convert it to Christianity, then we modern Catholics can do the same for our secular Empire. But first we need to drop the bad customs of secularism and begin practicing the rich and beautiful customs of our Catholic