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By Royal W.F. Rhodes


The Montréal Review, November 2021


Samuel anoints David in this 2nd-century synagogue fresco uncovered at Dura-Europos, eastern Syria. (Yale Gilman collection)


A pillar of our thinking today about "The Good Citizen" and the place of social ethics in the public arena is the often hidden contribution made by religious thinkers, critics and advocates of liberal democracy. Augustine's "City of God", Walter Rauschenbusch's "Social Gospel", and Reinhold Niebuhr's "Christian Realism" have given religious language and direction to American society: conservative, liberal, and radical. What are the civic virtues presented in this religious legacy that remain useful in judging the internal and global exercise of American power?

Commentators of various sorts, liberal, conservative, and radical, have noted the famous phrase by G.K.Chesterton that America is "a nation with the soul of a church." (1) We might also justifiably say that in America religion has had the soul of a nation-state, nationalism hedged about with the aura of sacrality. It was Alexis de Tocqueville in the early 19th-century who inscribed an understanding of the role of religion in the emerging nation that has shaped and defined ideas of citizenship that still permeate the language, public and personal, that Americans use to describe ourselves and our use of power in the world. He said that in America the notions of religion and liberty are so intrinsically combined that Americans can not think of one apart from the other. It is a nation of believers; or more accurately, it is a nation of many beliefs, sometimes in puzzling and even strangely paradoxical combinations. Without trying to explore the whole history of religious thought and practice in America, or attempt to depict the various Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, indigenous and other traditions that have evolved wth the expanding nation and are constantly changing the religious demographics of our society today, as Diana Eck at Harvard has shown in her massive national study of the transforming religious identities in the U.S. (2), I want to select a few figures whose roles in contributing to the national consciousness about religion and citizenship, acknowledged and unacknowledged, and the relation to secular power have been formative. There is no one template or one religious norm for defining the "Godly Citizen", but each of the following has given us a slightly different angle of vision: Augustine of Hippo, the great architect of Western Christian theology in late antiquity; Walter Rauschenbusch, the Baptist theologian and activist in the late 19th-century and early 20th-century; and Reinhold Niebuhr, whose thoughts on "Moral Man and Immoral Society" (the title of one of his most famous books) shaped a national political theology and discourse for America from the 1930s until the 1960s. Each of these articulated a style of describing the role of the godly citizen.

The backdrop in American religious history, at least from the time of the early English and Dutch Protestant settlers (Native peoples, the Spanish and French, and other explorers engaged different fundamental ideas), was a concept of a providentially approved mission, an "errand in the wilderness" directed by God, to enter the new, promised land to fulfill the divine purpose until the Kingdom come, and eventually reiterated and re-energized by subsequent Great Awakenings, revivals, and assorted crusades. You might say that at least in the mythic language used to describe America's founding and sense of calling, like the Blues Brothers we see ourselves on a "mission from God." That also helps us to understand the recurrent messianic theme assumed later in the nation's internal and foreign policies: whether in regards to the "Great White Fleet" dispatched to sail the globe by Teddy Roosevelt in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War and the claiming of a new American Empire or the political rhetoric that described the contest of "the children of light vs. the children of darkness" in the 1980s or war with "the axis of evil" more recently.

So much of this attitude, and the often apocalyptic sense of history it enshrines, is built on the reiterated assertion that the Founders unequivocally saw America as the instrument and agency of the divine plan. John Winthrop and Cotton Mather -- perhaps. But Hamilton, Madison, Paine, Jefferson, and Franklin? When Hamilton was asked why there was no sustained mention of God in the Constitution, the report is that he replied that the new nation was not in need of "foreign aid"; or in another version of the story, he is said to have responded: "We forgot." (3) While the founding documents employ the vague, philosophical language of Deism, the belief in an impersonal principle of being consistent with Enlightenment stances, the early government of the new United States did not claim a particular religion, such as Christianity, as normative for the nation, as we hear in Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli (1796):

As the Government of the United States...is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion -- as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility of Musselmen -- and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an inter- ruption of the harmony existing between the two countries. (4)

(We should note that the Treaty was ratified by the Senate without debate and unanimously, only the third time that had happened in the new republic.)

The passage of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, crafted by Thomas Jefferson in 1786, elicited from him the exclamation that there was now enshrined in law "freedom for the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mohammeden, the Hindu and infidel of every denomination." (5) Apparently for Jefferson being a "godly citizen" meant that no one religion or the absence of religion had the monopoly on citizenship. And Franklin, who understood the political need to at least profess religious sentiments, warily observed that: "A man compounded of law and gospel is able to cheat a whole country with his religion and then destroy them under color of law." (6) It might also be noted that neither our national flag or Pledge of Allegiance (until 1954 in the latter case) used religious symbols or phrases. The flag may be regarded as a sacred object, but it is not a religious object.

Some may find it odd to go as far back as Augustine, who died in 430 CE, to talk about how Americans have been "religiously political " -- my teacher at Yale, Sydney Ahlstrom, who wrote the magisterial book laying out the religious history of America down to the 1960s, began his year-long course on this subject with the Council of Constance (1414-17). (7) Historians like the long view! Augustine's thoughts on citizenship, religiously considered, and the later interpretations of his writings created the framework for the relation of religion and the State down into the modern era. For Augustine, regarded by many as the primary Christian authority after the Scriptures, "The state was a disposition rooted in sin" (8); and for Augustine the exercise of politics, riven with hypocrisy, corruption, and graft, was a negative outcome of the Fall, justified only in its instrumental role to maintain order and social stability. Augustine is no Cicero for whom the political role was a school of virtue and justice. Here we hear echoes in Thomas Hobbes's 17th-century, post-lapsarian vision of the "state of nature," in which human life is "mean, brutish, and short", a "war of all against all", only mitigated by the absolutist police power of the coercive state. The classic New Testament contrast is found in comparing Paul's letter to the Romans ("Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God." Romans 13:1/KJV), in direct contrast to Revelation 13, in which the powers and principalities of this world are in the hands of Satan and the anti-Christ, the sort of dark assertion made these days by some popular conspiracy promoters. Augustine had little use for the apocalyptic frenzy prompted by Revelation, but most interpreters see him leaning more towards its pessimism about the world than towards Paul's acceptance, albeit temporary, of worldly institutions of power. It was in his monumental "City of God", a Christian apology constructed in the aftermath of the Fall of Rome in 410 CE against those who blamed Christians for Rome's defeat and abandonment by the gods, similar to the Enlightenment-era charges of Edward Gibbon in his "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire", that Augustine spells out a theological position concerning proper government, authority, and civic obedience, reflecting on whether Christian morality can be compatible with secular morality. A few commentators, such as Charles Mathewes, on the other hand, have seen in this classic work elements that are less dismissive in perspective and "style of engagement" about politics as a "natural good". (9) Augustine's model, in this interpretation, is seen to point always towards communion with God in creation, rather than towards apocalyptic escapism, retreat into the isolated self, or "world hating". His aim, it is argued, is less on blind obedience to government and more on active participation. The theological virtues (faith, hope, and love) do not erase or replace civic virtues, but enlarge and support them, as in the virtues of restraint, benevolence, justice, peace, honor, and practical wisdom. Civic life is vital in its affect on souls for good or ill (in poverty, slavery, prejudice, hedonism, and materialistic consumption, for instance). Rather than rejecting civic life for the godly, withdrawing or suppressing its values, public life is the path by which we come to participate in God, the triune God who in essence is a community of relationships. This connection to the world, however, opens the godly citizen to encounter all the complexities, ambiguities, difficulties, and partial truths of the shared life. Rather than Tertullian's dismissive maxim: "What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?", Augustine does not demand that one flee the world or that civil authority be godly authority, though he does allow its coercive force to be exercised in his dispute with the Donatists, those strongly puritan sectarian Christians who thought of themselves as the only true Christians. In the end, however, justice can only issue from love of God. Augustine asserts that Christian morality is "not immediately applicable to public affairs" (Ep.138.13), and in terms of those in the state who do not share Christian beliefs, "if we are unable to reform them, we should tolerate those who want the commonwealth [res publica] to remain with its vices unpunished" (Ep.138.17). One's true citizenship is finally in heaven, while we seek as way-faring pilgrims the City of God in this transitory life. It is thus an explicit critique of any nationalism and every form of government; all are held up to judgment by the standard of heaven. Yet the values and necessity of earthly government exist alongside the realization of their non-ultimacy. The godly citizen participates in the divine plan, but at an angle, indirectly, and in a confused way until the final winnowing on Judgment Day. Here we see only "as in a glass darkly". Augustine did not think that Christian beliefs could sanctify the earthly empire of man. To recognize truly our fellow citizens in our provisional convenants, compacts, and constitutions is the core of political life in time, but to recognize their value in God -- even those with whom we are enemies -- is the core of religion for Augustine. Much later the evangelical abolitionists who helped found Kenyon College --Lords Kenyon and Gambier, Lady Rosse, Thomas Acland, and other friends of the Great Emancipator, William Wilberforce -- recognized this. In the symbolism of the badge used by abolitionists for their cause, the image of a kneeling, black slave in shackles, the inscription reads: "Am I not a man?" -- the essence of the philosophical Enlightenment's revolutionary sense of universal liberty. But it goes on to assert what is a deeper religious doctrine: "...and your brother". The context and goal for godly citizenship for Augustine is such friendship, brotherhood, love, and union with God, just as membership in the Greek polis, as Aristotle declares in his "Ethics", is "friendship". It was on the recognition of human dignity derived from creation of all humans in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27) that Augustine argued vigorously with imperial authorities to abolish capital punishment.

Later Augustinians, however (and all mainline Western Christian denominations have been to a large degree Augustinian), latched on to his more pessimistic pronouncements on human nature and the political enterprise, and stressed the wielding of the "temporal sword" to protect, govern, and, at times, direct the spiritual. Christ preached the Kingdom, and we got Christendom, to be defended like any other earthly power by the might of the sword, with throne and altar united. It was against this wide interpretation of Augustinian thought that Roger Williams, while a Baptist (one branch of the Radical Reformation) who founded Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, as a counter to the established church in Massachusetts and as a haven of religious toleration for the variety of Protestants and Jews (excluding only atheists and Roman Catholics). His principles became a new model of godly citizenship: disestablishment of a state church, religious gatherings as voluntary associations, no religious tests for office, and toleration for diverse beliefs. This is the seedbed of the American religious tradition, over against the mainline Christian churches and their theological insistence on the linkage of religion and state authority, to repress heresy, protect and foster orthodoxy, and enforce the "godly walk" of all inhabitants. Remember, despite the new secular decalogue of the Bill of Rights and its no-establishment clause, it took until 1821 to disestablish the Congregational Church in Connecticut.

For Williams and others like-minded religion was to be seen largely as "habits of the heart." The only major element of Wiliams' early Baptist theology that was not incorporated into the mainstream American religious identity was pacifism, a tenet maintained later only by such groups as the Amish, Mennonites, and Friends (Quakers) -- the so-called "peace churches" who could not reconcile the gospel of love with state-sanctioned violence.

By the end of the 19th-century another Baptist, the great preacher and social activist, Walter Rauschenbusch (the grandfather of the eminent, non-religious American philosopher Richard Rorty), began his ministry in Hell's Kitchen, New York City, as a tireless campaigner for child-labor laws with Jacob Riis and others and a fiery advocate for the rights of the poor, eventually becoming a theological star at the Colgate-Rochester Divinity School (where Gambier's Bexley Hall Seminary sojourned for a time). Rauschenbusch's theology pressed for an incarnation of Jesus' prayer: "Thy Kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven..." (Matthew 6:9ff/KJV). His view, like Augustine's, was that Jesus understood the Kingdom of God in prophetic, rather than apocalyptic terms (a point biblical scholars debate more these days), so that humans should be seen as having the necessary moral resources as citizens to collaborate with each other and create the structures to transform, with the help of God -- not alone --, an approximation at least of the Kingdom of Heaven, not a theocracy, but a communitarian social order of willing hearts and hands. It was Alfred Loisy, the Catholic Modernist theologian before WWI who wrote that "Christ preached the Kingdom and we got the Church" (a phrase not as critical as it sounds to our ears). Rauschenbusch, you might say, taught that Christ preached the Kingdom and we got the YMCA. This social reform, or Christian socialism, or "Social Gospel" that Rauschenbusch preached was in response to the dizzying explosion of urbanization, industrialization, and immigration at flood level, without a consistent policy direction, protective controls, or the support of adequate social services. Rauschenbusch "called for a democratic cooperative society to be achieved by non-violent means". (10) As he wrote in the classic work, "Christianity and the Social Crisis" (11):

Will the twentieth century mark for the future historian the real adolescence of humanity, the great emancipation from barbarism and from the paralysis of injustice, and the beginning of a progress in the intellectual, social, and moral life of mankind to which all past history has no parallel?

It will depend almost wholly on the moral forces which the Christian nations can bring to the fighting line against wrong, and the fighting energy of those moral forces will again depend on the degree to which they are inspired by religious faith and enthusiasm. (12)

The theology of the Social Gospel took the figure of Jesus seriously as a prophetic social reformer, as did the Liberation Theology movements of a half-century later. It might be remembered that Catholic priests in Paris in 1848 had toasted Jesus as "the father of Socialism"! For Rauschenbusch "socialism was required in the economic order, [just as] democracy was required in the political order of the nation". (13) He taught that what others have called "possessive individualism" and the corrupting consumerist ideology of his day, resulting in inequality and oppression, "the denial of equal rights and of the equal humanity of all," are best confronted by true democracy, "the cooperative idea applied to politics," against the "monarchy" that corporations represent in business. There is something fundamentally antithetical between democracy and possessive individualism, between Christianity and competitive Capitalism. Democracy is not the same as Christianity, but remains the best formulation and expression of it, making political power responsible to the people and directing it towards justice. To "christianize" the social order for him does not mean to create a "Test Act", converting or baptising for citizenship.

Christianizing the social order means bringing it into harmony with the ethical convictions which we identify with Christ. A fairly definite body of moral convictions has taken shape in modern humanity. They express our collective conscience, our working religion...Jesus Christ is a prophecy of the future glory of humanity, the type of Man as he is to be. Christianizing means humanizing in the highest sense... (14)

While he looked to reform urban problems in moral terms, the Social Gospel did not do so in a religiously exclusive way, making Christianity, for instance, a "compulsory duty of citizenship". Instead he sought insights from scientific, evolutionary, and critical ideas, even critical approaches to the Bible, while also maintaining an openness to insights from other world religions. His approach and leadership helped foster long-term regard for social-welfare programs, and inspired later figures, such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. These ideas found at the core of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s had their roots in a Rochester, New York, classroom. The national engagement with Social Gospel, however, dissipated following WW I in the social and economic boomtime that was its aftermath.

Perhaps no other social theologian enjoyed the prominence and influence of the last figure I want to mention, Reinhold Niebuhr -- perhaps now remembered only, if at all, as the reputed author of the Serenity Prayer -- the Evangelical and Reformed pastor whose ministry began in industrial Detroit in the 1920s, the embattled arena of on-going labor unrest. His 43-year tenure as a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City until his death in 1971 gave him a platform for addressing the problems of the church and nation. When "Reinie" spoke, Americans of every stripe listened. As a liberal on social issues, shaped by a German liberal family heritage, and a founder of Americans for Democratic Action, an organization opposing Senator Joe McCarthy, Niebuhr's "distinction between taking the Bible seriously and taking it literally in- vited symbolic interpretation" and opened the way for those who were non-religious or not religious in Niebuhr's own Christian terms to join forces for social and political change and reform. Some even joked about organizing "Atheists for Niebuhr". (15) His liberalism was tempered by events and his developing sense of the realities of power: "No nation is so good as to be above suspicion in its use of power." This explains how one might explain his abandonment of a commitment to pacifism in the face of Nazi power. How could one maintain the optimism and idealism of the Social Gospelers and the Whig/Progressivist view of history -- "Every day in every way we're getting better and better" -- or the utopian illusions of human perfectibility and innocence in the face of wars, genocides, global oppression, and the dark depravity of the Gulags, death camps, and torture chambers? For political realists like Niebuhr, who coined the term "Christian Realism," the pervasive power of sin -- that deep malaise and alienating condition of humanity -- means that no State or form of government has been or can be fully just. Original sin is toxically woven into the very fabric of all our civic perceptions and choices. It is the universal reality that contradicts those liberals who preach: "A God without wrath [who] brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross." (16) The phrase is from Reinhold's brother, another famous theologian, H. Richard Niebuhr (the father of my teacher, Richard Reinhold Niebuhr) in his 1937 work, entitled: "The Kingdom of God in America." Arthur Schlesinger summarizes such a stance in a famous article about Reinhold:

Like all God-fearing men, Americans are never safe "against the temptation of claiming God too simply as the sanctifier of what- ever we most fervently desire." This is vanity. To be effective in the world, we need "a sense of modesty about the virtue, wis- dom and power available to us" and "a sense of contrition about the common human frailties and foibles which lie at the foundation of both the enemy's demonry and our vanities." None of the insights of religious faith contradict "our purpose and duty of preserving our civilization. They are, in fact, prerequisites for saving it." (17)

Perhaps Niebuhr's most remembered phrase is a simple, direct sentence: "Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary." (taken from "The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness", 1944) He corrects those who will not support a political measure or program if these fall short to some degree from their absolute, perfectionist standard, and he rejects those who would demonize the opposition. In this world we can only achieve proximate justice at best. He saw the dangers for the American style of "Godly Citizenship" were real, inducing delusions of messianic power in which absolutes are introduced into the mix of relative values in broadly self-righteous and perfectionist claims. Even American democracy does not have a direct phone line to God; it is always at best an interrupted, dropped, long-distance call. For Niebuhr it was Abraham Lincoln, from within the nightmarish midst of the fratricide of our Civil War, who is the prime model of godly citizenship, refusing to make a special claim to know the divine will. As Niebuhr said in writing about Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address:

[This] combination of moral resoluteness about the immediate issues ...with a religious awareness of another dimension of meaning and judgment must be regarded as almost a perfect model of the diffi- cult but not impossible task of remaining loyal and responsible toward the moral treasures of a free society on the one hand while yet having some religious vantage point over the struggle. (18)

For Niebuhr the stakes are high, if we do not exercise our citizenship and employ our national power modestly, with the clear eyes of realism. He wrote in 1952, in "The Irony of American History":

If we should perish, the ruthlessness of the foe would be only the secondary cause of the disaster. The primary cause would be that the strength of a giant nation was directed by eyes too blind to see all the hazards of the struggle; and the blindness would be induced not by some accident of nature or history but by hatred and vainglory. (19)

So what might we see as messages from these figures, carried in a bottle across the waves of time? What are the various elements of a style of engagement that "godly citizens" might employ, based on the ideas of these three theorists, adjusted for our place and time and problems? Each called for a certain modesty in understanding the virtues, practical wisdom, and expressions of power available to us and necessary for our active roles as citizens and our nation's role as citizen of a larger reality. They more or less saw the provisional, proximate nature of the accomplishments that could be made. And in the process, the ideals of human dignity, free and open discussion, human and political rights, and full participation in defining the common good, whatever the religious or non-religious sources of individual commitments, are seen to be core values, as we seek fair terms of cooperation and discussion for a religiously and culturally diverse people. Perhaps the central thing lacking now is the real desire to discuss such ideas. Perhaps we have the will to be "godly citizens". But is anyone listening? Perhaps what is now lacking are theological voices that have a broad cultural authority. We have very learned academic theologians, highly regarded specialists; but who speaks in a way that Americans can use to frame the understanding and discussion of current issues in a national conversation? Perhaps the progressive evangelical activist, Jim Wallis, founder of "Sojourners" comes closest. But where is the Rauschenbusch, the Niebuhr, a King or a John Courtney Murray? This may be an even more critical void judging from the lack of basic religious knowledge current in our society. As a telling issue of USAToday (3/7/07) once noted in reviewing Stephen Prothero's book, "Religious Legacy," a national poll showed that many Americans believed that Sodom & Gomorrah were husband and wife! The task in educating today's "godly citizens" may pose an invincible challenge for even the power of prayer.


* A talk delivered by Royal W. F. Rhodes. Learning in the Company of Friends. The Columbus Athenaeum March 13, 2007.

Royal W.F. Rhodes is the Donald L. Rogan Professor of Religious Studies Emeritus at Kenyon College.


(1) G.K.Chesterton, "What I Saw in America" (1922), in "The Collected Works of
G.K.Chesterton", Vol.21 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), pp.41-45.

(2) Diana L. Eck, "A New Religious America" (San Francisco: Harpers, 2002).

(3) Brooke Allen, "Our Godless Constitution", in "The Nation" (Feb.21, 2005).

(4) Ibid.

(5) Ibid.

(6) Ibid.

(7) Sydney E. Ahlstrom, "A Religious History of the American People" (New Haven:
Yale University Press, 1972).

(8) Michael Goggin, "Augustine, Citizen?", reporting a lecture by Peter Kaufman,
The Washington Theological Union Lecture (September 29, 2002).

(9) See: Charles T. Mathewes, "Civic Faith, Public Hope, Political Charity:
Augustine on the Virtues of Citizenship", Georgetown Political Theory
Colloquium (September 21, 2006). This section of the talk depends in large
measure on Mathewes' interpretation of Augustine.

(10) "The Reader's Companion to American History", quoted by Bill Moyers,
"NOW -- Society and Community -- A History of the Social Gospel"/PBS.

(11) Walter Rauschenbusch, "Christianity and the Social Crisis" (New York: The
Macmillan Co., 1908),p.286.

(12) Ibid, p.208, quoted by Moyers, op. cit.

(13) George F. Thomas, "Political Realism and Christian Faith", Theology Today,
Vol.16: No.2 (July 1959), pp.188-202.

(14) Walter Rauschenbusch, "Our Semi-Christian Social Order", from
"Christianizing the Social Order", Part III: Ch.1 (1912),p.125. Excerpted by
the National Humanities Center, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, 2005.

(15) Arthur Schlesinger Jr., "Forgetting Reinhold Niebuhr", The New York Times
Book Review (Sunday, September 18, 2005), p.13.

(16) H. Richard Niebuhr, "The Kingdom of God in America" (Chicago: Willet,
Clark, 1937),p.193.

(17) Schlesinger, op.cit.,p.13.

(18) Schlesinger, ibid., p.13, quoting from "The Irony of American History",
Chap.8:3 (1952).

(19) Schlesinger, ibid., p.13, quoting from "The Irony of American History"


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