How Jerry Falwell Jr. Misreads 'City of God'

By Bruenig, Elizabeth | The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, WA), January 6, 2019 | Go to article overview

How Jerry Falwell Jr. Misreads 'City of God'


Bruenig, Elizabeth, The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, WA)


Jerry Falwell Jr. is once again spreading his uniquely modern, American version of a business philosophy roughly based on the religion known as Christianity.

In an interview with the Post's Joe Heim, Falwell claimed, among other things, that Christianity offers no guidance on how states ought to operate ("Jesus never told Caesar how to run Rome," Falwell says, implying that Christ's crucifixion under Roman law may have been just from a Christian point of view); that only theocrats believe Christians ought to govern according to Christian principles; that poor people are less spiritually capable than rich people; and that God has ordained "two kingdoms" for humankind, one of which is bound only by the rules of national self-interest, and one of which - heaven - is bound by the law of God.

Falwell's entire view of Christianity and politics more or less tracks back to that last confusion. I suspect it stems from a mistaken reading of Augustine, the fourth-century African saint who wrote "The City of God," a massive treatise on history, philosophy and the Christian religion. In "The City of God," Augustine develops a theory of two cities: the earthly city, and the heavenly city.

Poor readings of Augustine abound, and it isn't uncommon to see readers take this theory of two cities to mean - as Falwell clearly does - that there is an earthly city (usually identified with the state or with public life) that God created to operate by mortal rules of self-interest, while the heavenly city is meant to operate by eternal rules of self-giving. According to this theory, there is little that isn't permissible here in the earthly city, at least when it comes to the worldly affairs of politics and public life. And then there is the other city - the heavenly city - which, in this misreading, is often identified with either heaven itself or religious institutions such as the church, wherein Christians are actually bound to follow the dictates of their religion.

Thus, for Falwell, Christians in the earthly kingdom are free to put self-interest over - well, anything, it seems. Thus, he explains, "You don't choose a president based on how good they are; you choose a president based on what their policies are."

What Augustine's two cities actually symbolize are two different destinations for the soul. The earthly city consists of the number of people who are self-seeking and self-desiring, whose ultimate end is their own benefit. The heavenly city consists of those who seek to follow the will of God. But the two cities are not separate or wholly distinct, either spatially or institutionally: They are everywhere and always intermixed. Citizens can bear dual citizenship: People who earnestly seek God in all things nevertheless live in a world shaped by and devoted to self-interest, and the generally selfish can, at times, confront the transcendent. …

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