Christianity and Politics by C. C. Pecknold

(New York: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2010), 196

Key Points

  1. Borrowed ideas: The Western political imagination borrows ideas from Christianity.
  2. Borrowed mysticism: The pinnacle of this is the nation-state borrowing mysticism and creating nationalism.
  3. Conscience: The conscience is detached from the Church and re-attached to the nation, causing it to be viewed as a limit on freedom rather than the basis for it.
  4. Mystical Body: The idea of the "mystical body of Christ" is transferred to liberal democracy, which can both mystify the idea of democracy as well as distort the Christian vision.
  5. True Politics & Freedom: The politics that truly liberates humanity is one that is ordered to the city of God. Freedom consists in encountering the truth of Christ.

I first came across Pecknold in 2017 when I read City of God with him on Twitter via #CivDei. I read this book ahead of his 2023-03-29 lecture at the Josephinum entitled: To Make Disciples of All Nations.

This book is in some ways a foundation for that lecture, and it gives a history of Christianity and Politics starting in Greece and Rome. For these ancient cultures, theology and politics were largely inseparable. The early Christian political imagination was cemented by Augustine and his view of the Two Cities. This view was dominant for a millennium, though changes within its self-understanding paved the way for the massive shifts of the sixteenth century.

The overarching narrative of this transition was the emergency of disunity in Christendom from the Reformation, and the subsequent exploitation of this fact by political elites to shift allegiance away from the Church and toward the emerging nation-state.

This story is told through some key players: Luther's good intentions to purify the Church result in temporal power being handed to the state with the Church now dependent upon the state. Machiavelli raises the state to the highest end and redefines virtue and politics to support this new vision. Calvin corrects some of the extremes of Luther by insisting upon the importance of community and institutions. Hobbes takes a dismal view of man and sees a need for a strong sovereign to conquer this; his social contract results in economic interests dictating the ends of the state. Locke attempts to re-Christianize this, but only deepens the economic dimension of this social contract, as happiness is now associated with wealth.

Pecknold therefore ends his history in an unfortunate place, and agrees with Patrick Deneen that liberalism has failed. His solution is only hinted at in this book, and when I asked him in person after his lecture he said that if anything he would be more assertive that the solution looks more like Theodosius in making Christianity official, as he did in 380 in Rome. I struggle to see how this could gain traction in America short of disintegration and consolidation of a Christian state from the ruins, but I am interested to hopefully read a more thorough articulation of this vision in the future.




  • We invoke God's blessings upon our country because of the modern invention of the nation-state which arose from the Western political imagination steeped in Christianity (xiii)
  • This work provides an introduction to the history of Christianity and Politics through the lens of Sheldon Wolin's Politics and Vision (which argues for a decoupling of liberalism and democracy to create a "fugitive democracy"), which in turn relies upon Henri de Lubac's concept of the mystical body of Christ (corpus mysticum), understood through history as referring to the Catholic Church.
    • de Lubac showed how the corpus mysticum migrated in meaning from the Eucharist to the Church to society, and Wolin showed how this happens with the nation-state
  • Five arguments of this book (xix):
    1. Borrowed ideas: The Western political imagination borrows ideas from Christianity.
    2. Borrowed mysticism: The pinnacle of this is the nation-state borrowing mysticism and creating nationalism.
    3. Conscience: The conscience is detached from the Church and re-attached to the nation, causing it to be viewed as a limit on freedom rather than the basis for it.
    4. Mystical Body: The idea of the "mystical body of Christ" is transferred to liberal democracy, which can both mystify the idea of democracy as well as distort the Christian vision.
    5. True Politics & Freedom: The politics that truly liberates humanity is one that is ordered to the city of God. Freedom consists in encountering the truth of Christ.

Chapter 1: The Western Political Imagination

Summary: Our Western political imagination has its roots in the united theology and politics of Athens and Rome. Here theology and politics were largely one.

  • Aristotle: "man is born for citizenship"
  • Athens shaped Rome, and Rome shaped the political imagination of Europe.
  • For both Athens and Rome, politics was inseparable from theology and virtue (theo-political.

Theo-Political Visions in Athens

  • For Plato and Aristotle, politics was the highest good and whole purpose of community. Politics embodied the common good and the virtues were for the flourishing of the community.
    • Athenian Politics: "participation in the common good" (6)
  • In his creation myth that Plato records, Protagoras argues that all people are capable of political virtue.
  • Here are the foundations of the Western political imagination: civic virtue, and a theology and politics that are linked together

Rome and the End of Political Vision

  • Livy gives a two-part history of Rome:
    • First, Romulus as the first king, where Kings can become God
    • Second, transition to the republic more aligned with Athenian history, with its roots in Lucretia's rape and suicide
  • As the empire outgrew itself, political philosophy failed to deal with the problems at hand and became rhetoric for totalitarian power
    • As the empire grew concentrated power, the loss of membership, and the loss of a systematic political vision contributed to a downfall
    • Rather, Augustine says this is because Roman theology was corrupt at the core

Chapter 2: God's New City

Summary: The new Christian form of life ordered toward the glory of God with hope in the fulfillment of time eventually transformed the Western political imagination.

  • Christianity introduced the glory of God as a new vision for the end of politics rather than the glory of Rome (17), and became a higher, comprehensive ordering of life (19).
  • Progress & History: The ancient view of time is cyclical, but Christianity makes time finite with and end we are moving toward charged with hope and purpose (20). The Christian life is a pilgrimage toward the heavenly city (21).
  • Early Christian persecution was largely driven by the threat perceived by this new vision of history, as well as a politics ordered to a higher community (26).
  • This new Christian form of life eventually transformed the Western political imagination (28).

Chapter 3: Saint Augustine's Two Cities

Summary: Following the political takeover of the Church, Augustine argued in The City of God against Roman virtue and theology, which has become the City of Man, and for the Christian God, for all of history leads us to Christ.

  • Constantine's Edict of Milan in 313 halted persecution of Christians (followed by Theodosius making Christianity the official religion in 380): Christianity was useful for maintaining unity, and Constantine had a political interest in maintaining the unity of the church, hence Nicaea I.
    • The East-West Schism of 1054 following Constantine's division shows how political domestication harms the church (32).

Augustine's Life

  • Augustine articulated a rebuttal to this political takeover of the Church (33).
  • Key to his conversion was how some children singing inspired him to read Romans (34, cf. Confessions book 8 bib)
  • Summary of The City of God (37): ^be1114
    • This work revolutionized the relationship between Christianity and Politics and shaped the social and political imagination for the next millennium.
    • Parts 1-2 (Books 1-10): the pagan God's never brought Rome health or happiness and were logically incapable of doing so
    • Parts 3-5 (Books 11-22): only the Christian God can save Rome

The Two Cities

A longer explication of The City of God

  • 2017-01-03-The City of God: the Visigoth's respect for the Christian God was a sign of the truth of Christianity, and the shelter the churches provided was evidence that the church was God's sanctuary at the heart of the earthly city (38).
    • Augustine offers a more comprehensive vision: the City of Man and the City of God.
  • Augustine makes two critiques of Rome in showing how Rome became the City of Man:
    • Rome misunderstands virtue, as shown by Lucretia: it is a confused culture that increases injustice to defend honor; he is the first Western thinker to argue against suicide (40). Rome's virtues lead to self-destruction from within.
      • Could not this same critique be leveled against our society with respect to materialism, individualism, and relativism?
    • Rome's theology is flawed: all men desire to be happy which requires union with the Source of being. Jesus is the light that "enlightens every man" (Jn-01), and through him we have union with God. He points to Plato's conception of the Logos.

Rome believed in self-sufficient virtues that lead to self-destruction; by elevating pride and honor for the sake of glory, lust for power and strength, Rome was made weak (43).

  • The second half (Books 11-22) gives the scriptural narrative showing the origin and destiny of the two cities.
  • The Christian concept of time was important to Augustine: all of human history leads us toward Christ (45).
  • Love is central: the City of Man is self-love and contempt of God; the City of God is love of God carried as far as contempt of self (46).
  • Augustine's City of God by Gerard O'Daly (50)

Chapter 4: Pope and King

Summary: A change in the understanding of the Eucharist as coming from the Church allowed for a change in mindset that elevated the power of Kings relative to the Pope, as illustrated by the Investiture Controversy.

The Development of Papal Power and Medieval Kingship

  • Gregory the Great was pivotal in the history of the papacy, and he viewed Papal power as in the service of human beings: servus vervorum Dei
  • But as political power accrued in the papacy subsequent Popes were not as humble and holy as him

Power Struggle and the Investiture Controversy

  • The Investiture Controversy between King Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII over Papal investiture of political authority and a king's ability to appoint bishops was a turning point in secular kings asserting their power

The King's Two Bodies

  • The doctrine of the King's two bodies borrowed the idea of the mystical body of Christ from the Church and asserted that the office of the king outlives him: "the king is dead, long live the king"

Christ's Mystical Body

  • Return to de Lubac's view of corpus mysticum to understand this shift
  • The understanding of the Eucharist is central: around this time "the Eucharist making the Church" gave way to "the Church making the Eucharist", which allows separating the mystical from the real, which also meant a transfer of power

Chapter 5: Towards Hobbesian Bodies

Summary: The sixteenth century is pivotal for Christianity and Politics and it illustrates the shift from participation in Christ's Body to the modern individualistic social contract. Nation-states were used by political elites to deepen divisions and consolidate loyalty to secular power.

  • The sixteenth century illustrates the shift from the medieval theology of participation in Christ's Body to the modern individualistic account of entering into the social contract of the Hobbesian body politic (83)
  • In early modernity the idea of reality given by God began to shift to reality constructed by human beings (cf. William of Occam and Nominalism)
  • These shifts away from participation in Christ's body and towards the autonomy of the individual gave birth the concept of the nation-state
  • The [incorrect] common story is that the Protestant Reformation caused the wars of religion and necessitated the nation-state to provide a non-religious unity
    • However, William Cavanaugh shows that nation-states were tools of elite political actors who had a vested interest in encouraging religious division to gain power (70, 114)

Ferdinand and Isabella's Spain

  • Spain in 1492 is illustrative of how politics gets re-theologized through nationalism (expelled Moors from Granada, religious unity through the exclusion of Jews, linguistic hegemony, global projection)
  • "Emerging religious tensions of the sixteenth century were manipulated or aggravated y elites eager to use emerging passions of faith as a basis for building their authority" (76, cf. Faith in Nation by Anthony Marx bib)

The early nation-states found that the divisions became highly effective tools for a new selective and secular form of allegiance called nationalism, embracing religious sectarianism as a powerful instrument for securing its own cohesion. By exploiting the internal politics of the church, the states both help to ensure Christian division and transfer the powerful Christian idea of a people united in the mystical body of Christ to a new conception of mystical unity in the idea of the nation (77).

Towards Hobbesian Bodies

  • Hobbes: human beings are evil and only a sovereign king can restrain their evil tendencies; this is similar to the Babylonian creation account that ancient Israel opposed (cf. Leviathan bib)
  • Shifts in the understanding of God changed how we imagine the human person and human community (82, cf. Secular Age by Charles Taylor and Theological Origins of Modernity by Michael Allen Gillespie bib)

Chapter 6: Luther and Machiavelli

Summary: Luther depoliticized religion and transferred to the state most of the Church's power, while Machiavelli detheologized politics and elevated the state to the highest end.

Martin Luther

  • Luther sought a genuine good in the revitalization of the spiritual life of the church, but his means of doing so was genuinely destructive.
  • He was a purist and utopian, and as a result his reforms effectively handed all power to the state and made the church dependent on the state.
  • As an Augustinian, he often started with Augustinian themes but in isolation and taken to a radical extreme.
    • Luther's view of grace is problematic because it is always unmediated, interior, and invisible.

Niccolò Machiavelli

  • Machiavelli gave voice to the rise of the modern nation-state and unhinged politics from its relationship to the church's theology and ethical absolutes.
  • He wrote his major works in exile after being imprisoned and tortured.
  • He redefined virtue in terms of the state
    • The needs of the state set the ethical standard, and natural law is entirely done away with (since it limits politics). The state is an end in itself.
  • He redefines violence and coercion as virtues in service of the state
    • Virtue becomes virtù or the force needed to secure the state, making the military the model of civic virtue.
    • War becomes the natural condition of the strong state while the citizenry is to be kept poor.
  • He Redefines politics as the management of interest-conflict
    • Interests that could compete with those of the state are carefully managed.
    • The strength of the state is secured by institutions that manage continuity of power.
  • He creates a new mythology of the nation built on the idea of the corpus mysticum
    • Passionate nationalism is the new mythology needed to provide an object for unity outside the church.

Chapter 7: Between Calvin and Hobbes

Summary: Calvin corrects the anti-institutional tendencies of Luther. A Hobbesian social contract equates the economy with the common good and happiness, resulting in the most powerful economic interests dictating the ends of the state.

John Calvin

  • Calvin corrects the anti-institutional tendencies of Luther, and knows (like the Catholic church) that religion requires institutions
  • A conscience needs a community; we are formed and nurtured by social and political institutions, offices, doctrines, laws, ritual action
  • Christian life and civic life are both morally strenuous endeavors directed toward the greater glory of God (a good Christian is a good citizen); "sanctification by works" → social action

Thomas Hobbes

  • Hobbes lived in a world of fear, which required a strong sovereign political body

Wars of Religion

  • Recall, from William Cavanaugh that the wars of religion are the "birthpangs of the state" and from Anthony Marx that elites have altered history to whitewash the bloody emergence of the nation-state (114-118)

Again with Hobbesian Bodies

  • The Hobbesian social contract results in the most powerful economic interests dictating the ends of the state
  • John Locke attempted to make Hobbes' political thought more Christian, but only deepened the economic dimension of it: happiness is associated with wealth

Chapter 8: Restless Democracy's True Desire

Summary: Wolin has a view of "Fugitive Democracy" which has been uprooted from the participatory and local by managerial technocrats. This is reminiscent of Augustine's restlessness, and similarly has its correct end in Jesus.


  • Rousseau: depravity comes through society rather than original sin, and "man is imprisoned by our institutions"

The Rise and Fall of the Conscience in the New Order

  • Sheldon Wolin: "liberalism transformed the older notion of the common good from an object posited by reason to one rooted in desire" (128, cf Wanting perhaps?)
  • When the individual conscience is detached from community, it becomes individualized and reverts to desires and instincts
    • Medieval common good → Luther's individual conscience → Calvin's collective conscience → Locke's social conscience
  • Wolin: "Having reduced man to mere externality and stripped him of conscience, it was easy for the liberal economists to treat him as a material object" (129)

Fugitive Democracy and the Corpus Mysticum

  • Sheldon Wolin views our current democracy as "Fugitive Democracy". Instead of being direct, participatory, and local, it has become controlled by "managerial, scientific, and technocratic values" (133)
  • Wolin wants to free free democracy from both the state and the market: he is more right in his diagnosis than his prescription, as he is lacking a theology

Restless Democracy's True Desire

  • Joining Augustine and Wolin: democracy is restless humanity. The telos of Christian politics if the person of Jesus.

Chapter 9: The Freedom of the Church

Summary: We have been detached from nature and from each other in ways that make the natural law less obvious. Truth must be the center of Christian politics (as the Magi show us). And only in Christ can the human family be made truly whole.

Only in Christ can the human family be made truly whole (143).

  • Only in Christ can the human family be made truly whole, but we have accepted a political settlement that weakens this unity. This political arrangement is not required and Christians should consider how it can be changed.

Part I: Models of Christianity and Politics

  • Seven models of relating Christianity and politics
    1. Persecuted minority
    2. Imperial absorption
    3. Two cities
    4. Papal rule
    5. Luteran wedge
    6. Calvinist commonality
    7. Hobbesian bodies
  • No model (less than "on earth as it is in heaven") is perfect. These models are historical descriptions.
  • The fundamental "category of relation" for a Christian is the Eucharist
  • The Enlightenment detached us from the Church and hinders our ability to see how we relate to the whole when religion is entirely private (151)
  • If we are not open to the transcendent, we open ourselves to totalitarianism (152)

Part II: The Priority of Truth and the Formation of Conscience

  • Since we today are less prone to see nature as given to us, the Natural Law is less obvious. We forget that truth is not something we make, but something prior to us.
  • Benedict XVI argues for the priority of truth in Caritas in Veritate: without truth, we forget the natural law written on the human heart.
    • Conscience is a memory of the good implanted within us
    • The Pope is an advocate of this Christian memory, and the Church bears witness to communion.
    • Politics that is closed to human unity in the Eucharist (and based only on social contract) cannot build fraternity and guarantee human freedom.

Part III: Benedict and Bartholomew

  • The meeting of Pope Benedict XVI and Patriarch Bartholomew in 2008 marked a hopeful ecumenical development against the sin and division in Christianity that has contributed to a lacking politics.


  • The Magi are a model of truth-seeking for us. Genuinely Christian politics is changed in the encounter with truth.

Topic: Christianity, Politics



file:(2023-03-31-Christianity and Politics)

New Words

  • Recrudescent: Breaking out again after temporary abatement or suppression (108)

Created: 2023-03-05-Sun
Updated: 2023-03-31-Fri