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Santorum's Augustinian Theology

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Rick Santorum's description of President Obama's "phony theology" is by now famous. He immediately defended his choice of words by saying that they applied not to the president's religion but rather to radical environmentalists. Looking at what he said in context, the defense is, basically, sound. That's not surprising. Rick Santorum does not throw around the word "theology" lightly.

More than any other candidate, theology -- particularly the theology of St. Augustine (354-430) -- infuses his message and shapes his worldview. Other commentators have noted this affinity, but they have focused specifically on Augustine and sex, or rather, sexual repression.

Augustine's influence, however, goes beyond the carnal. It's not just about Santorum's odd pronouncements about fornication. It's everywhere. Don't get me wrong. Santorum is no Augustinian scholar, but whether through schooling or churchgoing, his habits of thought reveal fundamentally Augustinian patterns.

Few modern statements sound more like Augustine than this one, taken from an editorial Santorum penned in 2007: "Our Constitution granted unprecedented liberty to the individual. But liberty without virtue devolves into license; and license, into chaos." The diction is John Locke's, but the spirit is pure Augustine.

In the eyes of Augustine and his intellectual heirs, the concept of "liberty" was closely intertwined with free will. It is the classic theological question: If God is omniscient and omnipotent, can human beings truly be called free?

Augustine finessed this problem by changing the terms of debate. Man is free, but there is a difference between man's freedom and God's freedom. No man truly enjoys liberty unless he does what God tells him to do. If he follows his personal inclinations, then he is enslaved to his own fetid desires. The virtuous follow God's will, and their obedience makes them free. Freedom without obedience is sin, and sin is slavery.

Put another way, free will is an offer humanity can't refuse.

What does this mean for a nation of free men and women? If citizens of such a place reject their liberty, rooted in virtue, then it is the duty of government, be it American or Roman, to force freedom upon them.

In the case of Augustine, he advocated aggressive state persecution of heretics. If the heretics refused to convert -- to attend Catholic services -- then the government should, in Augustine's words, "compel them to enter."

Even to Augustine's Christian contemporaries, this was a distasteful idea, but Augustine had a ready defense. He wasn't persecuting heretics. He was saving them -- perhaps even liberating them. Imagine, for comparison, you saw a man at a window inside a burning building and warned him that he needed to escape. If that man refused to believe you and stayed put, then it would be your responsibility to drag him through the window. That is all that Augustine was doing through persecution: liberating sinners from fires whose existence they denied.

To free some people, you must enslave them. Or better still, the only true freedom is to become enserfed to God's will. (Augustine loved paradoxes.)

Freedom, therefore, does not mean "doing whatever you want." It certainly does not imply a right to privacy. If you are not behaving virtuously in your own home, then you are not free.

And with time, your slavery will only grow worse. Birth control and premarital sex are like gateway drugs. As Santorum argued in his legendary man-on-dog interview,

"If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything. Does that undermine the fabric of our society? I would argue yes, it does."

Evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants hold similar views about the role of government, though I suspect they arrive at them via different cultural and theological byways. (Mainline Protestants are less likely to see the world in this fashion, but Santorum does not care much for them or their ideas.) In any case, many evangelicals find in Sen. Santorum a sympathetic voice for their belief that the state should repress behavior deemed offensive.

Later in life Augustine backed away from his endorsement of state coercion in the name of virtue, perhaps because his main ally against heresy, a man named Marcellinus, got entangled in dirty imperial politics and ended up executed. Even a Christian state, Augustine learned (or at least, I hope he learned) is too imperfect an instrument to enact God's will. Augustine's magnum opus, "The City of God," is a product of this mature period of thought. Not so much a bleak depiction of a universe divided between good and evil, as it is usually described, the book is rather an acknowledgement that this world is hopelessly flawed, the City of Man and the City of God mixed indissolubly together.

Through this tranquil acceptance of humanity's imperfection, Augustine escaped the tyrannical beliefs of his youth. Many of his disciples, however, prefer to stay enslaved to those earlier bad ideas. And we cannot force them to be free.