On Not Ignoring Augustine

Author’s note:  as I was writing this post, Michelle Obama gave a campaign speech in New Hampshire for Hillary Rodham Clinton.  Instead of her usual stump speech, she spoke primarily about the nationwide conversation we are having as a result of a presidential candidate’s history of sexual harassment and assault.  She said, “This is not something we can ignore.”

Rudolph Giuliani recently compared Donald Trump to Augustine of Hippo, in response to a video tape showing the 2016 Republican candidate for the presidency in 2005 brag about sexually assaulting women. Giuliani’s move, I argue, was neither random nor aberrant.

Augustine’s legacy in Christian traditions is deep, and often dark. Especially for women. Scholars of early Christianity joined the pundits online who pointed out the hubris and hypocrisy of Giuliani’s comparison.  I understand and appreciate this instinct; I too agree: Mr. Trump, you are no Augustine of Hippo.

In our impulse to distance the Republican candidate from a Christian saint, we also cannot overlook the reasons Giuliani could so easily identify them.  Does Augustine, a fifth century North African bishop and theologian, have anything to do with the candidate’s morality after all?  Was this real estate magnate able to cultivate his position of power over decades without being held accountable for sex crimes in part because of Augustine’s influence on our cultural values?

To create a world in which sexual assault and harassment are not normative, we must ask why they are normative now. Which means interrogating Augustine, perhaps the most influential Christian author in post-Biblical history.

Giuliani could reach to Augustine for at least two reasons:  his paradigmatic views on sin and grace, and his troubling views on women’s sexual autonomy.

On Confession and Conversion

Almost since Augustine himself wrote his autobiography, The Confessions has been a paradigm for narratives of conversion, especially conversion involving sin and redemption.  On his Sunday October 9 appearance on “Face the Nation,” Giuliani latched on to the arc of sin (including sexual sin) and repentance narrated in this book.  Giuliani referenced his own Roman Catholic heritage regarding the tradition of repenting for one’s sins, asking forgiveness from God, and being received back into the community.  The candidate, he repeatedly argued, was a sinner and a “flawed” man, like every human being except Jesus Christ himself.

The particular trajectory from depravity to virtue drawn by Augustine has informed many prominent conversion stories since, including Martin Luther’s.  As late as the 20th century, Billy Graham’s autobiography charts this very path, one already trod by Augustine and Luther, even though historical research shows that Graham’s narrative doesn’t fit the facts of his personal history (p. 259).  Augustine is so influential that we even read accounts of the apostle Paul’s acceptance of Jesus Christ as the resurrected son of God — written well before Augustine was ever born — through the lens of Augustine’s conversion story.  

Giuliani’s plea to see his candidate as a “different” man now follows in The Confessions‘ footsteps. As does evangelical leader Jerry Falwell, Jr.,’s characterization of the Republican as a “changed man.”  Their candidate, they argue, has converted from a sinful past into a new man with a clearer understanding of Christian virtue and a deeper commitment to living a virtuous life.  

Moreover, both Giuliani (a Roman Catholic) and Falwell (an evangelical Protestant) allude to Augustine’s formulations of sin and forgiveness.  Augustine was the principal architect of the concept now known as Original Sin, which at its core states that human will became fundamentally flawed after Adam and Eve sinned in the garden of Eden by disobeying God; therefore all subsequent humans (except Jesus and in some traditions, Mary) are born with sin and as sinners.  In other words, we are all born “flawed” humans.  And according to Augustine, only God’s grace can save us.  We must repent sincerely of our sins and hope for God’s forgiveness and grace.*

In the West, this definition of sin informs traditions of repentance and confession in the Roman Catholic tradition, and informs various Protestant doctrines on grace and salvation.  It also undergirds the evangelical imperative to take Jesus as one’s personal savior, since all are born sinners, and only Jesus can forgive sins. Giuliani compared the Republican candidate’s request for forgiveness to the confessional. And Falwell reiterated the claim that forgiveness comes only from God, stating, “It is only Jesus who can forgive.”  (In some circles, a conversion to evangelical Christianity need not mean committing to living a sinless future life; rather, it means an acceptance that forgiveness (now and in the future) is predicated on accepting Jesus Christ as the figure with the sole authority to forgive and save.)

As David G. Hunter aptly noted, the comparison to Augustine falters quickly, when we recognize that for Augustine, conversion to a truly virtuous Christianity meant renouncing sexual activity (not only criminal sexual misconduct) as well as aspirations to secular political office.  I agree with Hunter on this and do not argue that the Republican candidate’s personal history is in any way Augustinian. Rather, I argue that Augustinian views of sin and redemption permeate our culture. Therefore, they have shaped the ways the candidate’s behavior has been understood by himself and others, in the past and even now.

On Women’s Sexual Autonomy

Our current national conversation about sexual harassment and assault has many interlocking pieces, some much more recent than the fifth century. Nonetheless, Augustine’s views on sex and gender form one piece of the puzzle. For Augustine, one place Original Sin manifested was in sexual desire and the sexual act. Augustine’s own sexual desire figures prominently in The Confessions. In his later book City of God, he describes men’s sexual organs as no longer under their control because the human will is flawed as a result of Original Sin.  In Eden, he speculates, sex would have been a controlled act, with sex organs operating fully under the control of the human will and without lust.  

Augustine’s vision of human sexuality has profoundly influenced Christian sexual ethics in the West.  And it is crafted almost entirely from a masculine point of view, even though he names Eve along with Adam.  Although Augustine urges self-control, his paradigm for post-fall human sexuality includes a man’s struggle over uncontrollable urges.  So when we hear predatory sexuality dismissed as typical alpha male behavior or normal locker room banter, some of us can’t help but think of Augustine’s definition of normative male sexuality as no longer under the full control of the man’s will.

At the heart of the controversy over the tapes lies the question of women’s social and sexual autonomy.  When a married woman wrote to Augustine, seeking counsel on her choice to live a life of public renunciation, celibacy, and charity, Augustine relegated her sexual and economic autonomy as secondary to her husband’s honor.  Ecdicia wrote to her bishop Augustine for pastoral counsel.  Her husband had had an affair after they had both agreed to live a life of sexual celibacy, in order to dedicate themselves to God.  Although we no longer have Ecdicia’s letter, I imagine she was expecting Augustine, known for his own asceticism, to support her cause.  He does not.  Ecdicia, apparently, first took a vow of celibacy without consulting her husband.  Her husband later agreed that both of them would abstain from sex, and that they would live as a celibate married couple.  Ecdicia then changed how she dressed, donning widows weeds instead of the clothing of the traditional matron—making visible her dedication to God, and essentially saying to the world that she was no longer married in the traditional sense.  Additionally, when her husband was out of town, she gave much (most?) of her money to traveling monks as charity.  At this point, it seems, her husband had the affair. Augustine replied by essentially siding with the husband, and chastising Ecdicia for causing him to sin with her disobedience to his authority.

So what does this have to do with the Republican candidate for the presidency?  

Women’s sexual autonomy is secondary to men’s honor.  

Women’s bodies bear the burden of men’s success and salvation.  Augustine tells Ecdicia that her husband was the “weak” one, not to shame him into being more virtuous but to shame her.  She, with her “stronger…commitment” should have understood and supported him, not disobeyed him.  

Women should obey men even if it means compromising their own virtue and integrity, something the candidate seems to have taken to heart.  Some will argue that he has taken this view to an illogical extreme; I disagree.  In Augustine’s worldview, a lay woman’s sexuality belonged to her husband, not to her. Augustine’s refusal to chastise Ecdicia’s husband puts the lie to the Pauline command that each spouse’s body belongs to the other.  He repeatedly blames Ecdicia for her husband’s fall. He owns her body (and its form of dress), but she does not own his.

Women’s sexual autonomy and economic autonomy cannot yet be disentangled.  The accounts of Trump’s sexual assaults often occur at the workplace.  For example, the People reporter was on the job when she interviewed the business man turned reality show star at his house.  The ogled women and girls who were in the supposed privacy of their changing rooms were violated on the sets of the Miss USA and Miss Teen USA pageants. The infamous video with Billy Bush was recorded on the way to the television set of the soap opera.  Women’s economic autonomy often depends on not reporting sexual assault and harassment, because it occurs in the workplace, committed by the men who have power over their careers.  Ecdicia exerted both sexual and economic independence from her husband, in ways that she hopes will be socially acceptable to like minded Christians who also value asceticism and giving of charity.  Augustine, however, responds by attributing Ecdicia’s husband’s infidelity in part to her inappropriate exercise of economic autonomy. He shames her for her independence and reminds her that she is economically dependent upon her husband.  

Much more could be said (and has already been written) about Augustine’s legacy for women’s control over our own bodies.  For now, I will leave us with Ecdicia, who looked in vain to Augustine for moral support.


*This of course is a skeletal summary of a complex and contested theology. Entire libraries have been written about this, and I have only a couple of paragraphs in a blog post.  If you’re really interested in this issue, go read books by David G. Hunter (including this online lecture) , Elizabeth A. Clark, Peter Brown, and others.

Image credits:  Mosaic of Roman matron from Ostia Antica photograph by Fr. Lawrence Lew, licensed CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0; Jessica Leeks photograph from Jessica Leeks via the New York Times.

Postscript:  NBC News and NPR News are keeping updated lists of the accusations of sexual assault and harassment against the 2016 Republican nominee for president

One thought on “On Not Ignoring Augustine

  1. Thank you for your theological response to this historic political race. I find it interesting that supporters of sexual assault fail to recognize the physical, mental, economic and spiritual harm imposed on their mothers, wives, sisters and daughters.

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