Every Augustinian liberal affirms secularity as a shared time afforded all humanity by the common grace of God. This affirmation, following Augustine overcoming an initial attraction to imperial theology of the Constantinian establishment, rejects the sacralization of earthly political communities as vehicles of salvation. This move serves as the crucial element that opens the door for a separation of the political and the ecclesial without separating morality from politics or condemning the religious to private subjectivity. Augustinian liberals find their inspiration in Augustine’s mature response to the anxieties of both pagans and Christians after the fall of what both thought to be the eternal Roman order. Augustine wrote, as Garry Wills puts it, “to dethrone the idea of Rome.” To the pagans, he satirized their prideful claims to have built an empire through humility and justice, reminding them of the violence on which the empire was built and sustained. He accused them of making empire their religion. To the Christians, he tempered their enthusiasm for the empire’s conversion. He warned them not to make empire their religion as well. Christians were to be pilgrims on earth, resident aliens, leaving this world’s political struggles opaque to the kingdom of charity — yet, and this is an important yet, always trying to discern (the often surprising) Christ-like events of humanization in the world. The contingent fortunes or misfortunes of any particular historical political community were no longer tied immediately to the economy of salvation. The moral of this Augustinian story: beware communitarianism and the overbearing reach of the coercive state.
In their dual commitment to limited government and an ultimate loyalty to a community beyond the state, Augustinian liberals recognize earthly politics cannot fulfill the deepest longings of a human person or community. Serious constraints are placed upon political life by the treachery of human action, the ambiguous deliverances of human judgment, the elusiveness of stability, the structural intransigence of injustice, and the incommensurability of proximate ends to be pursued. There is no unity of ethics and politics for Augustine; at least no unity short of the heavenly, eternal city. Augustinian liberals lower the stakes involved in politics. All is broken and incomplete, and politics can not heal the rupture. This imagination vexed medieval Christendom, tempting it to close in on itself in false unanimity, but it can also encourage a principled stance of patient attention to the plurality of creation that views liberal society as a providential gift to be constructively sustained. In this sense, a Christian affirmation of the term “secular” is not to be understood as a synonym for a politics marked by religious or moral neutrality — either in the so-called public or private realm. The drama of the secular lies precisely in the human capacity for good or evil, rather than in some autonomous tertium quid that is delivered from moral or religious significance. The “secular” refers simply to that mixed time when no single religious vision can presume to command comprehensive, confessional, and visible authority. Secularity, then, is interdefined by its relation to eschatology. This. definition does not deny the Christian claim that the state remains under the lordship of Christ, providentially secured in its identity “in Christ.” But it does claim that the secular is the “not yet” dimension of an eschatological point of view.