In A Theology of Public Life (2007) Charles Mathewes made a landmark contribution to contemporary Christian thinking about politics. Resisting both public theologies that would regard the goods of political life as ends in themselves and ecclesial counterpolitics that would deny these seemingly secular realities any role in God’s work of redemption, Mathewes framed participation in politics as an ascetic practice that could form Christians for the world to come. He offered an eschatological vision of political engagement as a “liturgy of citizenship” in which Christians perform—and are formed by—public life before God. Public life “during the world” may be vexing, but exactly that vexation can deepen the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, and so fit us for the heavenly city.
The Republic of Grace refines and extends this vision by bringing it into contact with the events of September 11, 2001. Mathewes treats 9/11 as an opening to reflection on significant shifts that are happening beneath the surface of current events (26). This move makes the book timely without being dated. Mathewes explores these deeper shifts in two discussions organized by the theological virtues. He considers first how Christians should see the world, stressing in successive chapters the need for hope in an age of terror, faith in the face American claims to hegemony, and love amid deranged desires of millennial [End Page 218] capitalism. A second part of the book asks how Christians should be seen by the world, stressing the need for love in expressions of political responsibility, faith lived out through political commitment, and hope made manifest in public engagement. If the chiastic structure sometimes feels too clever, it nonetheless underscores the deep web of connections between the theological virtues.
The Republic of Grace displays an ability to speak to (and conjure up) Christian citizens that recalls the work of Reinhold Niebuhr. Locating the book in the tradition of Christian realism makes clear two of the ways in which it is most significant. First, Mathewes rejects any version of realism in which Christians are obliged to frame their political speech in the language of public reason. Mathewes offers instead “an explicitly Christian effort” that is written “in the Augustinian-Christian vernacular” (27, 2). Mathewes then uses this distinctively Christian speech to call Christians to participate in the political structures of this world. He thus splits the questions of language and action, offering language some would call “sectarian” to justify actions that might be described as “realist.” Many have proposed moves like this. But few, if any, have made the case so clearly or exemplified it so thoroughly.
Mathewes also takes care to distance his project from versions of Christian realism that use Augustine simply to “exfoliate the popular optimism, in order to leave us with a ‘realistic’—which often means pessimistic, even cynical—vision” (9). Such cynicism loses the eschatological tilt of Augustine’s thought, Mathewes argues. Politics is neither a steady march to the Reign of God nor one damn thing after another. Events of this age have an “iconic character,” pointing beyond themselves to the providence of God (242). With this “sacramental” account of politics (249), Mathewes rebuilds a genuinely hopeful realism that has learned from critiques of neo-Kantianism advanced by thinkers like Gillian Rose and John Milbank.
With moves like these, Mathewes revives a fresh set of possibilities for Christian realism. He also provokes a long line of questions. Mathewes’s sacramental Christian realism depends on confidence about the sanctifying effects of political participation for individuals and skepticism about the sanctity of political causes and entities. He describes an especially neat fit between liberal democratic states and Christian citizens. Rightly eschatological Christians give liberal states the committed but critical citizens they need, even as public life in liberal states serves to deepen the faith, hope, and love of Christian citizens. These sanguine suggestions of complementarity gloss over what Augustine could not forget. Augustine described political participation as an obligation for Christians, a grim duty to be taken up from love for...