What is the most important thing Augustine has to say to us about human nature and why is this important for political and civic life?

Augustine teaches us to be cynical, first, about ourselves. The most important thing he has to say is, Be careful of your own motives. Make sure you see the log in your eye before the specks in others'.

And watch out for what you think is good and just. Maybe what you think is good and just is not really so good and just. It's just good and just for you. This kind of Augustinian understanding is going to make you a better citizen.

When we can get the American public to appreciate this Augustinian view of human nature, more people are going to be receptive to hearing about God's love and to seeing life for the miracle that it is.

Your book is titled Blessed Are the Cynical. How can cynicism be a good thing?

If you are Augustinian, you know that people rationalize. Whatever they say they're doing for others, they're doing for themselves, ultimately.

Cynicism is good in our context right now because, for an awful lot of us, times are still good. The recession hasn't hit that hard for some of us. Cynicism makes us pause and ask, Is it really good for everybody? When President Bush tells us about the goodness of the American people, is it all about peacekeeping in these international interventions? Or is it more about American interests and economic interests?

That's the kind of thought process cynicism gives you. It helps you to see that maybe the scales aren't as even as we think they are, that maybe times aren't as good for everyone as you think they are.

You talk about the cynicism that motivates us to seek justice. How can cynicism do that?

I want to work on two levels: as an American citizen and as a Christian. From the standpoint of an American citizen, who doesn't have to be a Christian, how does cynicism motivate you to get involved in political action? It begins to make me more sensitive to the needs of others. It also helps me get into a dialogue with a neighbor, because if I'm cynical about myself, I see that I need you, I need your ideas. Maybe together we can do a lot better than we can alone.

Now, as a Christian, cynicism gets me on my knees, helps me to see the need for God. It's really grace then that creates my motivation. As a Christian, I don't know more than my atheist friend or my Jewish colleague about what is good and just for society. They may have superior insights into what's good for the economy. What I have going for me that they don't have is that I've got a superior motivation. I've got God's grace to motivate me, whereas they have to rely on cynicism and general sense of concern for the whole of humanity.

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Much American politics is structured around a good guys/bad buys frame of reference. Why is it better to balance competing interests rather than simply to concentrate on electing the good guys?

My first response is that in that good guys/bad guys frame of reference you don't have any civility. And without civility, you don't have a real chance to work together. If I see how fallible my views are, I know I need your insights. And the more minds there are working together, the better chance there is for a solution.

In the Congress of my youth, you would see some colleagues who would be dead set against each other, but they were friends. That occasionally happens today. Isn't it beautiful? Isn't that a miracle?

In your book I see suspicion about a lot of American institutions. What do you celebrate in America?

First of all, I celebrate the American system, this marvelous constitutional system that we have.

I also celebrate opportunity. America is still a land of opportunity. I come from a family of Norwegian immigrants, and here in America I was the first one in my family on either side of the ocean to get a university degree—a Yale degree. That kind of opportunity is staggering. I hear the stories of my students at ITC, how they come from the 'hood, get a college degree at Morehouse, and go on to do Ph.D. work.

America is the land of opportunity, but I want to be just a little bit cynical because it's not opportunity for everybody in an equal way.

I also celebrate the incredible living standards in America. The way you and I probably live is just staggering in terms of the wealth and the leisure. But it's not that way for everybody. So let's be cynical about it.

What else is good about America? There are a lot of thriving families. There are a lot of schools that are still working.

You know, as a Lutheran, I am a proponent of the theology of the cross and I always say, "There ain't nothing so bad that God can't make good out of it."

You ask us to think paradoxically about human nature, just as the architects of the American experiment did. Is there something in your Lutheran heritage that leads you to this paradoxical emphasis?

To be sure, the whole Lutheran tradition is dialectical and paradoxical. However, I would not want to emphasize that fact in this book, precisely because I'm doing politics. Remember, one aspect of the Lutheran paradox is the two-kingdom ethic. And so I am really working in the city of man, not the city of God, to use Augustine's categories.

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So, yes, I'm paradoxical, but I don't think you have to share my Lutheran commitments to see the American situation as I see it, precisely because the founders themselves have a paradoxical notion in the system they created. You have both the Madisonian and the Lockean strands. You have a strand that concedes with Witherspoon that people are concupiscent and selfish, and at the same time you have the founders talking about virtue and the need for virtuous leaders. So while this paradox converges with my Lutheran commitments, it is fundamentally American.

Is there something about the American temperament that doesn't do dialectical thought well, that needs to think in a straighter, simpler way?

That's true of human nature in general. It's part of our concupiscence that makes us want to level out that paradox.

I think it would be fascinating to write an American history in light of this question of which of these two strands prevails when—the more Lockean, optimistic strand or the more Madisonian, Augustinian strand? I think you can really understand a lot of the dynamics of American history that way.

How can we recover the Augustinian strand?

My book takes its bearings from the constitutional system and, in the course of that, discovers the happy circumstance that our Constitution is very Augustinian. That has implications for all the struggles we've had about the separation of church and state. Would school prayer be such a big deal if we were really getting across in the public schools the Augustinian character of the system, that the founders really thought people were selfish? Under First Amendment interpretations of the Supreme Court, it would be perfectly appropriate to talk about how the American system is founded on the sense that people are basically selfish and sinful, and to tell students that this insight has a lot to do with Christian understanding.

I live in Cobb County, Georgia, where there's a controversy about the school board wanting to open up the discussion of the theory of evolution to creationist ideas. Are we wasting our time fighting on those issues? Let's think strategically. I don't want a school that's devoid of religion. But what are our smartest ways to proceed as Christians in getting religion into the curriculum? Could it be by stressing the Augustinian character of the American system?

Related Elsewhere

Blessed Are the Cynical: How Original Sin Can Make America A Better Place by Mark Ellingsen is this month's selection for the Christianity Today Editor's Bookshelf. Elsewhere on our site, you can:

Buy the book online
Read our extended review by Christianity Today Editor David Neff

Editor's Bookshelf
David Neff
David Neff was editor in chief of Christianity Today, where he worked from 1985 until his retirement in 2013. He is also the former editor in chief of Christian History magazine, and continues to explore the intersection of history and current events in his bimonthly column, "Past Imperfect." His earlier column, "Editor's Bookshelf," ran from 2002 to 2004 and paired Neff's reviews of thought-provoking books and interviews with the authors.
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