Rome Is Not Our Home: Live Counterculturally During Election Season
by Pete Nicholas

In AD 410, barbarian Visigoths sacked the great city of Rome. By that point, Rome had been substantially Christianized, so many people, pagan and Christian alike, saw its fall as a shaking of Christianity’s foundations. If the “heavenly city” of Rome had been defeated, was God defeated? Were the barbarian gods stronger?

Similarly, American political history is intertwined with its Christian history. As America struggles to navigate its place in a world with rising and competing geopolitical powers—one where the church feels the attacks of secularism—many sense that “the barbarians are at the gates” of America and the church.

In response to the sack of Rome, Augustine wrote City of God. He surprised his readers when he argued, in contradiction to flawed view of Christianity and to pagan thinking, that Rome wasn’t the heavenly city and that no earthly city or political ideology ever completely aligns with heaven. Rome isn’t our true home. Instead, Augustine wrote, "Two loves have made the two cities. Love of self, even to the point of contempt for God, made the earthly city, and love of God, even to the point of contempt for self, made the heavenly city. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord."1

Augustine went on to observe that these two cities are “entangled together in this world, and intermixed until the last judgment affects their separation.”2 His insights are perceptive and urgent for us in America today, particularly if we’re to navigate politics and the coming election well as Christ’s followers. Here are six implications of Augustine’s political perspective that American Christians should reflect on.

1. If Rome is not our home, politics is of relative, not ultimate, importance.

There’s a difference between something being important and it being ultimately important. Just as the sack of Rome didn’t mean the end of God’s purposes nor the church’s fall, so a particular political party’s success isn’t ultimately important but only relatively important. Knowing this truth changes how anxious, triumphalist, or despondent we are about the outcome of each election cycle, campaign, or candidate.

Augustine’s insights are perceptive and urgent for us in America today, particularly if we’re to navigate politics and the coming election well as Christ’s followers.

When we make ultimate something of lesser importance, we’ll sin to protect that idol. We have to win the debate, we get disproportionately upset at those who disagree with us, and we’re tempted to gossip and lie about those who don’t share our allegiances.

Notice how much of “Christian” social media is characterized by such behavior. Recognizing that only God and his kingdom are ultimately important will foster more godly, Spirit-filled, healthy interactions.

Consider, too, what we talk about most. Politics is a vital area where Christian formation is expressed and God’s purposes are worked out. But whatever the political cycle, politics isn’t the most important area of our formation. Even when politics dominates the news cycle, it shouldn’t dominate church discourse.

2. Because we’re in exile in Rome, politics is relatively important.

God has delegated real power to those in authority (Rom. 13:1), so we should be engaged, thoughtful, and prayerful. We should vote. It’s important to host political discourse in church because this area of life affects our formation and progress toward the heavenly Jerusalem.

Recognizing the power that those in authority have under God, we should also be praying for them, and praying with and pastoring our congregations regarding the moral issues of the day raised by their policies. Since neither political party fully represents a biblical moral vision but does exhibit common grace, such prayers and pastoral responses need to be both prophetic and even-handed.

3. The church’s allegiance isn’t to Rome but to the heavenly Jerusalem.

When our church discusses politics, I make it my ambition for my congregation not to know how I’d vote (that’s easier since now I’m an Englishman in New York). I do this not because politics is unimportant but because it makes me more effective at pastoring people toward the heavenly city. Paul’s dictum “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2) should give us pause and lead us to think carefully before we express in church our views about Rome.

4. The earthly city and the heavenly city are present in both political parties.

Since these two cities are, as Augustine wrote, “entangled together in this world, and intermixed until the last judgment affects their separation,”3 all political parties will have some planks in their platforms and some methodological approaches aligned with the heavenly city and others misaligned with it. Pastoring during an election season will rightly involve pointing out those areas of alignment and misalignment.

But as we do so, we must seek to lead the people in our congregations toward voting as an expression of their allegiance to the heavenly city (love for God and neighbor) and their turning from the earthly city (love for self and the world). We mustn’t pastor them to live as though Rome were their home.

5. Living for the heavenly city means seeing merits in a view you don’t share.

During Brexit in the U.K., it was common for folks on both sides in the church to say, “I don’t know how they can vote for that position.” The implication is that a real Christian would only vote the way the person making the statement was voting. Such statements do little to foster a constructive and healthy community.

Charity is an underemphasized Christian virtue today, and to be charitable requires eschewing suspicion, cynicism, and laziness. It means good conversation and prayerful reflection to inhabit another’s point of view.

6. Living for the heavenly city means seeking love, not power.

If it’s true the heavenly city is a place of love for God and neighbor, then it’s tragically ironic when those who profess they’re living for that city lack love. Christ’s followers aren’t consequentialists; the ends don’t justify the means. Moreover, our fruit reveals our hearts (Matt. 7:16). So whatever our political allegiance in this sometimes loveless world, let’s be characterized by love.

Live Counterculturally

Living out these six takeaways from Augustine isn’t straightforward. It’ll look odd to those around us, and it’ll be countercultural. But Augustine reminds us, “Citizens of that eternal city, during their pilgrimage here, might diligently and soberly contemplate these examples, and see what a love they owe to the supernal country on account of life eternal, if the terrestrial country was so much beloved by its citizens on account of human glory.”4

If those living for the earthly city and a perishing glory are highly motivated, how much more should those living for the heavenly city be motivated to live distinctively?

A previous version of this article was published on on February 22, 2024. The current version was updated on April 19, 2024, for The Gospel Coalition.


[1] St. Augustine's City of God and Christian Doctrine (Tr. by Philip Schaff) Book XIV. 28.

[2] Ibid. Book I. 35.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid. Book V.16.