By David G. Hunter
Last Sunday on CBS’ Face the Nation Trump advisor, Rudy Giuliani, responded to questions from John Dickerson regarding the now-infamous recording of Trump’s boasts about sexually assaulting women. “He is a different man now than he was then,” Giuliani suggested, “having gone through 14 months of a campaign that … convinces you of a lot of things that are important that maybe you don’t realize before.” Appealing to his own experience of the Catholic confessional, Giuliani proposed that Trump was asking forgiveness from the American people for his sins and that he expected absolution.
But when pressed by Dickerson (“… it is one thing to ask for forgiveness. It’s another thing to be elevated to the office of the presidency”), Giuliani raised the theological stakes and proposed that Trump was a modern-day Saint Augustine:
I hate to get terribly theological about it, but have you ever read the confession of Saint Augustine? I mean the reality is that men can change; people can change. Sometimes going through things like this makes you into a much better person.
Giuliani may be right, and the rigors of the campaign trail, along with the public revelation of Trump’s abhorrent conduct, might someday produce a conversion as consequential as that of Augustine. Indeed, Augustine himself would be the last person to limit the reach of divine grace and would never regard Trump or his followers as “irredeemable,” however “deplorable” their words and actions may be—although Trump’s subsequent comments about women continue to raise questions about the extent of his conversion thus far.
But I would like here simply to clarify what might be entailed in a genuinely “Augustinian” conversion, lest appeals to the example of the fourth-century bishop and saint become totally detached from history. The first and most immediate result of Augustine’s decision in the garden in Milan, eloquently described in book 8 of his Confessions, was a withdrawal from public life and a repudiation of secular ambitions: “The effect of your converting me to yourself was that I did not now seek a wife and had no ambition for success in this world” (Conf. 8.12.30). At the time Augustine was a professor of rhetoric at the imperial court, an appointment granted by the emperor himself. Before him lay the prospect of further political advancement, most likely an appointment to a provincial governorship. “Conversion” for Augustine meant, first and foremost, repudiation of political office and its abundant financial rewards. Not just any “change” would have qualified as “conversion” for Saint Augustine.
Conversion for Augustine meant, first and foremost, repudiation of political office and its abundant financial rewards.
But Augustine’s decision to accept Christianity and receive baptism also involved a resolution to embrace the most radical form of Christian life available in his day: celibacy and adherence to an ascetic or monastic life. After his baptism in 386 he returned to North Africa and established a monastic community with like-minded friends. Initially, service in the clergy seems not to have been on his mind, but celibacy definitely was. For a fourth-century Christian to choose to abstain from sex, marriage, and procreation was to make a dramatic statement, even a political one. To marry and procreate was regarded by emperors and philosophers alike as a civic duty; the family was considered the bedrock of the city and the male head of household the ideal citizen.
To reject sex and marriage, for Augustine and his contemporaries, was to take a resolute stand against the idolatry of the traditional family and its role in reinforcing patriarchal society. As the distinguished scholar of Augustine, Peter Brown once noted: “In Augustine’s piercing vision, the Roman city and the walls of the married household within it—those solid, magnificently self-reliant creations of an ancient Mediterranean way of life—were now washed by a dark current of sexual shame” (The Body and Society 427). Augustine’s adoption of celibacy was not merely the expression of a personal preference, but rather the choice for a profoundly different form of human community. Again, not just any “change” is “conversion.”
When Augustine left Italy to return to his African homeland, he envisioned his monastic community as a society that radically inverted traditional social mores, including any claim to private possessions: “The rich, for their part, who seemed important in the world must not look down upon their brothers or sisters who have come into this holy brotherhood or sisterhood from a condition of poverty” (Rule 1.8). It involved radical reversals of established power relations and a transfiguration of human relationships: “Any who have injured others by open insult, or by abusive or even incriminating language, must be mindful to repair the injury as quickly as possible by an apology, and those who have suffered the injury must also forgive, without further wrangling” (Rule 6.42).
But Augustine’s turn away from sex and marriage entailed something more personal as well. In book 8 of Confessions, he described the crisis that led to his conversion as a struggle between “two wills,” that is, a conflict between his desire to love and serve God above all else and a desire to remain attached to sexual relationships that existed totally apart from any kind of love, commitment, or hope of procreation (he had recently acquired the services of a temporary mistress, after dismissing his long-term lover, and contracted a financially advantageous marriage). Viewed in retrospect, Augustine regarded himself as the victim of a sexual compulsion of his own making: “The consequence of a distorted will is passion. By servitude to passion, habit is formed, and habit to which there is no resistance becomes necessity” (Conf. 8.5.10). Essential to Augustine’s conversion, as he narrated it in Confessions, was liberation from his own compulsive sexual habit, a result that he attributed entirely to the gift or grace of God.
In his conversation with Billy Bush Donald Trump admitted to being the victim of a sexual compulsion, although, at the time, it did not appear to be something he regretted:
I moved on her like a bitch, but I couldn’t get there… You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful—I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. I just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.
Overcoming such compulsions is no easy matter, especially if one does not acknowledge them as a problem. Augustine, at least, recognized that his behavior was problematic. In the poignant pages of book 8 of Confessions his frustration with his own weakness of will is palpable, and it led him ultimately to entrust himself to a power beyond his own.
One cannot know—much less judge—the current state of Donald Trump’s psycho-sexual health nor whether the changes that Rudy Giuliani alleges are anything beyond political expediency. But we can know something about Augustine’s conversion, and it involved something more than apologies.
Image via Gage Skidmore