“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.”

Rudy Giuliani, Face the Nation, 9 October 2016

I rarely write anything about politics and generally prefer to stay away from current events, finding more interest in realm of historical theology. Over the weekend, however, one of my colleagues drew my attention, via a Facebook post, to Rudy Giuliani’s comparison of Donald Trump to Saint Augustine in the Confessions. Unsurprisingly, those who regularly read and teach the Confessions were appalled at the comparison. Since I just finished teaching that text in my God and the Human Experience course, I’d like to take the time to explain to those who might not be as familiar with the text why Giuliani may have chosen it as a point of comparison, but also why this point of comparison with Donald Trump fails. 

The context of Giuliani’s comment about Augustine is in his offering comments on the recent video released in which Trump brags about being able to sexually assault women without consequence because of his star status. Many people have already discussed this as an issue of sexual assault and an example of misogyny, but that is not my focus here. There is an obvious point of comparison in Trump’s lewd comments about women and Augustine and that can be found in their histories of sex and lustful behavior. Augustine recounted his own behavior in the Confessions as an example of his sins. For example, early in the text he explained that as he entered his teenage years, lust overtook him. He wrote, “From the mud of my fleshy desires and my erupting puberty belched out murky clouds that obscured and darkened by heart until I could not distinguish the calm light of love from the fog of lust. The two swirled about together and dragged me, young and weak as I was, over the cliffs of my desires, and engulfed me in a whirlpool of sins” (II.2.2). As a student, he indulged his lustful desires, eventually taking a mistress who became the mother to his son. They were together for about fourteen years before she left or was driven away from him so that a marriage more appropriate to his rising fame and status in Roman society could be arranged. Augustine explained:

Meanwhile my sins were multiplying, for the woman with whom I had been cohabiting was ripped from my side, being regarded as an obstacle to my marriage.  So deeply was she engrafted into my heart that I was left torn and wounded and trailing blood. She had returned to Africa, vowing to you that she would never give herself to another man, and the son I had fathered by her was left with me. But I was too unhappy to follow a woman’s example: I faced two years of waiting before I could marry the girl to whom I was betrothed, and I chafed at the delay, for I was no lover of marriage but the slave of lust. So I got myself another woman, in no sense a wife, that my soul’s malady might be sustained in its pristine vigor or even aggravated, as it was conducted under the escort of inveterate custom into the realm of matrimony (VI.15.25).

Augustine’s lust and his continued efforts to satisfy that lust formed major obstacles to his conversion. He felt that as a Christian he needed to live a life of continence, but he could not find the power within himself to do so.

However, after Augustine’s conversion, he began to live the life of continence that he had been unable to do before and, in writing the Confessions, described his entire past in relation to sin. The citations above provide examples of that. Augustine is writing about his past from his post-conversion perspective and describing the change or transformation that has occurred in him. Therefore, he describes his past life, the life in which he was ruled by lust, as sinful. In doing so, he shows his contrition for what he did in the past and a resolution to no longer live in that manner. Augustine expresses sorrow for his past sins before God.

Now, this is where I have an issue with comparing this text to Donald Trump. Yes, Trump has apologized. He said, “I’ve never said I’m a perfect person, nor pretended to be someone that I’m not. I’ve said and done things I regret, and the words released today on this more than a decade-old video are one of them. Anyone who knows me knows these words don’t reflect who I am. I said it, I was wrong and I apologize.” The problem is, this expression of regret is subsumed under a defense of what he described as “locker-room” talk, implying that there is nothing wrong with his recounting of his ability to use women, without their consent, for his own sexual gratification. Not once in the Confessions did Augustine defend his past in terms of “locker-room” talk or the idea that “boys will be boys.” Rather, He described his childhood as full of sins, including lying to his teachers and the vanity that led him to succeed in his studies. He explained, “These same sins grow worse as we grow older: first it is offenses against pedagogues and teachers, or cheating over nuts and balls and sparrows; then later it is crimes against prefects and kings, and fraud in gold and estates and slaves” (I.19.30). For Augustine, there could be no defense for what he did—rather, the whole story of his life before his conversion was represented in his past sins.

Giuliani claims that the story of Augustine is a story that proves that men can change. Augustine changed and rejected his past. But even more than a disavowal of what he had done before and an assertion that it didn’t reflect who he was at the time he wrote the Confessions, Augustine’s life demonstrated evidence of that change. In the instant following his conversion in the garden, Augustine explained, “Now indeed I stood there, no longer seeking a wife or entertaining any worldly hope, for you had converted me to yourself” (VIII.12.30). This climax to his spiritual journey was not the end, however, but he followed it with a resignation of his post and all worldly ambition and his baptism, leading, of course, eventually to his position as a bishop and his current acclaim as a Doctor of the Church. We cannot observe what was in Augustine’s heart beyond what he expressed in the Confessions, but the trajectory of his life after his conversion provide evidence in support of a real change of heart and character. Donald Trump has not provided any evidence of such a change. Rather, the long history of Trump’s misogynist assertions demonstrates the opposite. Even just the sexist comments during the campaign against Megyn Kelly (blaming her tough questions during the debate on menstruation), Carly Fiorina (claiming her looks made her unfit for the presidency), Hilary Clinton (repeatedly blaming her for Bill Clinton’s philandering), and, of course, several models and actresses—even a former Miss Universe, Alicia Machado—who he attacked based on their looks. There is nothing in Trump’s life or campaign that provides any evidence that he has changed.

Ultimately, Giuliani’s comparison between Augustine and Trump fails. People may be able to change, but there is no reason whatsoever to believe that Trump, unlike Augustine, has done so.1

  1. Of course, Giuliani is actually completely wrong that Augustine’s story tells us that “men can change, people can change.” Augustine would tell you that men cannot change and people cannot change. It is only through God’s grace that anyone can turn away from sin: “On your exceedingly great mercy rests all my hope. Give what you command, and then command whatever you will” (X.29.40). 

3 thoughts

  1. Thank you! I am still recovering from my recent reread of The Confessions. It was a very powerful experience. Augustine was all about acknowledging the gravity of sin in the world.

  2. I find flaw in your assessment. If Donald has just apologized and is claiming just these last fourteen months as his vehicle of change after traveling the country and meeting her people how can you claim you haven’t seen change? If change has just recently taken place only time would tell from here. Your flawed because you’re looking at Augustine after the fact and Trump at the point of claimed change. Second, who is to say God hasn’t placed Trump here to help America, the process changing Trump in the meantime? That wouldn’t be a person changing, that would be God activating the change. From my limited understanding of how God works, my impression is Jesus died for all of us because we are all sinners or “unclean”. It’s whether we can overcome our faults that is important but not necessary for salvation, thanks to Jesus. I tend to hold back my judgement on other people’s shortcomings because of this. It’s been my observation that God seems to use sinners to further his cause, usually furthering their cause too.

    1. I think that the evidence for Trump’s lack of change speaks for itself–as well as his evidence for lack of a true apology.

      I will concede your point that only time will be able to tell whether or not Trump has changed, especially since Augustine did not renounce his career right away, which he views as a sinful choice (IX.2.4), but I can’t overlook the fact that following Trump’s apology, he still feels the need to defend what he said and excuse it. That indicates to me–and many others who regularly read and teach the Confessions, that Trump’s change hasn’t yet occurred, if it even will.

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