content top

Rome, America and Honesty

Posted on: March 18, 2018

Category: Theology

Rome, America and Honesty

The parallels between modern America and ancient Rome are curious and sometimes even astounding. There is the Republican definition of government in both ancient Rome and modern America. There are the limited terms for the President and the ancient Consuls. There is the Senate that supposedly represents the people but usually represents the interests of wealth. There is the ebb and flow of both astounding politicians and truly ridiculous ones rising to and falling from office. There are the family oligarchies, the 1%, that hold most of the wealth and most of the power. There are the everyday exploitations by the powerful of the impoverished who do not come from the right social class, do not have the right skin colour, are not the right gender, or are outside the right circle of connections. In many ways, ancient Rome and modern America are the same entity who may share the same fate.

The apparent similarities may also indicate a broader worry that some academics have pointed out. Ancient Rome moved from a Republic to a dictatorship. Despite this factual change, as if to engage in an ancient form of fake news, Rome kept calling itself a Republic. Even under the most brutal and chaotic dictatorships, it was a "Republic" in its own rhetorical world but nowhere else. Under dictatorship, there were no more limits to the Emperor's hold on office. The army more or less became the body that elected the leader (and also disposed of the leader). The Senate became a chamber of puppets who rubber-stamped the imperial designs. The gods of Rome became the deities who blessed the Emperor and upheld his image as one of "family values," no matter how immoral he was. Indeed, the image of the Emperor was very often portrayed as the image of a god. Rome also had its version of Fox News, but for Rome, these were the great epic writers employed by the imperial court to praise the Emperor and his clothes (so to speak). A curious example of Fox News as an ancient court apologist is here.

When academics of religion draw out these comparisons and indicate that the historical Jesus and his vision of the "Empire of God" stand in contrast to the Roman Empire and, by extension, the American one, some people cast at scholars the intended derogatory titles of "socialist, communist, and atheist." However, buried in this criticism is the reason for academic study, which is not to draw out definitive conclusions or support specific ideologies. The objective is to face the data of history or another subject in honest ways and then to debate what the data means or can mean. Sometimes the data causes us to change our operating theories, whether these are theories about life and how to live it or the Bible and how to read it or nature and how to understand it. To change our operating theories into something resembling the truth is a good thing both for individuals and for the human family.

This brings me to the point. The academic study of religion concerns trying to find out what religion is really about. The example of Rome and America and the parallels one can draw may or may not prove useful. That can be debated. The point though is to notice how religion can be of two natures. One is to use religion to defend ourselves and our gods, whatever form they may take. This involves using power and believing the powerful. The second nature of religion is to force us to face honesty. This involves facing the truth about religion, as best we can determine it, despite how difficult it might be to accept. The first use of religion is not about truth but power. The second is opposite. The second use of religion, it is important to note, surfaces and only can surface where academic study is valued.

The academic study of religion matters a lot to humanity and its future. Even if one professes to be a "socialist, communist, or atheist" who has given up on the church or another religious institution, the academic study of religion still matters. Academic study concerns honesty about religion. When religions fail to live up to their own claims about justice and equality or when they start to imitate ancient forms of corruption, it is certainly right and academically responsible to point out this hypocrisy. But that's only the start. Because religion also lives in our souls as historic identity and personal heritage, to be honest about religion is also to confront one's own character. To admit to things about ourselves or our culture that we do not like is to commit ourselves to changing what we sincerely can change and hope to change in our generation. The truly religious are not those people who believe a certain doctrine or admire a certain god. The truly religious are those who place the value of their character in hope for the human future. Many famous "socialist, communists, and atheists" are, in this way, the most sincerely religious.

By David Galston

wrapper background