Empires as Ages of Religious Ignorance
by William Marina
“God’s blessing is on him [George W. Bush]. It’s the blessing of heaven on the emperor.” —Pat Robertson, evangelist
“The head of the statue was made of pure gold, its chest and arms of silver, its belly and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of baked clay. While you were watching, a rock was cut out, but not by human hands. It struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and smashed them.”
—Book of Daniel, II, 32-35
Especially now with the U.S. election results, many pundits appear rather taken aback by the increasing evidence of George W. Bush’s “faith-based” presidency—his “true-believer” confidence that if you just “believe,” all things are possible. Those who have this faith believe they can transcend the reality that circumscribes the actions of those who lack such belief.
In his October 17th New York Times article, “Without a Doubt,” Ron Suskind recounts a conversation with a senior Bush adviser in the summer of 2002, who noted that people such as Suskind were “in what we call the reality-based community.” When Suskind attempted a reply, the adviser replied: “That’s not the way the world really works anymore. . . . We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
This “arrogance of power” is right out of the imperial doctrine of Theodore Roosevelt, which was once called “pure act,” or in a larger sense, the “action principle” of fascism. Clearly, any empire’s administration believes that it is not constrained by the reality of the same “Law” that applies to the rest of society.
But, what is perhaps most significant in the events recounted by Suskind and in the election results is not President Bush’s confident, unquestioning faith that he is “God’s instrument,” but the blind faith of his fundamentalist followers, reminiscent of Sinclair Lewis’s descriptions in Elmer Gantry. As Suskind somewhat differently observes, one might say that George W. Bush went up the hill as a tolerant Methodist, and came down as a puritanical Calvinist.
What is less understood is that all of the great empires in history have been characterized by a decline of reason and an increase in super-naturalist faith, combined with a belief in the empire with the emperor holding God’s “mandate” on earth.
There are only three ultimate sources upon which derivative values such as “equality” can be based: supernatural law, natural law and statist, positive law. Empires tend to combine all of the three so that the emperor’s legitimacy flows from God, nature, and his position as head of State. The intertwining of religion and nationalism in the State is indeed a very powerful one.
Today’s unflinching, fundamentalist Christian support for the war in Iraq and U.S. global interventionism (regardless of the facts) was foretold earlier by anti-rational evangelical attempts to control textbooks, deny evolutionary principles, and block scientific research—sure early signs of the rise of a new “Age of Empire.” The most famous book-burning incidentally was not pro-war Lynn Cheney’s recent effort, or even Adolf Hitler’s in 1933, but rather that of the great Ch’in Emperor, Shih Wang-ti (a central figure in the recent film, Hero) of imperial China in 221 B.C.
In Rome, before it was co-opted by the State, early Christianity was in many ways a tax revolt against the Roman Empire’s increasing taxation burdens, ineptitude, and brutality. But instead of fighting taxes directly, which would have been quite fatal, the Christians (in keeping with Jesus’s teachings of the Golden Rule and peace) sought to evade the Roman taxes by steering clear of the State and taking care of their own and others. For example, by 150 A.D. in the City of Rome, Christians, and not the State, were taking care of 1,500 widows and orphans, and if you were captured or kidnapped by barbarians (much as in Iraq today) your only hope of ransom was if you were a Christian.
However, by the 4th century the growing strength of many diverse Christian groups (aided by their assimilation of older religious ideas from the East) and the decline of the Roman Empire had made it clear to the Roman State under Constantine that its survival would require formally merging with and centralizing Christianity. (Charles Freeman’s recent book, The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason details the way in which this took place.)
There had already been a rise of mysticism in the Greek Empire phase of classical civilization, led by Pythagoras against Ionian empiricism, and later this same irrational process was repeated in Rome. What was left of Roman “science” declined as “faith” rose to be preserved and carried to the West later by Islamic civilization.
And as Western Civilization emerged out of the ruins of the western part of the Roman Empire, we evolved to America on the periphery of the European core—pragmatic, Calvinist, fundamentalist (certainly not showing much influence of such natural-law thinkers as Thomas Aquinas), with America believing itself an exception to history (a messianic vision often shared by the periphery).
Given that historical context, American writers began to talk as early as 1828 of some U.S. leaders as Caesars. While the Founders sought to separate the State and religion, we never quite had a theocracy, but rather an “Erastian”-type state in New England (reminiscent of the theocratic doctrines adopted in Geneva from the Swiss theologian Thomas Erastus, 1524-1583), where formal governmental leaders were heavily influenced by religious ones. And so, with the growing corrupt, corporate-state empire based in America today, religionists have put themselves forward as one of the key corporate entities in that structure, and the fundamentalists have found their man in George W. Bush.
Religious zealotry was, of course, involved in the U.S.’s first formal venture into imperialism in 1898 with the Spanish-American War, when over 200,000 Filipinos were killed. The missionaries wanted to expand their efforts into China, and after President William McKinley supposedly communed with God, McKinley indicated we should take the Philippines and “Christianize” and “uplift” the natives there. (Protestants tended to ignore the fact that Spanish Catholicism had been there for over three centuries. And, this messianic zeal could sometimes end up embarrassingly when young missionaries returned from the East, instead praising insights of Eastern philosophies such as Buddhism and Taoism.)
Later, President Woodrow Wilson would extend this missionary mentality to the entire world during and after World War I, and the catastrophic repercussions are all too with us yet today!
Meanwhile, the decline of the U.S. empire has been evident for some decades now. Its growing bankruptcy since the 1960s is the most evident economic aspect, coupled with the cultural decline and intolerance regarding science and knowledge. With the plurality of those who voted in the recent presidential election saluting “Hail George,” let us observe that the presidency of George W. Bush may well mark the turning point of exceptional acceleration of that process.
William Marina is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif., and Professor Emeritus in History at Florida Atlantic University.