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Are We Rome? The fall of an empire and the future of America

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Our world is changing more rapidly than ever before in human history. Some of these changes are interesting but not threatening:

  • One out of eight couples married in the U.S. last year met online.
  • More video was uploaded to YouTube in the last two months than if ABC, NBC, and CBS had been airing new content every minute of every day for the last 62 years.
  • MySpace would be the fifth-largest country in the world.
  • The number of text messages sent and received today will exceed the population of the planet.
  • In 25 years, the cell phone in your pocket will fit in a blood cell.
  • By 2013, a supercomputer will be built that exceeds the computational capacities of the human brain. By 2049, a $1,000 computer will exceed the computational capacities of the entire human species.

Other changes are more worrisome:

  • In the last five minutes, 67 babies were born in the U.S.; 274 in China; 395 in India.
  • If current trends continue, China will overtake America as the world’s largest economy in this generation; India will be the third-largest, so that India and China will account for half of global output.
  • China and India together graduate half a million engineers and scientists a year, six times the number produced by the U.S.
  • Name this country: richest in the world / largest military / center of world business and finance / strongest educational system / world center of innovation and invention / currency the world standard of value / highest standard of living. The answer is England, in 1900.

Is America a nation in decline? In 1988, Yale historian Paul Kennedy wrote The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. His thesis has been much discussed: nations ascend due to the supremacy of their material resources; then they inevitably spend their wealth on military expansion to maintain their power, and fall into decline and eventual collapse. The Roman Empire is usually cited as Exhibit A of Kennedy’s thesis.

As America fights two wars overseas while struggling to recover from economic recession, it’s easy to see why “declinists” link us to Rome, accusing our nation of “imperial overstretch” and predicting our collective demise. This argument has been in the news in recent weeks, as we learn more about the ascendancy of China and India and worry about our economic and political status in the world.

I have long been fascinated by the Greco-Roman world and its history. I’ve made 12 trips to various parts of the ancient Roman Empire, and did my doctorate in philosophy of religion with special emphasis on ancient philosophy. In researching this subject more in recent weeks, I’ve discovered some fascinating parallels and issues. Today let’s wrestle with the question, “Are we Rome? The fall of an empire and the future of American culture.”

Comparing Empires

Cullen Murphy has published an excellent resource for comparing Rome and America from demographic and political perspectives.[i] Here are similarities he notes:

  • Both built the most powerful military in their world, by far (America invests as much in military expenditures as the next 15 nations combined).
  • The Roman road system, stretching some 53,000 miles, was about the length of the U.S. interstate system.
  • The Roman Empire and its Mediterranean Sea would fit neatly inside America’s Lower Forty-Eight states.
  • Both cherish a glorious past and embrace a Manifest Destiny. Rome claimed to be an imperium sine fine (empire without end), while America’s dollar bill proclaims a novus ordo (new order).

Of course, dissimilarities are conspicuous as well:

  • Rome never left the Iron Age; America has evolved from Industry to Information and Biotech.
  • Slaves made up half of the Empire (some emperors owned 20,000 or more), while America rejected slavery.
  • Rome had no middle class; the middle class is America’s core fact.
  • Rome was never remotely as democratic as America.
  • The Empire generated few original ideas in technology and science; America prizes innovation and creativity.

So, are we Rome? Here are three factors our country would do well to consider. The first concern is “military overstretch,” building armed forces which are too large to be affordable and too small to do all they are asked to do.

Manpower shortages forced the Romans to accept into their armies the very barbarians who sacked their Empire. In Iraq and Afghanistan, America employs 195,000 uniformed personnel and 218,000 private contractors. Privatizing our military (and prisons and other government functions) imperils accountability and oversight, whether in ancient Rome or today.

A second factor is a tendency I call “global myopia.” “Myopia” is a defect of the eye in which the person sees near objects clearly but far away objects appear blurred. Nearly every Roman military defeat resulted from underestimating its opponent. One thinks of our unforeseen struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ten years after 9/11, most Americans still don’t know why they hate us.

A third factor is often called the “curse of empire”: large systems are inherently unstable, endangering their survival in an unpredictable world. Few thought that arming the Taliban against the Soviet Union would presage today’s War on Terror.

On the other hand, the great socio-political distinction between Rome and America is cause for some optimism: our deep faith in “invention and reinvention.” While Rome’s agrarian economy was unchanged across a millennium, in two centuries Americans ended slavery and leapt from farm to high-tech. Rome was committed to stability, America to self-improvement and entrepreneurship. We worry over threats to our global position from China, India, and other rising powers; such angst is our great motivator.

Comparing souls

My primary interest in the issue is spiritual and theological more than it is social, economic or political. Here I find the comparison between the Roman Empire and American culture most striking and troubling.

Roman religion was transactional: place your offering on the altars of the gods so they will bless your crops and give you victory in battle. They adopted the Greek division between the soul and body, the “spiritual” and the “secular,” “religion” and the “real world.”

The Greeks believed that the gods lived atop Mt. Olympus, far removed from life below. The Romans adopted their gods, renaming Zeus as Jupiter, Hera as Juno, Ares as Mars, and so forth. But they preserved this division between the gods and us.

They added emperor worship to their pantheon, but this was not out of any desire to foster an intimate, personal relationship with Caesar. It was a loyalty oath, another transaction. Burn a pinch of incense on the altar of Caesar and say “Caesar is lord,” and you are given a certificate which makes you a legal Roman citizen for another year. Religion was like renewing your license or car registration, something you had to do.

When Christianity spread into this Roman world, it eventually adopted this spiritual schizophrenia between the “spiritual” and the “secular,” this transactional religion. By AD 250 we separated the “clergy” from the “laity,” the “spiritual” people from the “secular,” making priests like those in Roman religion who could help us make our transactions with God. Then Constantine legalized the Church in AD 313 and we began constructing buildings like Roman temples where people could come to make their sacrifices and be blessed.

In the Modern Era we began measuring success by the size of our temples—our buildings and budgets and baptisms. In the Postmodern World we say that all truth is personal and subjective—it doesn’t matter what you believe so long as you’re tolerant of my beliefs and sincere in yours. You can worship Zeus while I worship Apollo or Athena or the emperor. Pay your dues for services received. A transactional religion, not a transforming relationship.

Unfortunately, many Americans have a Roman, transactional faith. If we come to church on Sunday, he’ll bless us on Monday. If we pay our spiritual dues, we’ll receive the result of our investment. We have compartments in our lives, with God here and the rest of life there.

We do this with our time and money and relationships. C. S. Lewis says we’re like honest people who pay our taxes but certainly hope there will be money left over for us to do what we want.

Transforming souls

What does God say to our consumeristic, schizophrenic spiritual culture? Since we’re comparing America and Rome, let’s consider Paul’s admonition to the Romans:

I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will (Romans 12:1-2).

Here was God’s cure for the spiritual disease infecting the Roman Empire. It is equally needed in our culture today.

God calls the Romans to “offer your bodies as living sacrifices.” Not the transactional, dead, one-time sacrifices made by Romans to placate and bribe their gods, but daily, continual surrender of our lives to Christ as our Caesar, our King and Lord. Not God as your hobby, but God as your King. Have you made this commitment yet?

If Christ is your Caesar and King, you are sitting in his chair. You are wearing his clothes. Everything that is yours, is his. He is Lord of the money you keep as well as the money you give; of what you do on Monday as well as Sunday; of what you do in private as well as what you do in public. Have you offered him your body and life as a “living sacrifice” yet today?

Next, he tells the Romans to refuse the “pattern of this world,” with its transactional religion and self-centered consumerism. Your culture says that religion is private and personal. Jesus tells us that we are to let our light so shine that people may see our good deeds and glorify our Father in heaven (Matt. 5:13-16).

Your culture says that the various religions are different roads up the same mountain. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

Your culture says, “God helps those who help themselves.” We learned the phrase from Benjamin Franklin, who said it in Poor Richard’s Almanac in 1757; it has become the quintessential expression of American self-sufficient religion. According to pollster George Barna, eight out of ten Americans believe it’s in the Bible. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps; get up earlier and stay up later and try harder. God says, “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land” (2 Chron. 7:14). Self-sufficiency is spiritual suicide.

Would you refuse the mold of your self-sufficient, subjective, relativistic culture?

And he tells the Romans to “be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” This starts at the beginning of every day. Begin your day by submitting it to Christ as your Caesar and Lord. Worship him; read his word; pray to him; listen to him. Then walk through your day with him. Pray about your problems and opportunities; ask his forgiveness when you sin; spend the day in his presence. In this way you will be “transformed” from within as his Spirit renews your mind, and you will experience your Father’s “good, pleasing and perfect” will for your life


Are we Rome? The Roman Empire collapsed morally and spiritually long before it fell to its enemies on September 4, AD 476. Are we destined to follow her fate?

It’s not too late, at least not yet. Either Christ is your Caesar and Lord, or you are your Caesar and Lord. When last did you crown Jesus your King?

[i] Cullen Murphy, Are We Rome? The fall of an empire and the fate of America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007).