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 Lynne Cheney’s recent effort, or even Adolf Hitler’s in 1933, but rather that of the great Ch’in Emperor, Shih Huang-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’ 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.)~ William Marina

Prof. Marina’s comments are remarkable, not because they are unusual but because they are just the sort of commonplace musings about the role of religion in history and politics that have characterised so much historical analysis. It is unclear from his article whether he believes that an increase of faith, supposedly in opposition to reason, aids in the development of empires or in their dissolution: he cites at once the Christianisation of Rome in political decline and the rise of American imperialism in tandem with fundamentalist Christian activism, and then again ties fundamentalism to the decline of the American empire.

I would also add that the secularist and liberal media swallowed Mr. Bush’s absurd lies about Iraq as readily and credulously as the average evangelical Bush voter, and indeed perhaps more readily, as Mr. Bush is far more a part of the world of those elites than he is of the world of the evangelicals who support him. The deracinated elites of the major newspapers and foreign policy institutes, hardly the bedrock of evangelical America, were the ones who believed in the ‘necessity’ of the Iraq war, just as they believe in the ‘necessity’ of American hegemony in the world.

Middle American evangelicals are acting out of the conviction, false though it may be, that supporting the Iraq war is the decent, patriotic thing to do. They are far more skeptical about grandiose theories of geopolitical leadership or regional transformation, and would be some of the first to repudiate an American empire if they were able to perceive it as such. If Mr. Bush’s supporters doggedly support him and ignore all evidence to the contrary, as indeed they do, the same might be said of any partisans of an incumbent president. The hysteria of a mob regarding its demagogue, especially in time of war, is not to be underestimated–are we to attribute this to the religion of the mob, or to the nature of mass politics and its inherent irrationality? That the demagogue uses religion to whip up the mob, and that his enemies cite the mob’s religion as something dangerous and potentially vicious, only strengthens the identity of the mob with the demagogue. The evangelical embrace of an imperialism that they would never call imperialism is highly accidental–these are the same people, by and large, who fear the idea of a New World Order, revolted in 1992 against the president who announced such an order and have become reconciled to its proponents only through the shell-game played on them by the ‘faithful’ George W. Bush.

From the American examples he uses pejoratively, I must assume that he sees increased religiosity as a key to empire-building, while also being somehow its fatal flaw. Yet the Great Awakening of the mid-eighteenth century created the cultural and religious impetus for the rebellion of the colonies (the importance of the concept of covenant in the popular understanding of the colonies’ right to government by consent looms large in the religiously-inspired language of the War for Independence), and the Restoration and later Hanoverian expansion of the British empire followed the moderation of intense religious sectarianism and enthusiasm. Religious toleration and attendant indifference opened the door to commercial and political exploitation of colonies on an entirely new, higher level. The great age of Western colonialism in the 19th century coincided with and was strengthened by the rise of rationalism, the development of materialist philosophies and the exploitation of scientific advancement for creating a technological civilisation. Save perhaps for the unusual Spanish example, which was at least heavily laden with extensive missionary activity, European empires marched in step with scientific, economic and technological “progress”: empires did not hinder these new developments but tended to seek them out (even Spanish supremacy into the early seventeenth century rested significantly on the technological and military superiority of their fortresses and siege tactics, which could hardly have developed in a climate of anti-rationalism).

The American Christians who so ardently pushed for intervention against Spain and again in WWI were precisely not the fundamentalists, but their liberal, mainstream cousins from the Northeast and Midwest. President McKinley’s silly remark about converting Filipinos, which Prof. Marina cites, was a kind of post facto justification for a war he had not really desired and which was foisted upon him by jingoes in the press and the Eastern establishment, hardly the Bible-thumpers of their day. The people who would want evolution banned in the 1920s were also those who wanted nothing to do with foreign interventionism of any kind, nor did they want to “save the world” for anything. Prof. Marina must be the first to accuse these people of possessing visions of overseas empire, when they are usually accused by American historians(pejoratively and therefore unjustly) of insularity and isolationism.

It was the enthusiasm of liberal New England churches on behalf of abolitionism that spurred on the destruction of the Republic, and it was the section already significantly influenced by liberal Christianity that crushed secession–the ancestors of fundamentalism were also the defenders of the Jeffersonian inheritance. The alliance of today’s evangelicals with our contemporary imperialists is an unusual circumstance to say the least and is tied not to some structural connection between deep piety and an imperialist urge but to very contingent and particular political realities of the modern American scene. The great shame of the co-option of evangelicals by the imperialists is that these people have no real interest in propagating the secular democratic model and are acting entirely contrary to their own heritage.

The tradition that the increase, or rather the transformation, of religiosity led the Romans to a decline of rationality is one that does not have much to recommend it. There was no Enlightenment-style rationality until, well, the Enlightenment, and before that only a very rare individual supposed that belief in God or other supernatural forces was a meaningful departure from rational thought. Rather, in monotheistic societies an orthodoxy would determine the boundaries of rationality, which was dependent on right faith. In classical societies, much that was regarded as lower and less rational by Christians was regarded as perfectly normal and in keeping with the use of reason. That this is not the rationality of the philosophes or 19th century rationalism is clear, and also irrelevant–why on earth would anyone desire such an absurd, one-sided conception of human nature or the world as those men offered? It is not evident to me that the late antique and medieval Byzantine Fathers demonstrate an inferior level of rationality when compared to their predecessors or are less well-versed in classical philosophical categories, logic, to say nothing of their continued expertise in classical forms of rhetoric.

Continued philosophical learning went hand in hand with theological rigour in the Byzantine world in particular, and St. Photios’ Myriobiblion reflects the preservation of, acquaintance with and appreciation for classical texts that learned Byzantines possessed in the 9th century that was greater than most educated elites have enjoyed in almost any other epoch. Prof. Marina’s opposition between reason and faith, or the idea that one came to drive the other out, is anachronistic for antiquity (as is the conception of a faith even distinct from reason in pre-Christian times) and the middle ages.

This tradition is all the more fascinating when one considers the origins of the indictment of Christianity in particular in Gibbon: Christianity was guilty of underming both classical culture and the empire. That it did not undermine the latter, but provided loci for the continuation of urban life long after the economic base of the cities had diminished, is no secret. The lament for classical culture, while interesting, is precisely the most useless in the one area of the ancient world where empire and faith persisted and at times flourished together, which was Byzantium. Byzantium carried as much of classical culture, including whatever we might regard as its rationality, with it through the medieval era as its own difficult straits allowed, and it was through the agency of both empire and Church that this was achieved.

Shih Huang-ti, which Prof. Marina mentions in passing, was a radical innovator both in culture and politics–he no more matches the caricature of a religious imperialist than does the secular Lynne Cheney. Shih Huang-ti, whatever his remarkable accomplishments, favoured a statist philosophy called Legalism that was a decided break from the traditional customs and philosophical inheritance of the past. His antipathy to Confucian scholars was part and parcel of his general hostility to all opposition. Once again, one cannot attribute the unification for China or Shih Huang’ti’s abuses to religious enthusiasm or traditional religion.

Ancient and modern empires are the products of economic, political and military concentrations of power. They may be despotic or lawful, depending on the circumstances. Prior to the Enlightenment, it was impossible to conceive of political power without reference to religious categories for justification, explanation and representation, and it has only been in the modern era that we imagine true religion and political power to be fundamentally opposed things. This conceptual divorce has not helped preserve traditional religion very well, and it has led to the rampant political amorality of the last three centuries. Nonetheless, there is no clear or necessary connection between an ascendancy of religion “over” reason, even were we to grant such a thing, and the creation of empires. In more traditionally religious eras, all polities used religious language and justifications.

Religion and religious people cannot be the scapegoats for the creation of empires, especially not when the all empires of the last 300 years have been premised on control of material resources, worldly political theories and later the expansion of rationality and liberalism themselves. Most great political efforts of social engineering and reform in the modern era have come on the heels of scientific advancement and the popularisation of scientific concepts, and the ideas of colonial “uplift” are tied into these same trends: for good or ill, deeply religious people in America have tended to be skeptical of social engineering by the state, the advance of a materialist interpretation of scientific methods and the expenditure of American resources on improving conditions in foreign countries.

Prof. Marina’s gross overgeneralisation about empires and faith vs. reason cannot possibly explain the variety of cultural and historical experiences, even as it imports a host of anachronisms and misinterpretations into his accounts of historical processes.