Home/Daniel Larison/The Problem with Imperial Overreach Is Imperial Overreach, Not Religion

The Problem with Imperial Overreach Is Imperial Overreach, Not Religion

Whenever politicians invoke religion, Kevin Phillips suggests in a characteristic passage, the people perish: “The newly Christian fourth-century Rome of the Emperor Constantine and his successors held up the cross as Rome faced military defeat and crumbling frontiers from Hadrian’s Wall to Assyria. So did seventeenth-century Spain, the proud but ill-omened command post of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. Vestments of crusaderdom also cloaked imperial Britain’s overreach in World War I and its aftermath.” ~Ross Douthat

Actually, some might suppose that Rome was some sort of command post for the Catholic Counter-Reformation, or, barring that, Vienna, whence most of the most dramatic and harsh Counter-Reformation policies came.  But no matter.  Spain is supposed to have gone into decline because it became too religious (even though it was the same kind of religious, crusading fervour that helped create the united kingdom of Spain), and not because it was engaged in long-running wars in the Netherlands and with France to secure dynastic interests and the strategic “Milan road.”  I love people who know just a smattering of their own civilisaton’s religious history and think they have discovered some all-embracing pattern of the relationship between religion and politics that the scholars of the periods in question have yet to divine.  There is every reason to suppose that the growing embrace of Christianity by the Roman world lent it a confidence and coherence that it desperately needed and which, in the East, may have aided in shoring up the empire.  In any event, the crisis of the curial class was a function of the rise of excessive centralisation, bureaucratisation and increased pressures from the center to extract revenue from the cities, and these were in turn responses to the crisis years of the third century when the extensive frontier of the empire broke down amid internal political chaos and the pressure of invasions.  The growth of the clergy in the fourth and fifth centuries as a group freed from curial obligations did not help the cities, but they were hardly the reason for the general breakdown of the curiales.  Because the state required too many resources, the earlier, more flexible and decentralised system of Roman government gradually disappeared–that is a principal cause of later Roman failures (though it is far from the only one), to which the rise of Christianity does not seem to have contributed very much.  That Britain’s empire was broken by the folly of WWI, and not by its lip service to Christian mission, should be obvious even to schoolchildren.  Mr. Phillips not only does not understand American Christianity–he does not seem to be familiar with much of the history of Christianity as a whole.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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