I just finished reading Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Romans. Ok, it’s not your typical pleasure read, but it offers some fascinating insights into the empire in which Christianity was born. Plutarch’s collection of character sketches reveals that these “noble” Romans were men of great ambition and avarice, stopping at nothing to get what they wanted. At the very beginning Romulus killed his brother Remus in an argument over where the city (later called Rome after Romulus) would be built. In his footsteps followed the Roman rulers for centuries, conniving, assassinating, and bribing their way into power. Rome was a model of democracy at its worst.
Reading Plutarch is kind of like listening to someone who tells you a story about a notorious villain, and then says, “Oh, by the way, he was your great grandfather.” Yes, our beloved American government traces its roots all the way back to the Roman republic. In a nutshell, here’s how it happened. The Renaissance uncovered the classical Roman and Greek works. As people began to read them, they were impressed by the classical techniques of logic and observation. They applied these methods to theology, science, and philosophy, revolutionizing these fields of study. With these discoveries came the gradual elevation of man’s reason. Rationalism began to be applied to everything – in direct confrontation to the absolutism of the established church and state. Rationalists rejected the traditional claims of the church (resulting in Deism) and the state (resulting in revolution). The Enlightenment thinkers believed that if every individual lived rationally, the world would become a better place. Thus, they emphasized individual rights (based on the idea of man’s innate goodness), relativism (giving equal merit to everyone’s ideas), and rationalism (belief in the supreme power of reason). John Locke combined those ideas with a model of government based on that of ancient Rome to provide the inspiration for our founding fathers.
“But,” someone says, “I thought America was founded as a Christian nation, based on the Bible and led by men of prayer.” You are not entirely wrong. America has been influenced by Christian morality like no other country. And there’s no doubt that God has used America, just as he used the Pax Romana of the Roman empire to aid in the explosion of the Gospel in the first century. However, the historical and philosophical underpinnings of our country were completely humanistic and rationalistic. American democracy has only been successful because of the redeeming influence of Christian “salt” that has effectively limited the excesses seen in Roman government.
That’s our job as American Christians. We’re not on a crusade to bring America back to a supposed biblical foundation. We must simply attempt to be salt and light in our community (Matthew 5:13-14). Christians should be involved in America. We should demonstrate the love of Christ as we get participate in our local, state and federal government. We should vote for qualified candidates with character who will best exemplify and uphold Christian morality and values. But we should not seek to establish Christianity in America by political means.