Project Canterbury

Religion and Politics

By Algernon Sidney Crapsey

New York: Thomas Whittaker, 1905.

Chapter I. The State

The Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church, lately assembled in the city of Boston, had as its guest of honor no less a personage than His Grace, the Archbishop of Canterbury. For the first time in history the primate of all England, the highest dignitary of the established church, has left his own jurisdiction, and has come out to visit the churches in the Dominion of Canada and in the United States of America. This visit is noteworthy, not only because of the gracious personality of him who made it, but more because of the political and religious significance of the event.

We hear from all who came in contact with His Grace of Canterbury of his simplicity of character, his personal piety, his gentleness and courtesy. He is without doubt a good man and an exemplary clergyman. But it was not as a good man, nor as an exemplary clergyman, that he was carried about in private palace cars, received the worship of the [9/10] churches and the adulation of the multitude. It was not Mr. Randall Davidson who had the chief seats in the solemn assembly; who was the guest of honor in the house of the President of the United States and sat at the right hand of the merchant princes of our land. All these honors were accorded, not to the man, but to the official. This man occupies for the time being one of the highest dignities in the world. He is the natural companion of emperors, kings, and presidents; he is titular chief of the established church of England; he has his palace at Canterbury and his palace in London; his official income is greater than that of the President of the United States. This Archbishop of Canterbury is not only an officer in the church of Christ; he is also an official in the Kingdom of Edward VII. He not only presides in the councils of the church, but as a member of the House of Lords; he has his voice and vote in affairs of state. This, his official status, makes his recent presence in our midst a historical object lesson, bringing to our attention in a picturesque way the fact that there are in Christendom two institutions, the church and the state, which from the beginning of Christian history have borne a varying relation to each other. It is [10/11] to this constantly varying relation of the church to the state that I now invite your attention, not as a matter for mere academic discussion, but as of vital interest to our social, our political, and our religious life.

That institution which we call the church came into existence about 1900 years ago, and had its beginning in a province of the Roman Empire. The church took its rise just at that period when the imperial system had firmly established its sway over the Roman world. The Christian church and the Roman Empire are so bound together in their origin and history that it is impossible to understand the one without some knowledge of the other. We must, then, take a hasty glance at the history and constitution of the Empire before we can study with intelligence the history and constitution of the church.

The Roman Empire as it existed in the first century of the Christian era had succeeded to the powers and inherited the conquests of the Roman Republic. The Empire had, indeed, built itself up out of the ruins of the Republic. The rise of the city of Rome from republican simplicity to imperial greatness is the central fact in the history of Europe, if [11/12] not of the world. On the left bank of the Tiber, in the country called Italy, about 14 miles from the sea, are a number of low-lying hills; two of these hills, separated from one another by a narrow ravine, form the site of the original city of Rome. The beginnings of the city are wrapt in myth and legend. Tradition tells us that it was founded by the union of three or more separate tribes under the leadership of Romulus and Remus. These mythical heroes were of divine origin, and acted under divine guidance in selecting the site and laying the foundations of their city. From the very first the Roman people were remarkable for their piety, and religion was a function of the state. It is to this fact that Cicero ascribes the rise of Rome to worldwide dominion. "Let us," said this great Roman; "let us be as partial to ourselves as we will, Conscript Fathers, yet we have not surpassed the Spaniards in number, nor the Gauls in strength, nor the Carthaginians in cunning, nor the Greeks in the arts, nor, lastly, the Latins and Italians of this nation and land in natural intelligence and home matters; but we have excelled all nations in piety and religion, and in this our wisdom of fully [12/13] recognizing that all things are ordered and governed by the power of the immortal gods." [Cicero, De Har. Resp. 9. Quoted by Bacon in Essay on Atheism, p. 167. Lee and Shepard, Boston, 1868.] The domestic and the public life of the Roman had each its presiding deity, and he ruled all his actions with a view to pleasing his gods.

It has been suggested by Goldwin Smith in an able essay on The Greatness of Rome that the city owed its military dominance to the fact, not that it was more warlike, but, on the contrary that it was less warlike, than the surrounding peoples. The conquests of Rome were due, not so much to the brute force of the warrior, as they were to the discipline of the soldier and to the sagacity of the general. It was, says Goldwin Smith, "the first triumph of intellect over muscle." [The Greatness of the Romans Essay Goldwin Smith.] The fighter under the Roman rule was not a savage rushing at his foe with savage rage, and running away with savage fear. He was the member of a highly trained company advancing and retreating at the word of command. Discipline was the life, and obedience the watchword, of the Roman soldier. To be slack in discipline was a crime; to disobey a command, [13/14] or to act without orders, was to incur the penalty of death. Both in military and in civil life the Roman was the first to develop fully the idea of law. The great word which he has contributed to the language of man is the word lex, or law. In the Roman system the will of the city was the rule of life.

The original government of Rome was monarchical. But even in the days of the Kings the monarch was not absolute. He was assisted in the government by a Senate or Council of Elders, and by an Assembly of the People. It would seem that the office of King was not hereditary, but was subject to election by the people and confirmation by the Senate. When the Kings dared to violate the laws and outrage the feelings of the people they were expelled from the city, and Rome became a Republic. We have the whole genius of Rome expressed in this word "Republic." It is res publica--a public thing. The life of the city and the life of every citizen in the city was a public thing; and it was the merging of the life of the citizen in the life of the city that created that public thing,--that res [14/15] publica which became at last the wonder of the world. In Rome the citizen existed for the sake of the city; not the city for the citizen. It was a corporation, a body politic, a real thing that lived and wrought on the hills by the Tiber. We owe to Rome our conception of the state as an entity, our reverence for law as a rule of life, our belief in the people as the source of power. The very word "people" is of Roman origin. After the expulsion of the Kings, the Romans were jealous, above all things, of the executive power. Instead of Kings ruling for life, they had Consuls elected every year. I cannot in this lecture discuss the details of the Roman Constitution. It was the growth of centuries, and its history forms one of the great departments of human knowledge. The seat of power was in the Senate and in the Assemblies of the People. During the early period of republican history the city was disturbed by the conflict between the people at large and the old families, called the patricians. The patricians were the privileged class. They owned the land, for the most part, on which the city was built; they alone were eligible to membership in the Senate; they alone could hold the [15/16] office of Consul. Little by little the people pressed forward, gaining for themselves a constantly increasing share in the government of the city. In the Tribune they created an officer who could veto the acts of the Senate, and arrest the person of the Consul. It was this conflict between the patrician order and the people at large that brought about at last the fall of the Republic.

While developing her Constitution within her walls, Rome was extending her boundaries without. War, at first a necessity, became a pleasure and a pastime. The soldier at first a citizen, laying aside his sword for the plough when the campaign was over, became at last a professional who spent his whole life in the military service of the Republic; and it was this professional soldier who in time subdued both patrician and plebian to his will, and founded the Empire.

Absorbing first the kindred tribes of the Sabines and the Latins, the Romans pressed northward beyond the Arno and the Po, subdued the region of Cis-Alpine Gaul, and extended her borders to the foot hills of the Alps. By the middle of the third [16/17] century before the Christian era all Italy was submissive to the authority of the city of Rome. The wars with Carthage, a rival city on the coast of Africa, threatening for a time the very existence of the Roman state, ended at last in giving Rome possession of Spain, Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica, and the lordship of Africa. From this time until the fall of the Republic, the Romans engaged in the business of conquering the world, and were eminently successful in their enterprise. They subdued Greece, Syria, and Egypt. In seven years Cssar so Romanized and Latinized the country we now call France that to this day we call France a Latin country, and speak of the French as a Latin people. The instrument by which Roman success was achieved was the army. The Roman legions were perfectly adapted to the work in which they were engaged. Discipline was their life, the camp was their home. Their general was their god and their father. The Roman legionary had no attachment to the city of Rome, no reverence for her institutions. The city he, perhaps, had never seen; of her history and Constitution he was profoundly ignorant. The gods of the city were not the gods of [17/18] the camp. It is hard for us in these days to understand how completely the gods were localized in the ancient world. Each city had its own gods; each tribe its own deities. But in the Roman camp were men from all the cities and all the tribes of the Roman world, and each had left his gods behind him as he had left his father and his mother. It was this bringing together of the men of all nations under the rule of Rome that brought about the downfall of the ancient religions. Men found that the gods of their city were not able to defend them, and so they lost faith in them. The belief that the power of the gods was local was fatal to the belief in those gods when a man was removed from his own country. The god of Syria could do nothing for the Syrian as he wandered forlorn through the sands of Africa. So the Roman legionary, who spent his life in the camp, had lost his residence in the city, his attachment to her institutions, and his belief in her gods. But, as religion is a necessity of the heart of man, he soon substituted a new faith for the old. He soon came to have a reverence, a love, and a wholesome fear for the Imperium of Rome. Whoever came to his camp [18/19] bearing the commission of the city to command came with the power of life and death. The legionary saw in his commander the incarnation of the majesty of Rome; and, as I have said, the Roman legionary found in that commander his father and his god. To that father and god he yielded perfect obedience; to him he looked for guidance; from him he received food and clothing; from him he begged the donative that gave a little pleasure to his hard camp life, and from his hands he expected the bit of land in Italy or the provinces upon which at last he might live in quiet and die in peace.

In this way grew up that religion, so strange to our way of thinking, which was the worship of the Imperium of Rome; which at last came to ascribe to the Roman Emperor, the commander of the Roman armies, as the incarnation of Roman power, divine attributes during his life, and raised him to the rank of an immortal god after his death. This was the religion, and the only real religion, with which Christianity had to compete in the first centuries of its existence.

While the Roman Republic was strengthening itself in the outlying regions of the world, it was with [19/20] still greater rapidity losing vitality in the very center of its life in the city of Rome. The century which saw the provinces of Greece and Asia, Syria, and Egypt come under the Roman dominion was also the century which saw the decay of republican virtue, and the failure of republican government, on the hills by the Tiber. Rome in the days of her republican simplicity was as remarkable for her domestic virtues as she was for her piety toward the gods and her devotion to the public good. The stories of Lucretia and Virginia tell of the high esteem in which the Roman held the chastity of his women. The histories of Regulus and Cincinnatus speak of the Roman as always ready to subject his life and his fortune to the interests of the city; and we have already heard from the lips of Cicero of his piety toward the gods. Now in the second century before Christ all of these virtues began rapidly to decay, and at the beginning of the Christian period had utterly perished. Of Rome it could have been said at that time what Isaiah said of Jerusalem in his day: "The city was full of wounds and bruises and putrifying sores. From the crown of the head to the sole of the foot [20/21] there was no soundness in it." [Isaiah, chap. IV.] The chastity of Roman women became like the snakes in Ireland--non-existent. Men changed their wives, and women their husbands, as readily as they changed their garments. Adultery was a venial sin, and fornication a very virtue. For two centuries the only Roman women who attained to celebrity gained a bad pre-eminence by the excess of their vices. Instead of Lucretia and the mother of the Gracchi, we have Julia Augusta, Messallina, and Agrippina Minor. With the corruption of female virtue came the extinction of the family. Rome would have become depopulated if it had depended on the natural increase of its own stock. It was only saved from that fate by the influx of strangers from all parts of the world.

But the loss of civic virtue was more frightful than the decay of domestic purity. No American politician of the baser sort ever surpassed the Roman in making public office a private graft. The stealings of Tweed himself become petty larceny when we compare them with the robberies of a Lucullus, a Crassus, or a Caesar. The Roman Proconsuls did not do their work in secret. They [21/22] robbed the world in the open day, by force, and not by cunning. The rich cities of the East became their prey, and there was no end to their spoil. In thus appropriating to themselves the riches of the barbarian, they were conscious of no wrong. Their cry was, "Woe to the conquered!" and long before Marcy they had formulated the doctrine that to the victor belong the spoils. Having in their power the wealth of the nations, they might well, like Clive as he stood in the treasure house of Delhi and took only so many hundred thousand pounds of that immense treasure, marvel at their own moderation. When Caesar went as quaestor to Spain he had to borrow a vast sum from Crassus to pay his debts; at the end of his quaestorship he had repaid this loan, and had at his disposal millions of money, and yet Caesar was probably the most virtuous and moderate of all the great Romans of his day.

The venality of the Senate was as rapacious as the rapacity of the generals. In the second and first centuries before Christ political power centered in the Roman Senate, and in the Senate everything was for sale. Jugurtha, the usurping King of Numidia, bought the Roman Senate as cynically as [22/23] Jay Gould bought the legislature of New York, or the great corporations the legislature of New Jersey. The Senate was the fountain of justice, and there justice was poisoned at its wellspring. The crimes of spoliation and murder went scot-free upon a money payment. Rome had, indeed, become a harlot whose every virtue had its price. The populace of Rome shared in the general decadence. Free bread and the circus had utterly corrupted the masses. The votes in the comitia were bought more openly than the votes in the Senate. The populace avenged the murder of Caesar, not so much because he was a great Roman, as because he left them each a sum of money in his will. But a still greater disaster than the decay of domestic purity, or the corruption of civic virtue fell on the city; this last overwhelming calamity was the loss of religious faith. The Roman in the first and second centuries before the Christian era had outgrown the simple belief of his fathers. The Augurs smiled at each other as they looked at the entrails of animals, or watched the flight of birds; the poets turned the history of Jupiter into an obscene drama. A crowd of strange gods and goddesses from the East came crowding into Rome, and thrust aside [23/24] the ancient deities. Osiris and Isis from the Nile, Astarte and Heliogabalus from the Syrian desert, were far more popular than poor old Jove, or rustic Ceres, or plain Minerva. This vast seething mass of religious decay and corruption stifled the conscience of Rome and left her a prey to the violence of her own passions. [Suetonius, Lives of the Twelve Caesars, passim.] Then followed the orgies of the later Republic and early Empire; when human nature, turning upon itself, put out the light of shame, and gave itself over to a sensuality that was neither brutal nor fiendish, but a sensuality of which neither brute nor fiend, but man alone, is capable; when his conscience is cast down, and his passions rule without restraint. The destruction of republican Rome was caused by the vast increase of ill gotten wealth, by the substitution of slave labor for free industry, and by the subordination of the civil to the military power. In the last century of the old era the end came. In that century power was rapidly concentrated in the hands of a very few men. The military chieftans occupied the position in the world then which the captains of industry hold to-day. Pompey, the conqueror of the East, representing the old aristocracy in the Senate, [24/25] Caesar, the quaestor of Spain and the leader of the Democratic party, together with Crassus, the richest man in the Roman world, formed the first trust, and divided that Roman world between them. Crassus was killed in his illfated expedition into Parthia; and the Senate, fearing the rising fortunes of Caesar in Gaul, and the triumph, in his person, of the Plebeian or Democratic party, roused against him the jealousy of Pompey, and arrayed these great chieftans against each other, in the hope that each would destroy the other and so leave them, the senators, free to rob the world at their ease. But the genius of Caesar was too much for them. While Pompey was vacillating, Caesar was acting. In violation of the Constitution, he marched with his legions from Gaul to Rome; drove the cowardly Senate before him; pursued Pompey beyond the Adriatic; and on the field of Pharsalia ended forever the power of the Senate and the duration of Republican institutions in Rome.

The Roman world, as it lay at the feet of Caesar [25/26] on the night of Pharsalia, was a world without a government, a world without virtue, and a world without religion. And this man, Caius Julius Caesar, in the far-reach and plenitude of his genius, became himself all these to the world. The word of Caesar became the law, obedience to Csesar the government, attachment to Caesar the virtue, and worship of Caesar the religion, of the world. Only one other personality can compete with the personality of Caesar for pre-eminence among men, and that personality was not yet born into the world. In his day there was no one, far or near, to compete with Csesar for supremacy. He gathered into his hands all the powers of the Roman republic. He was clothed by the Senate for life with the Imperium. He was the Imperator, Emperor, or Commander of all the armies in all the provinces. Outside of Italy his word was the only law; within Italy itself the Senate and the people were obedient to his will. As Pontifex Maximus he was clothed with all the majesty and mystery of the national religion. In his day Caesar stood alone like a God,--an object of fear, of reverence, of love, and of hatred. He [26/27] was the state, he was the church, and beside him there was no other. He filled the whole horizon of the heavens, and men bowed to him as to a deity.

And when Caesar died at the foot of Pompey's pillar his great personality did not perish with his mortal frame. That personality brooded for centuries; yes, it broods still, over the political life of man. Caesar was the incarnation of the state. In him the old Roman idea of the state as a Thing apart from the people, was personified. It was a Thing mysterious in its nature and awful in its power. It had but to speak the word, and men must forsake their homes, their wives, and their children, and march away to leave their bones in the sands of Africa, in the forests of Germany, and on the mountains of Caucasus. This dreadful Thing could come and wring the last drachma from the hand of the peasant, and leave him and his wife and his babes to perish with hunger. This Thing could come into a land smiling with plenty and leave it a desolate waste. This Thing could enter into the palace of the greatest of the Senators, and he must follow it to the dungeon and to death. [27/28] The state as it was incarnate in Caesar was the incarnation of death and destruction. But it had this great and necessary virtue,--it allowed no one to rob and kill but itself. It brought a certain peace and quiet into the world.

The state as a Thing was passed on as private property to the grandnephew of Caesar, the young and beautiful Octavianus,--called Augustus,--who consolidated the power and increased the value of the property which he inherited from his great-uncle. In some respects Augustus is even a more wonderful personality than Caesar. He was not, like Caesar, a great military or literary genius; not, like him, a great statesman. He was a consummate organizer; an astute politician. But, because he was that Thing, the Roman state, he could speak his quiet word in his house on the Palatine and a man would die in the city of Antioch. He could issue his decree and a province would be laid waste by cruel taxation. During the long reign of Augustus the Roman Empire became firmly established in his person, and at his death passed on, as a matter course, to his adopted son Tiberius.

[29] And here let us pause and marvel at this Thing,--the Roman state,--which, since the days of Caesar, has been the ideal of the state in the world. The state is a Thing,--a corporation, a body politic; throughout the history of Christendom for the most part a private Thing, the property of its chief office holder, handed on from father to son as any other chattel. This Thing dominated all other things and persons; having interests of its own which are not the interests of the people who belong to it. It can, and it does to-day, send its hundreds of thousands of men from their homes in Russia to perish in the fields of Manchuria. It can, and it does, rob the people to the point of starvation that it may build itself warships, and arm its soldiers with mauser and maxim guns. It can, and it does, take from the poor and give to the rich. It compels the peasant to eat black bread and sleep on straw in order that the Emperor may gorge himself with ortolans, stupefy himself with Falernian wine, build his golden house in Rome, and his marble palace in Baiae. All this the state as incarnate in Caesar, and as it survives in the modern world, did and does. It does, indeed, prevent the peasant from killing and robbing the peasant, but only on condition that it [29/30] may rob and kill at its will. The Roman Empire, and too often the modern state, is simply the lesser of two evils. It substitutes despotism for anarchy.

Because the Roman Empire was this awful Thing; because it did hold in its machine-like hands the lives of men and the destinies of the people; because it did sometimes save the peoples from falling upon and destroying one another,--therefore it was that the Roman state, in the person of the Emperor, was worshipped as divine. The old religions were dead, the gods of the hills and the gods of the groves were driven each from his shrine by the growing power of the critical reason and the corroding power of the corrupted conscience. What was good and what was bad in man combined to work the destruction of the ancient faith, and for the time being there was no other divine thing for men to fear but the divinity of the Roman Empire; no other God but Divus Caesar.

But just then another came to establish a new divinity, and to compete with Csesar for the worship of the world.

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