In the same year as the birth of our nation, 1776, an English historian, Edward Gibbons, made a phrase famous: “the decline and fall” with his (not surprisingly titled) The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Historians before Gibbons’ writings–and, certainly, in the centuries since–have attempted their own post-mortems on the reasons why the mighty Roman Empire disintegrated into ancient history. At the time of its writing, Gibbons’ work was a curious historical parallel to the once-great British Empire, who in the following decades would continue to shrink back culturally, militarily, and geographically to its own little island. In recent decades, the phrase “the decline and fall” has been used to describe (prophetically, some might argue) the potential decline of the American impact.
Gibbons attributed several minor factors to the overall collapse of the Empire, but placed the predominant responsibility on the moral decline of the people. While my goal is certainly not to dispute the historian’s interpretation or to try and draw parallels with the Roman world and our own, quite the opposite, I instead, have a more general quibble. It’s with those who would use the Roman Empire and its decline as a prophetic parallel for America. With those who predict the demise of our culture, they often use the Roman fall as the template for our own, sounding like this: “See, thus and so was true of the Roman Empire…and the same is true of us. America’s going the way of Rome.”
My quibble isn’t actually with their looking for and finding parallels, it’s with the notion that the Roman Empire is a worthy comparison to begin with.
For those who find the parallels between our two peoples, no one ever seems to ask a more basic and telling question:
Who ever said that Rome was good?
Someone we’d want to be compared with? Moral? Exemplary? Spiritually enviable? Ideal?
Basically, why should we shudder that Rome fell and pain ourselves thinking how it may be true of us, too? Quite the opposite, I wonder how many things we could find in the Roman way of life that were redeemable–something pitiable that they ended up “falling” from.
Were they powerful? Yes. Very. Unmatched, in my historical opinion. Were they big? Very. Were they ever good? Well…
At their best, they were demonstrably worse morally than the worst versions of our culture. Is it actually all that bad that a powerful, but generally immoral, empire fell? See where I’m going?
Is there moral, cultural, intellectual, and spiritual disintegration going on in America right now? We’ve never been perfect, and we’re definitely not today. Now…are we more powerful than we were in our beginnings? Who came up with the term, “the world’s policeman” and the Stealth Bomber? Of course we are. Are we more advanced? Yes! Who came up with the internet? (No, not Al Gore. Americans!) Are we bigger? Yes. Our nation has expanded its reach since our founding.
Are we greater, though? Is our character and morality stronger? Do we have MORAL strength and impact? Do we know and do justice? Does our love lead the rest of the world? You see, we can find a million parallels with the Roman Empire, but whoever said falling from that was bad?
Is there something that we need to decline and fall from in America? Furthermore, is it possible to decline and fall and, in fact, end up advancing and rising? Oh, I completely believe so. What parts of America need to fall so that our nation’s soul rises? Solomon wrote that “godliness makes a nation great” (Proverbs 14:34–nlt). What if Rome never WAS great? What if America (forgive my bold suggestion) actually has only been innovative or powerful? What if we haven’t actually been fully great?