Christianity came of age in what the Roman scholar Keith Hopkins calls, “A world full of gods“–the era of Rome’s history, not terribly long after the republic became an empire, marked by the rise of:

  1. mystical religiousity and
  2. megalomaniacal monarchs.

As Rome warred hard and played hard, said mystical religiosity became only more prevalent, politically relevant, and distracting, and the state become only more deified in the person of the emperor, corrupt, and militarized.

Does this perhaps sound strangely familiar?
Arguably, in the Religious Right’s support of the imperial presidency can be heard echoes of Rome’s fall, and perhaps omens of our American adventure’s end, too.

This rise in the irrational and the abandonment of any pretense of republicanism among Rome’s populace satiated by violent entertainment and gross consumption (the Romans bought and bought, and produced shockingly little; most of their luxury items and many staples came from conquered lands) was often characterized by scholars of Antiquity as a result of the influence of “Orientalism” on the Roman Empire.

First, let me point out that the term Orientalism suggests slightly different things in different academic disciplines. Also, it is considered politically incorrect. I stress that I use it here ironically. The way Western Civilization as a college or high school course was taught for generations in American classrooms was that the “Oriental” influence on Rome was a bad thing. And since America traced its style of civic spirit and government to the Roman republic, such “Orientalism” was seen as also un-American.

By that standard, adherents to nationalistic Christianity today in the US are behaving in an absolutely un-American, an “Oriental” fashion: advancing religiosity within the republic and backing the concept of a strong, sole national leader. One can see this in the Religious Right’s injection into the nation’s consciousness and political discourse and activity everything from Intelligent Design to praying, Bible studies, or the laying on of hands or anointing with oil in The White House and federal chambers.

When scholars of ancient Rome used to refer to “Orientalism,” they didn’t mean influences from China or India or Japan, but influences from what scholars today term the Near East, including but not limited to Persia (modern Iran), Egypt, and Asia Minor, (modern Turkey). The ancient foe of both the Greek republics and the Roman republic (and Empire) was Persia. It followed a monarchical model of government in which a royal person and his court had all the rights, and the masses–the populace–had few if any. This was the way things worked in Egypt, too, with its Pharaohs and later Ptolemaic and other rulers, and the many kings of the lands of Asia Minor.

And born of these same numerous lands, the outlaying regions of Roman geo-political influence and beyond, were the mystery cults, of which Christianity (or more correctly “early Christianities,” for there were competing versions of the faith for some time), comprised only a representative sample. There was the cult of Mithras from Iran, the cults of Attis and Cybele from Asia Minor, the cult of Isis from Egypt, and the list goes on and on. They were referred to as mystery cults because they involved privileged mystical knowledge or tended to have elements of secrecy and symbolism in their rites–such say, say, the symbolic eating of the flesh of a god-man, or submersion in water.

Of course, it’s a tongue-in-cheek accusation that the Religious Right is guilty of an “Orientalism” that is weakening America; but, is the nod-and-a-wink in the terminology or the argument itself?

I’ll let you decide just how valid the argument is.

But let me ask: Could it be–could it possibly be–that our once Enlightenment-inspired, reason-loving, and disestablishment-based republic, increasingly imbued by popular conservative evangelical Christian culture, is eschewing the humanism, rationalism, and secularism enshrined in the Constitution that was embraced by our Founding Fathers, be they the Christians among them or the secular deists like Washington, Jefferson, and Adams?

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