Although the history of our country began with a Declaration that our rights are given to us by God Himself, we have, in 230 years, gone very far down the road to pure secularism. The least effort to introduce God into American public life today sends the ACLU shopping for a judge and evokes hysterics from the New York Times.
There are churchgoing Christians who have become comfortable with the idea of the religiously neutral, pluralistic state. But what are the consequences of a politics apart from God?
The Romans Tried It First
We can see exactly what such a state looks like, thanks to the sharp analytical eye of Polybius, a Greek general and historian who lived in Rome as a hostage, circa 167–150 BC.
The Roman Republic was then at the absolute height of its power and prosperity, and Polybius knew Rome intimately. He studied Rome’s history and government, praised the republic’s system of checks and balances — and then accurately predicted Rome’s demise.
Polybius was a pagan, if not an atheist, living in a pagan culture. This is what makes his insight so valuable to Christians today: there is no writer who can give us a clearer picture of what politics looks like without God and the fate of any state that chooses such a way. We should be concerned about trying to help our own republic avoid such a fate.
For godless Polybius, it was a law of human nature that nations be imprisoned in “the cycle of political revolution,” from which there could be no escape: “every state … passes through a natural cycle, first of growth, then of maturity, and finally of decay.”[i]
Polybius praised the checks and balances that kept Rome’s republic on an even keel. The consuls, Rome’s executive branch, handled foreign affairs, military matters, state finances, and the administration of justice. The senate controlled the treasury and the judiciary function of government, while providing advice and consent on international treaties. The people elected public officials and had the power to approve or veto legislation and treaties.
The consuls were beholden to the senate for funds and to the people for votes. The senate had to respect public opinion because any people’s tribune could veto any act of the senate; the senators also had to look to the consuls to execute their policies. The people relied on the consuls for national defense and the senate for domestic tranquility.
Over the whole system lay the Roman religion, which Polybius described as both “superstition … for the sake of the masses” and an indispensable civic ideology. We would describe it as “civil religion,” on the order of Thanksgiving, “God Bless America,” and the White House Christmas tree — a set of “inclusive” symbols that define America, that the great majority of citizens happily accept, but which in reality have very little to do with serious Christianity.
By Polybius’ time, Rome was strong and prosperous, all her enemies conquered, checks and balances in place and working very well, and the civil religion holding it all together. And yet Polybius predicted it would fall and described how it would fall.
The Political Cycle
As Polybius saw it, “each constitution possesses its own inherent and inseparable vice”: for monarchy, despotism; for aristocracy, oligarchy; and for democracy, mob rule.
The Romans sought to blend elements of all three forms of government into one so that the senate and the people would check the consuls’ drift toward despotism; the consuls and the people would keep the senate from turning into an oligarchy; and the consuls and the senate would prevent the voters from degenerating into a mob. Much the same sort of thinking went into the framing of the United States Constitution and permeates The Federalist Papers.
Here’s how the political cycle works, according to Polybius. Remember, he knew nothing of the Word of God; his thinking was bound to what he could observe in this world.
Starting from a state of disorder, the strongest man emerges as the leader of the people, who look to him to bring order. If he succeeds, his position becomes a monarchic institution.
Over time, kings devolve into tyrants; in 1 & 2 Kings and 1 & 2 Chronicles, very little time was needed. So the bravest and strongest men overthrow the tyrant and take over the government as an aristocracy.
Time sees the aristocracy become an arbitrary, greedy oligarchy. So the people overthrow the oligarchy and establish a democracy. Over time the democracy degenerates into mob rule, and then disorder; and a strong man is found to put things right, starting the whole cycle all over again.
Rome tried to avoid this by creating a blended form of government. As much as he admired this system, Polybius foresaw failure: the political cycle continuing its mindless revolutions.
The Collapse of Rome’s Republic
When the state “achieves supremacy and uncontested sovereignty,” Polybius wrote, and order and prosperity, and life becomes more luxurious, then “rivalry for office … will become fiercer than it should.”
With no foreign power able to threaten Rome, and domestic political problems solved insofar as was humanly possible, the quest for public office and preeminence would become an end in itself. This “craving for office,” plus the intense humiliation felt by the losers — the Roman equivalent of each party trying to impeach the other party’s winners — plus the ostentation and extravagance seen everywhere, “will usher in a period of general deterioration,” said Polybius.
The “principal authors of this change will be the masses, who … will believe that they have a grievance against the greed of other members of society” — fueled by the “class warfare rhetoric” of competing political candidates — and “are made conceited by the flattery of those who aspire to office,” Polybius said.
To win elections, candidates would have to vie with one another in offering bigger and better favors to the electorate: new entitlements, to use today’s term. And the masses, “roused to fury … constantly swayed by passion,” will no longer obey their leaders, but will demand more favors.
At that point, Polybius said, “the constitution will change its name to the one which sounds the most imposing of all, that of freedom and democracy, but its nature to that which is the worst of all, that is the rule of the mob.”
By 100 BC it was evident that Polybius was right. Demagogues like the Gracchi brothers inflamed the people’s passions; the senate became hostile and intransigent to both the people and the consuls; and Rome began to descend a steep, spiral staircase of election riots, civil war, and chaos. In Julius Caesar, the master populist, the Roman people found a strong man to restore order. From his ministrations, the republic never recovered.
What would Polybius think of our consumerist, materialist society, its intense partisanship, its politics of personal destruction, and its pluralistic, “offend no one,” all-inclusive civil religion? Do you think he’d give the United States a better prognosis than he gave Rome?
No Escape Without God
For the Christian, the secular political cycle offers no hope; for a godless thinker like Polybius, the political cycle is all there is. Without submission, by all, to God and to God’s laws, there is nothing to restrain either the people or their leaders.
Fallen, sinful human beings do not naturally submit to God. That’s why there is a political cycle. Neither do fallen, fallible human beings create infallible, permanent governments.
Unlike Polybius, we have been given the Word of God and God’s promise that someday He will write His laws upon our hearts. We can therefore opt out of the political cycle — something that Polybius, for all his intellect, could never do.
Spiritual change, of course, is brought about by God. But we can cooperate with God, willingly, by trying to reconstruct the church — an effort that is not part of the political cycle. Unlike the Roman civil religion, God’s church, the body of Christ, is not an organ of the state. In 2,000 years of church history, many states have come and gone; but the church is forever: the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
As citizens we have a role to play in the state and a duty to play it well, but our role in the church is more important. The state’s power and glory shall pass away, but God’s Word shall not pass away.
The Bible tells us so.
[i] All quotes from Polybius: The Rise of the Roman Empire, translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert (New York: Penguin Books, 1979), pp. 304–350.