In this post I want to summarize one of the key ideas of John W. Robbin’s essay Christ and Civilization. His general thesis is that western civilization finds its roots in the Protestant Reformation which began in the 16th century. Robbins insists that the foundation of all western political, social, and economic ideals and liberties stem from the revival of the preaching of the true Gospel during the Christian Reformation; it was not built upon the ideals of ancient Greece and Rome, and certainly not upon Roman Catholicism. Not only are these three inimical to economic, social, and political freedoms, but they also enforce a mandatory State religion in order to coerce the masses. My goal for this post is not to analyze Robbins’ positive thesis about the basis of western civilization, but to discuss the correlation he draws between the pagan religion of ancient empires, and totalitarianism, drawing from examples that Robbins lists in his essay, from the Bible, and from my general knowledge. Afterwards, I will explore the implications that these conclusions have upon the modern world.
Paganism and Totalitarianism
In order to begin, I have to define some of the terms that I will be using. When discussing “paganism” I define it generally as a religious worldview and practice involving some of these characteristics: polytheism, divination, astrology, magic, relics, holy shrines, sex worship, incantations, bowing before statues, and worship of the dead (Robbins 9). The term is fairly self-explanatory. It encompasses virtually all polytheistic religions in the ancient world.
What I mean by “totalitarianism” should be obvious too; it is the complete dominance of the State in every aspect of the lives of its citizens, including social and religious, economic, and political. Totalitarianism equals the exclusion of all significant civil liberties by the ruling governmental authority.
The Unifying Characteristic
Many non Christian political perspectives devolve into totalitarian schemes, but the superstition and error of pagan beliefs are especially susceptible to it. There are many other unsavory implications of pagan culture that Robbins mentions such as radical sexual perversion (8), forced collectivism (10), constant warfare (14-15), social inequality (16), weak work ethic (17), infanticide (19), glorification of death in general and suicide in particular (20-21), and State imposed religion (13).
The common characteristic of all of the systems of government that I will present in this post is the unification of religion and governmental authority, i.e. State imposed religion. In these ancient nations, there is no conception of the separation of Church and State, so to speak. Many pagan forms of government have this in common: “The worship of the State, in the person of the divine Emperor” (14) and “that worshiping the Emperor is the way to avoid punishment” (13). The beliefs and practices of the following ancient civilizations lead each of them to centralize the political power into a single ruler, who then becomes a god in their eyes. Thus, these religions and other belief systems hostile to Christianity have a tendency to reject the true and living God, and replace him with the idol of the State in the person of the Emperor.
I will present three examples that I have come up with on my own, and the three examples that Robbins gives in his essay. Afterwards, I will analyze these findings in the context of our contemporary culture.
1. Ancient Egypt
A lecture by Dr. Greg Bahnsen explains that the Egyptian Pharaoh was reverenced as the sun god. On top of this, from a basic Google search it is clear that not only is Pharaoh “a representative of the divine,” but also “the chief arbiter over all humans.”
In another place it says “The Pharaoh was not only a god-king but was responsible for holding the balance of [the universal order].” Pharaoh was the head of Egyptian religion and politics: “He encompassed both the secular and sacred which to Egyptians were one and the same.”
With no basic distinction between political and religious issues, the ancient Egyptians created a leader that combined the two authorities. Pharaoh became the representative of the sun god, and religious reverence to him was necessary for the existing governmental structures and societal unity. As a result, the Pharaoh became the ultimate authority, dominating all aspects of life.
2. Ancient Babylon
The Biblical account is a rich source of information that bears witness to the same Emperor worship that Robbins indicates in his essay. The prophet Daniel gives an account of the mandatory religious adherence to the pagan religion of the State and the worship of the Emperor in ancient Babylon. We can see that State religion and totalitarianism is inseparable from these advanced, ancient cultures.
Daniel’s experience in Babylon:
“King Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold, whose height was sixty cubits and its breadth six cubits. He set it up on the plain of Dura, in the province of Babylon. Then King Nebuchadnezzar sent to gather…all the officials of the provinces to come to the dedication of the image that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up…And they stood before the image that Nebuchadnezzar had set up. And the herald proclaimed aloud, ‘You are commanded, O peoples, nations, and languages, that when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, you are to fall down and worship the golden image that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. And whoever does not fall down and worship shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace.‘” (Daniel 3:1-6).
3. Ancient Persia
In the same book of the Bible, Daniel gives an account of the mandatory State worship in Persia:
“Then these high officials and satraps came by agreement to the king and said to him, ‘O King Darius, live forever! All the high officials of the kingdom, the prefects and the satraps, the counselors and the governors are agreed that the king should establish an ordinance and enforce an injunction, that whoever makes a petition to any god or man for thirty days, except you, O king, shall be cast into the den of lions’” (Daniel 6:6-8).
4. Ancient Greece
The previous three examples I came up with on my own, but these next three are mentioned in Robbins’ essay Christ and Civilization in detail. Robbins says the following about ancient Greece and Rome:
“Greece and Rome were not secular societies; they were drenched in religion. There was then no significant distinction between sacred and secular…” (8).
“Both the Greek poleis and the Roman Empire were totalitarian church-states” (12).
Although the Greeks may have differed with respect to their leaders being the focal point of religious worship, ancient Greece, like the rest, were opponents of freedom of thought and freedom of religion. Ancient Greece, although often touted as a beacon of democratic freedom and a significant source of American political ideals, was responsible for exercising coercion over the citizens of each city-state to practice the State religion, in order to maintain and expand the power of its rulers.
A. Socrates’ Trial and Death
Robbins tells us, “Socrates was executed for being an atheist, that is, for corrupting the youth of Athens by teaching them to doubt the gods of Athens” (12).
Whether or not Socrates was guilty of the charge or not, Plato’s statements in his dialogue, The Apology, demonstrates the political norms of that day included the right of the authorities to force the citizens to worship the State gods. The accusation under examination was this:
“Socrates is guilty of corrupting the minds of the young, and of believing in supernatural things of his own invention instead of the gods recognized by the State” (Tredennick 48).
Socrates was found guilty of disbelief in the gods of the Athenian State, and was thus sentenced to death. Ironically all of this took place at a time in Athen’s history when the government was a democracy. Ancient Athens was never a champion of civil liberties, but of tyranny, and its fundamentally pagan world view of enforcing religion on its citizens was an integral part of forming these authoritarian political practices.
Plato was a contemporary and a student of Socrates, and most likely witnessed his trial. Plato lived in the same time period, in the same city, and under the same cultural-religious conditions as the court that sentenced Socrates to death. In Plato’s dialogue, The Republic, Plato articulates a political framework that is even more totalitarian and coercive than the city-state of Athens. In reaction to the injustice perpetrated by the Athenian government, Plato, instead of forming ideas that encourage liberty, created an ideal political system that was even more tyrannical, maintaining the right of the governing authorities to enforce the State ideology.
Plato argues that the Guardians (a.k.a. the rulers of his hypothetical city of Calipolis) ought to form new doctrines about the gods, and that the writings of ancient Greek poets like Homer and Hesiod ought to be severely edited, or banned:
“…we should not allow Homer or any other poet to make such a stupid mistake about the gods” (Ferrari 65).
“That would be one of the laws [a State imposed religious doctrine] about the gods…that god is not responsible for everything, but only for what is good” (Ferrari 66).
“When someone talks in this way about the gods [a way that contradicts Plato’s view of the gods], we shall get angry with him, and not grant him a chorus. Nor shall we allow teachers to use [Homer’s] works for the education of the young” (Ferrari 70).
Plato used religion as a means to support his political system; he desired to use it in order to shape the citizens of Calipolis into his own liking. Like the examples before him, religion and politics blend together; disbelief in the gods, or contrary ideas about the gods, is equal to rebellion against the State.
Aristotle advocated for a similar type of religious devotion to the state as Plato. Consider the following quote from Aristotle:
“For although the good of an individual is identical with the good of the state, it is evidently greater and more perfect to attain and preserve the good of the state. Though it is worth something to do this for the individual, it is nobler and more divine to do it for a nation or state” (Fieser 115).
By advocating for this type of collectivism, the role of the individual becomes irrelevant in Aristotle’s politics. When the good of the State is the same as the good of the individual, the State can conceivably do anything it wishes; it inevitably increases its own authority and control over its citizens to benefit its rulers. Robbins briefly notes the nature of Aristotle’s political theory also:
“The State is the highest of all…. Citizens belong to the State….” (25).
Summary of Ancient Greece
Ancient Greece, just like my previous examples, was witness to the religious coercion of the State, and its most famous philosophers suggested the same totalitarian schemes. The cultural paganism of this civilization helped to prompt its mandatory religious adherence to the gods through the State in order to maintain societal unity. They rejected the true and living God and made a god out of their governments instead.
5. Ancient Rome
As quoted previously for Ancient Greece, “Both the Greek poleis and the Roman Empire were totalitarian church-states” (12).
The Imperial Cult
Just as the rulers of ancient Egypt and Persia made themselves gods to be worshiped, the Roman Caesar did the same. The ancient Roman practice of worshiping the State in the person of the Emperor/Caesar is known as the Imperial cult of Rome.
In order for Augustus Caesar to be worshiped properly, Pliny instructed “Let a table [for sacrifices] be set by him in the middle of the theater and an incense burner be placed there, and let the representatives and all magistrates offer sacrifices….in honor of the god Augustus the Savior and Liberator” (Robbins 14).
The citizens of the Roman Empire were free to worship the various gods they wanted, as long as they also worshiped the Emperor. Failure to worship Caesar resulted in imprisonment, torture, and/or death:
“Pliny was pleased to report that his methods of torture and imprisonment were encouraging people to worship the [Roman State] gods” (Robbins 13).
“worshiping the Emperor is the way to avoid punishment” (Robbins 13).
6. Roman Catholicism
The Roman Catholic Church, like these previous examples, represents a pagan, totalitarian, Church-State system of Emperor worship.
A. Pontifex Maximus
The Roman Catholic papacy is a continuation of the monarchy of ancient Rome. The title “Pontifex Maximus” translates to “supreme priest,” and was an ancient title of the Roman Emperor. As time went on, the Pope took over the position of the Roman Emperor, and titles that were once attributed to the Emperor became the titles of the Roman Catholic pontiff. Thus, one of the titles of the Pope has become Pontifex Maximus as the link shows.
The corruption of the Roman Church mainly began when “Constantine proclaimed himself head of the Catholic Church” (Robbins 33), which made a governmental ruler a direct authority over the church. The Popes and ecclesiastical ministers who proceeded Constantine followed suit by becoming rulers over both the church and the government:
“The Bishops of Italy became the heirs of the Roman Senate, and the Bishop of Rome became the Emperor’s successor” (Robbins 29).
Another one of the factors that lead to the corruption of the church of Rome and its unification to the Roman State can be attributed to Constantine’s subsidization of the church.
Constantine told the Roman Bishops, “…certain named ministers of the lawful and most holy Catholic Religion should receive some contribution towards expenses…If later you find you still lack means to carry out my intentions [to give money to church ministers]…you must not hesitate to ask Heraclidas our treasurer for whatever you find necessary” (Robbins 34).
Constantine gave the leaders of the Roman Church a blank check, and thus the Roman church received State funding, power, and influence. It became united to the Roman State and inherited its totalitarian, pagan system of government. Thomas Aquinas, the official philosopher of the Roman Catholic Church, advocates that all secular and religious power to be given to the Pope, just as all secular and religious power was under the control of ancient Roman Emperors:
“In the pope the secular is joined to the spiritual. He holds the apex of both powers, spiritual and secular…” (Eccles Meg 130).
B. The Pope as God on Earth
The Roman Catholic Pope is analogous to the rulers of ancient Egypt, Persia, and Rome, in that the Pope has become God’s representative on Earth. Just as Pharaoh was the representative of the Egyptian sun god, the Roman Catholic religion has turned the Pope into the “Vicar of Christ,” i.e. the representative of Christ on Earth. Furthermore, even the title “Pontifex Maximus” may be interpreted as a divine label when viewed in a Christian context. Since Pontifex Maximus means “supreme priest,” it is analogous to Jesus Christ who is called the “great high priest” in Hebrews 4:14, and therefore the Pope claims a title that only properly belongs to Christ.
Pope Leo XIII summed it up succinctly in his papal encyclical on “The Reunion of Christendom,” saying, “We [Pope Leo/the papacy] hold upon this earth the place of God Almighty…”
An authoritative Roman Catholic commentary on The Code of Canon Law attributes the power of the Pope to the power of Christ: “Supreme power [of the Pope] is indivisible, for it is the power of Christ…” (Eccles Meg 132).
An authoritative text of the Roman Catholic Church, called the Unam Sanctum, attributes rebellion against the Pope as rebellion against Christ, and makes loyalty to the Pope a prerequisite to salvation: “we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.” Practical reverence and worship of the Pope is therefore an integral aspect of Roman Catholicism, since submission to him is necessary for salvation according to the decrees of the Unam Sanctum.
C. State Imposed Religion
Just as it was characteristic of the previous ancient civilizations listed, the Roman Catholic Church utilizes inquisition, terror, and the threat of death to keep people loyal to the Pope’s religion and political rule. Just as the governmental authorities of Persia punished Daniel for not worshiping the Emperor Darius, and just as Pliny enforced religious devotion to the Roman Caesar, “the Roman Church-State…has continued the ancient Roman practice of inquisition and punishment” (Robbins 13).
Thomas Aquinas, the official philosopher of the Roman religion, promoted State coercion:
“there are other unbelievers, such as heretics and all apostates who once accepted and professed the faith. These are to be compelled, even by physical force, to carry out what they promised and to hold what they once accepted” (Eccles Meg 133).
The murder that has been committed by the papacy in the name of religious enforcement is beyond the scope of this post, but here is an example. Pope Martin V, in a letter to the King of Poland, demanded the extermination of a non Roman Catholic sect called the Hussites:
“make it a duty to exterminate the Hussites….While there is still time, then, turn your forces against Bohemia; burn, massacre, make deserts everywhere, for nothing could be more agreeable to God, or more useful to the cause of kings, than the extermination of the Hussites” (Eccles Meg 134).
In closing, Lord Acton, a Roman Catholic scholar of the 19th century, commenting on these types of massacres commanded by the papacy, wrote the following:
“The papacy contrived murder and massacred on the largest and also the most cruel inhuman scale. The [the popes] were not only wholesale assassins but they made the principle of assassination a law of the Christian Church and a condition of salvation” (Eccles Meg 113).
A Contemporary Perspective
A. Woodrow Wilson
The 20th century was witness to a revival of the same State worship as the ancient world, even amongst historically Protestant nations. The examples of State worship are obvious in Hitler’s Nazi Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s People’s Republic of China, and in North Korea, but few realize that the United States preceded all of these with the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. Jonah Goldberg notes in his book Liberal Fascism:
“Wilson’s view of politics could be summarized by the word ‘statolatry,’ or state worship,” believing that “the ever expanding power of the state was entirely natural” (86).
Like the Gestapo of Nazi Germany, the KGB of the Soviet Union, and the Jesuits of the Roman Catholic Church, Wilson used secret agents to enforce State ideology and eliminate dissent:
“More dissidents were arrested or jailed in a few years under Wilson than under Mussolini during the entire 1920s. Wilson arguably did as much if not more violence to civil liberties in his last three years in office than Mussolini did in his first twelve…Wilson had unleashed literally hundreds of thousands of badge-carrying goons on the American people and prosecuted a vicious campaign against the press that would have made Mussolini envious.” (80).
B. The Social Gospel
Not only did Wilson attempt to eliminate dissent like other 20th century totalitarian dictatorships, and like the ancient civilizations previously mentioned, but religion was also used as the means to accomplish political ends. J. Gresham Machen in his famous book Christianity and Liberalism (1923) describes the prevalent vogue of his day for using religion to achieve political goals:
“religion has become a mere function of the community or of the state. So it is looked upon by the men of the present day…[Religion] is thought to be needed merely as a means to an end. We have tried to get along without religion, it is said, but the experiment was a failure, and now religion must be called in to help” (134).
Obviously, the religion of choice in 20th century America was Christianity; however, this so-called Christianity possessed none of the essential nor historical theological doctrines of the Protestant Reformation or the Bible. The purpose of Christianity became political in its character, a means to support the state, and therefore Goldberg notes that historic Christian theology suffered as a result:
“But while Christianity was being made into a true state religion, its transcendent and theological elements became corrupted” (87).
Faith was taken away from God and morphed into faith in the State, faith in the cause of socialism, “social justice,” and faith in humanity. Christianity to these modernists became moralistic deism, humanism, or practical atheism. Those who were not guilty of complete religious hypocrisy were guilty of immanentizing the coming of Christ and the kingdom of God through political means, a danger that I would argue is a characteristic of postmillenial eschatology.
The new-found faith in humanity and exaltation of the role of government may be traced back to a complete transformation of the American public’s view of human nature. The Christian view of human nature is that we are sinful and depraved, and therefore government is a necessary evil that has been set in place by God to curb the violent, wicked actions of men. However, people like Charles Finney in the 19th century revived a more theologically optimistic view of human nature by teaching the ancient heresy of Pelagianism, and the pagan Greek concept of free will. Friedrich Schleiermacher in the 19th century, who founded the “Christian” modernist movement, also became an authority on human nature, deemphasizing the reality of human corruption due to sin, arguing that sin is merely a subjective state of consciousness (251). Machen tells us the outcome of these various cultural factors, writing in 1923:
“…a remarkable change has come about within the last seventy-five years. The change is nothing less than the substitution of paganism for Christianity as the dominant view of life. Seventy-five years ago, Western civilization, despite inconsistencies, was still predominantly Christian; today it is predominantly pagan…Paganism is optimistic with regard to unaided human nature…” (Machen 58).
Belief in the Christian doctrine of Total Depravity (let alone Christianity) has virtually disappeared in the United States, and its replacement, faith in the goodness of humanity, has helped to lead people to place an inordinate amount of trust in the State to solve our problems. Therefore, the American mindset has become better acclimated to radical “progressive” politics, which is a meaningless buzz word that justifies the expansion of governmental powers. The recent presidential elections of Barack Obama prove America’s propensity towards Emperor worship.
D. Barack Obama
The hype surrounding Obama’s first presidential campaign shows the same markers of Emperor worship. I cannot tell whether it is a joke or not, but this blog has compiled many sources to demonstrate that the United States has reached a point in its history where it is ready to display the same ancient pagan tendencies. I remembered in my freshman year of high school, I saw many of my peers wearing Obama t-shirts and he was honored in one of my school’s assemblies, compared with popular figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi, before he had even took office. It is has become a long-standing joke that Barack Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize without accomplishing anything to deserve it.
Obama is merely another personality that the American public became hypnotically enamored with. He had done virtually nothing to deserve being elected president in the first place, yet he ran the best presidential campaign in American history, getting people to sing praises to his glory.
I will not discuss the successes or failures of his presidency, but suffice it to say that America has allowed itself to place an excessive amount of hope in its political leaders, even to the brink of worship in some cases.
The Spirit of Antichrist
What each of these examples have in common is a spirit of antichrist: hostility to the true and living God, and a tendency enforce political ideals through false religion. Pharaoh, Caesar, the Pope, and all leaders who accept glory due to God alone, are all types of antichrist:
“For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God” (2 Thessalonians 2:3-4).
“Also [the beast] was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. And authority was given it over every tribe and people and language and nation, and all who dwell on earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain” (Revelation 13:7-8).
These are some of my thoughts on the matter, though obviously they are incomplete. It is amazing to me to be able to see this pattern throughout human history. Even in the United States, we are in danger of falling captive to pagan, Statist politics. All it takes for it to happen is a serious epidemic in our country, and a charismatic figure to rally around… I have written enough. I will leave you to the rest.
Ferrari, G. R. F., ed. Plato: The Republic. New York: Cambridge University, 2000. Print.
Frieser, James, and Norman Lillegard. A Historical Introduction to Philosophy. New York: Oxford UP, 2002. Print.
Robbins, John W. Christ and Civilization. Unicoi: Trinity Foundation, 2007. Print.
Robbins, John W. Ecclesiastical Megalomania: The Economic and Political Thought of the Roman Catholic Church. Unicoi: Trinity Foundation, 2006. Print.
Tredennick, Hugh, trans. Plato: The Last Days of Socrates. N.p.: Penguin, 2003. Print.