Morality Matters: If America Continues to Shed the Values of Her Judeo-Christian Heritage, She Will Surely Follow Ancient Rome into Bondage. Freedom Cannot Long Coexist with Moral Depravity

Article excerpt

The history of ancient Rome is the classic example of the descent from virtue into corruption, from the moral restraint of republic to the intemperance of empire. Many Roman historians and commentators living in the early decades of imperial decadence--Cicero, Suetonius, Tacitus, Juvenal and others--placed great emphasis on the loss of virtue, both among citizens and rulers, as a major cause of Rome's decline. "How few were left who had seen the republic," lamented Tacitus of the early years of the empire. "The state had been revolutionized, and there was not a vestige left of the old sound morality."

Historians have long drawn parallels between ancient Rome and the United States, and with good reason. Both Rome and America began their climb to prominence as republics, with written constitutions, popular participation in government, and clearly defined limits on the powers of state. Both saw almost uninterrupted military success and growth in commerce. Both began to expand their commercial and military presence abroad, until they became the preeminent powers of their respective times. And both saw a gradual erosion in popular morality that accompanied their rise in power and prosperity.

Moral Decline

In the case of" Rome, as Tacitus pointed out, this decline in morality betokened the end of the republic and its replacement with imperial tyranny. In the case of the United States, the final chapter has not yet been written. But if America continues to shed the moral values of her Judeo-Christian heritage, she will surely follow ancient Rome, sooner or later, into bondage. Freedom cannot long coexist with moral depravity.

Empires such as ancient Rome have always aroused admiration, and their fall, regret. This is because empires, the greatest of all the works of human hands, embody man's endless quest to deify himself and his works--to erect, as it were, another Babel to set at defiance the laws of heaven. The enduring monuments that empires build for themselves, from the Pyramids to the Colosseum, inspire wonder from succeeding generations. Empires usually fall because of material causes--political, economic and military decrepitude. The Roman, Ottoman, Mongol, Aztec, British and countless others all followed this same trajectory.

A far more important question is why republics--limited governments based on the rule of law--rise and fall. In the decades leading up to the American founding, a number of respected thinkers weighed in on the subject of morality and its relationship with limited government. One of these was French political philosopher and historian Gabriel Bonnot ("Abbe") de Mably, whose writings were greatly admired by the Founding Fathers. "A strange sort of politician," Mably observed, "would that legislator be who should think that it is only [necessary to make] laws, and men would obey them of course. He may have settled the rights of every citizen, and laid down fixed bounds for justice; but this is doing little or nothing: if our passions are left to act, they will soon have broken down those fences; a thousand chimerical pretences will set aside legality. Be the laws ever so well framed, injustice, being seconded by cunning and chicanery, and emboldened by impunity, will soon become the general principle." Mably may have underestimated the staying power of a properly designed constitution, but his underlying premise is true: No body of laws, no hoary traditions, and no written constitution can forever escape the tidal pull of moral degeneracy.

Republics arise because of man's upward reach, his desire to frame laws and organize a state in conformity with unchanging principles, and to maximize his opportunities for improvement. The indispensable characteristic of republican government, as Montesquieu pointed out, is virtue. "When ... virtue ceases," the great French political thinker warned, "ambition enters those hearts that can admit it, and avarice enters them all. …