Joan Frawley Desmond, is the Register’s senior editor. She is an award-winning journalist widely published in Catholic, ecumenical and secular media. A graduate of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family, she lives with her family in California..
A while back I read Cullen Murphy's Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America. which examined the similarities between the 21st century United States' overextended global role and ancient Rome's embitious effort to sustain its control of an unruly empire. Murphy also discussed the internal decadence that pervaded both empires, but that subject was not his primary focus.
Now, in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision striking down part of the Defense of Marriage Act and Justice Kennedy's majority opinion that attacked the "animus" of lawmakers that would deny marriage rights to same-sex couples, Victor Davis Hanson returns to this theme in a June 27 post on National Review. Hanson writes
BY A.D. 200, the Roman Republic was a distant memory. Few citizens of the global Roman Empireeven knew of their illustrious ancestors like Scipio or Cicero. Millions no longer spoke Latin. Italian emperors were a rarity. There were no national elections.
Yet Rome endured as a global power for three more centuries. What held it together?
A stubborn common popular culture and the prosperity of Mediterranean-wide standardization kept things going. The Egyptian, the Numidian, the Iberian, and the Greek assumed that everything from Roman clay lamps and glass to good roads and plentiful grain was available to millions throughout the Mediterranean world.
As long as the sea was free of pirates, thieves were cleared from the roads, and merchants were allowed to profit, few cared whether the lawless Caracalla or the unhinged Elagabalus was emperor in distant Rome.
Hanson suggests that contemporary American institutions show signs of an equally impressive capacity for endurance, despite the nation’s mounting social, political and economic dysfunction.
Something likewise both depressing and encouraging is happening to the United States. Few Americans seem to worry that our present leaders have lied to or misled Congress and the American people without consequences.
Most young people cannot distinguish the First Amendment from the Fourth Amendment — and do not worry about the fact that they cannot. Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln are mere names of grammar schools, otherwise unidentifiable to most.
Yet, the majority of citizens continue to get up every day and head to work. They take care of their families and and pay their taxes without a second thought.
Like Rome, America apparently can coast for a long time on the fumes of its wonderful political heritage and economic dynamism — even if both are little understood or appreciated by most who still benefit from them.
Hanson is right: Our leaders and most of us take the stability and endurance of our institutions and citizenry for granted. On June 26, Californians who approved a voter initiative that effectively barred same-sex "mariage" learned that state officials could refuse to enforce the law with impunity. There were no demonstrations to speak of, and those who sought to defend traditional marriage in the Golden State have not stopped paying their taxes. But the next time they consider a petition drive to put a voter initiative on the ballot, will they work with others of like mind to make it happen, or stay home and watch a good movie?