1600 years after Rome's fall: a church and state lesson
By Gustav Niebuhr
Let's just take a break from the present burning question (or is it a conflagration?) over whether U.S. Muslims enjoy the same First Amendment protections as other Americans to build a house of worship and cultural center in lower Manhattan.
Why turn to another topic, if momentarily?
That's because Tuesday, Aug. 24, begins a rather special anniversary week: what 1600 years of historians have called the Sack of Rome. On that day in 410, Alaric, commanding his army of Visigoths, broke into the erstwhile capital of the Roman Empire, and spent the following days looting and burning. His feat marked the first time in many centuries that outsiders had penetrated Rome's defenses.
The popular reaction proved as frenzied as the assault. Refugees took to the roads and seas, many heading straight across the Mediterranean to the relative safety of Roman North Africa. A good many people viewed the civilized world as plunging to its end.
Can there possibly be anything positive to read into this?
I think so. The empire, since the conversion of Emperor Constantine nearly a century earlier, had gradually been bringing its official might to bear in support of Christianity, the very faith its rulers once persecuted. The old, pagan religions suffered greatly. And then, in 410, that remarkable Roman state suffered a mortal wound. At the time, Christians expressed enormous fear for the future.
But their faith would not only survive, but also grow, vastly (well before subsequent European states emerged again to support it).
Is there evidence here for the benefit of keeping religion separate from government power--for the good of both--so that neither meddles in the other's affairs, such that no religionist tells a political leader what to say, and no political leader tells religionists where they might and might not build their houses of worship? One might so argue.
Gustav Niebuhr| August 24, 2010; 10:57 AM ET Save & Share:
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