What would Caesar do?

If the United States really were a new Roman Empire, then President Bush would not be so civil

by Gene Edward Veith

According to European "anti-war" protesters, the United States is a new Rome, seeking to dominate the world through sheer military power, bent on conquest of the oil-rich Middle East and making it part of the new American Empire. If President Bush is a new Caesar, some comparisons are in order.

American war-planners fretted about Saddam Hussein's plans to withdraw his troops into the cities, forcing U.S. troops into urban warfare that would mean a heavy toll in civilian casualties. The deaths of innocent Iraqi civilians would be a terrible thing, and the U.S. military is making every effort to minimize them.

A Caesar, in contrast, was overjoyed to find his enemies concentrated within cities. All he had to do was to lay siege and either starve them out or breech their walls. A common ancient tactic was to give a besieged city one opportunity to surrender, with the understanding that if it did not, when the city fell, every man, woman, and child would be put to the sword.

President Bush is planning to liberate the Iraqi people, establishing a democratic government and spending billions of dollars to rebuild their nation. Caesar would often "decimate" his defeated enemies: kill every 10th man.

Americans are rightfully squeamish about war, agonizing over moral fine points and feeling guilty about what may have to be done. Caesar waged war ruthlessly, with few qualms and no limits. His revenge knew no bounds. If terrorists from a particular tribe had somehow managed to knock down the Pantheon, the retaliatory carnage would have been total. One shudders to think what a Caesar would do with nuclear weapons.

Americans seek to build an international consensus, taking their case to the United Nations and a divided, largely pacifist Europe. Caesar's reaction to a veto from Gaul would likely go beyond irritation.

Much of the world is saying that they are more afraid of President Bush than of Saddam Hussein. This is greatly distressing for Americans to hear, but Caesar would be greatly pleased at those kinds of poll results. He would doubtless agree with Machiavelli, that latter-day master of classical statecraft, who observed that it is better for a ruler to be feared than to be loved.

In contrast to the Roman Empire, American policy—even when waging war—is shot through with moral considerations and ethical principles. These may sometimes get in the way of something so primal as fighting a war, but we should be thankful that our leaders operate under moral scrutiny and self-scrutiny. Rome was pagan, but America was constructed by Christians, who knew that there is a higher law than the state and who limited their leaders' power accordingly.

America is a nation "under God." This is in stark contrast to the Caesars, who claimed to be gods. The outlawed phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance is a bulwark to American liberty, signifying that America's government can never claim absolute power and that its policies must always be subject to a higher authority.

There is, however, one sense in which President Bush and Caesar are similar. Both are entitled to "bear the sword."

According to Romans 13, earthly rulers are authorized by God to protect their people. Not to regulate businesses or run the economy or "improve" people's lives. Rather, God uses the vocation of the ruler—even non-Christian rulers such as Caesar—to punish evildoers and to protect the innocent. This they do by "bearing the sword." The magistrates who use weapons against criminals and the military forces who use weapons against enemies of the nation are responsible before God to use their power rightly and not (as often happens) to protect the evildoers and punish the innocent.

Bearing the sword is the business of the state, not the church. Caesar has the sword, but the church's only weapon is the Word. Christians can indeed participate in the debates about going to war in their vocations as citizens, but the church, as such, is to concentrate on the kingdom of God.

Eight hundred years ago, the pope declared a Crusade, offering indulgences that supposedly would allow a soldier who died while fighting the Muslims to go straight to heaven. This Christian jihad, whose promise of salvation through homicide is exactly that of the terrorists today, arguably got us into this mess. Now the pope, having become more or less pacifist, has sent delegates to President Bush to urge him not to go to war.

But the church does not have authority over the state. Churches should indeed call the government to account when it acquiesces in gross moral evil (such as legalized abortion). But in the details of defense policy, security council resolutions, and military decision making, the church should render unto Caesar.

Used by permission of World Magazine. Copyright ©2003.