The isolated ruling class in charge of a bloated government increasingly turns its back on the millennial religious traditions that had once made their nation great. Under the prods of a small cadre of activists, they strip the public square of the symbols of that old time religion. All that their ancestors revered they now call abominations; the assumptions that once governed their lives they now dismiss as foolishness. Religious conservatives warn that this can only lead to societal collapse, while the inert masses let their cultural birthright be squandered.
This is, of course, the Roman Empire of the fourth century AD. The elites, egged on by monks and bishops, dismantled paganism and installed Christianity as the official religion in just a few decades. In 313 Constantine ended the persecution of Christians, granted them official toleration, and began currying their favor. While his new capital, Constantinople, was conspicuously free of temples, he was careful not to upset pagans, using their symbols and observing the kind of public rituals that all emperors had preformed since the days of Caesar Augustus. By 390 Emperor Theodosius completed the cultural revolution by banning paganism all together and declaring Christianity the state religion.
The revolution did not go uncontested. From 360 to 363 paganism appeared to enjoy a revival under the brilliant but short-lived Emperor Julian. He tried to force Christians back into second class status and went so far as to set up a pagan imitation of the Church, complete with a hierarchy of priests obliged by law to run charitable organizations and live virtuous lives. Julian’s reformed paganism was a spectacular failure, for wisdom, charity, and faith could not be imposed from above.
A few years later the young Christian Emperor Gratian (375-383) began the systematic depaganisation of the Roman State. Under the direction of Ambrose, the feisty bishop of Milan, Gratian cut off state support for pagan temples, abandoned the priestly functions of the Emperor, and removed the altar to the goddess Victory from the Roman senate. His successors Valentian II and Theodosius continued these policies, resulting in a complete victory for the Christian partisans of the culture war.
The conservative statesman and man of letters Symmachus was the foremost apologist for paganism in those days, pleading Rome not to abandon its ancient traditions lest it loose the very things that had made it great. The most thorough Christian response is The City of God, written by St. Ambrose’s disciple St. Augustine of Hippo. It is written after the sack of Rome in 410, in a time when barbarian tribesmen were running wild all over the empire. While Christians and pagans alike had argued that Rome would be saved if only it choose the proper religion, Augustine admits from the ruins that both were wrong. Even while externally professing the best of religions, men were still free to be good or evil, and God never promised political success to Christians. In the end, he argued, God was concerned about more important things in human history than the survival of an empire. It seems he was right to look beyond the immediate political disaster, for Christianity went on to become the engine of European civilization for the next thousand years.
In The City of God, Augustine is laboring under a triple irony. First, he needs to justify the Christian victory of the culture war in the wake of the very social collapse which conservatives like Symmachus and Julian had predicted. Second, Augustine’s attack on the vice, obscurantism and internal contradictions of pagan religion shows that he almost completely misunderstood old Roman paganism, which never made any claim to being virtuous, clear, or consistent, being a sort of pantheistic fertility religion. Third, and perhaps most relevant, this wrong-headed attack on paganism went unanswered, showing that the pagans themselves had long since given up hope of understanding, or even believing in the rites they practiced.
It is often repeated that with Theodosius’ reforms Christians switched from the role of the persecuted to being the persecutors: destroying pagan symbols, banning rites like fortune telling or animal sacrifice, and razing temples. Throughout the fourth century mob violence raged in big cities like Alexandria of Egypt, where Christian, Jewish and pagan militias would engage in tit-for-tat murders and arson. The persecution, however, was on a much smaller scale than what Christians had suffered under pagan Rome. No pagan was ever executed by the state for practicing his religion, except perhaps for a few members of the Manichean cult. Pagans proved much more willing to kill for their religion than to die for it, the exact opposite of the early Christians, and so it went out with a whimper, not a bang. The unrealistic programs of Julian, the incapacity of paganism to launch an effective reply to Christian criticism, and the ease of its demise were all proof that paganism was an exhausted cultural force.
Like us, the Romans were fighting their culture war just as the bureaucracy of the Empire was collapsing under social, demographic and economic pressures they only dimly understood. Today, activists in the West seem to be coming close to their goal of displacing Christianity with something not unlike late Roman paganism: ritual over belief, contradictory doctrines blended happily together, and boundless respect for power of the state. They say it will create a more tolerant culture, even world peace, but we should ask the early Christian martyrs of Rome, or the contemporary Muslim victims of Hindu repression in India, just how tolerant paganism can be.
Will our culture war turn out as sadly for Christians as the first one did for pagans? Probably not, because not all religions are the same. Pagan religion is a collection of opaque rites and fragmented, dream-like narratives, none of which claim to be true, but which act as vehicles for human aspirations to an unknowable, unreachable divine mystery. Christianity, like the Judaism from which it springs, is an act of faith in the God who reaches from across the abyss to personally intervene in concrete moments of human history, revealing something of himself in the act. As such, Christianity implies a personal conviction, and unleashes personal energies in a way that paganism never could. Even if the worst happens and Western Christians are somehow reduced to the second class status they suffer in other parts of the world, they will remain the “creative minority” shaping their world.