Sunday, January 7, 2007

Pagan Rome and the Establishment Clause

My latest vacation reading is God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism by Jonathan Kirsch, pop religious historian, book columnist and media lawyer. It's a fascinating read, but what does is have to do with the law?

Kirsch argues that the persecution of Christians in pagan Rome largely stemmed from Christians' conscientious refusal to offer even the most token customary recognition of the pagan gods in the course of day-to-day transactions. "What the pagans found most provocative was not the fact that the Christians chose to worship their own deity in their own way," he writes on page 16, "but that they stubbornly refused to drop a pinch of incense on the altar fire or mumble a few words of prayer in honor of the Roman deities." In his recent book on the history of the Book of Revelation, he also notes early Christians' refusal to handle the coin of the realm, bearing as it did homages to the Emperor and the gods. In the eyes of the pagan majority, the Christians were refusing to engage in the simplest acts of "civic virtue," which he compares to the modern-day, monotheistic Pledge of Allegiance.

And it's this analogy, only briefly mentioned by Kirsch, that really grabs my attention. As described by Kirsch, these tokens of civic recognition of the Roman gods do sound like our own Pledge of Allegiance, coins with "In God We Trust," and prayers at public meetings -- what the Supreme Court calls "ceremonial deism." Which makes the early Christians sound a bit like contemporary Establishment Clause plaintiffs such as Michael Newdow.

Obviously, there are huge gaps in this analogy. Pagan Rome knew no formal separation of church and state, and it came to severely persecute the Christian dissenters. As Kirsch argues throughout, pagan-Christian conflict centered on the exclusivity that defines monotheism and so outraged pagans who expected all gods to be compatible. Plaintiffs challenging "ceremonial deism" are not engaging in civil disobedience for reasons of religious conscience, but using the courts to protest what they see as acts signifying monotheists as social and political insiders, and themselves as outsiders. (In this sense the early Christians more resemble Free Exercise plaintiffs such as those who wish not to use Social Security numbers.) Defenders of ceremonial deism today don't literally expect all citizens to embrace God, only to "recognize" Him.

Still, both conflicts concern religious minorities resisting tokens of recognition of the majority religion as a condition of civic life.

So, what does this analogy do for us? Perhaps nothing in particular beyond, "hey, that's interesting." Kirsch for his own part seems both to trivialize the early Christians' refusal to "go along to get along" and to criticize today's ceremonial deism. But for me, a look at pagan Rome highlights both the unfairness of infusing civic rituals with majority belief, even in minor ways, and the differing worldviews that make it so hard for those arguing over ceremonial deism to understand one another.

I welcome your thoughts on this post particularly since I know I am skimming over many aspects of centuries of early pagan-Christian conflict, some of which may be significant for the points raised above.

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