Scholars and pundits for generations have been making comparisons between the United States and the late Roman Empire. Such analogies date back to America’s Founding Fathers, notes Andrew Sullivan in a recent piece for New York Magazine. These men were deeply conscious of the decline of the Roman Republic, brought on by bitter and bloody civil wars, a monied elite who corruptly controlled its political processes, and its military over-extension. Since our founding, America has possessed a cottage industry of “America must beware the history of Rome” articles and books, including veritable Catholic historian (and sometime Crisis contributor) Thomas F. Madden. Yet there’s another ancient state worthy of comparing to a troubled United States: the Northern Kingdom of Israel.
The Northern Kingdom was created in the aftermath of the death of Solomon. The ten northern tribes of Israel—which excluded Judah and Benjamin—refused to accept Rehoboam, the son and successor of Solomon, as their king. Rehoboam had refused to lighten the burden of taxation that his father had imposed on his subjects. A new king not of the Davidic line, Jeroboam, was proclaimed king over all Israel at Shechem. The two southern tribes in turn became the kingdom of Judah. Both kingdoms progressively became less obedient to the laws of God, though Israel’s kings were by and large far more susceptible to pagan influence.
As part of his attempt to consolidate power and legitimize his authority, Jeroboam installed competing religious centers at Bethel and Dan. Both sites featured images of calves, which Jeroboam declared represented Israel’s God. Jeroboam also crafted a competing liturgical calendar, and “stationed in Bethel priests of the high places he had built.” In other words, Jeroboam sought to replicate the true religion of God—this one serving his own political interests.
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This is the first way that we can perceive the comparison between the northern kingdom and America. Like the first Israelites, early Americans felt a call to establish a “city upon a hill,” and foster a nation that would honor the laws of God. For many generations, most Americans believed their nation to be a Christian one, and promoted laws that communicated Christian truths and prioritized Christian morality. Yet in recent generations that Christian consensus has been eroded, and new competing allegiances, one might even say religions, have taken hold. Secular elites in our nation’s political, educational, and media institutions have promulgated the religion of the autonomous self, the religion of consumerism and materialism, and the religion of sexual gratification. All of these have disassociated Americans not only from God but from each other, as we, untethered from religious, familial, and civic bonds, pursue our pleasures and passions.
Several generations after Jeroboam, Ahab became king of Israel in 869 B.C. Ahab married the infamous Sidonian pagan Jezebel. The two established an altar to the ancient Canaanite god Baal and a “sacred pole” in Samaria. The “sacred poles” were associated with fertility rites, and some scholars believe they may have involved orgiastic sexual cultic practices. Yet this was no multicultural, live-and-let-live pluralism. Queen Jezebel had those who denounced her promotion of polytheism killed.
This is the second area of overlap between Israel and America. Alternative “religions,” lifestyles, and ideologies were originally presented by secular elites as part of living in a free, open, and pluralist society. Yet increasingly we’ve witnessed the steady push to eliminate any vestige of Christianity from the public square. This, we’re told, is part of creating an “equal,” “non-preferential” America that is truly liberal and refrains from endorsing any one single set of beliefs. But this isn’t enough. It can’t be, because it is impossible to create a totally neutral public square.
Thus cities and states punish Christian adoption agencies that refuse to submit to LGBTQ ideology. Democratic presidential candidates like Beto O’Rourke propose to tax religious institutions that don’t approve of same-sex marriage. And public school systems, supposedly indifferent to political ideologies, promote transgenderism, even in elementary schools. Parents who try to prevent their children from being exposed to this are forced by law to comply.
As Israel became increasingly beholden to pagan beliefs, it embraced not only the sexual perversions of Levantine paganism but its murderous qualities as well. The Old Testament prophets, for example, condemned the practice of child sacrifice common among the Canaanites precisely because the Jewish people were inclined to try it for themselves. An official of Bethel named Hiel sought to rebuild the city of Jericho and sacrificed two of his sons as foundation offerings. One was buried under the new town and the other under its gates.
Likewise, American become an increasingly unsafe place for the weak and vulnerable. Like the ancient Israelites, we have sacrificed millions of our children to our gods by the wicked means of abortion. The “god of self” demands we have the freedom to murder our own children if necessary. During a March pro-abortion rally, actress Elizabeth Jean “Busy” Philipps said that she is proud of the abortion she had when she was 15 years old because it enabled her to have her career. In a January Golden Globe acceptance speech, actress Michelle Williams similarly credited abortion and contraception for her professional success: “I wouldn’t have been able to do this without employing a woman’s right to choose, to choose when to have my children, and with whom.” Those who refuse to countenance this right to kill are greeted with threats, like those recently made by Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, who told conservative justices on the Supreme Court that they would “pay the price” if they ruled in favor of laws restricting abortion.
As the northern kingdom of Israel turned its back on God, it devolved into a chaotic land of idolatry, perversion, and murder. Ultimately, its rebellion cost the kingdom its very existence. In 732 B.C. and again in 720 B.C., the brutal Assyrian empire conquered and exiled much of the population. It was an ignominious end to an ignominious people.
The United States, sadly, is on a similar collision course with disaster. An America that rejects God and turns inward to pursue its own twisted passions could very well meet a similar end, destroyed from both without and within. Yet we are a people of hope, and this is a season of hope. There is no better time than Lent for us to bow before God, do penance, and pray that He would have mercy on our nation for its rebellion. Such demonstrations of penitence, as the story of Jonah and Nineveh tell us, may very well stem the judgments we deserve.
Image: Adoration of the Golden Calf by Nicolas Poussin