The House of Representative's unfortunate Christmas resolution reveals -- yet again -- that many Americans have no clue what a republic is, even though we all live in one. The clueless include many who serve in public office, though they supposedly help govern this republic of ours.
The House resolution states in part: "Whereas the United States, being founded as a constitutional republic in the traditions of western civilization, finds much in its history that points observers back to its Judeo-Christian roots." Bah humbug. This is a religious-right lie about history...one of the many lies that ultraconservatives in government feel they have to tell to protect their position.
One of the oldest, most problematical traditions of "western civilization" is monarchy. The United States of America was founded to make us independent of the British monarchy.
Indeed, the original model -- the Roman republic -- was created around 509 B.C. when the Roman tribes revolted and got rid of a bad monarchy. This revolt put the power of government into the hands of non-royal officials, namely a council of elders (the Senate) and tribunes elected by the tribes. The word republic comes from Latin res publica, which translates as "the people's entity."
There is nothing in the long and colorful history of Western republics that is inherently "Christian" or "Judaeo." After the Roman republic corrupted itself into an empire in 27 B.C., and after Christianity took over the corrupt empire in the 4th century A.D., the Christians didn't hesitate to adopt the machinery of imperial government and make it work for them in their own corrupt way. The result was the Holy Roman Empire, which lasted over a thousand years, from 800 to 1806. Republics didn't reappear in Europe until the Middle Ages, as various cities and factions tired of Rome's central control and established some strongholds of defiant independence. Example: the republic of Venice, which was governed by its Doge and a central council, and gave the Pope the finger for many centuries.
In 1581, the Dutch bravely freed themselves from the Holy Roman Empire and established the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands -- the first republic of the modern era. Since the Dutch had adopted Protestantism, the Dutch republic was Protestant-friendly rather than Catholic. The Dutch example, which united several Dutch states under a Stadtholder and his council, provided a model for our own American version, which united 13 states under a President and his Congress. But this debt we owe to the Dutch is seldom mentioned in U.S. history classrooms, because we Americans always like to claim that we're "the first" to invent anything.
The history of republics shows that the idea can be stretched to accomodate a military dictatorship, and can also favor a particular religion. England's one little adventure with a republic followed its civil war, when a Protestant government headed by military leader Oliver Cromwell got rid of the monarchy and established the Commonwealth of England in 1649. However, Cromwell's republic was oppressive in its own way. When he died, the Commonwealth collapsed in 1660 and the British invited the monarchy back.
However, a republic could also be fiercely anti-Christian. Best example: the French republic created in 1792 by the French Revolution, which aimed to rid France of the Catholic Church and the monarchy that had supported it. Another example: the First and Second Republics in Spain, which tried to end Bourbon monarchy and break the stranglehold of Catholic state religion on that country.
Republics can also be stretched to accomodate democracy and neutrality on religion. Hopefully that will continue to be the case with the U.S.
I count myself lucky to have grown up in a time (1940s-50s) and a state (Montana) where there was still good K-12 education and kids were taught history. In civics class, I got clobbered with "republics" and all this other stuff, and have never forgotten. Thank you, thank you to my teachers in Powell County High School for inspiring me to love and investigate history. Today we Americans have to know our real history if we want to be savvy about all the b.s. about "Christian government" that is being slung at us -- especially during this election year.
Copyright (c) 2007 by Patricia Nell Warren. All rights reserved.