Abuse of power, disregard for common good: both harbingers of decline

Michael Schuttloffel is the executive director of the Kansas Catholic Conference.
Michael Schuttloffel is the executive director of the Kansas Catholic Conference.

by Michael Schuttloffel

A growing corpus of declinist literature finds in the fall of the Roman Empire an analogy for our own times.

Depending on the political hue of the commentator, American greatness is on the downslope because of “imperial overreach,” or economic exhaustion, or a loss of respect for republican principles — each symptoms of the disease that felled history’s most storied civilization.

Under-commented on, however, is the extent to which Americans themselves have taken on the traits of little Roman emperors, seeing in the state not a political system for the promotion of the common good, but rather a spoils system for the satisfaction of their individual appetites. If indeed college students still throw toga parties, it is in some sense apropos, because that is the age when Americans now “don the toga” and begin demanding that others service their wants.

Nowhere is this Caligulaization of American society more evident than in the elevation of total sexual freedom to preeminence above all other rights. America’s founding documents are silent on the sexual license, yet the explicit guarantees of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are now trumped by free love.

The right to life — the first right cited in the Declaration of Independence, and the foundational right for all other rights — is trumped 1.2 million times each year by the right to enjoy consequence-free sex, even at the cost of your unborn child’s life.

The right to religious freedom — the first right guaranteed by the First Amendment, and the very foundational purpose of the American project — is now trumped by the right to have Catholic institutions pay for your contraceptives, even though this may result in the closure of Catholic hospitals, charities, schools, and businesses.

The right of every child to a mother and a father is now trumped by the right of adults to enjoy whatever sexual arrangement they please. Millions of “green” Americans who insist on solar panels, electric cars, and all-natural artisanal cheeses harbor no similar concern over whether it is “natural” to encourage a generation of kids to be raised without mothers or without fathers by same-sex parents.

“Progress” these days is perhaps best symbolized by the fact that 43 years after Apollo 11, America does not have the capacity to put a man in space. But Americans each have smartphones with more computer power than Neil Armstrong’s spaceship. Technological innovation, like our political culture, is now oriented toward immediate gratification of the individual above all else.

In our time, no less than imperial Rome, morally corrupt abuse of power is a harbinger of national decline. In America, though, power ultimately lies with the people. There is no debauched dictator to blame. We are all Caligulans now.

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