Greco-Roman or Judeo-Christian?

There was a news item recently about the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925.  Seems that a statue to Clarence Darrow, the attorney who fought and lost the battle to teach evolution in a Tennessee county, has been erected there causing controversy across the so-called Bible Belt.

As Americans of Italian origin, we have the honor of pointing out that Western society owes its secular perspective to our ancestors.  In fact, though many people describe our nation as Judeo-Christian, it is in fact better classified as Greco-Roman.  Christianity may be our major persuasion and the Old Testament may underlay much of our cultural memory, but our intellect is firmly planted in the rationality transmitted to us by Classical Italy and Greece.  It survived the Dark Ages and won the battle against religious dogma during the Renaissance and Enlightenment.

If we have learned anything in these past decades it is that we cannot take for granted what has been bequeath to us.  Religious fundamentalism still grips the globe.  Democracy, the equality of women, the respect for science, and the liberation of the mind all depend on our secular operating system.  Faith serves many of us as a moral and spiritual guide – the old adage “Cattolico ma non fanatico.”  Admittedly, there are many flaws in our secular world but, unlike dogmatic religion, we recognize the need for non-violent change.

The endless wars and terror throughout the Middle East are, at base, Muslim religious strife (Shiite vs Sunni).  Europe suffered such calamities during the Reformation, culminating in the Thirty Years War.  But it eventually resolved its intra-Christian wars through secularism.  Not so Islam.  Even India of late has turned toward an intolerant Hinduism.  Disturbingly, there is a sizeable population in our Bible Belt that prays for “the end of days.”

As Italian Americans we should be at the forefront of secular defense.  Not too long ago I was jarred to read an op-ed piece by author Bruce Feiler in Newsday claiming that Abraham and Moses were the inspiration of our Founding Fathers.  (Feiler has written extensively on his Jewish roots, even tracing the story of Abraham for a PBS special.)  I was compelled to rebut Feiler’s perspective with a letter to Newsday.  One comment I made was: “If Moses were the ‘original proponent of freedom and justice for all’ (as Feiler wrote), how does he explain the prophet’s liquidation of 3,000 Hebrew dissidents at Mt. Sinai (Exodus 32:28)?”  The version of that massacre in DeMille’s Ten Commandments did not come from the Torah.” It was clearly spun for “religious-correctness.”

Admittedly, the story of America cannot be told without acknowledging the religious convictions of the Founding Fathers, but ultimately they chose to separate their new nation from religion.  They chose the Greco-Roman model.

Last time I looked, the Great Seal of the United States bore a Roman eagle on it, not the Israelites crossing the Red Sea, as Mr. Feiler claimed the Founding Fathers really wanted.  There may be sculptures of Moses on the facades of our capital’s buildings, as he observed, but those buildings are based on Greco-Roman forms – with graven images forbidden by Moses.  Even our symbol of justice is a blindfolded classical goddess, not King Solomon.  There are two Roman fasces on the walls of the House of Representatives.  Our national motto E Pluribus Unum is writ in Latin, not Hebrew.  The Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution based on Plato, Livy, Cicero, Machiavelli, Beccaria, Locke, and Rousseau, not Moses.  Their ideal citizen was Cincinnatus, the Roman patriot.

Mr. Feiler may have lost his bearings walking the trail of the Bible on his PBS specials.  He may believe there is a winding path from the Holy Land to America, but it is alongside a straight, paved Roman road.

Freedom of Religion can be traced to the Edict of Milan (AD 313), not anything from Judea.  Child welfare had its roots in the Alimenta (“feeding fund”) launched by Emperor Trajan.  Public works, public entertainment, women lib, fashion, representative democracy, secular law, science and engineering, free speech, expressive arts – all the things that separate us from today’s intolerant theocracies – we owe to our ancestors.

We should not let self-serving revisionists go unchallenged.  -JLM

2 thoughts on “Greco-Roman or Judeo-Christian?”

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  2. The founding fathers, who were almost exclusively of English origin, no doubt had in their collective consciousness a recognition of their Roman roots (established by 300 years of Roman rule). Winston Churchill, in “His History of the English Speaking People” says: “For nearly 300 years Britain, reconciled to the Roman system, enjoyed in many respects the happiest, most comfortable, and most enlightened times its inhabitants have ever had”. This same sentiment was probably responsible for the founding fathers using Roman models in founding the United States. Nowadays, we see a definite move to reject Western Civilization and to marginalize it, and that will probably continue unabated. However, there is nothing on the horizon to replace it – so then what?

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