Historian Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975) wrote a classic analysis on the rise and fall of civilizations. In his 12-volume work, A Study of History, he examined 21 great civilizations. Of all these, the only one that survives intact to the present is the United States of America.
If you were to poll Americans about whether they could envision the fall of their nation, most would probably react with a resounding negative answer.
Such a response would be no surprise. Citizens of some of the great empires of the past thought the same, but America would be wise to heed the lessons of history.
America has existed as a nation for less than two and a half centuries. Yet one of the longest-lasting civilizations of the past, ancient Rome , fell after more than 12 centuries. This was after standing first as a monarchy, then a republic, then an empire.
In the waning days of the Western Roman Empire, which came to an end in A.D. 476, how did the Romans themselves feel about their status? Author Bryan Ward-Perkins wrote, "Romans before the fall were as certain as we are today that their world would continue for ever substantially unchanged" (The Fall of Rome, 2006, p. 183).
Even before the actual fall of the empire, the city of Rome was humiliated in A.D. 410 when an army of Germanic peoples plundered Rome. It's interesting to note the observation of one person of that era: "'There will never be an end to the power of Rome,' wrote the court poet Claudian, shortly before the city's sack by the Visigoths" (Cullen Murphy, Are We Rome? 2007, p. 31).
Can we see parallels between America and ancient Rome that portend the collapse of American civilization? Several authors have pointed out strong similarities.
Historians have cited many reasons for Rome's fall. One scholar compiled a list of 210—some credible and others far less so.
Some have to do with external factors and others with internal. We will focus here on the most striking internal problems that weakened Rome and that are now likewise destroying the United States from within.
Massive spending: A staggering financial burden
As with many empires, financial difficulty contributed to the fall of Rome. "Military expenditure was by far the largest item in the imperial budget" (Ward-Perkins, p. 41).
The military was financed directly from taxes, as there was no mechanism in the Roman structure to finance it through governmental borrowing. Lacking sufficient tax revenue, Rome was unable to adequately defend itself in the early fifth century when hostile armies invaded. The rampaging of barbarian armies disturbed the economy, causing revenues to plummet at the very time they were most urgently needed.
Another author adds: "There was no obvious means of quickly or substantially increasing output . . . It is unlikely, therefore, that there was much extra slack left by the year 400 to fund still larger armies after the major increases in tax extracted a century earlier to fund the new armies on the Persian front" (Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire, 2006, pp. 447-448).
In recent decades America has relied on massive debt to finance much of its expenditures. According to data on the White House Web site on Jan. 5, 2009, the national debt was over $10 trillion and increasing at a rate of nearly $100,000 per second.
Of expenditures financed from the general revenue fund of the U.S. government, 30 percent is allotted to defense. Defense spending has risen steadily since 2001, when America embarked on the war on terror. The official defense budget for the United States is $516 billion dollars, but other sources put it as high as $1.1 trillion.
The costs are driven up largely by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—neither of which is part of the official Department of Defense budget. By the end of 2008, the cost to fight the Iraq war alone totaled over $580 billion. This breaks down to more than $341 million per day—$4,681 per U.S. household and $1,721 per citizen.
In addition to its own wars, America provides the military muscle to guarantee the security of many other nations. Its military spending equals that of the next 15 countries combined. And although America is the world's number one economic power, it provides a security umbrella for the number two and four powers, Japan and Germany.
Eventually Rome's extensive commitments became too financially burdensome. "Rome had over-extended herself . . . The cost of maintaining the 'Pax Romana'—the Peace of Rome—over most of the known world was proving too great even for the enormous resources of the mighty empire . . . The cost of its gigantic military program was only one of Rome's headaches" (Daniel Mannix, The Way of the Gladiator, 2001, p. 3)
The United States' financial commitments are taking a heavy toll just as they as did on ancient Rome.
Interest on the national debt alone devours 19 percent of U.S. general fund revenues. A hugely expensive bailout package for the financial services industry was approved in October 2008. Then in February Congress approved an even larger financial package to stimulate America's ailing economy.
This will produce, some financial experts estimate, a budget deficit of some $2 trillion—more than four times higher than recent deficits have run. As the Jan. 3, 2009, issue of The Times of London warned, "Though he may not yet know it, the role for which the US President-elect has been chosen is the management of national decline" (Matthew Parris, "Rusty Superpower in Need of Careful Driver," emphasis added throughout).
Moreover, this is not even taking into account massive looming problems in financing Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid as tens of millions of baby boomers begin to retire. By some estimates, when these unfunded liabilities are factored in, America's true national debt is greater than $50 trillion —roughly half a million dollars for every U.S. household!
America is spending itself into national bankruptcy. In 2004 Peter Peterson, a former chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank in New York, wrote: "America was once the greatest creditor nation to nations around the globe; it is now the largest debtor in the world . . . we depend on an unprecedented $2 billion of foreign capital every working day. If foreign confidence were to wane, this could lead to a dreaded hard landing" (Running on Empty, front cover flap).
Yet national leaders seem to discern no real problem with this, as we saw with the previous administration: "President Bush says that the deficit is just 'numbers on paper.' Vice President Cheney claims that Reagan proved 'deficits don't matter'" (ibid.).
But free spending and fiscal irresponsibility do matter. As cultural commentator Jim Nelson Black summarizes, "All the lessons of history tell us that the loss of economic discipline destroys nations and people" (When Nations Die, 1994, p. 55).
Cultural decay: Family and moral breakdown
Roman family life never lacked its problems. For example, during the days of the Republic men had rights that women did not have; women's status was low compared to men's. However, during this period morals and family life were wholesome compared to what they would later descend to during the days of the empire.
Noted historian Will Durant offered the following description of sex and marital life in Rome: "From beginning to end of Roman history the sexuality of the common man remained essentially the same: coarse and free, but not incompatible with a successful family life. In all free classes virginity was demanded of young women . . .
"The first recorded divorce in Roman history is dated 268 B.C.; a suspicious tradition claimed that no divorce had previously occurred since the foundation of the city" (The Story of Civilization, Vol. 3: Caesar and Christ, 1971, pp. 68-69).
But during the reign of the first emperor, Augustus (27 B.C.–A.D. 14), even this semblance of morality had vanished. "A large number of native-stock Romans avoided wedlock altogether, preferring prostitutes or concubines even to a varied succession of wives. Of those who married, a majority appear to have limited their families by abortion, infanticide . . . and contraception" (p. 222).
Augustus longed for conditions of the days of the Republic when the national moral standard was higher. He decided to take action. "By his powers as censor and tribune Augustus promulgated . . . a series of laws . . . aimed at restoring morals, marriage, fidelity, parentage, and a simpler life" (p. 223).
Yet he was unable to stem the tide of rising immorality, and the standard of civic morals continued its downhill slide. Not all Roman women consented to or plunged themselves into the depraved ways that had formerly been the domain only of men, but some did.
As one historian explains: "Before long women began to betray the troth which they should have plighted to their husband . . . The Epigrams of [the poet] Martial and the Satires of Juvenal bear witness to the prevalence of adultery . . .
"It is obvious that unhappy marriages must have been innumerable in a city where Juvenal as a matter of course adjures a guest whom he has invited to dinner to forget at his table the anxieties which have haunted him all day, especially those caused by carryings on of his wife, who 'is wont to go forth at dawn and to come home at night with crumpled hair and flushed face and ears'" (Jerome Carcopino, Daily Life in Ancient Rome, 2003, pp. 93-94).
"From this time on, we witness an epidemic of divorces . . . The disease tended to become endemic under the empire" (p. 97).
Continuing: "We must not imagine that it was always the man who took the initiative in these matters. Women in their turn discarded their husbands and abandoned them without scruple . . . Juvenal points the finger of scorn at one of these: 'Thus does she lord it over her husband. But before long she vacates her kingdom; she flits from one home to another wearing out her bridal veil . . . Thus does the tale of her husbands grow; there will be eight of them in the course of five autumns . . .'" (p. 99).
Whatever strength there had been in the familial unit of society in Rome had been diluted. "The fine edge of character had been blunted in the Rome of the second century" (p. 79).
Over time the empire would steadily decline, its corruption and lack of ethics escalating to plague levels. "Honesty and nobility of character disappeared, sexual immorality became rampant, and speaking out against excess or corruption was called treason. To squelch all evidence of resistance in their policies, Roman emperors from Nero on used the army and their personal guard as a sort of thought police to ferret out dissent and punish opponents" (Black, p. 75).
Even the moral aspects of Roman religion in its various forms, which had once helped arrest the more sinister and evil aspects of human nature, lost their power. The result was a further decline of society in general, which contributed to Rome 's eventual collapse.
What about America's moral state?
Though America's moral standard may not be as low as that which existed before the collapse of the Roman Empire, we have abundant cause for concern. According to a Sept. 15, 2008, statement from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in 2007 there were 7.4 marriages per 1,000 Americans and 3.7 divorces. That's half as many divorces as marriages. According to the same agency, in 2005, 37 percent of all births were to unmarried women.
Such statistics spell serious trouble for the moral and spiritual health of any nation. The family is the basis of all sound societies; when it fails, inevitable decline sets in.
As the family goes, so goes the nation. The United States may well be living on borrowed time because of the high rate of divorce-affected families and single-parent homes.
The prophet Ezekiel wrote, "The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge" (Ezekiel 18:2). The meaning of this statement is that choices result in consequences for those around and generations that follow. In the case of divorce and single-parent families, the consequences can spell disaster.
Children of divorce
The best measure available in America of the familial dynamics of divorce was borne out in a study of the long-term effects it has on the children of parents who split up.
Following a 25-year landmark study, Judith Wallerstein explained one of the traumatic effects of divorce: "As they [the children in the study] explain so eloquently, they lose the carefree play of childhood as well as the comforting arms and lap of a loving parent who is always rushing off because life in the postdivorce family is so incredibly difficult to manage" (The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, 2000, p. 296).
She continued: "We have a consensus that children raised in divorced or remarried families are less well adjusted as adults than those raised in intact families . . . In adulthood it affects personality, the ability to trust, expectations about relationships, and ability to cope with change . . . Children soon learned that the divorced family has porous walls that include new lovers, live-in partners, and stepparents. Not one of these relationships was easy for anyone" (pp. 297-298).
Adult children of divorce who do marry may find their own union to be at higher risk. She explained: "In coping with the normal stresses in a marriage, adults from divorced families were at a grave disadvantage. Anxiety about relationships was at the bedrock of their personalities and endured even in very happy marriages" (p. 300).
Adolescence, she noted, "begins early in divorced homes and, compared with that of youngsters raised in intact families, is more likely to include more early sexual experiences for girls and higher alcohol and drug use for girls and boys" (p. 299).
Some of the consequences of early sexual experience for girls and boys are tragic. "In fact, young people account for half of the 19 million new STD [sexually transmissible disease] cases each year . . . Teen pregnancy occurs in about 750,000 girls each year" (U.S. News and World Report, Sept. 15, 2008).
It's with good reason that Jesus Christ stated that rigid constrictions are to be placed on divorce (Matthew 19:3-9). He understood that divorce is harmful and that destruction of families is like a cancer that rots a society from within. That cancer is eating away at America just as it ate away at ancient Rome.
What does the future hold?
So we ask again: Could America fall? Could it go the way of powerful nations and empires of the past?
America's shocking financial status and standards of morality do not look good. Can they be turned around, or do they portend the collapse of America as a superpower?
We need to remember how the Romans viewed their circumstances—thinking their empire would always continue, that it was too big to fail. They were wrong, and their sense of self-satisfaction did nothing to stem their decline.
Ultimately it is God who grants nations the power to ascend to greatness and the ability to remain there.
In the late seventh century B.C. a mighty empire arose centered in Babylon, whose greatest king was Nebuchadnezzar II. God communicated to this mighty ruler through Daniel the prophet that it was God who gave him his kingdom and glory (Daniel 2:21). The king had to learn a traumatic lesson that could have easily brought down his kingdom.
Later on in the next century, a succeeding king named Belshazzar dared to scorn the revelation that God had given to Nebuchadnezzar (see Daniel 5). The result was that God brought Belshazzar down and with a swift blow delivered a fatal wound to both the king and the Babylonian Empire.
It is God who gave America its territory, its wealth, its resources and its status as a great power. But God also has the power to remove all of this; indeed Bible prophecy reveals that He will do just that.
What should you do?
The United States is sliding toward a national debacle. Bible prophecy foretells that it will happen and the signs are growing ever more obvious.
But America will not be alone. Eventually every nation and empire on this earth will collapse. God revealed through the prophet Daniel that this will occur: "The God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed . . . it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms [nations of the end time], and it shall stand forever" (Daniel 2:44).
No one knows exactly when this climactic end of the age of man will occur. Jesus said, "Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming" (Matthew 25:13). He did, however, explain that we can know when it is near.
Moreover, though you cannot know the exact time of Christ's coming, He clearly urges us to be in a state of spiritual readiness. The Bible contains many warnings urging that you heed and live your life according to godly principles. You can conduct your moral and family life in accordance with the Word of God. The Bible abounds with laws and examples that can instruct us on how to conduct ourselves as spouses and parents.
If you are a parent, whether married or single, you can, by looking to God's Word, be a good parent and give your children a right example to follow. In so doing, you increase the chances that they will choose to live a life that is also dedicated to God. Even if they do not, you will be rewarded with an entrance into God's Kingdom. "He who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life" (Galatians 6:8).
If you have not known or have disregarded God's commandments regarding marriage, you can begin to change that now. Even if family life in the nation around you is degenerating, you can be different. You can learn and practice morality starting from here, in spite of past mistakes you may have made.
These choices are up to you. God gave you free will, and it's His will that you use it to make wise choices and reap benefits accordingly. What are you going to do? GN