These are not the waning days of the American Empire, as some of my neo-monastic, Hauerwasian Mafia friends like to tout them. They’re not because — now read this closely — the United States is not an empire.
I know, it’s all the rage right now among progressive Christians to say that we are an empire. But we’re not. An empire has, by definition, an emperor. As frustrated as you may be by the malicious buffoonery of the Bush-Cheney oligarchy, they do not represent an emperor. Exhibit A: They won’t be in office as of January 20. In fact, it looks as though they will have virtually no power in the governance of the United States as of that date (unlike, for instance, Vladimir Putin, who set himself up as prime minister of Russia after constitutional term limits ended his presidency).
I was a classics major in college (geez, I hate it when people tell me that what they majored in during college makes them an expert in that topic), and I lived in Rome. I know how and why the Roman Empire fell, and it did, indeed, have a lot to do with office of emperor and the abuses inherent thereto.
We, on the other hand, are about to elect a new president. And with an Obama presidency (barring some unforeseen tragedy), there will be thoroughgoing housecleaning in Washington. This is what never happened in Rome. Julius Caesar, who overcame the other two members of the Triumvirate, ruled Rome pretty well. His adopted heir, Augustus (nee Gaius Octavius) was arguably the greatest ruler of that empire. And from there it was pretty much downhill (with notable exceptions). Why? Graft. Immorality. And the “divine right of kings.”
These are the very things that, centuries later, the social contract theory of John Locke overcame, and that the American Republic reacted against. Now, it can surely be argued about whether the U.S. is really a representative democracy or a republic, etc. But the U.S. can simply not be considered an empire in the governance sense of the word.
But I know that many of the aforementioned neo-monastic Hauerwasians are concerned less with the US government and more about the imperial nature of the US economy. I agree with them insofar as free market capitalism, no longer curbed by Calvinism, has no moral impediment to unmitigated greed. Capitalism worked when the “Protestant work ethic” was its engine, but it works less well when it’s primarily driven by speculation and greed. This is surely a problem that we’ve got to face.
But free-market capitalism run amok is not an American problem. It’s a global problem. Iceland’s banks are frozen because a few investors gambled more than the entire country even has. Maybe the US invented capitalism on a massive scale, but the bird has flown the coop. Globalization has made these attacks on the US economy in particular moot.
We are in the waning days, but not of the American empire, because there is no such thing. We’re in the waning days of a particular economic model. Thank God we’ve got a better form of government than an Empire to sort this mess out.