The last sentence in St. John’s first letter is: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” It’s placement as the apostle’s final word gives it substantial weight. He clearly regarded it as important.
We do not. The sentence hardly seems to fit our postmodern era. Idols were a part of their culture, not ours. Humanity has advanced beyond our ancestors’ crude worship, lavished as it was on lifeless, heartless symbols and images.
Think again. Consider the images that we have endowed with power: the apple with a bite taken out of it (Apple Corporation); the golden arches (McDonald’s); five yellow bars, radiating out like sunrays (Walmart); the smirky gold smile (Amazon). These images connote power, even world dominance.
One year out from the U.S. general election, I can think of two other symbols that connote power. The Donkey and the Elephant. They promise to their respective worshipers the same kind of things that idol worship has always offered: control, comfort, and a better life.
In idolatry, a non-divine power subverts human worship for itself and usurps humanity’s God-given authority to exercise dominion over the world. Such dominion – loving, wise, and just – remains a human responsibility, but idolatry robs humanity of the authority to fulfill it. The responsibility to rule is outsourced to someone or something else – corporations, media influencers, governments, and more.
When our practice of politics becomes idolatrous, we give away our authority to make the world a better place while at the same time excusing ourselves from the responsibility of doing so. The cost of idolatry is always high: the loss of human freedom. When we sacrifice to any idol, including the images of the Elephant and the Donkey, the sacrificial victim inevitably turns out to be us. Worshiping God empowers us. Worshiping anything else dehumanizes us and robs us of our power.
That we have made politics an idol is evidenced by our abdication of responsibility to do something about our own problems. For example, a person who has made politics an idol will say he is concerned about saving traditional marriage but do little to save his own marriage. A person who casts her vote in the hope of improving race relations but does nothing to welcome people of other races and ethnicities into her life may be an idolater.
Of course there are things we can do together that we cannot do alone, and for those things the collective power we can exercise through government is necessary. But if we are not doing what we could do as individuals; if we are surrendering our authority and responsibility to government, we are flirting with idolatry.
When we trust some power other than God to make our lives or the world better and offer our devotion to it, it quickly begins to take over God’s rightful place in our lives. We become dependent on it. We (to use the language of biblical discipleship) “follow it,” probably on Facebook and Twitter, the cable news networks and in print. If we see that our idol is under siege, we become fearful.
An intelligent, informed worship of God brings the worshiper peace and self-control, but the worship of an idol always brings fear and agitation. If this is true, and if politics has become an idol for many people, we would expect to find anxiety, distress and anger surrounding the practice of politics in our nation. We would expect to see people lose control and act like the world will fall apart should their party fail to gain ascendancy. In other words, we would see exactly what we are seeing.
America is not being torn apart by politics but by the idolatry of politics. Politics is good and right in its place and America has as good a system for doing politics, because of our constitution, as any nation in the world. But while politics is right in its place, it is wrong in God’s place; in fact, it is a devil. This is where many Americans now stand (or kneel): in front of the idol that is politics. We, who say, “In God we trust,” must repent of this and reserve that sacred spot for God alone.
First published by Gatehouse Media