I said last post that the heart of the matter in political heat is the heart. That is to say, we often disagree so furiously with each other because we have allowed something other than God to be our heart’s first love.
I was deeply moved by the election of Barack Obama in 2008. I did not endorse everything he advocated, but I was nevertheless happily amazed that our country chose to elect an African American—and that such an unprecedented change in power had occurred without violence (a rare thing in world history: John McCain admirably championed that peace when he silenced the bitter voices of his own constituency during his concession speech). When I saw the President-elect’s daughters on the victory platform on election night and imagined that they would soon be in the White House, not as guests, but as hosts, I could not help but weep. But in the midst of all the euphoria, I was also troubled by the nearly messianic status that Mr. Obama had come to enjoy. “He is only a man,” I kept saying.
What drove the adulation, I think, was idolatry—undue reliance on a political leader.
We do the same sort of thing when we rely too heavily on a particular movement. When the Christian Right rose to power in the 1980s, many Christians who had heretofore been inactive politically began to discover that they could affect the national agenda. And with that discovery came a tendency to expect too much of political solutions to the nation’s deepest ills.
There is nothing idolatrous about political activism or about advancing skilled politicians whom you feel will push things in a good direction. The idolatry arises when we begin to think that things will be so much better if “we can just get this law enacted,” or “we can just get this person into office and that person out of office,” or “we can just mandate this book for the history curriculum and that book for biology.” Certainly leaders and policies make some difference-- but not as much as we sometimes think, given our sprawling polity and selfish hearts. How easily (and unfairly) we tend to blame elected officials for the social ills of our time, as if greed, family problems, uneven pay scales, failures in education, and inner-city violence were simply the government’s fault. Those in office bear responsibility and their decisions affect our lives to some degree, but such scapegoating, which appears with a vengeance during election years, reflects an unrealistic and idolatrous reliance upon the machinery of government. We often grow to hate certain administrations and figures because we once loved them too much. Just think of the astonishing political reversals in the 2010 midterm elections.
If some of us tend to make a god out of public empowerment, others among us tend to make a god out of privacy. Or, perhaps, at different times we tend to make gods out of both.
Think about privacy. In certain areas of life we passionately want to be left alone to make our own way. My observation is that we do this whatever end of the political spectrum we occupy. From the left we cry foul whenever religion finds its way into our relationships (“Religion has no right to impose a particular view of marriage on me!”). From the right we cry foul when Uncle Sam finds his way into our wallets (“Congress has no right to impose such limits on my income!”). Those on the left assert the “right” to terminate a pregnancy with as much fervor as those on the right assert the “right” to bear arms.
The issues may be different, and may carry different weight, but what awakens the passion in each case is the threat, either perceived or real, to personal freedom. And the passion increases in direct proportion to how fervently we believe that that freedom is essential to our lives—the degree, in other words, to which we have permitted it to occupy a godlike place in our hearts.
The worship of privacy may be more of a problem inside the church than we think. We may feel safe and even comfortable “going public” about our politics at church, but that may be only because there is no risk that doing so will invite any challenges. After all, we may have chosen a church where our private convictions risk no violation because everyone agrees with us. This happens, incidentally, on both the left and the right, and we must examine ourselves before being critical of others about it.
More discussion of idolatry next blog