On Political Idols

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Elizabeth Scalia addressed political idolatry at First Things Tuesday. She writes:

The first time I observed American Christians creating idols of their ideologies was during the presidency of George W. Bush; I saw people put enormous faith in a president and his policies because—through their post-9/11 prisms—they came to regard his election as God-ordained. Especially within the online political forums I frequented from 2001-2003, Bush seemed nothing less than an agent of the Lord meant to avenge America’s dead, and in so doing either bring peace to the nations or usher in the messianic age. […]  
Then came the election of 2008, with idols arising amid both the religious right, who swooned for Sarah Palin’s heartfelt nationalism, and the secular left, who called Barack Obama “The One” and “The Lightworker” while Obama propelled the “anointed” analogies forward with his own rhetorical excesses. I started wondering about idolatry, again. What was driving Americans to paint their candidates—these merely human people—with brushes so gobbed-up with malice or over-laden with love? It was impressive enough that Palin had been an effective governor with a sound record on energy policy; why did some need to see her as Mother America and others need to savage her until her humanity could be disregarded? It was historic enough that Obama was the first serious African-American contender for the Oval Office; why was it necessary to herald him with halos, until the other side could only see the devil?
A nation that had witnessed outsized displays of evil and heroism during 9/11, seemed once again—as in those early days with Bush—to need to see something larger than life in her leading players; it was demanding a dose of divinity from its frontrunners, so the opposition must, in turn, become diabolical.

Yes, we do that. We’re fairly Manichaean: The world is divided up into good and evil. Like Star Wars: Jedi and Sith Lords, the Rebel Alliance and Imperial Forces. Now Scalia thinks our temptation to see our favorite politicians in messianic terms has faded this election cycle, but I’m not so sure. To be sure, the halos have disappeared from the President and I’ve yet to see many halo shots of Saint Mitt (except for some taken by creative photographers, and this idolatrous nonsense). But our political discourse still drips with apocalyptic overtones. Many feel the country is really on the brink — the brink of financial collapse, the brink of a return to raw patriarchy, the brink of a return to geopolitical fecklessness and betrayal.

To be sure, we are facing real problems. For my part, I’m concerned with the state of the family, one political party’s zealous commitment to the culture of death, the $16 trillion dollar debt, the decline of private space for free association and freedom of religion, and so on. As the father of young children, I resonated with Victor Davis Hanson’s piece Tuesday, “The Terrifying New Normal,” in which he laments our parlous financial situation, especially what it means for young men. (I’m concerned for my daughter, too, but life seems especially hard on young men these days in terms of unemployment and, more broadly, personal development. College enrollment right now is about 60-40% female; that can’t be a good sign, however committed we might be to gender equity in most things.)

But politics must remain politics and God must remain God. (That chair’s taken, as it were.) Scalia thinks that we’ve surrendered the messianism of the 2004 and 2008 election cycles and substituted for it a raw commitment to ideology. Maybe; but I’m dubious, for we’ve got a long history in this country of speaking of our politics and politicians in religious terms. William Jennings Bryan famously said that the those advocating the gold standard would crucify mankind upon a cross of gold, while closer to our own day Kennedy and Reagan employed the imagery of the “city on a hill” from Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:14, rhetoric rooted in the Puritan preacher Jonathan Winthrop’s famous sermon of 1630 delivered while still on the Arbella. Clinton promised a “new covenant” with voters, while Bush referred to America as the “light of the world.” (That chair’s taken, too.)

Christians ought to be concerned that our symbols are being appropriated in such idolatrous ways. At the very least we have an improper sign/signifier shift. Christians ought also be concerned to keep themselves at an arms-length from politics, lest it consume and warp us. The ancient Letter to Diognetus gets it right:

For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of mankind by country, or by speech, or by dress. For they do not dwell in cities of their own, or use a different language, or practice a peculiar life. This knowledge of theirs has not been proclaimed by the thought and effort of restless men; they are not champions of a human doctrine, as some men are. But while they dwell in Greek or barbarian cities according as each man’s lot has been cast, and follow the customs of the land in clothing and food, and other matters of daily life, yet the condition of citizenship which they exhibit is wonderful, and admittedly strange. They live in countries of their own, but simply as sojourners. They share the life of citizens, they endure the lot of foreigners. Every foreign land is to them a fatherland, and every fatherland a foreign land. They marry like the rest of the world. They breed children, but they do not discard their children as some do. They offer a common table, but not a common bed. They exist in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They spend their existence upon earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws, and in their own lives they surpass the laws. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown, and they are condemned. They are put to death, and they gain new life. They are poor, and make many rich. They lack everything, and in everything they abound. They are dishonoured, and their dishonour becomes their glory. They are reviled, and are justified. They are abused, and they bless. They are insulted, and repay insult with honour. They do good, and are punished as evildoers; and in their punishment they rejoice as gaining new life therein. The Jews war against them as aliens, and the Greeks persecute them; and they that hate them can state no grounds for their enmity.
In a word, what the soul is in the body Christians are in the world. The soul is spread through all the members of the body, and Christians through all the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, but it is not of the body. Christians dwell in the world, but they are not of the world. (Letter to Diognetus, 5.1-17, 6.1-4)

Sharing the life of citizens, we cannot, I think, withdraw en masse from politics as such, because the Hobbesian State under which we now find ourselves will not leave us in peace. C.S. Lewis nailed what we’re now living under years ago:

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. (God in the Dock [Eerdmans, 2002], p. 292)

We’re allowed — compelled, even — to defend the cause of the libertas ecclesiae politically and peacefully, whatever party we’re members of. And that means engagement, even as Scalia reminds us that we must have a Hope beyond politics:

We are making ourselves ill with the damnable illusions; so fearful are we that our time, our place, our nation, our worldly world quivers upon a precipice, that we will soon initiate our own tumbling unless we let go of these passing mirages and take hold of the Truth which lasts.

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