Timothy Keller’s book Counterfeit Gods covers a variety of potential “idols” – created things which we may be tempted to lift up to the place of “god” in our lives – money, romantic love, success, etc. The one that I most resonated with (read: am frequently tempted by) is political idolatry.
Political idolatry happens when some political good turns into a supreme thing. “When love for one’s own people becomes an absolute, it turns into racism. When love of equality turns into a supreme thing, it can result in hatred and violence toward anyone who has led a privileged life” (98). Here the end justifies the means, political leaders become “messiahs”, and political policies become “saving doctrines.”
This is a description of an extreme condition, but there are many smaller steps which take you there. Keller offers two signs of political idolatry.
#1: Inordinate Fear
“One of the signs than an object is functioning as an idol is that fear becomes one of the chief characteristics of life. When we center our lives on the idol, we become dependent on it. If our counterfeit god is threatened in any way, our response is complete panic. We do not say, ‘What a shame, how difficult,’ but rather ‘This is the end! There’s no hope!’” (98-99)
I think this explains many of the extreme responses we see during each political cycle. The side perceived as losing threatens to leave the country and becomes agitated and fearful, even violent. If their “side” or their candidate is out of power “they experience a death.” The focus all their attention on where they disagree with their opponents, instead of finding some common ground. The result is a poisonous political environment.
#2: Demonizing the other side
“Another sign of idolatry in our politics is that opponents are not considered to be simply mistaken, but to be evil” (99). The Bible views sin as the primary problem in the world. Political idolatry, on the other hand, turns a political ideology into the main problem. Instead of seeing God as the ultimate solution, it sees something else (a rival ideology, a political victory, a politician, etc.) as the ultimate solution. When this happens our opponents don’t just disagree with us, but represent the embodiment of evil.
At this point I want to push back on Keller a little bit. There are a few instances, I think, where a political ideology can be so opposed to God that there is simply no word other than “evil” to describe it. Nazis in Germany were not just following a “mistaken” ideology, but an evil one.
It’s standard these days, though, to justify extreme reaction to some political ideology or candidate by comparing them to fascism or Hitler. But this is rarely justified and just might indicate that some form of idolatry is at play.
The result of political idolatry being widespread in a culture (which I think it is), is “constant political cycles of overblown hopes and disillusionment” (101) and “increasingly poisonous political discourse” (101). Sound familiar?
Not everything is political idolatry
I want to offer one word of caution for those who would see political idolatry under every rock. Not all patriotism is nationalism. Not all political activism points to idolatry. Keller quotes C.S. Lewis,
“It is a mistake to think that some of our impulses – say mother love or patriotism – are good, and others, like sex or the fighting instinct, are bad… There are situations in which it is the duty of a married man to encourage his sexual impulse and of a soldier to encourage a fighting instinct. There are also occasions on which a mother’s love for her own children or a man’s love for his own country have to be suppressed or they will lead to unfairness towards other people’s children or countries.” (103)
Natural affections are not a problem in themselves and engaging in politics can be a way of showing love of neighbor or standing up for justice for those who are being denied it. The problem comes when those natural affections are given too much weight.
On a personal note, the election cycle has actually been redemptive for me. It has revealed pockets of idolatry in my own heart. But that revelation, while it hurt at the time, has enabled me to trust more securely in Christ.