One of the consistent themes that runs all through the Bible is the theme of idolatry. And if we can learn anything from its writers down the thousands of years and hundreds of generations since they lived, it’s that humans are easily deceived by idols of every sort.
It’s arrogant for us to laugh off the idea of stone and wooden deities, and shake our heads at the fish or dragons, serpents or elephants that they represented to our ancestors. (That’s right, all of our ancestors!) Because we’re no less susceptible despite our assertions that we are modern and rational. Twenty-first century man remains a remarkably idolatrous creature.
This is rarely as evident as it is during a presidential election cycle, when we believe that vast power, and all our destinies, rest with the office and person we are electing. If only we elect him, or her, all our problems will be solved and our enemies smitten! We elevate candidates and politicians to places they were never meant to be, not by God, nor indeed by the founders of our republic, who doubtless had a much more suspicious view of human character than we do; else they would never have built in so many checks and balances.
In fact, during elections we also make idols of government in general, constitutions, courts and legislative bodies. We worship commentators and media outlets and anyone and everything connected with the process. We idolize our own opinions and spend far more time in our own personal echo-chambers than we do either worshipping God or (for the non-religious) simply pursuing secular knowledge or simple joy. Pity, as our self-adulating tirades and tantrums change few minds.
But it isn’t only politics. We all have our idols. Thanks to social media, young people take constant photos of themselves in a kind of self-worship. Social media have also allowed Americans to make an idol of the approval of others, whether in likes for one’s selfie, or agreement with one’s views. The disapproval of others is a bitter pill whose side effects include exclusion from friendly society; a kind of excommunication for heresy. How many opinions would be shared more honestly if not for the fear of being shunned or attacked en masse online?
Conservatives often idolize guns or military prowess, as if they could save us from all danger. And yet the Bible says ‘Some trust in chariots and some trust in horses, but we trust in the Lord our God.’ (Psalm 20:7) (The chariot being the main battle tank of antiquity, by the way.) And liberals make an idol of choice, as if replacing the word ‘killing’ with a euphemism makes it less like the reality of killing an unborn child, less like a modern adoration of the dark god Molech.
We idolize the freedom of sexual expression and sexual orientation, as if all that mattered in this life were who could have sex with whom. And on the other side, we idolize morality, as if our sanctimonious attitudes about sexual sin were anywhere as important as the forgivingness and redemption offered in the Bible to those who sin sexually, gay or straight. Grace matters more than moralism.
America idolizes the idea of compassion and charity without understanding the moral and spiritual underpinnings that make it reasonable and possible. And yet, we also idolize the American concept that everyone can simply succeed if they try, which is simply untrue. The deck is sometimes stacked and there are those who need our assistance, personally and through state programs. Some idolize capitalism, some idolize socialism, but both can become monstrous deities when not applied with Godly wisdom and caution.
The Decalogue begins with ‘I am the Lord your God who brought you out of slavery, out of the land of Egypt.’ And follows it immediately with ‘you shall have no other gods before me.’ And of course, after receiving the Ten Commandments, the people promptly made a Golden Calf and ignored God, the source of all their good things. You can be an atheist and still see the truth in this tale. This is the story of all mankind. The worship of those things we shouldn’t, and the rejection of those things that are truly, ultimately good.
Whether a citizen is religious or not, we can surely agree that we all have idols we should take from their altars. Maybe it’s a good time to start.