Take a look at this image. What do you feel or think when you see an image like that? I imagine that for some of you, this image is very inspiring, reflecting everything you think is right or should be right about the USA. For others, it’s probably the exact opposite. You’ll see it as an affront to Separation of Church and State and a representation of what is wrong with America. I could probably go further and make you all mad if I posted a picture of the American Flag overlaid by the Quran and some Arabic writing. I don’t imagine that would go over well with many folks.
But why is that?
Recently I’ve been reading Timothy Keller’s book “Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters.” Keller is a bit more conservative (or shall I see traditional) theologically speaking then a lot of what I read these days, but he’s certainly in line with what I grew up in with the Christian Reformed Church. In this book, Keller talks about various things we use to fill the “god-shaped hole” in our lives, commonly called idols. Often when we Christians think of idols we think about the golden calf that the Israelites built when they thought that Moses wasn’t ever coming back down Mount Sinai. Maybe we think about that little gold statue that Indiana Jones tries to steal at the beginning of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” For Keller however, we are far more likely to use an idea as an idol as opposed to a statue of gold.
Two of these ideas that can be used to fill the void, or take the position of God in our lives are patriotism and politics. If you don’t believe me, go take a look at twitter or the comment section on any major news story. Keller cites Reinhold Niebuhr when he describes the idea that human thinking always elevates some finite value or object to be “The Answer” (Pg 106). For me, this is the first concept we have to grasp to see how our patriotism and politics can become an idol. You see, once we think we have the answer, we decide that we can, and must, fix EVERYTHING. It’s our way or the highway. This leads to extreme polarization where we begin to think that anyone who disagrees with us is not just wrong, but often downright evil.
Think about that in our current state of American politics. After the 9/11 attacks, President Bush infamously said “you’re either with us or against us.” There was no room to be somewhere in between. There was no room for questioning any decisions that were to be made. Some of you may remember that in the lead up to the Iraq war, the Dixie Chicks were touring Europe and one night on stage they questioned the President and his march to war in Iraq. They were consequently pilloried in nearly every form of media. As enraged people gathered together throughout the country to destroy their Dixie Chicks cds, the band itself was accused of being anti-american, unpatriotic. and in what is perhaps the most damning, burning thing you can level at a person in this day and age, they were labeled as being “against the troops.”
Today, some twelve years on, things aren’t really that different, though the President is of a different party. A quick browse through a conservative hashtag on twitter or a look at a conservative website now views the president as anti-american, unpatriotic, and even “against the troops.” People who agree with him on any number of issues are labeled the same way. Conservative media like talk radio and Fox News constantly blame all of our country’s ills on the President, Democratic officials, or the more general term: “liberals.” It’s all the fault of the those stupid liberals. Some will even toss out the term “libtard.”
But wait, Keller doesn’t let “liberals” off the hook here either, and neither will I. Perhaps people on the left don’t use traditional mass media like talk radio as much to bring down the other side, but we (yes I include myself here for the most part) love to use social media to do the same thing. For every time I see a conservative call someone a “libtard” I see a liberal call a conservative a fascist or a Nazi. We often delight in seeing someone state an opinion that is not “politically correct” or that doesn’t align with our sensibilities. When this happens, we open up the stocks for this person and expose them to the same kind of rather intense public shaming that the Dixie Chicks endured some years back. This sometimes causes otherwise normal, decent people a lot of angst, and sometimes their jobs and careers, because they made an off color joke or statement. Think of the young lady who, while traveling to South Africa from London a couple of years ago, made a pretty horrible joke about African people and AIDS on twitter. That tweet cost her her job and exposed her to all kinds of ridicule, even threats. Now, I’m certainly not defending the joke, but do any of us really know her as a person? Everyday people become victims of the cause of the day because they happen to say the wrong thing, whether intentionally or not.
The point is that yes, even us on the left side of the political spectrum tend to think that we are always right and everyone else is wrong. We also demonize people who don’t agree with us or stand in our way. Yes, even our ideology can become an idol.
In the book, Timothy Keller mentions two signs that we can look out for to see if our patriotism or political ideology is becoming an idol. The first sign, he says is that “fear becomes one of the chief characteristics of life.” For Keller, when we idolize something, such as patriotism or politics, we become dependent on it (Pg 98). Then when we perceive that our idol is threatened in any way, we become totally panicked and respond in fear.
Think of the last few election cycles. In 2004, many democrats were literally afraid of what would happen if President Bush was reelected. He was leading our country down the tubes and we needed to “vote for change.” In the last 2 cycles, many conservatives overtly peddled fear about President Obama. He was going to “surrender to the Muslims” or “take away your guns.” Both parties portrayed that the consequence of the elections would be utter disaster if their ideology was not confirmed or installed.
Fear is an effective instrument for both parties. On the left we peddle fear of businesses, of a large corporate oligarchy that will consolidate power if another Republican steps foot in the White House. The right pushes fear of “big government” and of anyone who doesn’t constantly wear a flag lapel pin or doesn’t go around talking about how the USA is the greatest nation ever built. Yes, I think it’s safe to say that fear has become a chief characteristic of our lives.
The second sign that Keller tells us to watch out for is in fact the demonization of people who don’t agree with us. He mentions that now, after nearly every election, the legitimacy of the victor is immediately questioned by everyone that didn’t vote for him (or her). We see the biggest problem in life not as a larger issue of sin, grace, God, and bringing about his kingdom, but as the opposing political ideology. Everything that is wrong in life has to do with those darned Republicans, and if we could only get the democrats in control of everything, we’d fix it all. (The inverse of that statement is repeated constantly on the right as well.)
We are right. They are wrong. We are the good guys, they are the bad guys. Since they’re the bad guys, we’re going to call them out and take them down. Then we’ll ride off into the sunset just like in the movies.
The only problem with that is that it never works out that way. There are inherent issues with any of these political approaches. I firmly believe that the kind of “us vs them” thinking so inherent in our politics and in our “patriotism” is a huge issue. These things have become kind of their own little cult. Whether you worship at the feet of Fox News or MSNBC is irrelevant.
What I’ve come to believe over the last year is that we as Christians are called to do something else, to take another path. So often we portray the choice as a fork in the road between left and right, but Jesus calls us to take an altogether different path: he calls us to follow Him and him only. For me, this has to inform my views on politics and it also has to influence the way I treat people, even people who disagree with me.
It’s fine to love your country, but what happens for a Christian when a policy of the country directly contradicts the teaching of Jesus? Who gets the final word, where does the authority really live? Some of the most critical, discernible teaching of Jesus is found in the Sermon on the Mount. For me, I can’t sanction actions or policy that are directly contradictory to that. If that makes me unpatriotic, so be it.
Jesus also tells us that we should make peace and seek reconciliation with those who disagree with us. This is the polar opposite of the demonization and public shaming that characterizes so much of our current political and patriotic thought. Instead of trashing another person or group, we are to seek understanding with them and build consensus that solves problems for the greater good.
So where does that leave us? Patriotism and Politics aren’t bad in and of themselves, but as Keller suggests, when we take these ideas and plug them into that part of our life that gives us meaning, bad things can start to happen pretty quickly. For me, I believe that when we plug Christ and His Way into that part of our life, we can transcend these issues and work to build the Kingdom of God, where all are welcome at the table, where fear has been conquered and where even enemies are loved.
Plugging anything else in there is a square peg in a round hole, and runs the risk of being made into a new, shiny idol.