The connection between political life and idolatry will not be evident to everyone, but it definitely exists, especially within the various ideological visions vying for influence in the corridors of power. An idol is a surrogate god—something to which we offer the worship due the one true God alone. As fallen human beings, we have been fashioning idols since our first parents sinned in the garden.
In Genesis 1 Adam and Eve, tempted by the serpent, fancied themselves gods and disobeyed the true God’s explicit instruction not to eat the fruit of the tree. After this, he punished them by exiling them from the garden. From then on, the entire biblical narrative is a long and sordid tale of God’s people, after enjoying the blessings he graciously offered them and seeing the wonders he worked for their sake, continually backsliding into idol worship.
Some people believe that idolatry affects us only in those matters concerning liturgy, prayer, sacraments, and preaching. But idols refuse to remain within the walls of a formal worship space. After all, worship can be said to describe the way we live our entire lives seven days a week, as individuals and as communities. If we are obsessed with making as much money as we can, subordinating every other consideration to that goal, we effectively serve an idol of our own making. This idol is a jealous god, refusing to share space with other ordinary activities, such as raising children, being faithful to our spouses, nurturing friendships, and helping the poor. We need not literally burn incense, sing praises and offer prayers to this god, but because it so dominates our lives, we in effect worship it.
As we look more closely at public life in North America, we can see at least three principal ideological groupings battling for political power. Each of these in its own way is intermeshed with the idols that shape—and distort—our efforts at securing just governance. These idols are nation, market, and the expansive self. Of course, there is nothing intrinsically evil about nation, market, and personal freedom. Each of these has developed over time and come into its own, enriching our lives as those created in God’s image. Yet each of these goods, separated from God and from the larger normative framework of his creation, becomes an idol that enslaves.
The Idol of the Nationalists
We begin with the nationalists. A nation is a community of persons united by a shared patrimony received from previous generations. Among the elements unifying a nation are language, religion, homeland, holidays and holy days, styles of leadership, social customs, and much more. These might be called subjective elements in that the outer boundaries are fluid, including some people for some purposes and others for other purposes. Objective shared elements include citizenship, passport, flags, anthems, constitution, governing institutions, and the fixed territory of the state.
Any or all of these contribute to a sense of nationhood uniting the people that share them. These elements combine in different ways in different nations. For example, to be a Serb means to be in some sense an Orthodox Christian, while a Croat is at least vestigially Roman Catholic. The Serbo-Croatian language spoken by both fails to create a single Balkan nation.
To be an American, however, does not imply common ancestry, religion, or language, and Americans typically delight in reminding themselves and others of this. Americans have come from all over the world, building a country by offering their own unique traditions to their fellow citizens, drawing on the best of each to create a purported better and unique synthesis. There is no such thing as an “ethnic American.” What binds Americans together is a political system bolstered by common ideals, such as liberty, justice, equality, and democracy. No matter where your forebears came from, you are an American if you adhere to these ideals.
Of course, we all know there is a dark side to this narrative, as testified by the experiences of African-Americans, aboriginal communities, and other minority groups. When nativist sentiments have sometimes gained the upper hand in public life, as seen, for example, in Pennsylvania Law Professor Amy Wax’s comments at last year’s National Conservatism Conference, the outer boundaries of the nation have been too narrowly drawn, unjustly excluding those arbitrarily deemed not to conform to the national identity.
America’s civic nationhood, with its inclusive character, seems evidently better than ethnic nationhood, which would at least tacitly exclude racial, religious, and linguistic minorities within a given state. However, both civic and ethnic nations can become invested with too high a status, and this is where idolatry makes a subtle entrance into our hearts. The idol of nation gains its allure from the natural affinity people have for those similar to themselves. Common language and traditions make for a solidarity that is easy to achieve because it does not require a great leap of imagination to recognize that we have a stake in each other’s lives. The larger and more diverse a nation becomes, the more difficult it is to nurture the bonds of solidarity without coercive force or an official ideology.
Under such conditions authorities are tempted to nurture an idolatrous attachment that claims an allegiance to nation outweighing other, ostensibly “lesser” loyalties. Nationalism plays on the need for internal political solidarity by employing, among other things, parental metaphors of motherland and fatherland. At its best, it can lead citizens to make heroic sacrifices for the common good.
But such nationalism can also suppress our legitimate loyalties to family, church congregation, neighbourhood, and workplace community. Most dangerous of all, its followers attempt to domesticate our religious faiths, enlisting them in the service of national projects. Even when these projects are legitimate and worthy of support, nationalism obscures our ability to evaluate them critically and to see them in the wider context of other communities and their own proper goals. By contrast, a robust biblical faith will recognize the legitimate diversity of our communal attachments, giving God alone the primacy that nation has too often claimed for itself.
The Idol of the Classical Liberals
And what of the market and its supporters? Classical liberals constitute the second group in our survey. Once more, the economic marketplace is a legitimate part of God’s creation, arising whenever human beings have goods and services to exchange for fulfilling their own and others’ needs. In the marketplace, people function as both individuals and communities, entering into relationships of widely varying types and durations. If I purchase a carton of milk at a local variety store, I have not established a long-lasting relationship with the proprietor. I have completed my business and departed, and we will likely have forgotten each other the following day unless I am a repeat customer.
However, I see my barber every four to six weeks. We know each other and like each other and are even connected on Facebook. Our relationship is still a market relationship, but it is enhanced by a number of noneconomic factors, including shared origins in minority Christian communities in the Muslim world. Still other connections have corporate entities entering into long-term contracts to provide specific goods and services on an ongoing basis. During the heyday of rail passenger service, for example, Union Pacific and the Chicago & Northwestern railways together operated the famous named train, City of Los Angeles, between 1936 and 1955. Such long-term co-operative relationships mitigate the apparent competitive nature of the market, as well as its supposed individualistic character.
However, like the nation, the market can take on idolatrous pretensions. Some people are so favourably impressed with what the market can do that they try to stretch its validity beyond the economic sphere into other areas of life. When a problem arises, they prescribe a market solution because they see it as less evidently statist and more conducive to maintaining personal liberty. They prefer to see as many relationships as possible assume a voluntary character and to minimize the need for government coercion. They are not wrong to fear an over-extended government.
Nevertheless, there are some issues that require a more coordinated response than the market will permit. Environmental degradation requires a collective effort to mitigate its effects. Air, water, and soil pollution affects us all negatively. A corporation pouring toxic wastes into a local waterway poisons the water we all use for drinking, cooking and bathing. One need not personify mother earth, as some environmentalists do, to recognize that we have a shared responsibility to protect our physical environment, and market mechanisms may be insufficient for this purpose. Government and other agents of civil society have proper roles to play here.
The market, in short, is not a panacea. The market is the market, nothing more. Our flesh-and-blood societies consist of many different communities whose integrity is threatened by ideologies that make idols of nation and market. Marriages, families, church congregations, educational institutions, and professional associations ought not to be treated as mere participants in the marketplace, subject to consumer sovereignty and freedom of choice. They have their own God-given tasks to fulfil according to their respective unique structures. They ought not to be reduced to mere collections of contracting individuals undertaking to maximize their own self-interests.
The Idol of Progressive Liberalism
At this point we encounter the third group, the progressive liberals, who make a god of the expansive self, undertaking to enlarge the range of choices to the nth degree, even at the expense of stable institutions that anchor our lives and civilizations. Both classical and progressive liberals share a set of assumptions about the good life, the chief of which is that the individual should be liberated from standards and institutions in conflict with freedom of choice. One focuses on the economic marketplace, while the other emphasizes a range of freedoms in the most intimate of spheres.
Former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau once said that “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.” Since he uttered these famous words more than fifty years ago, Canada, the United States, and a host of other western countries have gradually embraced the sexual revolution, which upended previous standards governing sexual activities and relationships, which had been based on ancient religious traditions and collective experience tempered by a recognition of natural limits.
This corresponds to what I have labelled the “choice-enhancement state” in my book, Political Visions and Illusions—the latest stage in the development of liberalism in the English-speaking world. While previously liberals had struggled to secure a sphere of personal immunities from government interference, later liberals fought to advance and expand freedom of choice by means of the very government their forebears had sought to curtail. Freedom of speech required that government step back and lift the constraints of censorship. Freedom from want, famously extolled by President Franklin Roosevelt, requires an active government intervening in economic life on an indefinite basis.
While some people see this as a betrayal of liberalism, it is better described as a working out of its inner logic. As it turns out, the logic of liberalism, while remaining individualistic at its core, eventually leads in a statist direction, as Douglas Farrow, Patrick Deneen, James Kalb, and others have pointed out. Thus the apparent polarization between libertarians and progressive liberals is merely one of pace of change and not of basic principles.
In Planned Parenthood v Casey (1992), Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy waxed poetic in his plurality opinion: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” No statement could better characterize the ethos of the choice-enhancement state. Citizens are to be liberated from a host of institutions and their associated standards so that they can define their own identities and the nature of the world they inhabit. Government will be the agent to bring this about.
This implies that those communities with nonliberal standards must be treated as potential dissidents from the liberal consensus and dealt with accordingly. A church persisting in believing that marriage is a distinctive institution binding a man and woman in a covenant relationship may be allowed to exist, but it may have its tax-exempt status threatened, something former Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke called for late last year. A faith-based hospital refusing to perform abortions or to refer patients to abortion providers may be penalized for not offering the same services as other hospitals or even for violating the purported rights of women. Because progressive liberals increasingly define human rights so broadly, they accuse anyone questioning the validity of a claim made under this rubric of violating the claimant’s rights. This threatens to exclude especially traditional faith communities from participation in the ongoing public conversation. This is the upshot of progressive liberalism, with classical liberals bringing up the rear, content merely to try to change the subject back to economics.
All three groups err in making an idol out of something within God’s good creation, even if the nature of the idolatry is not apparent to everyone. Sadly, Christians in a democratic polity are in the awkward position of having to vote for parties dominated by one or more of these idols, trying their best to defend the positive features of their respective programmes while too often overlooking the genuinely toxic elements within them.
So what is the answer? Start another party? This is not a bad idea, and adopting some form of proportional representation for the House of Representatives would be a place to begin. This would break the monopoly of the two major parties and allow others to find a meaningful place. But there is no guarantee, given human nature, that the new party might not follow yet another idol. Thus before beginning any new venture, we need above all to recognize the irreducible complexity of our society, or what I like to call the pluriformity of authorities, bringing this to bear on our shared public life.
The Catholic principle of subsidiarity is one way of accounting for this pluriformity, and the Reformed principle of sphere sovereignty, associated with Abraham Kuyper and his heirs, is another. If we acknowledge, with Oliver O’Donovan, that “unity is proper to the creator, complexity to the created world,” we are free from having to locate a point of origin in the present world. We can recognize the apparent untidiness of civil society without assuming that only the state or contracting individuals can bring order to it. We will be satisfied to let marriage be marriage, family be family, schools be schools, and so forth. We may not come up with catchy slogans out of this vision of societal pluriformity held together by a loving God, but we will see the world more clearly than those in the obvious grip of a distorting ideology. This means, furthermore, that we will be less likely to fall prey to their rosy promises and simplistic proposals for the future.