The (Religious) Problem with American Politics

by
January 13, 2016

The year 2015, as much as any other in recent memory, has put on full display the dysfunctional, rancorous, and mephitic travesty that is American politics and public life. Together, we have experienced the increasing disintegration of both major political parties, the superficiality, inanity, and pettiness often displayed by the candidates (and interviewers) in the presidential debates, the inability of Congress to carry on a sustained or constructive debate on matters of grave national importance, the escalation of race-related crimes and unrest, the blatant disregard for the Constitution shown by our Supreme Court in its legalization of same-sex marriage, and the calloused and flippant attitudes of Planned Parenthood executive staffers when talking about taking the lives of unborn children and selling their dismembered body parts. The list could go on, ad nauseum, ad infinitum.

At one level or another, we are all culpable for the situation. Take, for example, the Supreme Court. As badly as the majority has behaved at times over the past four decades—usurping the power of the legislature and bypassing the will of the people—they are not entirely to blame. They were, after all, appointed by presidents, and those presidents were elected by “we the people” (technically, “us the people,” which doesn’t have quite the same ring).

Similarly, the 2015 presidential primary debates. The current cadre of presidential candidates are not completely at fault for the superficiality and incoherence of the televised debates. No, we the citizens are culpable also. The format of those debates encourages sound-bite superficiality and incivility. Apparently, that’s what “sells” to Americans, and politics has become, like many aspects of American life, merely another opportunity to market a product. Yes, we ought to expect more from our political leaders. But we, the American public, must confess that we are a fairly superficial and uncivil crowd these days. It is worth asking if we have not merely gotten the sorts of candidates that we have asked for—candidates that reflect our own image more than we care to admit.

The Problem with Political Ideologies

Identifying political dysfunction is easy. Depending upon a person’s temperament, it may even be fun. But diagnosing the dysfunction beneath the dysfunction? That’s the rub. For those who care passionately about politics, the enemy generally resides over there, in some other political camp. Liberals blame conservatives; conservatives blame liberals. The reality, however, is more complex and, not surprisingly, much more interesting.

Underneath political dysfunction is a simple but powerful phenomenon—the sin of idolatry. The problem with politics runs deeper and spreads wider than the words or actions of any one politician, pundit, citizen, or party. Idolatry is located in the depths of the human heart and, for that reason, radiates outward into all a person says and does. It spreads like a plague. Sin is a progressively corrupting phenomenon, a serial intruder that crashes every party, including politics and public life. Its devastating impact is felt in structures, ideologies, and worldviews that can deform an entire society.1

In politics and public life, sin does its worst party crashing via political ideologies. Ideologies arise from idolatry. In the Christian tradition, idols, or false gods, are created any time we take some aspect of God’s creation and elevate it to a position of primacy. A created thing is elevated to that status that only the Creator himself deserves. All sin is idolatry, and all idolatry is, at heart, a type of false worship. When we select an aspect of God’s creation—such as sex, money, power, liberty, or equality—and imbue that part of creation with all of our love, trust, and obedience…then we have become idolaters.

As political scientist David Koyzis notes in Political Visions and Illusions, political ideologies are macro-level manifestations of idolatry.2 Every human is prone to seek out false salvation, but political ideologies operate as entire systems of false salvation. They overtly ascribe ultimacy to some aspect of the created order, thereby making an idol out of it, and subsequently try to “save” society by eradicating the “evils” threatening their idol.

For instance, liberals and libertarians tend to enthrone the individual and the individual’s liberty, so that all social institutions derive authority from the individual and are subject to the whims and desires of the individual.  Conservatism idolizes tradition, for which reason it tends to anathematize deviations from our heritage. Progressivism defies progress. Nationalism gives divine status to a particular country; patriotism devolves into nation-worship. Socialism idolizes equality at the expense of every other virtue. Even democracy, which is a good form of government, can lapse into ideology if the people conflate their voice (vox populi) with the voice of God (vox Dei).

It is worth keeping in mind that the worst idols come from the best material. Thus, each political ideology begins by seeing especially clearly the beauty of one aspect of God’s creation. But ideologies never rest by pointing out something true. They assert that this partial truth is the entire truth, and therefore distort what they value by giving it an ultimacy it does not deserve. And that distortion has negative consequences for ideological proponents, spanning every aspect of the created order.

The Need for a Non-Ideological Alternative

We need a non-ideological alternative, some perspective that allows us to view God’s creation as penultimate to God himself. This alternative will deify God in the midst of politics, recognizing his sovereignty over his good world. At the same time, it will promote a principled pluralism that allows religious and irreligious people of all types to exercise their religion or irreligion as freely as possible without harming society.

This sort of principled pluralism will not misidentify the deity by elevating some aspect of God’s creation to ultimacy, by making an idol out of it. It will not mislocate “evil” by reducing it to some aspect of politics or public life. Most importantly, it will not commit the folly of identifying itself as the savior that will deliver society from evil and into a more glorious future characterized by the reign of their favored idol. This sort of principled pluralism will help our society to flourish as much as is possible in a fallen world.

Christians who promote this sort of principled pluralism will take their cues, unashamedly, from God’s revelation. Although Scripture does not provide us with a political program (for which we should be eminently thankful), it does provide principles for societal flourishing. These principles can and should be applied to our democratic republic in its current manifestation.

Conclusion

In the following posts, I will examine several of the most common political ideologies today, applying a biblical perspective in order to expose their false worship and self-deception. The great problem with a project like this, of course, is that we always have a keen eye to see the idolatry operative in other ideologies. Conservatives spot the idolatry of socialism quickly, and vice versa. But as Christians, we must have the humility to recognize that we all are “prone to wander,” that our view of politics may be much more idolatrous than we have yet to realize. May God grant us the courage to discern and oppose idolatry wherever it is found, beginning in our own hearts, our own churches, and our own preferred political parties and ideologies.

[Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a seven-part series exposing the idolatrous nature of modern political ideologies. For a constructive alternative to modern political ideologies, see the author’s recently released One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics (co-authored with Chris Pappalardo).]


Bruce Ashford
Bruce Ashford is the Provost at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he also serves as Professor of Theology and Culture. He co-authored the recently-released "One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics" (B&H Academic, Dec. 2015) with Chris Pappalardo. Follow him on Twitter @BruceAshford.