Idolatry is alive and well in the United States.
What is even more troubling is that idolatry is alive and well within the Church in the United States. It is not something we like to talk about. We would rather focus on the declining moral standard in our country or address one of the fashionable sins to condemn like pornography.
I understand this tendency, because it is the easy way forward and takes little self-reflection. On top of that, we can feel good about ourselves because we are taking a stand for “God’s truth” without feeling shame and guilt about the areas of our lives that need to addressed.
When we do this we never give ourselves the opportunity to deal with the major obstacles that are standing in the way of our spiritual formation in Jesus Christ. We are content to remain spiritually stunted as we voice an opinion about everything under the sun. Sadly, we have forgotten the teaching of Jesus.
“Do not judge others, and you will not be judged. For you will be treated as you treat others. The standard you use in judging is the standard by which you will be judged.
“And why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own? How can you think of saying to your friend, ‘Let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,’ when you can’t see past the log in your own eye? Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye. (Matthew 7:1-5; NLT)
The implication here is not that we shouldn’t judge, but that our judgment is inadequate when we are not judging ourselves. We make judgments all the time, but those judgments are hypocritical if we have intentionally avoided examining our own lives.
Too many Christians, myself included, are willing to cast judgment and condemnation on others, without seriously looking at our lives. That is the way of the hypocrite and not the way of Jesus.
It is time for American Christians to take a deep long look at their lives, because our refusal to deal with the idols of our hearts are hurting our primary task of making disciples of the nations.
What is the main idol that goes unrecognized in the heart of Christians in the United States?
Without a doubt it is patriotism. We treat patriotism as if it was some sacred virtue, but it is never once a virtue the Biblical writers told us to cultivate. There are plenty of virtues we are to strive for as Christians: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience are a few of the virtues that the apostle Paul urges us to put on, but the virtue of patriotism is noticeablly absent.
It is not that love for country is a bad thing, it is that it has the potential to become the primary love of your heart, and when that happens you are no longer able to love God and love people the way God intended.
Tim Keller wrote:
“We think that idols are bad things, but that is almost never the case. The greater the good, the more likely we are to expect that it can satisfy our deepest needs and hopes. Anything can serve as a counterfeit god, especially the very best things in life.” (Counterfeit Gods, p. xix)
This is important to remember. To say that patriotism is an idol is not to say that it is not a good thing, but it is to remind us how easy it is to give our ultimate allegiance to something or someone other than God.
How do we know when we have set up an idol in our hearts?
This is an essential question to ask. Idols don’t want to be recognized, because they know for any true follower of Jesus the moment they are found out is the start of removing them from the heart of a Christian. If greed is the idol of your heart, you are not going to notice it apart from self-reflection and the convicting work of the Holy Spirit.
Likewise, if patriotism is an idol in your heart, then you will not recognize it at first glance. Instead, you will justify its presence by saying that it is a good thing to love your country and you will think about all the things that prove your love for God. You will do everything but really wrestle with the question of idolatry in prayer and meditation. In this manner the idol stays camouflaged as a good thing in your life.
One surefire way to know that we have an idol problem is the way we respond when that idol is threatened.
“One of the signs that 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!’” (Counterfeit Gods, pp. 98-99)
Think about the reasoning behind the so-called “War on Terror” (as if you can go to war against a tactic). Why are we in the Middle East? We are there because of fear. Americans fear another terror attack, so we have bought into the notion that we have to “kill them over there — in the Middle East — before they reach the West.”
Patriotism not only causes us to fear that our country will be attacked, but it also generates fear that our very way of life is threatened. Republicans will claim, “You can’t vote for the Democrat candidate because he will do this and that will destroy the foundation this country was founded on.” Democrats will say, “You can’t vote for the Republican candidate because he will do this and that is against the core of who we are as a country.” Every election cycle is the same as people who worship the idol of patriotism try to rally people to vote for their candidate and party.
The idol of patriotism not only produces fear, but it also produces hatred.
“Another sign of idolatry in our politics is that opponents are not considered to be simply mistaken, but to be evil.” (Counterfeit Gods, p.99)
I think a great example of this has been people’s treatment of Donald Trump. I am not a fan of Trump, but I don’t understand why people act like he is evil incarnate. The man has said a few mean things, while Sectary Clinton has actual blood on her hands.
There are any number of arguments I could make against Mr. Trump, Sectary Clinton, or even Governor Johnson on why they should not be elected president that in no way infers that they are evil people. When you start seeing the other side of the political divide as evil and out to destroy the country, then it is good indication that your patriotism has become an idol in your heart.
The reality is that conservatives and progressives have different core values that lead to different policy decisions. Progressives are interested in making everything equal and conservatives want to preserve the best that the past has to offer. For a more in depth look at this subject read The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt.
Side note: This is why conservatives have been ineffective at conserving anything: progressives are united in making everything equal while conservatives can’t agree on what needs to be preserved and therefore have offered weak opposition.
It breaks my heart to see many Christians, people I admire, become so entangled with patriotism and politics that they are down right cruel and full of contempt for people who disagree with them. One of the primary ways I have noticed this recently is the way many Christian people have responded to Colin Kaepernick and the other athletes who have decided to kneel during the playing of the National Anthem as a way of drawing awareness to police brutality.
I don’t agree with Kaepernick on cause of the problem, but neither am I offended by his actions. I find it interesting that many of the people who speak out against political correctness and speech policing are the same ones who are offended by Kaepernick’s kneeling. They talk about it being disrespectful of the military and police, but perhaps it has more to do with the disrespect of the idol they have erected in their heart?
No one likes to admit that they have a problem, but the reality is that we all struggle with various sins that plague our lives and hold us back from being the people that God created us to be. If we lack the courage to face these issues then we will never reach maturity in Christ. That is why, as difficult as this topic is to bring up, it needs to be addressed. If we hold on to our idol of patriotism and his sister idol of politics then the American Church will lack the influence to truly make an impact in our society.
I hope that these are not idols in your life, but you owe it to God, to the Church, and to yourself to check. Take time in quiet self examination and prayer to see if you need to start smashing an idol.