In his book Political Visions and Illusions, David Koyzis brings the two issues together (the dark side of politics and idolatry) and makes a provocative claim: that political ideologies can function as a form of idolatry.
An ideology takes something good in the created order and sets it up as the ultimate aim in place of God, making creation revolve around and serve it. An ideology says that this thing is what has the capacity to save us, rather than God.
An ideology often contains in it some truth and some good—that’s what makes it seductive to many of us. In fact, an ideology does its most damage when it convinces us that serving it is serving God. Ideologies are essentially a “respectable” form of idolatry.
Each of them tempts government toward something analogous to totalitarianism: the end is so important that government is willing to intrude into more and more spheres of life and authority in order to achieve it. Rather than seeking to do justice now, ideologies are goal-oriented. The promise of some future conception of “justice” as a goal thus allows us to rationalize any amount of injustice now.
Koyzis has some examples that will make every one of us uncomfortable as we think about our own political beliefs. For each of these, we’ll think about what they elevate, what they miss, and how we should be careful of them.
A form of liberalism, not as the term is normally used in politics in America, but, a Western tradition that animates both our political left and right. Liberalism elevates the autonomy and freedom of the individual. Much of our human rights discourse comes from this tradition, and it has produced undeniably good things: the end of slavery, religious freedom, and freedom of speech, for example.
What liberalism misses, however, is any claim on individuals by community, tradition, or God’s authority that would limit that liberty. In liberalism’s narrative, we submit to authorities not because God has commanded us to, but because we’ve consented to be governed and entered into a social contract.
So how should we be careful of liberalism? If you’re on the political left, are you tempted to keep expanding the scope of individual liberties or rights, so that government has to enter more and more spheres of life in order to protect them? For example, suppose you decided that housing was a right. You might conclude that government must therefore levy significant taxes and use eminent domain to fund and build and maintain housing for every citizen, regardless of the costs that this imposes on others. That might not be just—but if you’re in the grip of the ideology of liberalism, you might be blind to that injustice.
On the other hand, if you’re on the political right, are you so wedded to the idea of individual liberty that you protect or apologize for people who use their liberties to harm or abuse others? Are you ever tempted to defend a person or entity by saying that they were “acting within their rights” rather than asking whether what they were doing was right?
As you can see, liberalism can actually lead to the ungodly expansion of the state or to its ungodly negligence.
Conservatism is associated with the political right in America. Conservatism elevates a respect for tradition, history, and a humility about what human beings can accomplish. Conservatives are particularly aware of the fragility of human endeavor and of the tendency of human beings to fall into evil. In this sense, they capture a truth that’s recognizable to Christians: that we’re sinful, and that we should therefore be skeptical about our capacity to accomplish big, good things, especially with the state’s power of the sword. And for this reason, conservatives urge caution when change is proposed: there are ways things have always been done, and while they’re not perfect, no tradition is without some redeeming value that is worth conserving.
What conservatism misses is that tradition can work toward justice or toward injustice. The first question you have to ask a conservative is: what are you trying to conserve? And why? You’re not likely to get a consistent answer across geographies or (especially) across time periods. Go back 30 or 50 years—any number of “traditions” from that time that you want to conserve will be a mixed bag. Absent is a serious examination of whether a particular tradition is worth preserving according to God’s definition of justice.
So how should we be careful? Do you uncritically resist change, rather than asking whether the change moves us toward justice or away from it? Think about arguments for the maintenance of slavery, some of which played on a fear of the disruption to society and way of life that emancipation would cause.
Or think about the recent relaxing of the embargo on Cuba. Some would argue that this was a move toward justice –that, because it has outlived the Cold War that led to its passage, the embargo wouldn’t be enacted under today’s circumstances. If that’s true, then the conservative impulse might make an error here: it will gravitate toward defending the status quo and be less likely to consider whether changed circumstances warrant changed policy.
Questions about mass incarceration are worth considering here as well. Are we sure that America’s imprisonment rate, one of the highest in the world, is necessary, or are we simply fearful of considering other solutions?
Nationalism elevates communities of people—think ethnic groups, language groups, people who live in a particular geographic area. People seek their identities in communities, and the claims they make upon the loyalties of those people matter.
Nationalism also protects communities of people from abuse by government—often by making provision for the community to govern itself (this is where the word nation-state comes from). Ideas like the right to national self-determination come out of this tradition.
However, nationalism has a huge blind spot: the claims and rights of those who are excluded from the community. This is further complicated by the fact that communities overlap and are difficult to define. An example: how do you define the Afrikaner nation in South Africa? Traditionally it’s by their shared language, Afrikaans. But South African “Coloureds,” who have mixed racial origin, also speak this language. And they were never fully accepted by white Afrikaners because their skin color is different.
And let’s just state the obvious: the elevation of any one group of people will, taken to its extreme, run into direct conflict with our understanding of all people as equal image-bearers of God. It can lead to racism, sectarian war, and, of course, war between nation states. Koyzis puts it this way: “Nationalism is a bloody religion whose victims dwarf in number all the casualties of the late medieval crusades.”
So how should we be careful of nationalism? Here’s my obligatory Nazi reference for the week. National Socialism was fundamentally rooted in a drive to “protect” the German people from internal threats (non-Germans, Jews) and eliminating external threats (the countries to the west and east, and eventually around the world). The slippery slope of nationalism led to a mandate for world domination and genocide. Beware a nationalism that’s this assertive.
In the present day, how does nationalism influence the way you think about an issue like immigration? A government certainly has its most proximate duty to its own citizens, but are you tempted to think about immigrants and American-born citizens as “us” and “them,” rather than remembering that all are human beings made in God’s image?
Certainly this has been a relevant topic in this post recent election cycle.
It may sound strange that we define democracy as an ideology; isn’t it really more of a system? Yes, it is. But democracy also acts as an ideology. What it elevates is public opinion, the will of the people.
Democracy as a system has obvious benefits. In essence, democracy restrains governments from many forms of bad behavior because that bad behavior is incompatible with what most or all citizens want.
But here’s what it misses: Democracy as ideology can lead to a belief in the near-infallibility of the voice of the people – we believe something is right simply because the majority favor it. Clearly that isn’t Biblical at all: something is right because God says so. At its worst, democracy as ideology can lead to an unjust majority abusing the minority.
So how should we be careful? To take one example, public opinion has recently undergone a sea change from being pro-traditional marriage to being for same-sex marriage. Politicians of all stripes are rushing to follow this shift. Are you tempted to make it a less important issue because it’s now less politically convenient to take a firm stance?
Or are you ever tempted by arguments that a judge’s decision wasn’t right because it overturned something that had been passed by an elected legislature or by initiative? Sometimes conservatives understandably try to stem the tide of social change coming from judicial decisions; for example, they argue that changes to marriage law should not be decided by the courts, but at the state level or by the people. Well, that’s not true at all. It is understandable what they’re trying to do politically, but “the people” have no more right to redefine marriage than the courts do. This is substituting one idolatry for another.
Socialism may seem to be past its heyday, but it strikes a chord with people because it elevates the idea of a fairer economic arrangement. Sure enough, we recently had a serious presidential candidate who described himself as a democratic socialist. And socialism is not wrong when it says that massive inequality can lead to massive injustice. Think of what the Bible has to say about employers, with more capital, having the potential to abuse their employees. The unchecked market can lead to this kind of injustice. Socialism does us a service by pointing this out.
But socialism misses the limits of our ability to impose or create equality. Socialism asserts that inequality is such a terrible injustice that the existing government and system must be completely overthrown in order to eliminate it. Socialists find that once they’ve done that, it isn’t enough to make everyone equal. So once in power, they need to consolidate and extend that power to do more. Government eventually has to take over everything. This is what led to Stalinism in the Soviet Union and the Cultural Revolution in China.
So how should we be careful? Are you tempted to believe that it’s of paramount importance that the government alleviate a particular social ill? If you elevate that aim to take the place of God, then nothing is stopping you from trampling over all other considerations of justice in order to achieve that aim.
The warning for all of us is to be on our guard against allowing an political ideology to become a “respectable idol” for us (something that becomes functionally ultimate, in the place of God), and something we look to as a functional savior.