One might think that idolatry would be an easy sin to identify. Do you have any little statues (or big ones I guess) you pray to or worship or pour out libations too (like Jobu in Major League). No. Good, then you are not an idolator.
But I think idolatry is notoriously difficult to pinpoint. Martin Luther’s discussion of the first commandment (“You shall have no other gods before Me” [Ex 20:3]) in his larger catechism states, “whatever your heart clings to and relies upon, that is your God; trust and faith of the heart alone make both God and idol. The idol is whatever claims the loyalty that belongs to God alone.”
Over the past few years, one manifestation of idolatry that is increasingly alarming to me is the idolatry of state. In my context that means, in particular, the idolatry of America. It doesn’t look the same for everyone – left has there version as does the right. Here are three ways in which America can become an idol.
- America Replaces God
In ancient Israel, there were times when the people set aside the worship of God and picked up foreign idols instead. Temple worship was neglected while people went and worshiped at alternate altars to false gods, often referred to in the Bible as ‘high places’.
I doubt few believers would admit to having replaced God with America. Few would admit to loving America more than God. Few would admit to worshiping America. I can’t see into the hearts of people, so I can’t know for sure, but looking at the adoration of America or it’s leaders (pick one – Trump or Obama), it’s hard to deny that America has, in fact (if not by public admission), replaced God for many. More time/energy focused on America, less on God. More admiration and adulation for America than praises for God. More loyalty and faith in America or it’s leaders than in God. This would rarely be explicit, but it’s there.
But this is only one form of idolatry.
2. America comes alongside God
Tim Keller defines idolatry “anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give…” While there is truth in this definition, it leaves out any form of syncretistic idolatry.
Some may have, in ancient Israel, said to themselves, “I will worship YHWH. He will be my main God. But, to cover my bases, I will also worship Baal and Asherah. I won’t love or worship them more than YWHH. He will be number one. But I’ll also have backups, number two and three gods.” This was also the kind of idolatry that the early Christians were pressured into, and refused at great pain. Rome said, “Fine, worship your Chrestus [Christ], but you must offer sacrifices to Caesar too.” And the church said, “Christ is Lord. We will not bow to Caesar.”
I think the Heidelberg Catechism addresses this form of idolatry well in Question #95: What is Idolatry? “Idolatry is having or inventing something in which one trusts in place of or alongside of the only true God, who has revealed himself in the Word.”
That is the case for many American Christians today, on both the left and the right. On the left, many look to the state to give everything that is needed to live the good life. The state should offer security, not just from foreign invasion or thieves and murderers, but security for economic trouble, from old age, from disease, even from offense. If I’m not a good person, the state should educate me or rehabilitate me into goodness. And more; things that the state can’t truly provide.
And the right looks America to provide identity, meaning, and pride. Patriotism morphs into veneration of nation or it’s heroes. We set up shrines, say vows, sing songs. And dishonoring our nation or any symbol of our nation becomes an unforgivable sin. Which leads to a third form of idolatry.
3. America as a manifestation of God (like the golden calf)
We often have a simplistic view of idolatry in the ancient near east. But people who set up idols in their home didn’t usually think the idol was their god, but that it represented their god. You can see this in the golden calf incident. Exodus 32 records the infamous incident in which Aaron fashions a golden calf for the people to worship, saying, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”
The people were looking to the golden calf as a representation of YHWH. To worship this bovine beauty was to worship YHWH in their minds. In fact, the text continues, “When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, ‘Tomorrow shall be a feast to the LORD.'”
I am afraid many American Christians have turned symbols of America into representations of God. To see a flag is to see, to many, a representation of God…so to desecrate a flag is to desecrate something holy. It isn’t God, but it represents him somehow. The National Anthem is a song of worship to America, but really to God.
We, as Christians, have an identity that the world cannot give. We are sons and daughters of God, and that truth defines us more certainly than our national citizenship. We have a unity that transcends nation – I am a brother to fellow believers in Afghanistan or Iraq, China or Russia. Those bonds are stronger and more eternal than the bond I have with my American, non-believing neighbor.
And we serve a God who cannot be surpassed in power, might, righteousness or glory – not by any nation with a strong military, righteous cause, or Old Glory. He demands, and deserves, our full allegiance, all our worship. Not just our first worship, our only worship. He brooks no rival.
For more: Tim Keller has done a fantastic job helping us 21st century believers identify more abstract idols we look to for significance or security. Greg Beale also, has written extensively on worship and idolatry.