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  • Idols in Our Midst 

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    July 1, 2024

    Christ, Caesar, or Self:  Recognizing Political Idolatry– Part 2

    By Dr. Jeffery J. Ventrella

    Introduction

    Truthxchange exists to Inform the publicEquip the Church, and Protect the Future.  Last week, we explained the origins of pagan Political Idolatry and concluded by noting that in many cases, the Church itself has acted as a change agent by unintentionally producing an idol-generating reductionism.  To better confront and overcome this trend, we Christians need to first look in the mirror.  Since judgment begins “at the household of God,”[1] the Church needs to understand how this idolatry incubates and impacts our culture.  And, the church needs to humbly and honestly understand how we may tolerate, or even embrace it, in our thinking.  We must learn to think Christianly about the public square, including law and policy. Only in this way can we equip the broader Church to effectively repel pagan political idolatry at its roots.  This begins by understanding Biblical Cosmology, the structure of real reality.  Let’s get to the gist.

    Paul’s Cosmological Structure of Law:  The Law Above the Law

    A fundamental issue lurks underneath all political idolatry:  who or what operates as “god” in the culture. That is, what is the transcendent or ultimate authority functioning in the culture and therefore affecting that culture’s legal and political system.  The Church must be clear on this.  If an evangelical Christian is abstractly asked, “What’s your ultimate authority?” they would no doubt quickly profess, “the Bible.”  However, the real question is not so much what they profess, but how they function day to day in real time; what is their actual authority, how do they actually assess and make political decisions, particularly when it comes to considering matters of law and policy.  We may be surprised to see that inclinations to and elements of idolatry have crept into our thinking.

    Why is this the case?  This often occurs by failing to connect Christ’s Lordship with law and policy.  How so?  The Church rightly confesses “Christ is Lord!”  We need to also see that law expresses lordship. The operational law of a culture or system is functionally driven by the “lord” or dominant transcendental (authority) of that culture or system.  We must both say and act consistently with our Lordship commitments. 

    When the Church confesses “Christ is Lord,” it in effect means He reigns over all things, including political entities whether “thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.”[2]This means, among other things, that Christ’s standards, His Law, applies to all reality – it may not be confined, truncated, compartmentalized, or ignored – including with respect to policy and law.  To depart from Christ’s Lordship in this area is to functionally invite idolatrous thinking into our public life no natter what we profess on Sunday morning with our lips.

    So, why would this then be the case? From Paul’s perspective, “real reality” is “Twoist,” meaning that there exists a Creator-creation distinction, a fundamental binary: Romans 1:25. In the apostle’s mind, the Creator is holy, not only morally, but metaphysically; He is holy and wholly other.[3]  

    Consequently, the Creator alone is independent, and Paul elsewhere makes this point in addressing the philosophers in Athens.  He emphasizes that the true God is the Creator God:

    The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.  And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place[4] … 

    Paul emphasizes the Creator-ness of the true God as well as His aseity, or self-existent independence of the created order.  Note carefully:  He makes this point as he addresses the public square.

    Correlatively, the creation, including by implication its positive law[5], is therefore necessarily dependent and derivative. This means that its function, purpose, and meaning can be ultimately understand only in relation to God and his transcendent authority.  Paul likewise alludes to this as well in the same Athenian discourse:

    for “ ‘In him we live and move and have our being’;

    as even some of your own poets have said,

    “ ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’[6]

    Paul is saying we best and most fully understand the created things in relation to the Creator God.  From this flows some key things.  First, because the Creator alone is truly transcendent, His law will necessarily and properly be transcendent: the law above the law, sometimes called the natural law.[7]  And, therefore, second, all law and policy must be dependent on and derivative from this ultimate unimpeachable standard.

    Third, when a culture – and as a consequence its legal system – functionally reduces who is “god,” the result is not “no god” in the culture. Rather what functions as “god” will necessarily be found within the creation itself.  This rests on a pagan cosmology, or a “homo-cosmology.”  This is a form of worshipping the creation instead of the Creator.

    Creation – instead of God – therefore becomes functionally – but wrongly – “transcendent.” This explains why in the scriptural witness, idolatry is so prevalent and thus why in Paul’s analysis in Romans, idolatry (that is, false worship) results when humans exchange the truth for the lie (Rom. 1:25). Something other than God is being substituted for God. Abandoning truth is thus more than an intellectual flub or false step; it involves the whole person and his religiously designed worship impulse. And, it will thereby affect a person’s – and society’s – conduct/ethics as well. It’s a “package deal,” albeit one that is often inconsistent.  This exchange precipitates real consequences, including with respect to law and policy.

    Non-Pauline Cosmology:  Implications and Manifestations

    In Paul’s mind, false worship begins with the blurring of the Creator-creation distinction leading to idolatry. This false worship impacts “what counts as” moral authority and thus (re)defines ethics and norms. As one man explained:

    “God accepts that humans have indeed breached the Creator-creature distinction.  Not that humans have now become gods but that they have chosen to act as though they were—defining and deciding for themselves what they will regard as good and evil.  Therein lies the root of all other forms of idolatry:  we deify our own capacities, and thereby make gods of ourselves and our choices and all their implications. . . .

    At the root, then, all idolatry is human rejection of the Godness of God and the finality of God’s moral authority.  The fruit of that basic rebellion is to be seen in many other ways in which idolatry blurs the distinction between God and creation, to the detriment of both.”[8]  

    Non-God things are thus imbued with divine function and authority.  It beings by blurring biblical cosmology, that is, blurring the Creator/creation Binary.  This is not new to American jurisprudence, though it may be under-recognized today.  Alexis de Tocqueville, in the early 19th century, warned about this error, especially blurring the Creator-creature distinction:

    “Not content with the discovery that there is nothing in the world but a creation and a Creator, he [man] is still embarrassed by this primary division of things and seeks to expand and simplify his conception by including God and the universe in one great whole.”[9]

    This blurring creates a very practical public legal and political problem: Absent Creator/creation clarity, there can be no justified preference for liberty as opposed to tyranny.  As one scholar put it:

    Without a transcendent basis from which to judge the decency of various competing civic ideals, there seems to be no reason (other than preference) to privilege liberal ideals over illiberal ideals.[10]

    Note that officially “atheistic” ideologies such as Marxism, Fascism, and Social Nationalism[11] all produce and require totalitarian tyrannies.  Real people become oppressed in the name of liberating “the People”.

    Blurring the Creator-creature distinction produces other trends and practical implications for ordering the public square, including:  

    • Discarding Mediating Institutions[12]
    • Vesting Sovereignty ONLY in the State
    • Eliminating Justification for True Moral Authority
    • Absolutizing Man 

    What does this mean practically?  Put starkly, under the Oneist idolatrous construct, distinguishing between Nuremburg and Dachau becomes like choosing between chocolate and vanilla, Coke and Pepsi, cats and dogs, boxers or briefs, Superman and Batman . . . a mere choice and only a choice without moral significance.

    Chesterton cogently noted one crucial political and legal implication of this idolatrous pagan thinking:  The State becomes Society’s omnipotent and worshipped deity, and we are seeing an unfortunate revival of this error today in corners of Christian social media:

    It is only by believing in God that we can ever criticize the Government. Once abolish…God, and the Government becomes the God. That fact is written all across human history…. The truth is that Irreligion is the opium of the people. Wherever the people do not believe in something beyond the world, they will worship the world.  But, above all, they will worship the strongest thing in the world.[13]

    This is deeply problematic for several reasons.  First,  it functionally centers sovereignty in the State, rather than God, placing Caesar over Christ. This move necessarily constricts and categorizes Religious Liberty as merely a permissive activity, instead of an inalienable right.  False worship thereby increasingly constricts or crushes true worship:

    “But the bottom line is that actual legal and political jurisdiction — sovereignty — will now belong to the state, period.  The state may defer to the church for various reasons and in various ways, but the church will ultimately enjoy as much freedom or immunity, and only as much, as the state sees fit to allow.”[14]

    Christians passionate to “make America Great Again” by supporting positions and initiatives[15] that rely on expanded State coercive power are actually building a system that will undermine their religious liberty.  

    Second, if there is no Divine-Creator transcendental and the State assumes that transcendent role, then evaluating Religious Liberty can have no standard other than one found in or derived from the created order:  Humanity or human experience or the State. This structurally destroys the possibility of justifiable normativity because there exists no law above the law:

    “Having dismissed the possibility of any more transcendent ethical standard, independent of humanity, that is, [Martha] Nussbaum has nothing to appeal to except humanity and human experience itself…. This would seem to mean that some parts or layers of human experience must be selected and refined into normative criteria by which other parts of layers of human experience can be assessed. So what subset of the comprehensive set of human experience can perform this normative junction?”[16]

    This therefore returns the public square to one of Erastianism – the State determining Christian orthodoxy and practice. 

    This also produces the great intellectual sin of arbitrariness: 

    “If there is no transcendent source for moral standards, what are moral ideas except subjective preferences thrown up by our glands?”[17]

    Third, pagan cosmology is problematic because it undermines mediating institutions, that is, other sources of social ordering, authority, and associational diversity. The State thus becomes increasingly totalistic and society becomes less functional thereby reinforcing the need for greater and greater State intervention and control.  As Bavinck observed:

    Anyone who expects the state to satisfy all those interests for which family, and society, and church are to look after, is undermining the independence of these spheres of life and iscalling for a remedy that in the long run will turn out to be more dangerous than the disease.”[18]

    And, more perniciously, this provides the predicate for Statist tyranny:

    “If no higher law is recognized, and if law is what man says it is, is not either the law or man absolutized, and, in either case, he [is] controlling powers invested with total power?”[19]

    The Idol of State absolutizes the State.  The answer is decidedly not “capturing the Administrative State” and enforcing “our values” with it.  The problem IS the Administrative State because it idolizes the State.[20]  

    In their desperation, beleaguered people often yearn for a “strong man”[21] or a King[22] or a Christian Prince[23] to order and redeem the public square – yet there is always buyer’s regret – and death – when the State is seen as Savior, not Servant[24]  Next week, we will explore the contours and real-life implications that arise from Idolizing the State:  How it manifests, how it can be detected, and how it can be remedied.

    The Truthxchange Symposium – August 30 and 31 in Pasadena, CA – will explore this issue and a lot more.  Come join us as we together learn to more effectively love the Lord our God with all our minds – and to live accordingly.


    [1] 1 Peter 4:17

    [2] Col. 1:16

    [3] The Christian narrative also reveals this God to be immanent and thus knowable as well, unlike the deity of Islam.

    [4] Acts 17:24-26 .

    [5] “Positive law” is that general and generic category of regulation enacted or otherwise promulgated by State authorities.

    [6] Acts 17:28. Note that by this passage Paul shows this God to be immanent.

    [7] Cf., Jesus on trial and in court informs Pilate, the Roman State’s legal representative, that he [Pilate] “would have no authority over me [Jesus] at all unless it had been given you from above.”  John 19:11. Here, Jesus informs the Magistrate that there exists a “law above the law.”  Pilate’s authority, though legitimate, is derivative and delimited.

    [8] G. K. Beale, We Become What We Worship, (2008), 135. Citing Wright, Mission of God, 164, emphases supplied.

    [9] Citing Tocqueville, Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (2012), 222.

    [10] Justin Buckley Dyer, Natural Law and the Antislavery Constitutional Tradition, (2012), 28.

    [11] Consequently, the problem with the current trendiness of so-called “Christian Nationalism” in some Reformed cul-de-sacs is not the “Christian” part, but the “Nationalism” part – it requires an inherent coziness with State power and coercion for achieving its ends.

    [12] After invading Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union acted to contain, constrain, and ultimately eliminate mediating institutions.  Ideas have consequences, and bad ideas have victims – the Idol of State crushes human flourishing.  See, Anne Applebaum, The Iron Curtain:  The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 (2012) 

    [13] Benjamin Wiker, Worshipping the State: How Liberalism Became Our State Religion, (2013), citing G.K. Chesterton, introduction.

    [14] Steven D. Smith, The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse (2010), 131.

    [15] Catholic Integralism or Protestant so-called Christian Nationalism are two current trends invoking, feting, and enthusiastically deploying on State power and coercion:  “Rewarding friends and punishing enemies.”

    [16] Steven D. Smith, The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse (2010), 166.

    [17] Vern S. Poythress, Redeeming Sociology: A God-Centered Approach (2011), 39.

    [18] Herman Bavinck, The Christian Family (2012), 141.

    [19] R.J. Rushdoony, The Nature of the American System (1965), 131.

    [20] See, 2023 Regent Law Review Symposium and podcast; Richard A. Epstein, The Dubious Morality of Modern Administrative Law (2020); and Philip Hamburger, Is Administrative Law Lawful?  (2014)

    [21] Nietzsche-influenced thinking; in its populist version, today’s Bronze Age Mindset underlying the Neo-masculinity fad.

    [22] Israel’s gambit to be “like all the nations” – 1 Sam 8.

    [23] The so-called “Christian Nationalist” proposal of Stephen Wolfe, et al.

    [24] Saul, Caesar, Napoleon, Stalin, Hitler, Franco, Mao, Pol Pot, Castro, Mugabe, Amin, Taylor, Chavez, et al.