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  • Idols in Our Midst

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    June 24, 2024

    Christ, Caesar, or Self:  Recognizing Political Idolatry – Part 1

    By Dr. Jeffery J. Ventrella

    Preface

    Well, it’s election season.  The first Presidential “Debate” occurs this week – pass the popcorn!  The 24/7 news cycle continues to be cluttered with reports, rumors, and rhetoric – all of which is largely poisonously partisan and unedifying.  Yet, for the faithful Christian, pietism and indifference – cultural withdrawal – do not reflect a mature Christian approach to the public square – a venue that the Lord desires the faithful to engage – to actually intercede – “when truth stumbles” there:

    Justice is turned back,

    and righteousness stands far away;

    for truth has stumbled in the public squares,

    and uprightness cannot enter.

    Truth is lacking,

    and he who departs from evil makes himself a prey.

    The LORD saw it, and it displeased him

    that there was no justice.

    He saw that there was no man,

    and wondered that there was no one to intercede;

    then his own arm brought him salvation,

    and his righteousness upheld him.[1]

    We need to think in totals, not bits, as Francis Schaffer put it[2] – in other words, we need to situate our thinking in God’s world as it is:  Creation, Fall, and Redemption – avoiding the idols that result when the Creation, instead of the Creator, is worshiped.[3]  Politics is no exception – it too can be idolatrous. Before we consider candidates[4] and culture, we need to understand Cosmology – to see in totals, not bits.  Only then can we properly choose between Christ, and two attractive and popular, though idolatrous, imposters:  Caesar, or Self.  Let’s get to the gist.

    Introduction

    Ask folks to identify the source of authority informing the public square, and their answers will vary. However, they often reduce in various ways to two basic oppositional poles: the individual, or the collective; the Self, or the State.  Both can be idolatrous.

    The public square manifests this point in several forms:  Philosophers ponder the One and the Many; political pundits debate libertarianism and progressivism; the media pit freedom against security; authors craft fictitious dystopias featuring both Big Brother as well as pleasurable feelies for the individual;[5]businesses wrestle with regulations that affect providing various services: baking wedding cakes,[6] photographing weddings,[7]and printing T-shirts.[8] And, sexual libertines bolstered by SOGI (“Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity”) laws, confront and restrict religious liberty.[9]  

    Frequently, these debates crystallize around expressions of sexuality and sexual practice interfacing with the public square. The remarks of Stamp Corbin are typical.  Mr. Corbin, formerly Co-Chair of the Obama National Leadership Council and San Diego City Commissioner of Citizens’ Equal Opportunity Commission, pleaded:

    [T]he most insidious word that is constantly used in our movement is tolerance. . .  I do not want to be tolerated.

    What I want, and I hope the [LGBTQ] community at large wants, is acceptance. That’s right, approval and respect of my sexual orientation.[10]

    Plainly, Mr. Corbin wants the State to approve, enforce, and impose on others his Self’s sexual desires. So, which is ultimate and ultimately authoritative:  Is it the One, the Individual, or the Many, the Collective? Why this recurrent public vacillation? Mr. Stamp seems to say “both:” Approve and enforce what I desire.  This pendulum appears arbitrary.  

    One bishop described this phenomenon, noting that it expresses itself politically and legally, but never actually resolves things: 

    “[T]he culture has lurched between deregulation in all areas of life — money, sex, and power, to put it crudely — and what you might call reregulationDeregulationhappened because people wanted to do their own thing, to be (as it were) true to themselves and see what happened… The problem is that introducing new regulations doesn’t get to the heart of the problem.  Doing your own thing isn’t good enough, but rules by themselves won’t solve the problem.”[11]

    What explains, if anything, this swerving between seemingly polar opposite options like a drunk driver?  Calls for unfettered liberty and simultaneous calls for regulation and uniformity.  Is there an explanation, a rationale for what is occurring? Is there grounding for understanding, and thereby avoiding both the Scylla of radical autonomy and the Charybdis of Statist coercion?

    The apostle Paul provides such an analysis. His optics best describe where we are and why we are there. And, knowing this analysis provides a way forward culturally and politically.

    The Apostle Paul’s Perspective:  Cosmology As a Key Cultural Optic

    It is of course both arrogant and unfeasible to bring to bear all that this marvelous thinker contributes to this topic here. Accordingly, the focus of this analysis will spring primarily from one of St. Paul’s culturally foundational arguments as set forth in Romans 1:18-32.

    There, Paul claims that “real reality” — expressed cosmologically — reduces to two starkly different and mutually exclusive options:  either there exists a Creator and a creation (created order); or there only exists a single metaphysical reality, some expression of monism – a paganism expressed is diverse ways.

    Reality is “two,” comprising a hetero-cosmology; or reality is “one” comprising a homo-cosmology.[12]

    Moreover, Paul insists that this metaphysical construct also manifests spiritual and ethical consequences:  Man is a worshipper who either worships the Creator-God, or Man worships what is not God, that which Paul characterizes as creation.  

    And, when worship is false, that is, is directed toward the creation — idolatry results. The truth is exchanged for the lie[13]. That false theology, according to Paul, correlates with unrighteous ethical conduct, what Paul calls unrighteous practices. Idols aren’t idle.  But there is more. 

    Paul completes his cosmological analysis in verse 32, contending that conduct, particularly sexual conduct, is not only practiced, but condoned and approved. This point helps explain why the push for autonomy is paradoxically conjoined with a call for Statist enforcement and coercion.  And, it explains why Corbin Stamp yearns for more than his own sexual autonomy; he seeks legal and cultural approval of it enforced against those who dare to dissent or otherwise disagree.  Consequently, the popular slogan “live and let live” is a false flag.  What’s really occurring is this:  “I want to live this way and you must agree or be silenced”.  This is not surprising to Paul.

    Paul unfolds his argument as follows:

    Romans 1:18, 21:  While people possess true knowledge, their reasoning or thinking becomes irrational because truth is suppressed:

        For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. . . For although they knew God [gnotes ton theon], they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.  

    In context, the truth known about God is cosmological:  He is revealed and is known plainly, and clearly perceived as the divine powerful Creator (v. 19). Absent grace, however, man does not relish this revealed truth regarding the true God, and instead he represses it. Man’s irreligion leads ironically to a religious response:  idolatrous worship.

    Romans 1:25:  the truth is exchanged for the lie leading to a spiritual or worship response culminating in idolatry:

     [B]ecause they exchanged the truth about God for a [the] lie and worshiped and servedthe creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. 

    Anthropologically, man is a religious being and therefore he must express and live, that is, practice — and this is key for understanding the paradox in question — his religion.

    Romans 1:32:  This false worship leads to unrighteous practices, which provokes a response seeking to justify or approve those practices:

    Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. 

    Note the progression:

    • Truth: Suppressed
    • Truth:  Exchanged
    • Spiritual Response:  Creation Worshipped and Served
    • Unrighteousness:  Practiced
    • Unrighteousness:  Approved

    Paul’s teaching verifies that life — that is, cultural engagement — will also involve “law” in its many forms.  This encounter produces a predictable pattern in history, a pattern that expresses itself culturally, and ultimately implicates the “law” of the culture. Paul reasons as follows:

    • Conscience:  Man suppresses, not obliterates, the truth in unrighteousness[14]
    • Conversion:  Man exchanges “the truth” for “the lie”[15]
    • Communion (Spiritual):  Worship and service continue, but with creation, not the Creator, as their object[16]
    • Conduct (ethics)[17]:  unrighteousness practiced[18]
    • Culture (“law”):  unrighteousness approved[19]

    This pattern culminates in the “approval” of unrighteous “practices.” And, as it recurs, it reinforces the cycle. Practices which are approved encourage more suppression of the truth; this suppression in turn produces a greater exchange of the truth for the lie; this exchange provokes an increased (false) worship response; this worship response “permits” unrighteous practices, which in turn fuel the urge for affirmation, approval, and vindication culturally, via society’s “law.” 

    According to Paul, paganism, by embracing a false cosmology, presses its practices seeking “approval,” and, in doing so, brings into play the cultural icons that “grant approval,” including law and politics.  Hence the Many or the authorized Collective, however that is culturally parsed or expressed, works to approve — that is, is ordered to seek the approval of — what the One practices.  Put differently, Caesar’s coercive power enforces and thereby approves the Self’s desires[20].

    Thus, Paul links theology and ethics and implicates the public square in doing so.[21]  These twin idolatries form the ethical tectonics that underlie and playout in today’s political and legal meanderings.  While many legal and political “issues” are bantered about, the bottom line to all of them is this:  Those who fail to follow the Creator will stand opposed to His Son, thereby seeking to defy the Creator’s constraints – legally and politically:  

    The kings of the earth set themselves,

    and the rulers take counsel together,

    against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying,

    “Let us burst their bonds apart

    and cast away their cords from us.[22]

    How does St. Paul’s analysis look in real time? Consider this anecdote.[23]

    Paul’s Cosmology:  An Illustrative and Timely Anecdote

    A few years ago, the Beverly Hills Bar Association sponsored a debate addressing marriage and its attempted redefinition.[24]  The Museum of Tolerance, a venue dedicated to remembering the Holocaust, hosted the debate.

    During the Q and A segment, someone posed this question to one participant, a former law clerk for Justice Ginsburg, arguing for what he deemed the “right” to “marriage equality”[25]:  To paraphrase: “David, you’ve spoken about rights; I have one question: What is the source of rights?”

    David hemmed and hawed, and then stated what was not the source of rights in his mind: rights do not come from religion and they do not come from morality, echoing a Court decision that approved[26] same-sex conduct, Lawrence v. Texas.[27] Rather, he said, “[Rights] come from the State.”

    On cross-examination I cautioned David by noting in effect, “Be very careful with what you just told the audience, David, because what you just told them was that Nuremberg was wrong and Dachau was right because everything the Nazis did was legal.” This formerly hostile audience hushed demonstrably.

    Sadly, the modern church – not just LGBTQ advocates – has catalyzed this reductionism in many cases – there indeed is paganism in the pews[28]:

    “It is we, the churches, who have been the real reductionists. We have reduced the kingdom of God to private piety, the victory of the cross to comfort for the conscience, and Easter itself to a happy, escapist ending after a sad, dark tale. Piety, conscience, and ultimate happiness are important, but not nearly as important as Jesus himself.”[29]     

    This self-induced reductionism has opened the door for Caesar – and the Idol of State – to roar more loudly – as we will illustrate next week in Part 2, Lord willing.  Until then, be skeptical of any political philosophy that leans toward Statist solutions – such as the so-called Christian Nationalism bantered about on social media.  In other words, refuse to take refuge in the jaws of a tyrannical Statist shark no matter how frustrated you may be with the Left’s Progressive Kraken.  We must discern, recognize – and smash – political idols.  Our political loyalty, as ever, must not be affixed to the Elephant or the Donkey, but to the Lion who is the Lamb.


    [1] Is. 59:14-16

    [2] Francis A. Schaeffer, A Christian Manifesto, 1981), 17

    [3] Romans 1:25

    [4] As a non-profit ministry, TxC does not endorse or oppose candidates for elective office.  This analysis focuses on how Christian theology impacts ethics as applied to political philosophy and jurisprudence,  

    [5] Compare Orwell’s 1984 with Huxley’s Brave New World.

    [6] See generally Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Craig.

    [7] See generally Elane Photography, LLC v. Willock.

    [8] See generally Hands On Originals v. Lexington-Fayette Urban County Human Rights Commission.

    [9] Witness the hullabaloo regarding Indiana’s enacted—then virtually gutted by subsequent amendment—RFRA. See also the related op-ed, Frank Bruni, Bigotry, the Bible and the Lessons of IndianaNew York Times, April 3, 2015 saying that “ossified tradition-bound” Christian leaders “must be made ‘to take homosexuality off the sin list,”’ relating a discussion with furniture maker Creech and Mitchell.  Of course, this means that anyone who thinks homosexuality is a sin would now reside on society’s evolving “sin list.”

    [10] The Oracle: Words Have Meaning, March 10, 2010.

    [11] N. T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters (2012), 9.

    [12] See generally, Peter Jones, One or Two – Seeing a World of Difference, (2010).

    [13] Romans 1:25. While the articular appears in the Greek text, creating a balanced parallel of exchanging “the” truth with “the” lie, most English translations, except the NJKV, inexplicably say “a” lie.

    [14] Romans 1:18 

    [15] Romans 1:25. Note again the parallel between “the truth” and “the lie” [ho pseudos] as the articular is used, which is unfortunately obscured by many English translations; cf., NKJV.

    [16] Romans 1:25.

    [17] Ethics correlates with theology and man’s response to theology, worship:  Man becomes like the idols he makes.  (Ps. 135:18)

    [18] Romans 1:32.

    [19] Romans 1:32.

    [20] To extrapolate further, the Christian God is Triune:  One God hypostatically subsisting in three persons:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Thus, this God is both One and Many.  And, this God is revealed to be Creator and Redeemer.  Idolatry, however, redirects worship to the Creation, but the Divine categories/roles remain.  The Self becomes the “Creator” via its autonomous desires, and the State becomes the “Redeemer” as the agent which enforces the Self’s desires.

    [21] Paul is no anarchist, however.  He affirms both the goodness, legitimacy, and the necessity of the non-idolatrous, properly ordered State.  See, Romans 13.

    [22] Ps. 2:2, 3

    [23] One important caveat:  knowing and understanding Paul’s theology and cosmology does not mean that these points are to be communicated using overt theological jargon or bible-thumping triumphalism.  We know this is the case because Paul himself demonstrates that when he engages the public square—the judiciary no less—he testifies to Festus that he is “speaking true and rational words.” (Acts 26:25)

    [24] Till Death Do Us Part: Marriage, Same-Sex Couples and The Law, Debate sponsored by the Beverly Hills Bar Association; Opponent David Codell hosted at the Museum of Tolerance (September 6, 2006)

    [25] Actually, every informed person should support “marriage equality.”  The question, however, is what is marriage?  Marriage is a creational norm existing between one man and one woman.  See also from a philosophical viewpoint, the necessary uniqueness of male/female marriage:  Girgis, Anderson, George, What Is Marriage?  Man and Woman:  A Defense (2012)

    [26] Cf., Romans 1:32

    [27] 539. U.S. 558 (2003)

    [28] Dicta, posted June 17, 2024

    [29] N.T. Wright, Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did and Why it Matters (2011), 5.