The first time I observed American Christians creating idols of their ideologies was during the presidency of George W. Bush; I saw people put enormous faith in a president and his policies because—through their post-9/11 prisms—they came to regard his election as God-ordained. Especially within the online political forums I frequented from 2001-2003, Bush seemed nothing less than an agent of the Lord meant to avenge America’s dead, and in so doing either bring peace to the nations or usher in the messianic age.
I admit, being a religious person, and having cast my first vote rightward for Bush, I was not entirely immune from some of that apocalyptic speculation, but my concerns about indulging in idolatry tended to tamp down my fervor. That became easier, of course, by the fall of 2005, when George W. Bush was no longer anyone’s strange god.
Then came the election of 2008, with idols arising amid both the religious right, who swooned for Sarah Palin’s heartfelt nationalism, and the secular left, who called Barack Obama “The One” and “The Lightworker” while Obama propelled the “anointed” analogies forward with his own rhetorical excesses. I started wondering about idolatry, again. What was driving Americans to paint their candidates—these merely human people—with brushes so gobbed-up with malice or over-laden with love? It was impressive enough that Palin had been an effective governor with a sound record on energy policy; why did some need to see her as Mother America and others need to savage her until her humanity could be disregarded? It was historic enough that Obama was the first serious African-American contender for the Oval Office; why was it necessary to herald him with halos, until the other side could only see the devil?
A nation that had witnessed outsized displays of evil and heroism during 9/11, seemed once again—as in those early days with Bush—to need to see something larger than life in her leading players; it was demanding a dose of divinity from its frontrunners, so the opposition must, in turn, become diabolical.
In 2012, there are still some puffs of Obama-fervor to be found amid the members and burning-out embers of the mainstream press; here and there you may find someone on the right launching a heavy breath toward the Romney/Ryan coals, but after decades of non-stop partisan sniping and four years of bursting bubbles, economic misery, and constitutional uncertainty, Americans are too worn, too weary, to expend the energy necessary to burnish any more golden calves.
This time around, President Obama’s halo has gone missing, and if his opponents still think he is the devil, he’s become a minor one they can finally laugh at. Candidates Romney and Ryan seem more like stable pedestals than the bronze thing upon which we gaze and so, no, we are not making idols of our candidates.
Instead some of us are simply nourishing our ideologies—holding them close to the heart and feeding them on our stores of distrust and bitterness—and allowing them to steal all of our instincts to charity, to squeeze out mercy. You can see it on social media, most especially on Facebook where respectable, even admirable, people are beginning to lose perspective and attack each other over news stories, and sometimes over simple questions, reasonably asked. Where angry banning won’t do, full-scale attacks are launched in the form of threads full of red-meat, wherein “friends” are invited to feed, so the hatred may grow.
And it is all done in service to a sad illusion that somehow, if we do not post every story that makes us angry or proves our point, if we do not constantly attempt to fix the erroneous thinking of others, this election will fall out of our control. We must be aggressive unto hysteria in our righteousness, or the other side will win.
It is the flip side of the old Bush-as-Agent-of-God thing, only this time, we seem not to believe that God’s hand may be working within our world at all, and so it is up to us. We “pray” as a means of telling God what we want done, but we don’t trust him very much, hence the hysteria. Both left and right are nearly fainting with fear: “What if the other side wins? The other side is evil!”
Look at the crucifix. Is there any greater reassurance that nothing happens—not even the worst things we may imagine—without it working ultimately to God’s purpose?
Let us ponder these words from the Imitation of Christ, which is the second reading in today’s Office of Readings:
How can anyone be aroused by empty talk if his heart is subject in the truth to God? The whole world cannot swell with pride the man who is subject to truth; nor will he be swayed by the flattery of all his admirers, if he has established all his trust in God. For those who do all the talking amount to nothing; they fail with their din of words, but the truth of the Lord endures for ever.
We are making ourselves ill with the damnable illusions; so fearful are we that our time, our place, our nation, our worldly world quivers upon a precipice, that we will soon initiate our own tumbling unless we let go of these passing mirages and take hold of the Truth which lasts.
We have nothing left to throw into the white-hot crucible but our hyper-emotive selves. And we are not worth idolizing.
Elizabeth Scalia is the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos and blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles for "On the Square" can be found here.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.