I first suspected America was developing an ideological toxemia in 2004.
That was the year the mainstream media, obsessed with the collegiate records of President George W. Bush, remained incurious to a fault about the school transcripts of his Democrat opponent, Senator John Kerry. Reason whispered that the same press gleefully citing the “gentleman’s C’s” that proved Bush too stupid to be president should be all the more anxious to put forth Kerry’s records, and seal their case, but that hiss died on the air, and those records remained embargoed until after the election, when Kerry’s college GPA was quietly revealed to be lower than Bush’s, and the subject was dropped.
I further suspected that we were in trouble in 2008, when the same mediating intelligences denounced any and all demands to discuss presidential candidate Barack Obama’s college transcripts, or his background, associations, or legislative records at the federal and state levels as racist contrivances. They had to be contrivances, we heard, because the candidate was transparently brilliant, and quite possibly more highly evolved than most mortals. Newsweek’s Evan Thomas suggested that Obama was “almost like God” compared to other politicians, and ABC News’ Terry Moran went so far as to describe the American Presidency as a “step down” for the Colossus from Chicago.
But I really knew America was in trouble when, both before and after his inauguration, the late-night pundits and political cartoonists found themselves unable to crack wise about the new president. This was not mere honeymoon courtesy; seasoned comedy writers accustomed to gutting sacred calves on a nightly basis declared Barack Obama a man too substantial, too good to be mocked.
The American chattering classes, largely indifferent-to-agnostic-to-hostile toward religion, had suddenly found themselves a god, and to speak his name in vain could not be countenanced. Heretics sinning against the speak-not commandment were speedily feathered with the gooiest tar available and then ostracized from polite company.
But this descent into absurd idolatry was not limited to formerly faithless media cynics and Democrats (I am redundant). On the other side of the aisle, conservatives and some Republicans—many of whom profess a Christian faith—were suddenly unable to endure the slightest criticism of Gov. Sarah Palin.
Her supporters do not, thankfully, regard Palin as some sort of transcendent humanoid, but to her base, Palin and her family have become sacrosanct to a troubling extreme that echoes the Obama cult: Jokes made at Palin’s expense are not jokes but “hate.” Constructive criticism (even when rendered mildly, and with acknowledgments of both her strengths, and the savaging she endured throughout the ’08 campaign) is categorized as “hate.” One either loves Palin unconditionally, or one is a heretic; doubt, or even a reasonable reservation, is an occasion of sin.
To Obama or Palin cultists, any critique must be invalidated because if you find a fault with them, you are de facto finding fault with the values and ideals of those who have invested so much of their identities into supporting and yes, “believing in” their heroes.
This does not speak well of American maturity. When I was an adolescent, to reject Bobby Sherman was to reject me; to mock David Cassidy was to sting me to my core. This pre-pubescent overwrought emotionalism is running rampant through our politics. At its worst, it creates a din of shrill and incoherent screaming; at its best it creates myths—witness the events of the past week, where Palin fans have claimed the president’s eventual support of a no-fly zone in Libya to be a victory for the “Palin Doctrine,” while Obama acolytes are cooing about the “remarkable” job Obama did “bringing this whole coalition together” and downplaying the roles of England and France who—it must be said—got there first.
So, yes, we’re in trouble. Our ideological allegiances to these cults of personality have us slip-sliding into the sin of idolatry and everything that comes with it—a comfort level with truthiness that helps us to maintain our world views, a grim joylessness that permits no laughter and justifies tossing aside friends and family members who do not believe, and a bunker mentality that is ever on-guard for perceived heresies.
All of these things get in the way of our relationship with God. Making strange gods of our passions helps construct a fortress that blocks God’s access to us, and we do not even realize that we are losing sight of Him, brick by fervently placed ideological brick.
This Lent, perhaps we would do well to consider making a sacrifice of our idols, for the sake of the nation and our souls.
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.
USA Today: Kerry’s D’s and Bush’s D
Evan Thomas: Obama “sort of God”
Terry Moran: For Obama, Presidency is “a step down”
SFGate: Is Obama an Enlightened Being?
New York Times: Want Obama in a Punch Line? First, Find a Joke
Hot Air: Jon Stewart assures audiences, it’s okay to laugh at Obama
Sarah Palin: No Animus; No Condescension
New York Sun: The Palin Doctrine Emerges
Newsbusters: Obama’s remarkable coalition