If the apostle Paul were to take a stroll through our public square today on Facebook, he would be struck by our idolatry just as much as he was by the idolatry in Athens in Acts 17. He would be provoked in his spirit once again. The idol he would see is not an altar filled with bronze or wooden objects, but the way we have made politics the center of everything we are and do.
Politics has become our idol. Our culture at large has replaced religious faith with political faith.
Over and over again, we bemoan the division within our country. We see how our country seems to be so tense, so angry and so fearful, and we look for others to blame. It is true our politicians and political parties stoke our fear and cable news and talk radio have to keep the tension high for their own bottom line, but one of the main reasons we are in this zero-sum political standoff is because we have made politics an idol. We have made politics our god.
The loyalty so many show to a particular party or politician reveal to us deeper truths about ourselves, just as the inscription to the unknown god revealed the desire for the Athenians.
The need for belonging
We yearn for somewhere to belong, for a community where we are all seeking the same thing, a place where we are welcome. We are meant to find this community in the body of Christ. The differences politics seeks to exploit are meant to find unity in the church. Instead, for many, community is found more in whom you vote for or the position you hold on certain key issues. It is about keeping out those who may disagree.
We see this need for community, for belonging, in the rallies held by politicians all over the country. These worship experiences show the desire we all have to belong to something bigger than ourselves. In the decline of mediating institutions, including the church, we have seen a rise in political division. The body of Christ finds unity in our diversity; political parties find unity in squashing diversity. Our need for community is meant to find its fulfillment in the church.
The need for truth
Another truth the idol of politics shows us is we all desire to build our lives on a foundation of something solid, something absolute. Our culture has rushed to remove absolute truth and transcendent claims from the public square. The problem is we are wired innately to cling to certain truths as absolute, to try to find something solid to build our lives on.
We will fulfill this desire in some way, and the current way many of us have tried to fill this need is with politics. We have moved absolute truth from the religious realm to the political realm. Our political identity has become our foundation, and the ideology of our preferred party has become our absolute truth that cannot be compromised in any way. The need for transcendence has moved from worship of God to worship of politicians. We rapturously repeat phrases like “Yes, we can” or “Make America great again” as our liturgy.
The wise man builds his house upon the rock of Christ and his word. The promises of God are what we cling to. Politicians come and go. Ideology changes over time. Political opinion waxes and wanes. God’s Word is eternal. We are meant to build our lives on the foundation of his love, his character and his promises.
The church must be political in the right way
I am not calling for a retreat from politics. As Christians tasked with loving God and neighbor and seeking the good of the community in which we live, we cannot abandon politics.
Public policy is a way for us to effectively seek the common good, to fight for justice and to take care of the vulnerable. We will disagree on how to do this most effectively, but we must do these things.
We, as the church, must seek to put our faith into practice in the public square, but we must do so as citizens of God’s kingdom first and foremost. As Russell Moore says, “We can be Americans best if we are not Americans first.”
The church is diverse. We come from different backgrounds, we see the way to live out our faith differently and, yes, we even vote differently. The church must find unity in our diversity. Politics as an idol unnecessarily divides us. It is time for our spirits to be provoked. It is time for us to seek first the kingdom of God. It is time for us to quit ascribing evil to those who vote differently than we do.
It is time for us to tear down the idol of politics in our hearts and in our churches.
Zac Harrel is pastor of First Baptist Church in Gustine, Texas.