The Toxicity of Idolatry – UPDATED

My Tuesday column at First Things is up, and today we’re talking about the strange gods we put before us and the toxic effect it has had on our politics:

[In Barack Obama] . . . 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 . . .

I’ll point out that nowhere in this piece to do I write a negative word about either Barack Obama or Sarah Palin. This is not about them; it’s about us; Americans have become comfortable with Cults of Personality to an extent not previously seen in politics. I suspect the rise of alternative media has a great deal to do with that (and perhaps the broken state of marriage and the family, which makes so many of us insecure) but it’s a worrisome trend.

And interestingly enough, I find that if I do not detach from the passionate and personal way these cultists make their case, my regard for the person being idolized becomes colored in a negative way, not because of anything the idol has done or been accused of doing, but because of the absolutism of the fans. It’s like when I write, “Sarah Palin has many strengths but she needs to…” and I get hundreds of emails from people who could only focus on the (constructive) criticism and see red, ranting, “keep your hands off our Sarah; she is perfect; she is the lone voice of American values…”

It’s like people saying “this priest is the lone voice of Catholic truth!”.

I started worrying about this back when Bush was president; because I hate bullies, I put a lot of effort into defending him against the daily onslaughts in the press, until one day I realized I’d stopped seeing the president as a mere man and had made him into something that contained whole ideological and social battles. I think the same thing happened during the last presidential election; the press and Dems saw someone without Clinton baggage who could “rescue” their ideology after 8 years of the hated Bush, and they projected every heroic positive they believed about themselves, “brilliant, more evolved, smooth, classy, like a god,” on to him.

Love of the idol is essentially self-love. Obama himself understood that he was a “blank screen” on to which people projected their values, their ideals, their hopes and fantasies about their best selves. And at that point, worship of the man became worship of the self, which is precisely why it became impossible for his fans to tolerate anyone joking about him or criticizing him – a joke or criticism about Obama was really about them, and the proof was in how viscerally they felt the sting of it, and lashed back or tried to silence the critic.

Check yourself – we’re all prone to it; if you feel a visceral sting in your gut that feels like a personal attack when your favorite politician, or entertainer, or priest or preacher is mocked or criticized, that’s something to think and pray about. When we overdo our defense of another, to the point where even a careful neutrality is taken as a full-throated condemnation of the subject, then we’re slipping into idolatry.

Someone wrote me a long screed yesterday, suggesting that I have aligned myself with Satan because I have declared myself neutral on the matter of an accused priest. This writer knew both the state of the priest’s soul (it’s holy, and he is the equal of the apostles!) and the state of my soul, too (it’s filthy) and she ended her note with a recommendation that I repent and do penance for the good of this priest who “is in Satan’s crosshairs.”

To which I can only respond: we’re ALL in Satan’s crosshairs, honey.” and I suspect he is loving all of this furious hysteria he has fomented in the adulation of our politicians and our favorite priests and, yes, our favorite Protestant preachers.

Because all of us fall; none are perfect save Christ. And Satan has us expending huge amounts of energy accusing each other of being terrible people for not loving our favorites (rather like teenyboppers arguing about whether Paul is cuter than John), and not looking at Jesus, at all.

My whole piece is here.

Lisa Graas has a representative graphic

And no, it’s not like I don’t get why people are protective of Palin. But there is a difference between defending and identifying-with to the extreme.

Related:
Quote of the Day
The Madness of the MSM
Religion, Sex, Power
Marrying Sarah Palin and Two Sheens
Church Officials Comment on Corapi’s Case

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • robert c

    I appreciate the wisdom in what you say and the fact that you have taken a relatively neutral, middle ground, political position in which to say it. What is worse than the mere run of the mill ‘idolators’ are those in the media today who have abandoned objective journalism for thinly veiled hit pieces, or subtle and manipulative wording designed to inflict stealth damage.The age of the internet, while wonderful in so many of its attributes, has done nothing for civil discourse or the poltical commonwealth. Most political blogs today are simply cages for barking, political attack dogs. Unfortunately that is sometimes the case with religious “news” blogs also.

  • http://twitter.com/DREGstudios Brandt Hardin

    It’s when the intensity of a politician’s rhetoric affects the public that I worry. The public is finally coming around to seeing the true Sarah Palin. Instead of smiling and nodding while talking about murders and national tragedies, she should show some humility. I was compelled to create a visual commentary of her political rhetoric and its effects on my artist’s blog at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2011/01/sarah-palin-made-me-do-it.html Drop by and let me know what you think.

  • Mike

    I do not have a visceral sting when someone I admire is the subject of compassionate criticism. Appropriateness and a little tact really helps. I do have a problem with mean spirited and hurtful comments are made with malice. I do not think it is necessary to mock another person. If someone feels the need to mock, go to a mirror and mock yourself. Whatever happened to “if you do not have anything good to say about another…” Have you not noticed the savaging of Sara Palin ever since she joined John McCain a couple years ago? Bill Mahr has recently referred to her as a “twat”. She has endured more “criticism” I have heard, than any public figure in my lifetime and I am 68 years old. I see no reason to pile on after the public beating she has taken by pointing out your perception of her faults. Enough is enough.

    I notice you have cited Lisa Graas as someone to support you position as you also did in the article concerning Fr. Corapi. I read the article Ms. Grass wrote and found it interesting she supported your stance but also informed her position of “I have also always said I could not be counted to be loyal as I am only loyal to God.” She said this because she believes loyalty to someone else is misplaced; even though she liked Sara Palin, she was not loyal to her, and by implication, loyal to anyone or anything on this earth but God. I am sure her parents, her husband, her children were thrilled to hear this. I am sure the patriotic organizations she belongs to are very excited to hear about her non existant loyalty the the flag, the United States and any of the citizens of the USA. It was brave of you to count on finding support by her since she has no loyalty to you as a friend. I must say I do not understand. Is it necessary to have loyalty only to God? What about love? Should I have love only for God and not my neighbor?

  • Anonymous

    An interesting thing I’ve noticed: Folks I encounter who demonize the President are only too willing to talk endlessly about him, albeit negatively. Some of my friends who demonize Sarah will not abide any conversation about her whatsoever. It’s a puzzle.

  • Anonymous

    That IS interesting…should ponder that.

  • Lisa

    I liked your article and what you have written here, but I often wonder if what is happening around us (particularly through multimedia) is idolatry plus more. Reading blogs, twitter, facebook, etc always gives me the impression we are fighting a civil war of words and graphics. For instance, what you’ve written here is very insightful:

    Check yourself – we’re all prone to it; if you feel a visceral sting in your gut that feels like a personal attack when your favorite politician, or entertainer, or priest or preacher is mocked or criticized, that’s something to think and pray about. When we overdo our defense of another, to the point where even a careful neutrality is taken as a full-throated condemnation of the subject, then we’re slipping into idolatry.

    We cannot help but feel these visceral stings because we are attacking each other through our “Idols” – through the people we identify with.

  • Mandy P.

    I would speculate that’s probably related to the level of tangible control each one has on the nation at the moment. Love him or hate him, Obama is the president; and as such he has a modicum of control over what does and does not happen within the federal apparatus. So, if one does not agree with Obama’s ideas, policies, etc, one is griping about something that has a tangible effect on the course of the nation.

    Palin, on the other hand, may have a lot to say and quite possibly participates in shaping political debate, but she has no control over actual governance. So, if one does not agree with Palin’s ideas there’s not as much point in discussing it endlessly because she has no actual power, outside of the arena of debate and discussion.

  • Anonymous

    There seems to be more to it than that. Some folks, the friends I’m talking about, don’t decline discussion because discussion would be pointless but because discussion on that subject is actually repugnant to them. The psychology of that is what I find interesting.

  • dry valleys

    I don’t read many American blogs, but most of the left-wing elements I’ve seen are more than willing to criticise Obama, with many asserting that they can’t see how he differs from Bush.

    Personally I think he is doing the best job he can in a system which, rightly, does no confer absolute power on leaders. He is required to work with Congress, I’d rather there was still a Democrat majority, but even before November it’s not as though legislators all deferred to his every whim.

    What I do think is that the leaders on both sides of the Atlantic have handled the Libya situation much better than Iraq. The action has far more international support and support within the country concerned, which is the main thing, but I also think the US leadership is acting better and we have people like Camoron who, bad though he is in general, are not as deferential (and deference will not be demanded of them).

    If you want to accuse progressives of idolatry, I suppose you could try saying that their throwing their toys out of the pram over Obama not making everything perfect was because they had unrealistic expectations of him.

    Yet I suspect we’d make up the majority of Democratic voters are/were people who never thought a magic wand was going to be waved, but saw a clear preference for Obama over his opponents (the same in 2012) so voted for him.

    This flinching reaction you’re talking about. A person dear to me has a certain mental condition and I so often hear bigoted and ignorant comments of the most staggering kind about the condition. I feel prtective/defensive about anyonein that state of mind.I think that’s as close as I get because I honestly don’t think I put anyone above criticism in the way you describe, certainly none come to mind.

  • dry valleys

    That’s only some progressives. Others never thought he would transform the universe. I don’t like the thought of some young, idealistic people becoming disillusioned because by letting the bets be the enmy of the good they miss a chance to actually do good, and make one corner of the world better.

  • Will

    Perhaps we should stick more to discussing the issues.

  • Will

    Perhaps we should stick more to discussing the issues.

  • jeff

    Dear God I just think this is wildly overstated and the subject spent at this point. Of the people concerned and upset by the Corpai “incident,” it is very safe to say that less than 1% are engaging in any kind of “idolatry,” and the suggestion that his defenders are doing so is truly unfortunate. We should just hope for more priests like Corapi who teach in communion with the Church and point the way, not to themselves, but to Jesus Christ. That is all Corapi has ever done. We have very real enemies in the Church, and Corapi is not one of them. As Pope Paul VI once said:

    By some fissure the smoke of Satan has entered into the temple of God: there is doubt, uncertainty, problems, unrest. Doubt has entered our consciences, and it has entered through the windows which were meant to have been opened to the light. This state of uncertainty reigns even in the Church. It was hoped that after the Council there would be a day of sunlight in the history of the Church. Instead, there came a day of clouds, of darkness, of groping, of uncertainty. How did this happen? We will confide Our thoughts to you: there has been interference from an adverse power: his name is the devil… [Paul VI, Insegnamenti, Ed. Vaticana, Vol. X, 1972, p. 707]

  • jeff

    Dear God I just think this is wildly overstated and the subject spent at this point. Of the people concerned and upset by the Corpai “incident,” it is very safe to say that less than 1% are engaging in any kind of “idolatry,” and the suggestion that his defenders are doing so is truly unfortunate. We should just hope for more priests like Corapi who teach in communion with the Church and point the way, not to themselves, but to Jesus Christ. That is all Corapi has ever done. We have very real enemies in the Church, and Corapi is not one of them. As Pope Paul VI once said:

    By some fissure the smoke of Satan has entered into the temple of God: there is doubt, uncertainty, problems, unrest. Doubt has entered our consciences, and it has entered through the windows which were meant to have been opened to the light. This state of uncertainty reigns even in the Church. It was hoped that after the Council there would be a day of sunlight in the history of the Church. Instead, there came a day of clouds, of darkness, of groping, of uncertainty. How did this happen? We will confide Our thoughts to you: there has been interference from an adverse power: his name is the devil… [Paul VI, Insegnamenti, Ed. Vaticana, Vol. X, 1972, p. 707]

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6SQWADITZPYHKSWSM5ONMDI52I Greta

    Problem of just discussing the issues are of course that any critcism of the issues and policies are taken as attacks on the person. The real issue is that we are very divided as a nation on some very important issues which there is little room to compromise. Those who favor unrestricted abortion are on one side and those who favor all life as sacred are on the other. Some think a compromise is to try to end abortion by supporting a massive increase in big government programs or in a way, leave everything legal and in place, just increase the size of big government. But big government spending for welfare programs many believe are part of the reason for the growth in abortions and also single parents.

    The founders of our country saw limited government as very important fighting to give that government only those powers outlined in the constitution and those given to them by the states in overwhelming majority. That allowed one state to have certain beliefs and practices and another the opposite and both still to be united as one country. Worked pretty well for decades. The founders warned us that the federal government would try to expand power just as the state would try to grow in size and power. Our second amendment rights were there to help protect us, along with first amendment free speech. But with danger, we allowed the government to start taking away our freedom. FDR and later LBJ massively increased the size and power of government. The supreme court, which was formed to rule on the constitutionality of the other two branches actions suddenly started to try to create an end result and legislated from the bench. These changes forces everyone in the states to take sides on some very critical things to us on a personal and religious level. Suddenly we were finding out God was not allowed in the public sector after generations of people lived here protected by the now twisted religious clause. What was supposed to keep government out of our faith, was bringing us aethism as the state religion. Bush was attacked from the side that hates religion and loves abortion. Obama is being attacked by the side where religion is essential and life is sacred.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6SQWADITZPYHKSWSM5ONMDI52I Greta

    Those on the left that hate Palin do not want to hear anything that supports her. Those who will argue about Obama allow free speech and then argue with those who defend him. Left has always hated free speech and any religion except theirs which is secularism or outright aethism. Second reaction to anyone who argues against them is to call them racist, homophobes, or neocons. Once you have someone in your face simply yelling a name with a smirk, conversation ends.

    We have seen this with the way two parties handled policy issues. The tea party set up rallies, but did not trash buildings and leave huge mess behind. They were willing to listen and became vocal only when their representative refused to answer questions or gave sarchastic answers as happened at some of the town hall meetings last year. Remember the left so badly wanted the shooter in Tucson to be a tea party person. They wanted video’s of racist signs and words. Never found any. Fast forward a year and now the winners of the elections were republicans and we have all seen the reactions, the foul language, signs, shut down of schools, shut down of legislation and trashing of government buildings. Everything they wanted to find with the tea party but did not find.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6SQWADITZPYHKSWSM5ONMDI52I Greta

    You are so out of it that it is amazing you would want anyone to visit this site other than friends on the left. Guess you did not get the message that Palin had nothing to do with the guy who shot Giffords and neither did Glenn Beck. It is obvious you have not spent any time listening to anyone on Fox or to Palin, only things you have heard from your left leaning buddies.

    Please show where palin has been “smiling and nodding while talking about murders and national tragedies.” Anchoress, sad to see this on your blog which is always evenhanded and accurate.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6SQWADITZPYHKSWSM5ONMDI52I Greta

    I agree 100% with you. I think the Anchoress is a place to go to get all the info in a way that reflects thought and reason, with a nice touch of faith.


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