Idolatry Comes Quietly

By Tim King

Note from Timothy Dalrymple: As a part of an ongoing series on conservative American Evangelicalism and whether it has begun, especially in recent rallies and political movements, to confuse love of country and love of God, a number of authors with diverse political perspectives were invited to respond to the following prompt:

The “Restoring Honor” rally has sparked a conversation on whether American evangelicalism is guilty of America-worship. So, when does patriotism pass over into idolatry? What marks the difference between loving, honoring, and worshiping America?

Below is the response of Tim King, communications director for Sojourners.

Idolatry is often subtle. I’ve never walked into a church to see the Cross replaced with a golden calf. It’s not that blatant. Idolatry replaces God with anything that is less than God, even if that thing is admirable.

I would define patriotism as the love of country and the desire to work for its good. Patriotism is commendable, but it morphs into idolatry when Christianity is used as a means to the nation’s ends. That is, when the love of country comes before the love of God and neighbor -- even our foreign neighbors.

There are two primary ways we can slip into idolatry -- through theology or through fervor. Our theology, for starters, needs to distinguish between what it means to be an American citizen and what it means to be a Christian; to know the separation between the hope of Christ and the will of God for America. Avoiding idolatry means that we know how to love God and neighbor first -- and still love country.

When it comes to fervor, we cannot allow our political passions to cloud Christian discernment. For example, Christians should be concerned about our national security, but that does not mean anything our country does in the name of “national security” is Christian or moral. Christians should be concerned about the poor, but that does not mean anything our country does in the name of “helping the poor” is right. God desires America to be secure and just (as God does of the whole world), but Christianity is not to be reduced to something merely useful to these ends.

Idolatry can creep up on you. For personal accountability, I try to be in regular contact and relationship with Christians who share significantly different political opinions, especially Christians living in different countries. Having close friends and family who passionately disagree with my politics has helped me to discern between my political fervor and Christian conviction. Having friends who share my values, even while their patriotism is directed at a different nation-state, has helped me distinguish between my love of God and my love of country.

See our discussion on American Evangelicalism and National Idolatry for more articles like this.