I wrote the essay that follows several months ago; on the advice of some trusted friends and colleagues, I put it on the shelf to wait for the “right time.” Within the past ten days, Paula White, one of President Trump’s “spiritual advisers,” publicly called for God to “cause satanic pregnancies to miscarry,” while the President himself, in remarks at the March for Life 2020 in Washington D.C. last week that were noticeably similar to his standard remarks at his rallies, proclaimed that “Unborn children have never had a stronger defender in the White House.” Unless, apparently, the pregnancy in question is “satanic.”
The status and rights of the unborn, as well as that of the pregnant woman, and the possibility of Roe v. Wade being overturned will undoubtedly be part of the conversation for the next several months leading to the election in November. Accordingly, I’m taking this essay off the shelf–I think this is the right time to post it. Please read it with an open mind and heart–I welcome and invite your comments.
I say “Idolatry” and you think about . . . what? Worshiping golden calves? Elijah and the priests of Baal? Early Christian leaders debating whether it is okay to eat food that has been dedicated to idols? “Idolatry” is one of those words that largely has been co-opted by various religious systems, a word reserved for the worst of badly directed worship, worship focused so wrongly that—according to the ancient texts, at least—it is likely to draw the negative attention and even wrath of what the idol is replacing.
But there is a reason that the second of the Ten Commandments is a prohibition against idolatry, a reason that has relevance far beyond religious frameworks. We human beings are incurable idolaters, more than happy to pattern ourselves after someone or something else rather than to take on responsibility for ourselves. Anything can be an idol—a person, an idea, a group, whatever is raised to such importance that all other matters, including even basic moral guidelines and principles, fade into the background.
Last spring, I studied the work of Simone Weil, a fascinating and important 20th century social activist, mystic, and philosopher, with students in two different courses. Weil defines “idolatry” as “the error that attributes a sacred character to what is not sacred,” describing it as “the crime that is most widespread in every time and every country.” Weil argues that idolatry is one of the strategies that we regularly use when we seek to escape the complexities of the moral life and to avoid grappling with the realities of good and evil. She writes that idolatry “consists in marking out a social area into which . . . good and evil may not enter. In so far as he is contained within this area, man is freed from good and evil.”
Weil’s own examples of such social areas include science, where moral standards are often set aside in deference to letting research and knowledge progress unrestricted, and nationalism, as in “my country, right or wrong,” or “America, love it or leave it.” As we worked with Weil’s essays in one of my classes, after discussing the day’s essay for a bit together, I broke my dozen students up into three groups of four and asked them to spend ten minutes coming up with their own examples of what Weil means by idolatry. Several of my students were business majors, so not surprisingly, many of their examples focused on how easy it is to set one’s moral principles aside at the workplace in order to be successful and climb the corporate ladder. Another frequent example was the power and seduction of peer and group pressure, causing one to do things that one would never consider doing on one’s own.
As I listened to my students’ examples of how we frequently turn parts of our lives into “ethics-free zones,” an unsolicited and unexpected example of my own occurred to me. “Don’t go there,” a little internal voice said. “Not on a Catholic campus.” We already had a variety of illustrations—time to move on. But, despite my misgivings, something told me that the example I had just come up with was important, a real-life example that everyone would understand. I went there.
My students know from previous conversations that I was raised in a conservative, evangelical Protestant Christian tradition. Over the past three or four years, I have regularly wondered in multiple venues, including this blog and in face-to-face conversations, how it is that more than 80% of white evangelical Christians (my original faith tribe) both voted for Donald Trump as President and continue to support him now. I would venture to say that no U.S. President, certainly none in my lifetime, has failed more spectacularly to live up to any recognizable version of a Christian ethic. How can evangelical Christians have voted for and continue to support this pussy-grabbing, narcissistic, serially lying, moral embarrassment?
I have heard a number of possible explanations. One of the most frequently offered explanations is something along the lines of “Sure he’s an embarrassment. Sure, I wish he would stop tweeting so much. Sure, I wish [fill in the blank with any number of other moral outrages that they wish Donald would stop]. But he’s strongly pro-life. He’s putting pro-life judges on the bench. He’s put two of them on the Supreme Court. We might even see Roe v. Wade overturned because of him.” Fair enough. At least that’s a reason (although a very bad one in my estimation).
“Notice what’s going on here,” I said to my students. For an evangelical Trump supporter, having a pro-life stance on the abortion issue has been raised to such moral importance that everything else of moral importance pales in comparison. “I am willing to turn a blind eye to and ignore any moral failings, even the most obvious and blatant ones, as long as the person in question has the right moral position on this one issue,” the evangelical Trump supporter says. This person has raised the abortion issue to such exalted status that she or he will support a person who brags that he would not be abandoned by his base even if he shot a person dead in cold blood in the middle of Fifth Avenue, just as long as he has the right stance on abortion.
And Trump is right about the Fifth Avenue thing, because in his evangelical supporter’s estimation, even murder doesn’t occupy the same moral universe as being right about abortion. One issue—being pro-life on the abortion issue—has been raised in status to being the only thing that matters. The abortion issue has become the only moral issue. And that, my friends, is idolatry.
I raised this example toward the end of the class period, intending to pick it up in subsequent classes. But judging from facial expressions and body language, it was clear that my example of idolatry had an immediate impact on my students, particularly one who clearly was struggling to keep her emotions in check. “Thank you,” she whispered with tears in her eyes as she walked past me on her way to the door when class was over.
I have well-defined beliefs concerning abortion; I describe myself either as “intelligently pro-life” or “conservatively pro-choice” when required to take a position, deliberately blurring the supposedly “all-or-nothing” bright line between pro-life and pro-choice. But bottom-line, this is not about the abortion issue—I’m using that simply as one familiar example of how an idea, a moral or political position, can become an idol as soon as one raises it to such importance that everything else takes a back seat. The idol could be the second amendment. Or a commitment to gun control. Or the environment. Or fear of socialism. The author of the Ten Commandments was right—we really can make an idol out of anything. And we need to stop doing that.
The best cure for the disease of idolatry that I am aware of begins with embracing the complexity, ambiguity, uncertainty, and provisional nature of everything that we believe and think we know. Idolatry is always an attempt to establish certainty where it is both unwarranted and unearned. Simply learning to describe one’s beliefs as follows helps:
- This is what I believe, but I might be wrong, or
- This is what I believe, but I have a lot to learn.
And then there’s this from Nadia Bolz-Weber that I just read the other day: It is possible for more than one thing to be true at the same time. Yes, it is. Imagine that.