The Toxicity of Idolatry – UPDATED

The Toxicity of Idolatry – UPDATED March 22, 2011

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.

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