The New Idolatry

Martin Thielen

April 1, 2020

In ancient days people practiced idolatry by worshipping false gods made of sticks, stones, precious metals, and jewels. In modern times people practice idolatry by making possessions, appearance, success, status, or power their ultimate concern.

Others practice idolatry through excessive nationalism. For example, a man once told me, “I am an American first and a Christian second.” The problem with that sentiment is that if we are American first and Christian second, we are not Christian. To be a Christian means our ultimate allegiance is to Jesus, not country.

Over the past few decades, a new form of idolatry has emerged in America. A growing number of people practice idolatry by placing partisan politics above everything. In this form of idolatry, a person’s primary loyalty—at least on a practical level—is to their political party. And, if their party controls the White House, they often act like their ultimate loyalty is to the president of the United States.

We saw this dynamic during the election and inauguration of Barack Obama. Many people described that experience in almost messianic terms, as though Obama could somehow usher in the kingdom of God. Of course, he was not the Messiah but a mere mortal with plenty of flaws.

During his years in office, when President Obama made poor decisions, many Christian Democrats refused to acknowledge them. Instead, they blamed any perceived shortcomings of the president on the Republicans. Their primary loyalty was to party and president.

In recent years we’ve seen a similar trend with President Trump. For example, the vast majority of white evangelical Christians support and defend the president, even when he clearly jettisons Christian standards. It’s not a partisan statement to acknowledge the obvious.

President Trump violates almost every value Jesus taught and lived. Examples include humility, empathy, self-control, generosity, kindness, love, sexual purity, marriage fidelity, truth telling, compassion for the poor, care for the sick, respect for women, racial harmony, unity, a focus on hope over fear, welcome of immigrants, service over self, protection of children—and the list goes on.

But with few exceptions evangelicals refuse to critique the president and get angry when others do. This unyielding support and defense of the president, in the face of his overwhelming anti-Jesus behavior, smacks of political idolatry. It also does enormous damage to the credibility of Christianity and the church.

This growing trend to elevate partisan loyalties above everything, including our core Christian values, is exceptionally dangerous territory. When Christians make partisanship (red or blue) their ultimate loyalty, we need to be honest and clearly say—this is idolatry.

For followers of Jesus, there is only one ultimate loyalty. And it’s not America. Or the Republican or Democratic party. Or President Obama or President Trump. It’s Jesus. Alone.