God, Politics, and Idolatry

“There are evidences that our modern American enthusiasm for that aspect of Christian faith which is called ethics includes a covert form of idolatry–the more perilous because so disguised.  There is a relation between the knowledge of God and the achievement and maintenance of human order; but God does not commonly make himself available to men who seek him primarily to achieve and maintain order.  If God is sought in order to integrate the personality, the actual God is not God but the integrated personality.  And when men are urged to renovate their religious values in order that the Republic may be more firmly glued together, this covert idolatry reaches a peculiarly pernicious and untruthful pitch.  There is a relation between a people who are blessed because God is their Lord, but one does not find it recorded that God the Lord consents to be compounded into political glue.

It is instructive to examine the way the name of God, and appeals to his help, are introduced into the public political utterances of our leading politicos.  The situation is described; some elements in it are announced as gratifying, others as deplorable.  A vigorous program is then outlined, the hardship its execution will work upon our tax rate is confronted, and justified.  And, finally, having figured out and announced what our role is, or ought to be, and what at the moment must be done, the entire structure of analysis and purpose is immersed in the tub of the waiting blessing of God.  The performance concludes with the obvious assumption that from such commendable purposes God would not be so churlish as to withhold his effective assistance.

This understanding of Christian ethics–as a lubricant for the adjustment of the personality, and as an adhesive for public policy–does violence to the reality of both Christianity and politics.  It does violence to Christianity because it make the Holy a disposable object to be manipulated for mortal purposes; it does violence to the political order  because it tempts to such an identification of our purposes with the purposes of God as to engender both arrogance and insensitivity.

Nowhere, perhaps, in the recorded utterances of our English speaking men of affairs is there reflected so clearly as in President Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address the unfathomable mystery of the relationship between the purposes of God and the ethical crusades of men:

‘Both (men of the North and of the South) read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes his aid against the other…The prayers of both could not be answered–that of neither has been answered fully.  The Almighty has his own purposes.’”

– Joseph SittlerThe Structure of Christian Ethics, pp. 12-14

HT – Ian Olsen


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