Stealer’s Wheel was the quintessential one hit wonder. They formed in 1972 and broke up just a few years later in 1975. And the only reason I, or anyone knows this, is because Wikipedia exists. Their only hit was a catchy song called “Stuck in the Middle with You.” The song became much more famous and infamous thanks to a particularly bloody scene involving an ear in Reservoir Dogs almost 20 years later.
“Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am, stuck in the middle with you.”
The song really should be enjoying a resurgence today. I don’t know of any line from any song that better captures how so many of us feel about our political landscape right now. Hemmed in by madness on each partisan extreme, a whole lot of us are just feeling stuck.
This is a roundabout way of introducing the main topic of this post. Christians, sadly, have not been exempt from the political fighting that has characterized our culture in general. In some pathetic cases, followers of Jesus have been leading the march towards madness. What is particularly alarming to any person committed to the lordship of Jesus is the rampant and unapologetic idolatry that has infested our politics. As I see it, both sides of the political spectrum are guilty of (or at least in danger of ) false worship. Tragically, those who are caught up in false worship are the least inclined to recognize it while being the most inclined to justify it.
The god on the Right
The god on the political Right is typically the god of nationalism. It is possible to be a left-leaning nationalist, but it is much more common among political conservatives. To be clear, nationalism is not the same as patriotism or even nation-ism. Patriotism is to have good will towards your nation. Nation-ism is to believe that the existence of discreet nations is actually a good thing. I agree with both of these, and I agree with them from Christian convictions. It is silly for any Christian to claim that patriotism is idolatrous. It is also small-minded for any Christian to claim that national borders are somehow anti-God. Enthusiasm is not the same thing as worship. Wanting the best for your nation is a good and virtuous thing which I wish was more in fashion among Christians on the Left as well as the Right. Why in the world would we not want the best for our friends, neighbors, towns, states, and country? I don’t begrudge a believer from Canada being enthusiastic for Canada. Why would I have a different standard for my own nation? The notion that patriotism is somehow sinful is toxic.
Nationalism is a distorted patriotism. It is patriotism turned into a graven image. Nationalism is a god of identity. Nationalism is idolatrous because it sees national identity as a matter of first importance. The most important thing about us is our national identity. Our religious convictions and allegiances are made secondary to our national identity. Nationalism hollows out heavenly citizenship. In fact, heavenly citizenship is often framed in terms of belonging to God’s favored nation.
To my friends on the Christian Right, please hear my warning. Nationalism is a seductive and sneaky god. It is terribly easy to move from waving the flag to worshipping it. The change can happen without us even realizing it. It is the obligation of every Christian citizen to bless their nation while still keeping it at a prophetic distance. If you see each and every critique of your nation as an attack on your identity, you may have become susceptible to this god. I would argue that you aren’t even being a good patriot. Patriots don’t blindly affirm everything about their nation. They love their nation enough to critique the areas where it is not living up to its promise.
The god on the Left
If the god of the Right is an identity god, the god of the Left is a god of provision. People on the far-Left of the political spectrum are particularly susceptible to the god of statism. Nationalism and statism are very different. Nationalism is about identity. Statism is about bureaucracy. Statism sees the government as being the best source of provision for everything from healthcare to wireless internet. Nationalists love the brash symbolism of flags and eagles. Statists tend to see those things as passé or uncouth. What is of much greater importance to the committed statist are complex, costly, and intrusive government programs.
From a Christian perspective, the statist is not completely wrong. Governments do rightly exist to provide peace, order, and justice to their citizens. If the concept of human rights means anything, then governments are essential. Christians are not anarchists! Good government is a blessing. Bad or nonexistent government is a curse. The mistake that statists make is that they don’t just want a good government. They come to associate a meaningful life with those things that only a government can provide. In other words, if it is really important, there must be a governmental program.
We know that Israel was famously nationalistic at times, but they were also statist. At one point they asked for a king for their own provision and security. God warned them that statism comes with the steep cost of their own freedom. We know that nationalism is often violent towards outsiders. Because nationalists are protective of their identity, they have been known to lash out at anyone or anything that challenges that identity. Statism, however, is also violent. The difference is that the violence of statism is typically directed toward its own citizens. Statism requires intrusive control in order to fulfill its “promise.” When you cede meaning-making to the provision of bureaucrats, don’t be surprised when they ask for more and more of your freedom in return. So, to my Christian friends on the political Left, be warned. You are typically very good at identifying the idolatry that exists on the Right while having a blind spot for your own gods. Statism is a very accommodating god. I mean, who wouldn’t want to provide as much as possible for as many people as possible? To not do so is heartless! Be careful. I don’t know of a single false god that doesn’t come with its own list of justifications.
I don’t know what is going to happen in this upcoming election. I have chosen not to participate in any of the political madness of this season. I will not be endorsing your candidate. Sorry. I am convinced, however, that too many Christians are in danger of losing their souls over an increasingly stupid election. There is a danger of idolatry in voting for either candidate. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t vote. In my opinion, we absolutely should vote. But no matter who you vote for, you should also respond to the imperative voiced at the very end of 1 John…
“Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.”