The Seduction of Political Idolatry

Posted by in Bible & Theology, News & Culture

Last week, a group of politically conservative opinion leaders published a document entitled the Mount Vernon Statement. Although, in contrast to the Manhattan Declaration from a couple of months ago, it does not purport to be a specifically Christian document, among its signatories and promoters are included several well-known Christians, including Richard Land and Barrett Duke from the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. In principle, I have no objection to denominational leaders, such as Land and Duke, signing such a document, as long as it is clear they are doing so as individuals, and not in representation of all Southern Baptists. That is not the point of this post. Each of us, as individuals, is entitled to our own opinions on political issues, as well as the prerogative of publically making them known.

The stated purpose of the Mount Vernon Statement is that of uniting social, economic, and national security conservatives behind a common cause and movement. However—in contrast, once again, with the Manhattan Declaration—it does not specifically mention the issues of abortion and homosexual marriage. Though, to date, I have not read it stated as such anywhere else, the timing of the Mount Vernon Statement—on the heels of the Manhattan Declaration—leaves one to wonder if one of the underlying motives is to remind religious/moral/social conservatives that the conservative movement encompasses more than just them alone. In politics—as in many areas of life—there is strength in numbers. It is important to show solidarity and not break ranks with the broader constituency.

The theme of unity runs through the Mount Vernon Statement itself, as well as in several related publicity pieces, including a recent article published by Baptist Press. However, as I have recently argued on a comment stream here on sbcIMPACT, although there are various types and varieties of unity in the world in which we live, “the unity we share as brothers and sisters in Christ is qualitatively different from the type of unity members of other diverse categories might share with each other.” Our common membership in the Body of Christ, marked by our common relationship to the Head of the Body, calls for a degree of solidarity and loyalty significantly more transcendent than our identification with any number of secondary causes and movements.

Nevertheless, there are many causes and movements that compete for our solidarity and loyalty. But, as Jesus so clearly informed us, “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Matthew 6:24).

Politics creates strange bedfellows. At the core, it is all about building coalitions and striking the necessary compromises to encompass a constituency large and powerful enough to achieve its stated objectives.

Sometimes those causes that are most apparently similar to the true object of our loyalty may at the same time have the most potential for drawing us away from our singular devotion to the only One who truly deserves it. On various occasions, I have watched, as little by little, individuals and organizations that were once centered on the pure gospel, and specifically Christian ministry, have been drawn into increasing political involvement, and eventually abandoned their unalloyed commitment to specifically Christian values. One friend from my youth, who at one time professed a call to Christian ministry, inspired by the rhetoric of the Religious Right, began to get involved in politics, under the auspices of working to champion moral causes. Little by little, he got more and more involved in local Republican Party activities, and less and less in specifically Christian ministry. The last I heard of him, though still active in the Republican Party, he was no longer attending church.

Perhaps this is an isolated case, and should not be used as an example. However, I think a good case can be made that, with a certain degree of frequency, entire organizations, and sometimes even local churches, have, at times, seen an increased emphasis on political causes be accompanied by a corresponding decline in active involvement and priority commitment to evangelism, discipleship, and missions.

I suppose that, as in all of life, there is an appropriate balance to be struck in all of this. Certainly, as Christians, doing what we can to support the right to life, and working to counteract the influence of forces that actively seek to undermine the moral fiber of our society, and wreak havoc in the lives of countless individuals and families, is, in and of itself, a good thing. And, an important part of Christian discipleship involves being salt and light in the world around us.

But, at the same time, there are certain elements of practically any political platform that are not based on clearly delineated biblical values. And, once our heart has been drawn in and seduced by political idolatry, it is easy to convince ourselves that there really is a biblical approach to each and every social, economic, and national security issue that comprises the stuff of partisan political platforms. Of course, it is possible to make this same mistake both from the left as well as from the right. But, among the people with whom I most frequently rub shoulders, and, in all likelihood, the majority of Southern Baptists—including the readers of sbcIMPACT—I imagine it is more important to remind ourselves that, although there are certain spiritual principles and values that may align more closely with the platform of one political party than another, conservative does not equal Christian. And, whenever we have to choose between the two, there is only one community, and One Lord, that deserve our bottom-line loyalty.