If the human heart is a veritable factory of idols, as Calvin said, then it might be fair to say that theologians see themselves as the factory inspectors, called upon to discern and denounce idolatries wherever they may be found. Sometimes, however, we are too content merely to take a superficial look at the packaging well after the product has entered widespread circulation, instead of venturing into the factory to see what’s really going on. Or, to drop the belabored metaphor, sometimes we are overly tempted to identify an idol merely by certain external characteristics rather than by whether it actually rules our hearts as such. This is a particular temptation in political theology, where critics on both left and right are eager to identify Christian idolatries of the state.
The right will tell us that we can recognise idolatry by asking whether the state claims to provide goods which only God can provide. The modern state, we are told, is an overgrown Leviathan, one that presents itself as the saviour from all evils, the solution to all ills, as our modern Messiah. Whenever someone suggests then that the solution for an economic crisis lies in state intervention, or that state action might remedy economic injustice, or perhaps that the state should be involved in ensuring universal access to healthcare, up goes the cry, “Idolatry!” God has fixed particular, extremely narrow boundaries to the legitimate intrusion of political authority, we are told, and to ask anything else from the government is to substitute it for God himself.
Critics on the radical left have their own version of this rhetorical move, one on display frequently in the writings of William Cavanaugh. For instance, in Migrations of the Holy, Cavanaugh says,
“The problem, as MacIntyre notes, is that the nation-state presents itself as so much more, as the keeper of the common good and repository of sacred values, so that it demands sacrifice on its behalf. . . . In a bureaucratic order whose main function is to adjudicate struggles for power between various factions, a sense of unity is produced by the only means possible: sacrifice to false gods in war. The nation-state may be understood theologically as a kind of parody of the church, meant to save us from division.”
This particular statement of Cavanaugh’s concern is in fact fairly rhetorically restrained , but the suggestion here, voiced more vigorously elsewhere, is that we may readily discern the idolatry of the state in its call for people to lay down their lives for it, or, even more so, in its call for people to kill others for its sake. In The Myth of Religious Violence, he thinks it quite significant to point out that very few modern Christians would be willing to kill for the sake of their church, but most would be quite willing to kill for the sake of their country. Since human life is a good of infinite value, any entity which claims the right to take human life or require its sacrifice is demanding what only God can demand, and is thus idolatrous.
The most striking problem with both of these arguments (in their more simplistic forms, at any rate) is that, if they are true, then not merely we moderns, but the majority of the Christian tradition, can be indicted of idolatry. Most Christian ethicists through the ages have felt quite able to justify, on clear theological and ethical grounds, both the taking of life by the state and the sacrifice of life in its defence. They have also felt quite able, on clear theological and ethical grounds, to call for the Christian magistrate’s involvement in any number of areas of concern—not only military and judicial, but economic, social, and religious—as part of his protection of the common good and vindication of justice.
No doubt, there are a great many ways in which modern politics might be indicted for idolatry, and to be sure, both of the arguments I have just summarized can be and have been offered in more sophisticated and compelling forms. But if we wish to aptly identify the pathologies of modernity, we must go beyond facile claims that certain political actions in and of themselves necessarily constitute forms of idolatry, and must rather ask whether the fundamentally provisional character of these political actions is being maintained, or whether we have passed over into investing them with a significance and finality which no human action can bear (though certainly, part of this will involve attending to the kinds of actions that are being taken and called for). On this point, O’Donovan’s remarks in chapter 3 of Resurrection and Moral Order are worth reflecting carefully upon:
“The opposition in Western theology between the City of God and the earthly city has enabled political thought to avoid theocratic conceptions of government, which, by claiming to express the rule of heaven on earth, must unify the earthly and the heavenly into a single totalitarian political claim. Western theology starts from the assertion that the kingdoms of this world are not the kingdom of our God and of his Christ, not, at any rate, until God intervenes to make them so at the end. If we ask why not, the answer must surely be that their judgments cannot reconcile the world; thus they can neither be perfectly true nor perfectly merciful. Their sovereignty can be only a relative sovereignty; and the believer, who knows himself subject to the absolute sovereignty of God’s reconciling judgment, keeps his spiritual ‘space’ in relation to them, just as they keep a certain ‘space’ of their own in relation to the judgments of God. This does not mean (as it has sometimes come to mean in degenerate forms of the tradition) that the secular state can be independent of God and his claims, or that the pious individual can cultivate a private existence without regard for the claims of his society. It means simply that earthly politics, because they do not have to reconcile the world, may get on with the provisional task of bearing witness to God’s justice. And it means that the individual, because he is not absorbed by the claims of his earthly community, can contribute to its good order that knowledge of man’s good which he learns from his heavenly calling.”