Confessions of a Recovering Political Idolater

by Jared C. Wilson January 31, 2020

"You shall have no other gods before me."
— Exodus 20:3

It was Thanksgiving week in the year 2000 and I was glued to the TV. Not for football. Not for celebratory parades. Not for holiday movies. For chads. Chads of the hanging variety, to be specific. The Presidential election had gone to a long drawn-out recount in Florida to determine the winner between George W. Bush and Al Gore. Lawsuits had been conducted. All eyes were on the magnified eyes of counters in official rooms.

It wasn't just chads hanging in the balance, after all. In my mind, it was the future of our nation.

Presidential elections are important, of course. Some more important than others. But it was that week twenty years ago that I first came face to face with my political idolatry problem. I didn't just care; my affections were oriented around the result of that recount. My heart was tuned to it. My disposition was directly connected to the election. I was burdened to repent.

My repentance consisted of a few practical things. I swore off all cable news, realizing how much the constant bombardment of news both real and speculative was eroding my joy and buttressing my anxiety. In the twenty years since, I haven't watched but a handful of hours, usually when at other people's homes when it is the background noise of choice. But other habits die harder. Here are some symptoms of my ailment I need to stay in constant vigilance about. Maybe you do too.

1. I let political developments rule my emotions.

Anything my affections are oriented around is my object of worship. So I could've said back then that I worshiped the one true God, but my emotions were really ruled by how "my guy" or my party was doing. When "the other guy" or the other party did something particularly egregious, even objectively so, my day, my week was ruined. I grumbled and groused. I complained often. My social media posting (in those days, blogging, in these days, Twitter, Facebook, and the like) was preoccupied with the virtues of my side and the vices of the other. I professed faith in God but it was obvious from my social media posting that my religion is politics.

This is true of anything, really, that dictates your emotions to you. The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, but the fruit of any kind of idolatry is often irritability, shifting moods and feelings tied not to the eternally fixed reality of Christ and his gospel but the shifting sand of things that are passing away.

This doesn't mean, of course, that things happening in our world cannot stir a righteous indignation, that corruptions or other injustices should not stir us to sadness and resolute action. But it does mean that tying "how I'm doing" to how my political team is fairing is indicative of a posture of worship of something not worthy of it. Worship of God is connected to unshakeable joy and peace.

2. I won't suffer criticism of my team.

Political idolatry is a many-tentacled disorder. It may begin with an inordinate affection for my political side, but left unchecked it can lead to an almost deifying of my preferred leaders or political candidates. Witness the messianic fervor applied toward presidents both Democrat and Republican by their supporters. 

Sometimes, however, it's more subtle. We may not overtly attribute spiritual strongman qualities to our favored leaders, but we will not tolerate criticism of them, especially not by those ostensibly on the same team! Utter loyalty is the order of the day. But absolute loyalty is only due to the holy God who never fails or changes, the only wise King who always rules justly and with perfect righteousness. 

We always desire to most protect what we most love. This is why Christians are rightly offended by the profaning of God's name. It's why anyone in their right mind is rightly moved to action when their family is endangered. It's why anyone with rightsized love for neighbor cares about the sin and suffering and injustice in the world. But when we are moved to dismiss or excuse the sins or other failings of our political favorites, our love has become outsized to religious devotion. Our politicians are not gods worthy only of praise.

Consider for a moment that it's actually very American to criticize our leaders. They work for us! They are meant to represent the people and serve the public good. We do not serve under monarchs or potentates. We fought a war, in part, for the right to criticize our leaders freely! But beyond that, whatever level of divine sovereignty you ascribe to the positioning of elected leaders, we must remember that biblically speaking, criticism of our leaders is both allowed and very often necessary. Whatever "honoring the emperor" might entail, it should allow for the possibility of getting one's head cut off in response.

The truth is, when I'm engaged in political idolatry, I will begin to judge you based on your level of deference to or difference with my favored leaders. Criticism of them becomes a personal matter to me. If you dare to criticize "my guy," I am stirred in anger toward you. Why? Because "my guy" has functionally become my god.

3. I judge your salvation based on your political allegiance.

To be perfectly clear: Our biblical convictions should definitely impact how we vote and who and how we otherwise support politically. The implications of our salvation do not end where the voting booth or the public square begins. Christ is king over all — therefore we should reflect his rule in all we say and do.

This means we should exhort each other, in love, to apply our biblical convictions in every matter of life and practice, including political engagement. But it doesn't mean that we cannot allow freedom of conscience in matters of real liberty. 

When I'm engaged in political idolatry, I judge your spirituality — and maybe even your salvation — based on how you vote or who you vote for. I judge you based on your aligning or not aligning with how I vote. This is undoubtedly an adding to the gospel. The gospel is not Christ plus allegiance to a political party

If the Bible calls something a sin, we should too. And we should warn each other about either committing or (even unwittingly) supporting that sin. But we are not free to invent sins based on our own political views or personal decisions about elections, campaigns, and the like. Christ did not set us free to go around putting yokes on others.

These are just three symptoms of my ailment. I have to stay aware of them, because when I am not consciously and intentionally directing my gaze to the glory of Christ, I can very easily get swept up in the winds of political discourse. I can get too animated by the rise and fall of those who cannot thwart God's purposes. I can get too angry or too disappointed in or too fearful of brothers and sisters who don't think about these things exactly like I do.

I hope we can still reason together on these kinds of issues, perhaps even debating our differences if appropriate. But I never want to treat others based on some other standard than the grace that was given to me by the real Lord of the Universe. He is worth my affectionate allegiance, and those who bear his image are worth my kindness and reasonableness.

"Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God."
— Psalm 20:7