Idols, Temples, and Politics
I ended the previous chapter with this phrase:
“As Christians, we rise above such petty, temporary, earthly allegiances because we have a higher calling for a higher purpose from a higher authority.”
That’s a strong statement, and it’s biblically true, but I’m not seeing many Christians actually living it out especially in the political climate of the current day. Do we actually recognize God is the highest authority, or have we allowed other authorities to take over? I’m convinced a lot of the disagreement Christians face these days regarding social or political issues arises simply because we have given too much authority to voices outside the clear teaching of Scripture. By listening to the wrong voices or by giving them too much authority in our lives, we have allowed peripheral matters to be treated as if they were central. Over the past few chapters, I have explored this a bit as I attempted to unpack the difference between what is truly central to the Christian faith in contrast to what is merely peripheral. So far, I have considered the central moral principles in Scripture, and I have mentioned briefly a few of the more obviously peripheral issues in our world today; but I haven’t yet touched on any of the really hot-button issues among Christians yet because in my experience, they are too deeply ingrained in the hearts of too many people, and I thought it would be better to ease into this discussion more slowly. However, I think the groundwork has been done, and it’s time to press on.
In this chapter, I’m going to address the seriously destructive misalignments between the moral opinions of modern evangelicals and the actual teaching of Scripture. I’ll frame everything from the perspective of my own experience in the evangelical church tradition, so there is no guarantee that you have personally experienced all these things I’ll discuss, but I assure you they are real and should be confronted by those who love Scripture more than the whims of modern society. Additionally, the criticism I’m about to offer my own tradition is not based on things expressly taught in evangelical churches (in most cases), but on the values that arise from the way central doctrines have been explained and illustrated. Not many churches in my tradition teach these issues as central but in practice, they are treated as central, so central and so deceptive in fact that I believe they are rightly called “idols.”
Let me be clear about that word. Recall that an idol is not necessarily another God. An idol is a representation of a god or even of the one true God. When Aaron made the Golden Calf, he didn’t call it “The Calf” or “Baal” or any other name. He called it Yahweh, rendered “LORD” in this translation.
When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the LORD.”
Exodus 32:5 NIV
The idol wasn’t the representation of another god, it was a false representation of the true God. I’m using the word “idol” in the same way here. I’m not asserting that Christians have begun to worship these other things as replacements for God; I’m asserting that the evangelical Christianity of my upbringing has latched on to certain things as representative of God and his will even though they are demonstrably not. For many Christians in my tradition, the things I will address are considered obvious and essential components of God’s will, but I’m calling them out here as false representations, idols that have distracted us away from the true God.
To begin with, I want to start by being even more clear about the nature of my background in what is called the evangelical church tradition. I will be describing my own experience in my own personal church tradition based on my years of church attendance, academic study, and personal ministry, but my understanding of my tradition is also deeply informed by conversations I have had with people outside my tradition. Furthermore, intense Scripture study has led me to see my own tradition with new eyes. I hope you will be able to see your own story in some of what I share.
My Church Tradition: Evangelical
The overall word used to describe my tradition is “evangelical”, but to be more specific, I was raised in, educated in, and am employed in the world of middle-class, white, evangelical, conservative North American Christianity, and all those words are important.
- Middle-class, or even more accurately, upper middle-class. I went to private schools. The church I was raised in owned buildings, operated a school, and paid multiple full-time staff. The congregations in which I move are predominately populated by people who own their own homes, have full-time jobs with benefits like vacations and health insurance, drive multiple cars, and never question where their next meal will come from.
- White. The church circles in which I move are overabundantly populated by white people. Black people and people of any ethnicity other than what passes for “white” are a rarity in my church circles. There are cultural and historical reasons for that, and I don’t have time to dig into those reasons, but it remains a simple fact that my church experience is disproportionately white.
- Evangelical. The churches in my circle have a commitment to the proclamation of the gospel which in Greek is the word euangelion and is the source-word for our self-identification. The word was used for hundreds of years to refer to a gospel-focused Protestantism; however, our modern use of the word can be traced directly to a movement in the early 20th century that was known first as “Neo-Evangelical” and that later merged with the “Fundamentalists” to form a broader movement called simply “Evangelical.” (Sadly, I only recently learned of the massive racial and political motivations behind that merger.)
- Conservative. The churches in my circle have a commitment to the integrity, authority, and infallibility of Scripture. According to this viewpoint, since the Bible is the only true authority and since its truth is already written, true believers should be focused on conserving the truth. In this context, progressive and liberal are often considered bad words. Also, for my tradition, the words “conservative” and “liberal” are supposed to communicate something specific to biblical interpretation and Christian doctrine, but far too often, they carry their political meanings as well. As a result, for churches in my tradition, political conservatism is generally approved of while political liberalism is disdained.
I don’t have a problem implicitly with any of these words in bold. It’s not wrong to be middle-class. It’s not wrong to be white or to have been raised in a predominately white environment. It’s not wrong to have a high esteem for the message of the gospel or the authority of Scripture. Nevertheless, as you can already tell by the way I have described the terms above, I have come to realize that each of those concepts is pregnant with one or more implicit, insidious idols and that my church tradition in birthing and nurturing those idols uncritically has given birth to others as well. Some arise directly from the doctrines of evangelicalism but even more grow out of the overall culture of evangelicalism. This idolatry is unacceptable, and it’s time for us to identify these idols by name, so we can repent of our collective sin. Now, since I am still in the process of learning, I imagine that I am also still blind to some of my own, but God has given me the grace to at least identify those that follow.
Naming the Idols
One of the core doctrines of evangelicalism is that each individual is accountable directly to God for his or her own spiritual condition. No one is saved on the basis of their community or their family. Each individual must respond as an individual to the call of God on their life to receive Jesus as their Lord and personal savior. Consider Jesus’ own words on the topic:
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again. “… For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.
John 3:3, 16-18 NIV
Jesus taught that individual people have personal accountability before God and a personal responsibility to respond to the Son with faith, repentance, and conversion. Many other verses in the New Testament reaffirm this; however, evangelicals take it further than Jesus did.
The notion of individual accountability mixes perfectly with the middle-class individualism of the American Dream. From a middle-class or especially upper middle-class upbringing, one can easily adopt the belief that in this country, effort and commitment lead to prosperity. Prosperity, the dream says, is available to all so long as they are willing to put in the work. Once combined with the evangelical emphasis on personal accountability, this develops into an idol I call Individual Responsibility. Put another way, this belief says that people are responsible for their circumstances, they get what they deserve, societal forces play a minimal role, and programs like welfare and affirmative action exist in violation of this principle.
However, Individual Responsibility is an idol because it sounds like it represents God when it really doesn’t. Individual Responsibility is an unbiblical concept and actually distorts the teaching of Scripture. Responsibility is not the same as accountability. Even though Scripture teaches us that we are accountable to God for our lives, it never claims that everything in our lives is our responsibility. In fact, Jesus proves the opposite. There’s this famous story of Jesus healing a blind man when before the man was healed, the disciples asked Jesus whether it was his own sin or the sin of his parents that led to his blindness, and Jesus said it was neither.
As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.
John 9:1-3 NIV
According to Jesus, neither the man nor his parents were responsible for his blindness. Some things, even negative things, just are the way they are. Maybe it’s because God has a plan in mind to bring some miraculous healing, but maybe it’s because the world is broken. Scripture affirms that people will be held accountable for their choices, but they are not always responsible for their circumstances or outcomes. In a moment, we will see how destructive this idol can be.
Another fundamental evangelical doctrine is that every single person is equally accountable to an objective God. Since each of us has choices to make, and since each of us will be accountable for those choices, evangelicals presuppose that circumstances do not change our moral or spiritual obligations. Therefore, since all people have equal standing before God, and since circumstances do not modify our moral obligations, the natural conclusion is that earthly attributes like hair color, skin color, economic standing, family of origin, and more are irrelevant to your spiritual condition, and since they are irrelevant to your spiritual condition, they should be treated as irrelevant by you and by the people around you. Evangelicals therefore tend to reject the significance of these earthly attributes and promote the idol of Color Blindness, pretending to be racially enlightened by adopting Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words that people should not be judged by the color of their skin but by the “content of their character” while rejecting nearly everything else he said or stood for. I want to be clear that the idea of Color Blindness comes out of a self-righteous response to racism and that’s why “Color” is the operative word, but I also want to be clear that evangelicals apply this concept liberally to all attributes of all people. Evangelicals advocate Color Blindness when it comes to race, gender, (dis)ability, or any other external thing. To support it, they even quote verses like the following:
for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Galatians 3:27-28 NIV
The pious evangelical response to this verse is that race, gender, and other “external” attributes of a person are spiritually insignificant and therefore should be considered socially insignificant. The practical outflow is that these “external” attributes are ignored or dismissed. Additionally, by dismissing these attributes of people, evangelicals build for themselves a self-righteous monoculture that looks indistinguishable from the majority culture.
Let me illustrate how this worked in my life. From my overly white upbringing, I accepted the belief that racism was only a problem when Black people made it a problem. In my church context, if a Black person showed up, they were welcomed into the church family and treated just like everyone else. Therefore, I took it as proof that my church context wasn’t racist. Black people chose to join us (rarely, but they did), so clearly they didn’t have a problem with us, and of course, we didn’t have a problem with a new family joining our church. We loved it when people chose to join our church, but we were also clear that by choosing us, any family was affirming us and declaring a desire to assimilate with us. Basically, as long as a family was willing to become like the rest of us, we were eager to receive them! On top of that, if a Black family chose to join us, they were expressing their approval of us, and so I became convinced that racism wasn’t a problem for us. Additionally, I thought these same principles applied to the broader world around me. I believed that if people in our society could just “get past race,” we would all find harmony! The idol of Color Blindness whispered into my ears that if Black people could just get over the past and choose to assimilate into the wider (white) culture and take on some Individual Responsibility, they would come to see that racism doesn’t exist here.
Color Blindness empowers prejudice by giving the majority a “moral” reason for discriminating against the minority.
However, I have since learned that Color Blindness is actually itself an expression of racism. Color Blindness is expecting the minority to assimilate and accommodate itself to the majority. Color Blindness disregards the experience of the minority and is dehumanizing to them by ignoring a core component of their identity. Color Blindness then judges the minority for failing to assimilate or for celebrating their uniqueness, and therefore Color Blindness empowers prejudice by giving the majority a “moral” reason for discriminating against the minority.
But more than all that, for a Christian, Color Blindness is an idol because it misrepresents God’s love for the people he has made. People who aren’t like me have experiences that are unlike mine, and I will never understand them until I recognize that my perspective is limited. Any attempt at Color Blindness will always result in me viewing their experience through my perspective, and that is intrinsically dehumanizing and delegitimizing to them. By nature, this attitude rejects the image of God in them and it prevents me from loving them as myself. Furthermore, Color Blindness does not represent the character of God or his will for humanity. God created the diversity of human biology and sympathizes with us in the diversity of human experience. The Incarnation of Christ proves that God accommodates himself to us and enters into our experience. Therefore, rather than ignoring or disregarding a person’s racial experience, love calls me to enter it as much as I can so that I can develop sympathy, compassion, and a Christlike incarnational relationship with them.
This idea might be new to you, but it’s core to the white evangelical experience. From my evangelical upbringing, I adopted a belief that what matters most of all is the salvation of souls by proclaiming the message of Jesus and teaching people they must make a personal and individual decision to embrace it. When I would hear another church (usually Black or “liberal”) talk about something political or mention a politician by name, I would feel disgust over their apparent rejection of the centrality of the gospel. They were watering down the gospel or getting distracted from the gospel by getting involved in merely political issues. In my context, this manifests as an idol I now call Spiritual First. The Spiritual First idol tells us that spiritual issues matter so much more than other issues we can effectively ignore all the other issues until the spiritual issues are resolved. In practice, it says worshipping God, getting people saved and motivating them to get other people saved is the only real concern. Everything else is merely “political” and not worth our time.
As before, this is an idol because it misrepresents God. As important as the salvation of a soul may be, it is not the only thing on the heart of God. Throughout the gospels, Jesus talks about forgiveness, salvation and eternal life quite a bit, but it is not his exclusive message. He also talks about the moral obligations his followers have to the wider world. One of the most important passages on this topic shows up in Matthew 25 where Jesus explicitly tells people that their lack of tangible action on behalf of the the poor and oppressed is what invalidates them for salvation.
“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
Matthew 25:44-46 NIV
In that chapter, people are kept out of heaven not because they failed to pray the right prayer or understand the right doctrine. They are kept out of heaven because they failed to feed and clothe the poor! A Christian or church that focuses on what is “spiritual” to the exclusion of what is “practical” is a church that has embraced a false idol.
My evangelical upbringing contributed to me an oddly contradictory arrogance. I call it the idol of the Anointed Intellect but an equally accurate moniker would be Christian Superiority. Even though much of evangelicalism talks about the importance of humility, all that humility goes out the window when a “secular” truth claim comes into conflict with a truth claim held by some evangelical. This is an idol that is ever present in evangelical thinking even though it is never directly mentioned.
According to evangelical doctrine, all people are sinners by nature and separated from relationship with God. Because of that separation, the human being’s spiritual condition is “dead” and their fleshly condition is “corrupt.” The doctrinal word for this is “depravity.” Without the spiritual renewal and mental cleansing work of Christ, everything in that person’s life (thoughts, attitudes, opinions, behaviors) is tainted by their sin. However, those who make a personal commitment to Christ, have their sins washed away, are granted a spiritual awakening by the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, and are further given a renewed mind that they might understand God’s Word and the truth in it. Here are two passages that powerfully illustrate the doctrine:
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.
Ephesians 2:1-2 NIV
The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for, “Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.
1 Corinthians 2:14-16 NIV
It’s a somewhat logical conclusion that only true Christians, cleansed of sin, with a regenerated spiritual life, have the clarity of mind and heart to actually understand truth, and therefore, evangelicals tend to believe that true Christians have an Anointed Intellect, a superior mind.
This is exacerbated with misapplications of verses like this:
Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Romans 12:2 NIV
This verse indicates that there is the “pattern of this world” and there is “God’s will” and that the two are in conflict with each other. Of course, Scripture reaffirms this all the time, but Christians who believe they have an Anointed Intellect take this concept a step further. They define “this world” to mean everyone who isn’t a believer, and since non-Christians don’t have a “renewed mind,” all intellectual pursuits by unbelievers are untrustworthy. Unbelievers can’t help but operate from the “pattern of this world” and therefore must be actively working against “God’s will.” No matter what kind of truth we are talking about, be it journalism, science, or art, if the source is not a Christian, the result cannot be accepted as truth. More than that, if the source is not a Christian, the so-called truth at hand should be vigorously opposed by the Christian community. After all, if the world is opposed to the will of God, then the world must be at core demonic. What Christian would ever want to endorse something that’s literally satanic!
Although these last points sound extreme, they are actually quite common in evangelicalism. As one example, consider how evangelicals treated Dr. Anthony Fauci during the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 and beyond. Early on in the pandemic, Fauci said that universal mask-wearing was not advised because there was a shortage of masks among the healthcare workers in our country, and we needed to direct our masks to them. Evangelical Christians accepted that advice. However, less than a month later, after the virus was demonstrating a rapid and deadly spread throughout various parts of the US, and after the hospitals were stocked up on protective equipment, Fauci began to recommend that normal people avoid crowds and wear masks. Soon, local municipalities began to implement lockdowns that specifically targeted poorly-ventilated, potentially crowded environments, a description that fits many church buildings. From a health and safety standpoint and from a science standpoint, it made sense. From a biblical standpoint, it made sense (after all, the biblical church has never been about the building, the size of the crowd, or the meeting time), but since the new recommendation impinged on something Christians were used to doing (going to church), evangelicals began to do the “investigative work” of identifying all the ways Fauci was not a reliable source of information. The attacks on him continue to this day. Even this morning, I had a conversation with some evangelical pastors who as soon as Fauci’s name came up reacted as if I had said Joseph Smith (founder of the Mormons), Buddha, or Muhammad! Fauci was considered evil but more than that, he was considered a part of a broader evil establishment that should be opposed by Christians. Regardless of his credentials, he was from the world and should be rejected forcefully.
The fundamental conviction is basically that Christians, that is, true Christians, proper Christians, other evangelical Christians, evangelical Christians who share my perspective, and only Christians like that have the ability to discern truth. If a truth claim doesn’t come from an evangelical Christian like me, then it can’t be trusted. Science loses. History loses. Cultural analysis loses. Journalism loses. Academic rigor loses. However, conspiracy theories, pseudoscience, anecdotes and gut feelings win because the only thing that matters is whether the idea in question is coming from another Christian or confirms an idea that came from another Christian or confirms the way I already think. Genetic fallacies and confirmation bias breed happily among evangelicals because they worship the idol of Anointed Intellect.
This is an idol as much as any other because it misrepresents God, and it misrepresents the image of God he placed in every single human being. Scripture claims that the mind of a believer is better equipped to understand spiritual matters or the will of God, but nowhere does it claim that Christians understand math, medicine or literature better than unbelievers! God, who wired all humans with the ability to represent him in stewardship of this world and in relationship with each other infused basic rationality in every single one of us (to greater or lesser extent). Whether Christian or not, each individual person bears the image of God as a fundamental component of his or her being. On top of that, the idea of an Anointed Intellect misrepresents the way God works in this world. God has never given his gifts only to his followers. God gives to every single individual what theological scholars call “common grace.” It is the idea that God gives a measure of grace to each person regardless of their spiritual condition. This is how Jesus talked about it:
[God] causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
Matthew 5:45 NIV
God does not reserve his gifts for the believer alone, and the image of God has not been utterly destroyed in the natural man. A person’s intellectual condition is not directly linked to their spiritual condition.
There was a time in the past when evangelicals used to advance the idea that “All truth is God’s truth.” That time is long gone. Christians surely do not have a monopoly on truth, but the modern evangelical church is inclined to believe otherwise.
And finally, from my conservative upbringing, I adopted a whole range of beliefs that centered around “keeping the Word,” that is, obeying the Bible. Now evangelicals have a strange relationship with the concept of obedience. If you aren’t familiar with evangelicals and the concepts of works and grace according to evangelicals, I’ll need to explain some things.
To begin with, evangelicals are on high alert for something they call Legalism. Legalism is the belief that God cares more about our behavior than he does about our doctrine, and nearly every evangelical is convinced that God cares more about our doctrine than our behavior. Evangelicals will use the word “faith” more often than doctrine, but when asked what they mean by faith, they usually define it in terms of personal commitment to specific doctrines. Evangelicals believe that correct doctrine can get us a place in heaven while correct behavior is almost pointless. That is, “faith” can save you, but “works” can’t. There is biblical support for this, of course, and I’ve discussed it earlier in the chapter about the gospel, but I’m explaining it again here because its the rationale behind an insidious idol. The words are that “faith” matters more than “works,” the implication is that doctrine matters more than behavior, but the application is that some behaviors are considered pointless and others are considered important. Every evangelical Christian and every evangelical church has a different set of convictions regarding which behaviors are which.
In truth no evangelical actually believes behavior is pointless. All evangelicals are legalists in one way or another because all evangelicals believe there are some behaviors that matter so much they should be treated as spiritual laws. There are religious behaviors like going to church, getting baptized, praying a salvation prayer, but there are also social behaviors like abstaining from alcohol, reading a specific translation of the Bible, or voting conservatively. See, the strange thing about evangelical legalism is that every individual evangelical has a different definition regarding which behaviors are essential to the faith and which behaviors cross the line into legalism, and therefore evangelicals often use “legalism” as an accusation against other Christians and members of other church traditions for supposedly focusing on the wrong things. At heart, legalism is really just an emphasis on something external like behaviors so we can identify who the real Christians are. I can’t see your doctrine, but I can see your behavior. We point fingers at each other for the styles of music we embrace, the quantity of alcohol we allow, the translations of the Bible we use, the standards of modesty we promote and more. As a result, each individual church even within the evangelical tradition, will develop its own unique moral code empowering it to accuse different churches of legalism.
Why all this talk about legalism? Well, because with so many churches embracing so many different variations of a Christian moral code, there is no universal sense of Christian morality, but we want one. So what evangelicals did was to blend and soften of all the different legalisms into one big package: an idol called Cultural Conservatism, a doctrine that allows us to apply our basic legalistic thinking to the world around us.
My upbringing reminded me regularly that I was to be “salt and light” in this world, and it went to great lengths to tell me what kind of salt and what kind of light I was supposed to be. Specifically, it said that salt meant I was to be about preserving the world from the forces of corruption and that light meant I was supposed to shine a light on the places of darkness (evil) in the world. From this perspective, practically speaking, the only way to be salt and light is to enforce Christian culture on the world around us using whatever means we can. Christian culture and Christian morality would slow down the societal rot just like salt preserves food. Shining a Christian spotlight on social sins would bring them to everyone’s attention shaming those who would commit such sin and hopefully bring about repentance. Additionally, many evangelicals believe a myth that this nation was founded to be a Christian nation and that Christian culture is this nation’s original culture. Therefore, being salt and light means evangelicals view themselves as “conservers” of a Christian national heritage and culture. In practice, though, this work of “conservation” is little different from simply pushing our legalisms on the broader society around us.
Cultural Conservatism is an idol because it misrepresents God’s will for his people in the world. In fact, when Jesus first used the metaphors of salt and light, he wasn’t talking about revealing evil or preserving culture, he was talking about bringing flavor and life to the world.
“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.
Matthew 5:13-16 NIV
Turning salt into a preservative and light into a spotlight might accurately represent the physics of salt and light, but it misrepresents Jesus’ intent by the metaphor and leads directly to the misunderstanding that Christians are supposed to shame the culture and restrain the culture. Getting the metaphor wrong is at the heart of Cultural Conservatism. No Scripture ever instructs Christians to create or promote Christian behaviors in the broader society or to leverage political power to do so. Of course, as I have previously shown, there are a few values that Christians should promote in the broader society, but those values do not include specific Christian behaviors. Furthermore, there are behaviors that should be part of a Christian’s life, but Scripture never tells us to enforce or even promote those behaviors outside the context of the Christian community.
While the aforementioned idols are ones that grow directly out of evangelical doctrines, they are not the only idols that have been adopted by the evangelical church. You see, the human tendency is not to simply build an idol but to build temples to house the idol and systems to support its worship. Then, once the temple is built, we give it the same level of importance as the idol it contains, sometimes worshipping the temple itself.
To promote Individual Responsibility and Cultural Conservatism, we built a temple called Pro-Life. A more accurate name for this position would be “Anti Abortion” because many things that favor life are missing from the Pro-Life agenda. Pro-Life sounds like it might imply the elimination of the death penalty, stronger public health measures, a universal provision for medical care, or broader restrictions on deadly weapons, but none of those align with the idol of Individual Responsibility, and therefore only the portion opposing abortion remains. Individual Responsibility says that people are responsible for the consequences of their actions and also responsible in large part for the circumstances in which they live. As a result, a woman who finds herself pregnant is fully responsible for that pregnancy (in almost every case) and is therefore fully responsible to take care of that infant. Being anti-abortion is partially about the preservation of the life of the child, but it is also about holding the woman (and sometimes the man) accountable for her situation. This also draws from Cultural Conservatism because Christian morality says sex should only happen in the confines of marriage, and therefore, all children should be conceived inside a marriage. If a child is conceived outside a marriage, the couple involved has committed a sin and should rectify it not by killing the child but by becoming responsible married parents. Individual Responsibility and Cultural Conservatism combine to blame the parents for their actions in the name of protecting the infant.
In many ways, I agree with that perspective. Although I’m attempting to extricate myself from the worship of Individual Responsibility and Cultural Conservatism, I still see it as the responsibility of parents to take care of their children whether born or unborn, and I see it as the responsibility of the government to preserve the life of those within its borders, but where Pro-Life turns idolatrous is in its demand for total allegiance from evangelicals even in the face of its anti-life omissions. Consider the strange fact that many pro-life policies don’t get included in the Pro-Life agenda. If they don’t also support Individual Responsibility or Cultural Conservatism, they get left out of the Pro-Life temple. As I said above, Pro-Life sounds like it would be against the death penalty, but the other idols say criminals should pay for their actions even with their lives. Pro-Life sounds like it might be in favor of universal medical care, but Individual Responsibility says people should be responsible for their own expenses and that parents alone should bear the responsibility for the expenses of their children. Pro-Life sounds like it might be in favor of stronger restrictions on deadly weapons, but Individual Responsibility says people are responsible to protect themselves and the people around them. Pro-Life is a temple that serves the aims of the other idols and therefore, regardless of the term chosen to represent it, it can only ever be about abortion restrictions. All other life-affirming actions a government might take infringe on some Individual Responsibility and therefore are removed from this temple. Pro-Life remains the term, though, because it is more marketable than Anti-Abortion.
This is an especially attractive temple for evangelical Christians because it seems to have strong biblical support. The Bible affirms infants are designed by and known by God even in the womb (Psalm 139); it affirms that the death of an unborn infant is equivalent to murder in the same passage where the principle “life for life” is mentioned (Exodus 21:22-25); it frequently supports the death penalty as a universal principle that extends beyond ancient Israel (Genesis 9:6, Leviticus 24:17-23); and as mentioned above, there is ample evidence that people bear responsibility to take care of their family and their own financial needs. In other words, being against abortion is touted as biblical, but considering reforms in any other life-affirming way is construed as unbiblical.
Therefore, Pro-Life as an agenda that focuses only on abortion policy is idolatrous because it misrepresents the teaching of the Bible and the will of God for all of human life. Consider the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount where he explicitly undoes the “eye for eye” principle while also rejecting the concepts of Personal Freedom and self-defense:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.
Matthew 5:38-39 NIV
Consider the account in John 8 where Jesus unravels the death penalty while also taking up the cause of the adulterous woman:
When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
John 8:7-11 NIV
There is ample evidence in Scripture that God opposes the practice of abortion, but there is ample evidence that a God-honoring approach would embrace many more life-affirming policies than are allowed in the Pro-Life temple. God calls his people to be advocates for human dignity and justice and those efforts should include all the ways we can care about and support the lives of others. Certainly our efforts to aid the weak and vulnerable should include the cause of the unborn, but advocacy for the unborn without equal advocacy for the pregnant mom is not being an advocate for the weak and vulnerable. Rather, it is a prejudicial advocacy prioritizing one specific life over all the concerns of other lives. I’m not saying it’s easy to compare the life of the mother with the life of the unborn child. I’m saying Christians should be equal advocates for both! God in heaven loves both the mother and the child, and therefore a false priority of one over the other misrepresents the heart of the one who made them both.
This temple is idolatrous also because it misrepresents the will of God for the activism of his followers. By prioritizing the Pro-Life agenda as we have, in a climate where only one political party accepts a Pro-Life perspective, evangelical Christians have locked ourselves into allegiance with the Republican Party and are therefore complicit in all the other policy agendas of that party including the ones that disadvantage the poor, perpetuate gun violence, encourage police violence, and dehumanize immigrants and refugees. To be sure, Christians should advocate for the life of the unborn, but if doing so makes us allies with those who dehumanize others, we are misrepresenting God and following a misrepresentation of God. By prioritizing the Pro-Life agenda as we have, we have embraced an activism that can’t be supported by Scripture and have begun to worship in an unbiblical temple.
To promote Individual Responsibility and Cultural Conservatism and to obviate the need to address the more complicated issues of abortion, we also built the temple called Sexual Ethics. This tells us that even secular marriage should be between a man and a woman, that health classes in public schools should teach only abstinence, that the LGBTQ+ community should be met with ridicule, scorn or discrimination, that adultery is wrong, and that those who find themselves pregnant or with an STD are getting what they deserve. To be sure, there is biblical doctrine behind these statements, but the way evangelicals apply Sexual Ethics is anything but biblical. There are at least two ways evangelicals misapply God’s will on the matter of human sexuality.
First, evangelical Christians conveniently apply these ethical commitments selectively. Although evangelicals sometimes address cohabitation and divorce among church members, and although evangelicals are increasingly starting to speak out against pornography and the other exploitative practices of the sex and entertainment industries, evangelicals still broadly ignore adultery committed by their allies, look the other way regarding sexual abuse within marriage, and are more opposed to the “cancel culture” of the #MeToo movement than to the hidden sexual harassment that caused so many women to suffer in silence for so long even under respected church leaders. For evangelicals, Sexual Ethics is where we worship only when it doesn’t impact ourselves. This is a hypocritical application of God’s will regarding human sexuality.
Secondly, a true understanding of biblical sexuality begins with the recognition that the sexual commands in Scripture are only for the people of God. To be blunt, they are laws, not ethics. Laws only apply to the people who live under that law, within that kingdom. Romans 1 gives us a picture of how God handles the sexuality of the people who live outside his kingdom. In short, he gives them over to it.
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another.
Romans 1:24 NIV
That means God is doing nothing to hinder or prevent unbelievers from expressing their sexual desires and engaging in whatever sexual behaviors they wish. Reading further in Romans 1 informs us that sexual behaviors bear their own consequences implying that we don’t need to build any social or legal consequences for them. What’s even more important for the people of God, though, is what Paul says in the first verse of the following chapter, a verse that Christians rarely quote. Romans 2:1 says this:
You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.
Romans 2:1 NIV
Add this to something Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount:
But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
Matthew 5:28 NIV
The point is clear. Guilt for sexual immorality is upon the head of every single individual, and yet God has decided not to curtail or restrict this behavior except among those who dwell within his kingdom.
But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people.
Ephesians 5:3 NIV
Therefore, Sexual Ethics is a false temple because of the hypocritical ways we hold it, the level of importance we have given to it, and the ways we try to force it on others beyond the scope of its actual biblical context.
Personal / Religious Freedom
To further promote Individual Responsibility, we built the temple of Personal Freedom. It promotes a doctrine that each individual should be unhindered by external forces, taxes should be low, government should be small, etc. Anything that limits a person’s ability to express his or her autonomy is not allowed entrance in this temple. However, like the other idols we have seen, evangelical Christians are hypocritical when it comes to applying this principle.
Sometimes, evangelicals apply it to Christians and unbelievers equally. Here are just a few examples. We say all people should give money to churches and Christian non-profits so Christians can care for the poor and so the government can stay out of it. Sometimes we say all parents should be able to choose their schools, choose their vaccination schedules, and make their own decisions regarding public health measures. Many even say all people should be able to arm themselves to defend their freedoms against the government.
However, in other areas, evangelical Christians want Personal Freedom to apply differently to them. In this case, the idol/temple gets renamed to Religious Freedom. Here are some examples of that. Christians (and only Christians) should be able to discriminate against others for their beliefs. Christian businesspeople should be exempt from federal requirements concerning healthcare for employees. Christians should be able to worship when and how they want. Christians should be able to say whatever they want in whatever forum they choose because Christians are the ones “speaking the truth.”
These principles are illogical in their fundamental inconsistency, and they represent a level of individual arrogance that should be anathema to the people of God. They are idols that once again misrepresent God and his will for his people. Neither Personal Freedom nor Religious Freedom is ever described as a value in Scripture. Dignity and justice are biblical values, but freedom and independence are not. Moreover, both testaments promote the idea of people using their own power and authority to defend the dignity of other people even when upholding the dignity of another results in injustice or indignity to themselves. The whole idea of defending one’s own Personal or Religious Freedom is antithetical to the teaching of Jesus. We’ve seen this instruction before, but it bears repeating. In Matthew 5, he commands his followers to lay down their own freedoms even to the point of exploitation by others!
But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
Matthew 5:39-42 NIV
An important Christian value is human dignity, and the related Christian behavior is to promote the dignity of others. Personal Freedom sounds similar, but it is a false representation of the true Christian value.
To promote and protect all of our other idols, we built an ornate temple that I call simply Blessing. The doctrine of this temple says that if people do the right thing, God will bless them, but if they don’t do the right thing, they will get what they deserve. This sounds exactly like the popular idol of Individual Responsibility, but in this form, it’s much more insidious. In this form, we apply the doctrine in reverse, and we use it to justify even terrible behaviors. Here’s how it works. If a person is blessed (usually identified by some American metric of success like financial wealth, or in the case of a church, attendance) then that blessing proves they must have done the right thing or are doing the right thing. The blessing proves they have God’s approval. If someone is rich, their wealth is a blessing proving that God is pleased with them. Because of this, evangelical Christians value rich people more than poor people, we value businessmen more than the working class, and we are justified in our disdain for poor people, because their poverty proves they are under God’s judgment. Who are we to intervene in God’s judgment!?
Very few evangelical Christians will admit to this line of thinking, but it shows up often and repeatedly in the context of churches, individual relationships, and even politics too. Christians will talk about how God is blessing a church when the attendance is on the rise even if the church is doing something otherwise outside of God’s will. Perhaps the pastor is an abusive person and perhaps the sermons are likewise aggressive and abusive, but if the church is growing, the people in the congregation will say, “Look at the fruit.” Perhaps the pastor is loving and caring and the sermons are biblical but boring. The church might decline in attendance or funding, and the people leaving the church will do so assuming it is no longer under God’s blessing because, “There is no fruit.” Regardless any other metric, decreasing attendance then becomes the is the reason for people to leave; which of course decreases attendance even more. Outside the church, perhaps a politician is evil in nearly every sense of the word, but if he is wealthy (and conservative), evangelical Christians will point to the wealth as an example of God’s Blessing in spite of the moral failings. Strangely, though, if the politician is wealthy and liberal, evangelicals will point to the wealth as an example of worldly corruption. This Blessing rhetoric is not applied equally in all circumstances.
Worst of all, this rhetoric is often used to justify the inequities and atrocities of the United States itself. Evangelical Christians embrace a strange kind of nationalism that is based upon viewing our national prosperity as God’s Blessing on this nation. Because we are the richest nation, the conclusion is that we are incredibly Blessed by God, proving God is incredibly pleased with us. However, this next part is truly insidious. Evangelicals believe that whatever the country is now, Christians must work to conserve because our current state is the state God is blessing. If we move toward greater equity or if we attempt to resolve racism or poverty we will have to make changes and changes will break what God is obviously pleased with today. If we make progress we will lose God’s Blessing. If we change at all, we should only move backward to previous times of greater Blessing!
Very few evangelicals would admit to worshipping the idol of Blessing as I have described it, but ask any evangelical on the National Day of Prayer what they are praying for, and you’ll hear the coded answer:
…if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.
2 Chronicles 7:14 NIV
The unspoken (and sometimes spoken) belief of nearly every evangelical who reads that verse is that our nation needs to repent and “turn” (back) to God so God will return his Blessings to us.
This is all explicitly non-Christian! First of all, it isn’t even biblical from the Old Testament viewpoint. God never says that prosperity is proof of his favor even if he sometimes promises it as a reward. Before the people of Israel entered the promised land, the land was already quite prosperous but the people living in the land were definitely not under the umbrella of God’s approval. David was the least favored of all his brothers from an earthly “blessing” perspective, but he was the one God chose as king.
More than that, this idea of wealth being an indication of God’s favor is directly countermanded in the book of James. See how James separates the idea of blessing from human wealth and castigates both rich people and those who show favoritism to the rich over the poor:
But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business …
If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
James 1:10-11, 2:3-4 NIV
The focus on earthly blessings, prosperity, success and wealth is terribly dangerous. Not only is wealth a false method of seeing God’s favor on a person, it also encourages us to excuse immoral behaviors whether by a leader or by the country as a whole. If the economy is going up, we view it as God’s blessing even if the economic growth resulted from social or environmental exploitation.
And finally, to promote all these other idols, we built the idol of Political Conservatism or to just be frank, Republicanism. This is different from Cultural Conservatism because it is bound not to a set of doctrines, but to a political party that has for decades promised Christians it would serve their other idols and support their other temples. Cultural Conservatism is the idea that our whole culture needs to move back to a previous morality centered on Christian ethics, one that favors the Christian worldview. Political Conservatism is the temple that says we can accomplish the Christian goals by aligning ourselves with powerful non-Christians who also want to restrict social progress or even move it backwards. Political Conservatism is the temple where we embrace the politicians and the political party that promises to support our favorite idols too.
Over the past 40 or 50 years especially, white evangelicals in the US have banded together to leverage political power to promote these idols and temples in their various forms, and though there isn’t anything wrong with using our voice collectively as the church to promote things that are truly on God’s heart, there is something terribly wrong with forming an uncritical alliance with a platform that only supports the idols of evangelicalism. The evangelical allegiance to the Republican Party and to the Political Conservative platform is itself idolatrous. We have embraced an allegiance to whichever party promises to promote the worship of Personal Freedom, Individual Responsibility, Pro-Life, and Cultural Conservatism, and that party is currently the Republican Party. Evangelicals have seen Republicanism as our only path to the preservation of these idols and temples and so we have bought in. We put up with fiscal irresponsibility, out of control governmental debt, incessant wars, mistreatment of immigrants, and unethical leaders simply because we have decided that we need the particular political power that the Republican Party promises us. In my circles, identifying oneself as a Democrat is akin to coming out as an atheist and is likely to initiate an intervention from friends.
Political Conservatism is an idol. The entire notion of Political Power might be an idol in itself, but the alliance with Political Conservatism and specifically the Republican Party is most certainly an idolatrous one. No earthly allegiance to any earthly group other than the Body of Christ itself is proper for a Christian. We might choose to cooperate at times with earthly groups, but allegiances to those groups are idolatrous because at best they will only represent a small portion of God’s will for his people.
All of this false worship I have mentioned used to be my own. These things used to be obvious Christian ideals to me, and I can still see why other evangelicals view them as obvious Christian values, but every idol that has ever been erected made sense to the people who built it. Every temple ever built made sense to the builders. Still, the time is long overdue for Christians to step out of these false temples and turn their backs on these false idols. None of these false doctrines are endorsed by Scripture and none of them represents the heart of God. It’s time for us to grind these idols to bits and get back to what Jesus has actually called us to be and to do in this world.
Jesus proclaims the gospel, obviously, but he does not endorse the system we call Evangelicalism. Jesus affirms the authority of God’s Divine Word but he does not promote Cultural Conservatism. Jesus proclaims individual accountability before God, and it’s everywhere in Scripture, but total Individual Responsibility for earthly outcomes is absent. These are doctrines that evangelical Christians have adopted as sacrosanct hallmarks of authentic Christianity, but say it with me: They are not.
The time is long overdue for Christians to step out of these false temples.
For modern evangelicals, a life without these idols and temples seems scary. What will we do if the world “goes to hell in a hand basket”? What will we do if the persecution of the church gets stronger? What will we do if socialism erases individual prosperity in this country? What will we do if open immigration or affirmative action means my son can’t get a good job? (The list of fears is long, I think, because the lack of faith is real.) However, if you and I rid ourselves of these idols, we will be liberated to be fully engaged Christian citizens in a world that needs our salt and light, a world that is desperate for a uniquely Christian form of social engagement, even if that engagement involves activism!
Once we manage to tear down our high places, temples, and the idols therein, we will be able to see clearly what an authentic Christian response to our current world might be! Consider these potential benefits:
- If a politician claims to be a follower of Christ but fails to display Christlikeness in their actions or decision making, we are liberated to vote against them regardless of their political associations.
- If a politician supports policies we don’t like but nevertheless has an overall position of elevating the dignity of individuals and is committed to working for justice for all, we are liberated to vote for that person regardless of their few disagreeable policies.
- If a politician we voted for is embracing a policy or position that is outside the parameters of our key values, we are liberated to speak out against that policy or position even if we still intend to vote for them in the next election for other reasons.
- If a new study (Climate Science, Evolution, Critical Race Theory) arises and challenges our previous understanding of the world, say that racial forces are stronger than individual choices in certain contexts, we are liberated to accept the conclusions of that study and to grow from it.
- If it’s Black History Month, we are free to attend events and read things about Black History without feeling that we are violating principles of Color Blindness.
- If the government puts forth a particular public health measure or anti-discrimination law, we are liberated to go along with it, because protecting Personal Freedom and the enforcement of Cultural Conservatism are no longer our guiding principles.
- If the world around us falls into rampant sexual promiscuity, we are free to let it happen. We can and will focus on our own sexual integrity, we can and will speak with our brothers and sisters in Christ about theirs, and we can and will speak out against the exploitation that so often accompanies sexual promiscuity in the society, even coming to the aid of the exploited, but we are free of the burden to police the Sexual Ethics of our society.
- If the world around us begins to act in ways that appear detrimental to the mission of the church, we are liberated to not worry about it! We don’t need to worry about Cancel Culture or “Anti-Discrimination” Laws because we are liberated to join the culture in promoting human dignity and equity wherever we can! And if our authentic Christian behavior ever incites the ire of the world, we are free to embrace persecution without feeling the need to fight for Religious Freedom. We are free to keep shining our light trusting that the world around us will eventually “see our good deeds and glorify our Father in Heaven”!
I could go on, but I hope the point is clear. The recognition and rejection of the idols associated with evangelical Christianity is the key step in liberating evangelicals like me to be authentically Christian, even politically engaged ones, in this current world.
If you are with me, if you too agree that the time is ripe for Christians to discard our false idols and move into a brand new world of moral accuracy and social engagement that brings glory to our Father in heaven, then let’s press on. In the next chapter, I’ll address the practical matters of what we need to be doing about it, calling us to embrace a new kind of mission.