Posted by: Philip Rushton | September 27, 2010

Can Our Politics Be Idolatrous?

Last month I read Tim Keller’s excellent study on idolatry titled Counterfeit Gods. Keller offers a fresh perspective on the relationship between faith and politics. He suggests that it is possible for our political allegiances to be idolatrous. What he means is that we sometimes ascribe to our political philosophy what should only be reserved for God. We attach ourselves to a certain political party, figure, or philosophy with the belief that it will bring about the end to evil and the salvation of society.

Keller points out that our idols are not bad things in and of themselves. They are good things that become negative when given the status that is only reserved for God. So political engagement can be an important and helpful thing. It is even legitimate to hold very strong political views. However, our political engagement becomes problematic when we believe that our political philosophy will solve all the problems of evil.

Keller means this as a bi-partisan critique. One can find examples of political idolatry on both sides of the American political landscape. The Obama campaign was colored with problematic ‘messianic’ overtones, and the Bush adminstration claimed that they were going to defeat evil. Keller argues that the reason why the political dialogue in the West is so toxic is because people have bought completely into one side of the discussion. We are so committed to our side because we believe it is the solution to all the problems we face. Because of these intense commitments we are unable to see the pros and cons of both sides and have a healthy dialogue.

N.T. Wright argues a similar thing in his book Evil and the Justice Of God. He takes issue with the political view that the spread of democracy will bring the end of evil. He argues that this is contrary to the biblical perspective on evil. It is problematic because this type of political rhetoric fails to recognize that the line between good and evil runs through all of us, not between “us and them”. The biblical perspective regarding the end of evil is centered on Christ’s work on the cross. Christ defeated evil through his death and resurection has thereby made it possible for all of us to be reconciled to God.

N.T. Wright argues for a more balanced political perspective. He quotes Churchill who famously said that that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the other forms of government. This powerful quote recognizes that democracy is probably the best form of government we have, but it also humbly recognizes that democracy will not be able to do what Christ has come to do.

Perhaps our political dialogue would be more constructive if we approached it with more humility. Perhaps it would be more contructive if we recognized that all politicians and political parties face limits in overcoming the deep seeded problem of human depravity, because they are not exempt from it.


  1. Well said:

    “the lines between good and evil run through all of us, not between ‘us and them’.”

  2. Ditto to David. A good reminder.

  3. Phil,

    I enjoyed your piece.

    As I’m sure you know, my faith journey is tangled up directly with my political journey. It took me nearly 4 years to align myself with the NDP because of my commitment to the Christian faith. I believed that because I was a Christian, I had to be a conservative.

    I don’t know if this was my upbringing (my parents were not overly political, though my father did volunteer for the Reform party during election times), or if it was my interest in the anti-abortion movement while a teenager, but I had bought in to the view that if you were a Christian, you had to be a conservative, and if you were not a conservative, you were not a Christian.

    I could go on and on; faith and politics IS my Christian testimony

    I often say that while I believe that church and state should not mix, I believe that faith and politics DO mix, and they ought to mix. Any gospel that focuses on the spiritual to the exclusion of the physical is, itself, idolatrous.

    It is good to remember that the focus is on Christ, and not on a political party or a particular political perspective. I may be a socialist, but I’m a Christ follower first and foremost.

  4. Thanks Peter,

    Glad to have a real politician weigh in on this issue! I particularly appreciate your comment, “any gospel that focuses on the spiritual to the exclusion of the physical is, itself, idolatrous.”

    As you know from my other blog entries I could not agree more. I don’t want to advocate that Christians flee from cultural and political engagement. I realize that my article was a little vague when I mentioned that we need to turn to Christ not to politics for salvation. I believe that the implications of Christ’s salvation have real time effects for real social issues. N.T. Wright points to examples like that of Desmond Tutu where the gospel of reconciliation infiltrated the political arena and brought healing for a divided nation.

    I just think that sometimes our faith and politics get so entangled that we start to see our certain political philosophy as the gospel. I think this is more the case down in the states. Part of this piece is me trying to get myself acclimatized to a very different political climate down here.

    I think it is Keller who makes the point that we can find examples of injustice in the context of all sorts of political arrangments. People have been oppressed under feudalism, socialism, and capitalism. This should act as a warning to those of us who think that things will be better if only our political party is in power. This calls us to be humble and to recognize that there are deeper issues of human depravity that even politicians need help overcoming. The answer to this is rooted in Christ, not in Marx or Bacon or whoever we turn to for political guidance.

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