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The Idolatry Trap

Just a brief thought for the day.  A couple weeks ago in class, Oliver O’Donovan said, “The more you make the government responsible for everything, the more you call on the government to fix everything.”  This profound remark has stuck with me since, and will probably continue to haunt me for a long time.  
In this statement, he was playing on the two meanings of the word “responsible”: “guilty” and “in charge of.”  In other words, the more you try to make the government responsible for everything in the sense of blaming them for everything, the more you implicitly make them responsible for everything in the sense of being in charge of it all, and so invite them to own up to that responsibility and take it upon themselves to fix everything.  
This exposes the danger of the attitude on the far right and particularly among Christian conservatives and libertarians that the best way to fight the idolatry of statism is to almost obsessively decry the state’s sins, demonize the state, and try to prove that all of society’s ills (or at least a large chunk of them) are the state’s fault.  In the end, if O’Donovan is right, this attitude shares the left’s idolatry of the state even while claiming to oppose it.  

The left looks at society, sees a bunch of problems and says, “Aha!  The problem is that the state isn’t doing enough about this--they’re responsible for this injustice--they should fix it by getting more involved”  The right looks at society, sees a bunch of problems and says, “Aha!  The problem is that the state is doing too much about this--they’re responsible for this injustice--they should fix it by getting less involved!”  Now, the problem is that, whatever the goals of the latter stance, it has still functionally made the state an idol, by building it up in its mind into this huge all-powerful entity, which must be obsessed about and engaged with every day.  It is still calling upon the state to fix whatever problems it sees in society, and thus still making the state a saviour--although one that saves by self-denial, and so I suppose a more Christian saviour.  
Wouldn’t the truly anti-statist stance be one that focuses responsibility for the ills of society on the whole society, rather than on this abstract entity that has achieved quasi-mythical status, “the government”?  Or even better, one that focuses responsibility on the Church, which is called upon to bear the sins of society and purge them?


Good points, but I'd like to add something: one can decry an idolatry of the state without falling prey to that same idolatry.

If a man thinks of "the government" as the source of societal ills, and believes that he can vanquish those societal ills by banishing the government, then yes, that is state-centred thinking, and therefore idolatry.

But if a man decries "the government" as an idol that usurps the centrality of Christ and the Church, and decries reigning leaders for doing what they oughtn't do (and not doing what they ought to do!), and also decries the individuals who make the government their idol....well, if a man is saying all that, then he's probably not falling prey to the idol trap. In that case, he's not "making the government responsible for everything"; he's simply pointing out that it's the biggest idol of our times.

In other words, it's not necessarily state-centred to say, "Hey, the state is too huge..."

April 6, 2010 at 10:42 AM  

Yes, that proviso is unquestionably true. Otherwise, we would be in a real bind--there would be no non-statist way to oppose statism, no way to avoid idolatry, which doesn't make sense and which 1 Cor. 10:13 tells us can't be true.

However, very few Christians today simply do what you are describing. Certainly the Tea Party doesn't, and even among we Jonesian ecclesiocentrists (how's that to coin a term that's meaningful to only about five people), there is a temptation to get so caught up in anti-state finger-pointing that political idolatry begins to resurface in a mutant form.

April 6, 2010 at 1:51 PM  

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