Understanding the Problem Biblically
The place to start when trying to understand the Problem Biblically is with the question of idolatry. Idolatry is most specifically and plainly laid out for us in the Ten Commandments. Exodus 20:2-5a says, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God…” So in its most basic form, idolatry is worshiping another god or something in the form of something created. What is the basis for God’s ability to make these commands? He has rescued the people out of Egyptian slavery. God has moved on the part of the people, therefore they are to worship only him. We see this understanding of idolatry reflected a few chapters later in Exodus 32, with the story of the golden calf. In the story, Moses is on the mountain with God so long that the people start to wonder what happened. They go to Aaron and have him make them an idol in the shape of a golden calf, even going so far as to say to each other, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” (Exodus 32:4) The people had decided to take God out of the equation and replace him with something else—in this case, a statue of a golden calf.
We see another aspect of idolatry when we look at the dictionary definition of the word. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary has two definitions for idolatry. The first is what we’ve been talking about; “the worship of a physical object as a god”. The second definition, though, gives us a different side to the subject: “immoderate attachment or devotion to something”. The World English dictionary says “great devotion or reverence” and dictionary.com says “excessive or blind adoration, reverence, devotion, etc.”
We see these ideas about idolatry come together with politics in the story of Israel’s first king, found in 1st Samuel 8. The story goes that the elders of the people come to Samuel and ask him to appoint a king. This upsets Samuel, so he prays. God tells Samuel that the people are not rejecting Samuel, but God as their king. God tells Samuel all the evil things that a king would do—take the young men into wars, and take the best of the people, lands and produce for the royal court. Samuel warns the people of all of these things, but they still demand a king. So God gives them one.
Now, this is not idolatry in the sense that the people outright worshiped the king. But remember the story of the golden calf. The people took God out of His role, then gave that role to the golden calf, proclaiming that the calf was now their god. The same thing is happening here. The people are taking God out of the role of king and giving it to someone else. In the words of the dictionary definition, the people are showing a “blind adoration and devotion” to a human king they don’t even know yet, even though God has told them of all the evil things a king will do. (Incidentally, the story comes full circle in the Gospels with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, where God takes back the role of King).
How does all of this apply to what we’ve talked about before? Well, when we use the sort of religious language toward our government and country like we’ve seen in our examples, we are doing the same thing Israel did when they committed idolatry. When we locate the hope and fate of the world in America, or in any country, for that matter, we are committing idolatry. When we do this we are taking something that is God’s role, taking Him out of it, and replacing him with our own golden calf.
When we claim that America is the Light shining in the darkness, and that the darkness has not overcome it, we are taking a role that is very specifically Jesus’ and applying it to ourselves. When we do this we are showing blind devotion and reverence to our country—the sort of devotion that only belongs to God. This is, by definition, idolatry.