Vantage Points

Fear and Idolatry in the United States

Mar. 03, 2017

by Greg Massey

Last week’s blog post dealt with missionary Salvador Cariaga. Salvador is engaged in lonely protest against President Rodrigo Duterte’s policy of extrajudicial killings in the Philippines. In contrast to Salvador's stance, most Filipino Christians support the murder of suspected drug users and traffickers, embracing the security they think the killings bring them rather than condemning the taking of God-breathed lives without any judicial process. It’s easy, perhaps, to cast stones far away, to see how our brethren in the Philippines allow fear of drugs and idolatry of a political leader to distort their morality and theology. This week’s post gets uncomfortably closer, from a geographic and spiritual point of view, as we’ll examine fear and idolatry at work in the United States.

Two of my friends have recently experienced the discomfort of fear prevalent in the United States. One, a foreign missionary traveling to Freed-Hardeman University to speak at the annual Bible Lectureship, encountered an abrasive immigration inspector at the airport in Chicago and was worried he and his wife might not be allowed in the United States. The other, who has adopted a child from a foreign country, is concerned about her child’s documentation. She has alerted other Christian parents who have adopted children from foreign countries. Now these parents are scrambling to ensure that their children’s citizenship is not in doubt, worried that their names may appear on lists of non-citizens. Their experiences of the discomfort of fear are not isolated events. In early February, beloved author of children’s books Mem Fox was detained two hours in the Los Angeles airport, even though the 70-year-old Australian has previously made 116 trips to the United States. “I have never in my life been spoken to with such insolence, treated with such disdain, with so many insults and with so much gratuitous impoliteness,” Fox said.

Humans are complicated, motivated by multiple factors. We can react to these stories in different ways. My take, for example, may be very different from yours. I think the experiences of my Christian friends and Mem Fox are important in a broader context. Their stories are not isolated, existing in a vacuum. They have broader relevance, for my country, the United States of America, but more important, for Christians who are U.S. citizens.

In one of his novels, Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky had a character say, “man cannot live without worshiping something. . . . So those that think they don't need God are really just idol worshipers." Individuals everywhere in our world are subject to this essential truth. If a person rejects the one, true God, he or she still bows down to something, an idol of the heart, whether an activity, a desire, an ideology, or another person or group of people. Often we can identify our idols by following the trail of our fears. What we’re afraid of losing is what we idolize. Or we idolize what we think protects us and keeps our fears at bay. In a very stark, pervasive, and damaging way, these dynamics have been at work in the United States since the events of September, 11, 2001.

The terrorist attacks on 9/11 shook our country to its core. People no longer felt safe, protected by two oceans and the many miles separating us from dangerous people abroad. Those natural fears were intensified by the fears projected by our leaders. This climate of fear led many Americans to support their leaders in initiating wars and in taking steps likely to foment new wars.

Gallup polls conducted in 2005 and 2006, two and three years after the invasion of Iraq, questioned Americans about their views of a war with a country that had never attacked the U.S. nor been involved in the tragedy of 9/11. The polls found that a majority of active, church-attending Protestants favored the war, compared to non-Christian or non-religious people, who opposed the war in similar numbers. More recent poll data reveals an American culture that views the use of military power differently from other areas of the world. Ten years after 9/11, Gallup conducted a poll of citizens in sixty-nine countries from the five largest continents. The poll examined public acceptance or rejection of violence against civilians and found that Americans were "the most likely population in the world (49%) to believe military attacks targeting civilians is sometimes justified." It is safe to conclude that these views supporting limited state-sanctioned violence against civilians are shared by Christian Americans who reflect their culture rather than live in tension with it.

Another poll collected data that was more regionally and religiously specific. A 2008 Pew poll of southern evangelical Christians found that 58 percent affirmed their support of torture to gain information on terrorism. When the question was reframed in the language of the Golden Rule, the results were different. Asked if the U.S. government should use methods against our country’s enemies that we would not want used against American soldiers, 52 percent of the Christians opposed torture. While the response to the latter question could be interpreted as encouraging, it is perhaps more significant that the poll-taking southern evangelical Christians had to be reminded of the Golden Rule.

Christian ethicists agree that the Christian response to war comes down to two options: either pacifism or some version of just-war theory. From a Christian ethical perspective, torture is always wrong. So what happened to the Christians taking these polls? Two things come immediately to mind, factors not only in Christians embracing preemptive war and torture as methods to combat terrorism but also in their tendency to shrug their shoulders that the discomfort experienced by a foreign missionary and a Christian mother of an adopted foreign child and a septuagenarian Australian is a necessary price paid by the few for the security of the many. One factor, fear, has already been explored. Fear alone, however, doesn’t account for Christians supporting their government in actions antithetical to the word of their God. Another factor is at work—nationalism, or to be more specific, the idolatry of nation, putting love of nation above God, putting one’s security in the nation and its government rather than in God’s mercy and grace.

Pride in country is not intrinsically wrong. Idolatry of one’s nation is always wrong. In the years since 9/11, Americans, Christian and non-Christian, have lived in fear, a fear often exploited by politicians and media figures. Many Americans have turned to their government, specifically the president, especially if he is from their political party, as well as to the military and intelligence and law enforcement agencies, to protect them from harm. Fear and patriotism have formed a toxic blend, distorting the perspective of Christians. They begin thinking the way our leaders think, speaking their language, and supporting their actions, whether it be threatening new wars, or advocating torture as an interrogation tactic, or arbitrarily closing our country’s borders to refugees, and people from other countries trying to visit their families living in the U.S., and foreign children seeking health care in American hospitals.

What are the remedies to this situation in which we find ourselves? As usual, for Christians, the starting point is quite simple. If idolatry is an issue, confession and repentance are in order. To combat both fear and idolatry, the starting points are also simple: Time devoted more to Bible reading, meditation, and prayer than to listening to talk radio, reading the fear-provoking statements of our politicians, and scrolling through comments and links on social media.

Communication with God, through His Word, through meditation, and through prayer, is a perfect antidote to fear and idolatry. Fear is not going to go away. Many of us struggle daily with anxieties and fears. God does promise us help. We can live with a transformed relationship with fear, not eradicating it, but not letting it take our focus off Christ. As Paul wrote Timothy, “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:7). We can also learn from the examples of others. Our Bible is full of examples of people who walked in obedient faith to their God even though they lived in a political climate of fear. Yahweh asked Jeremiah to urge Judah’s leaders to surrender to Nebuchadnezzar. For his preaching, Jeremiah was labeled a traitor by nationalistic Jews, and imprisoned. Mary and Joseph brought Jesus into a world where their chief executive was the homicidal King Herod. Most important, Jesus’s ministry occurred in the context of the powerful and ruthless Roman Empire, the client rule of Herod’s descendants, and the ultimately murderous opposition of the Scribes and Pharisees.

Christians today have power unavailable to Jeremiah. The Spirit of God dwells in us, Jesus holds us in His hands and won’t let us go, and God the Father offers us the same power that raised Christ from the dead. As we communicate, daily, with God, we can ask, “What is the next step you want me to take, Father? How do you want me to preach your gospel in this world?” If we ask these questions in sincere and submissive faith and keep our eyes open, we will be surprised where He leads us. Several things are certain: He’ll lead us away from fear and idolatry. Our thoughts and speech and actions and, yes, our posts on social media will reflect Christ and not political leaders and media figures. And God will bless our new path, ultimately to His glory.