Brief thoughts on idolatry and Donald Trump, with Andy Crouch, Moshe Halbertal, and Jacques Ellul
A key theme of Andy Crouch’s Christianity Today editorial on Donald Trump is “idolatry.” Crouch tells us that Trump is an idolater and warns Christians against supporting him. Crouch also warns against a more insidious idolatry:
Most Christians who support Trump have done so with reluctant strategic calculation, largely based on the president’s power to appoint members of the Supreme Court. Important issues are indeed at stake, including the right of Christians and adherents of other religions to uphold their vision of sexual integrity and marriage even if they are in the cultural minority.
But there is a point at which strategy becomes its own form of idolatry—an attempt to manipulate the levers of history in favor of the causes we support. Strategy becomes idolatry, for ancient Israel and for us today, when we make alliances with those who seem to offer strength—the chariots of Egypt, the vassal kings of Rome—at the expense of our dependence on God who judges all nations, and in defiance of God’s manifest concern for the stranger, the widow, the orphan, and the oppressed. Strategy becomes idolatry when we betray our deepest values in pursuit of earthly influence. And because such strategy requires capitulating to idols and princes and denying the true God, it ultimately always fails.
Enthusiasm for a candidate like Trump gives our neighbors ample reason to doubt that we believe Jesus is Lord. They see that some of us are so self-interested, and so self-protective, that we will ally ourselves with someone who violates all that is sacred to us—in hope, almost certainly a vain hope given his mendacity and record of betrayal, that his rule will save us.
According to Crouch, when Christians support Trump in the face of evidence that the candidate is a living contradiction of the faith, when we forge public alliances with “someone who violates all that is sacred to us, “when we betray our deepest values in pursuit of earthly influence,” we are practicing idolatry.
I think Crouch is right. Like Crouch, I am less concerned with Trump’s own idolatry and more concerned with Christians’ temptation to the same.
Crouch isn’t the only one thinking about Christian – and especially evangelical – support for Trump in terms of idolatry and its temptations. At least two memes have hit it big:
1) This cartoon (see Daniel, Chapter 3)
2) A text-only (as far as I know) meme about Donald Trump taking evangelical Christian leaders to the top of Trump Tower to tempt them with political influence, echoing the temptation of Jesus Christ by Satan, as recorded in the gospels, in which Satan tempted Jesus to betray his mission to subvert the world and restore the kingdom through vulnerability, rather than power.
I think there’s a sense in which both those memes are right. It seems many evangelical Christians have a lust for influence, by which they think they’ll be God’s instruments for good. Others could care less about their own influence, but want to empower a candidate who will reverse what they believe is a tide of injustice. To achieve this influence, direct or indirect, they’ll vote for a candidate nearly diametrically opposed to the gospel. They’ll engage in self-contradiction and self-deception, selling whatever remaining credibility they have on politics and social ethics.
But influence isn’t the only thing that tempts evangelicals to this betrayal. Many evangelical Christians are anxious about threats to religious freedom and willing to elect any strongman who promises to protect them. While Donald Trump appears not to understand or support religious freedom as such, he manages to send the right signals to some evangelicals who worry that their freedoms are being curtailed.
The case of Christians who lend support to Trump knowing that he dishonors their faith but thinking that he will preserve their freedom, is more like Satan tempting Jesus Christ to turn stones into bread. in the gospel account, Satan takes Jesus, who had been fasting and trusting God for nourishment, to a desert and tempts Jesus to betray his trust that God alone will provide. (Unlike the Old Testament account of God’s people failing to trust God for provision when they were also in the desert, Jesus passes the test.)
Or we could say that this is like classic Old Testament examples of idolatry within the political context, when Israel would look to another sovereign for security or protection. As Moshe Halbertal and Avishai Margalit write,
The notion of idolatry as rebellion arises in the bible out of the conception of God as the exclusive political leader and protector. The covenant between God and his people is modeled on a treaty between a king and a vassal. Such a covenant is inherently political, and it portrays God as a sovereign. Within this political picture idolatry is connected to challenges to God’s exclusivity as sovereign, such as signing protective vassal treaties with foreign parties like Egypt or Assyria, or appointing a king, an act that is viewed by Samuel as a demand to dethrone and replace God.
Such desperation for protection and security involved betrayal of exclusive reliance upon God, abandonment of singular devotion to Yahweh. With similar desperation for protection and security, some evangelicals supporting Trump are tempted to abandon their devotion to the truth.
Christians are called to resist these idolatrous impulses (which is not to say that we are called to abandon engagement with the world of politics altogether). This resistance should inform how we talk about the election and how we vote. I’ll have more to say on this – and how it will affect my vote – later. For now, I’ll leave you with some thoughts on idolatry from the French social theorist and theologian, Jacques Ellul: