I grew up in a small, rural Republican town and now live in a major, extremely liberal metropolis. So every 4th of July, my Facebook wall fills up with two kinds of clickbait. The first are memes, “7 facts…” posts, and inspirational quotes with patriotic backdrops that all add up to reminders to respect the flag. The second are somewhat longer 500+ word posts telling me that patriotism, when practiced by Christians is idolatrous.
But my suspicion is that the threat of idolatry is rarely where we think it is, and not so easy to expose. We tend to think of idols as gigantic statues with throngs of people genuflecting and worshiping ecstatically. But these episodes–like Nebuchadnezzar’s edict–are sparse in the ancient world. More often, idols were pocket-sized; little graven figures that patronized individual households. They watched benevolently over family life and were the focus of devotion and prayer. The famous sacrifices that sent so many Christian dissenters to martyrdom in First Century Rome were certainly religious acts, but they functioned more like civic purges of social undesirables, and they happened infrequently. While requiring an act of faith honoring the civic religion, piety was not required to perform it. Roman authorities were perfectly happy to look the other way if you crossed your fingers as you threw in your pinch of incense, or if you wanted to avoid performing it altogether you could bribe an official or purchase a forged certificate (though these workarounds were prohibited by the Church). Love for the gods or the deified Emperor or even belief in them was not at issue.
All this is to say that the commandment against idolatry only occasionally required one to stand apart from throngs of zealots. More often, it was a somewhat more private and constant discipline, handing over to God the time, prayer, and affection that one had become accustomed to offering the comforting little deities that sat quietly in the living room, benevolently watching over family, and bringing good fortune. This is why I tend not to worry about fireworks displays and flags in megachurches nowadays. It’s certainly possible for swells of pride and gratitude inspired by patriotic circuses to supplant rightly ordered love of God. But for my money, these displays do not cost the Kingdom souls half so often as the quiet idols residing in our homes.
For these reasons, the smartphone actually takes the top spot on my list for idol-watching. It is capable of miracles the ancients would have found unimaginable, performing above and beyond their graven images:
- The sum of humanity’s accumulated knowledge accessible by anyone at any time
- The vicarious pleasures of the theater, the gladiatorial games, and the harem all contained in one device
- The ability to communicate with just about anyone anywhere at any time.
- The procurement of just about any available goods and services quickly and cheaply
It is not hard to see why modern marvels like these can so easily take the place of God, or even society, in our lives. Why ask for wisdom when there is an unlimited supply of information to be mined? Why seek God with our hearts when our passions can be so easily inflamed and inspired by entertainment? Why pray when we can commit our pious thoughts, hopes, and cries for help to the throng of humanity on social media boards?
In the face of such power at our fingertips, high-handed calls to remove the flags from sanctuaries and renunciations of crass displays of “nationalism” are quite facile, and I suspect they are more often aimed at offenses against good taste rather than God. The sorts of people who quote Alexander Solzhenitsyn in their blog posts are unlikely to mix with people who enjoy Independence Day festivities in and around their local church. At any rate, I have never seen an article that took the time to interview patriotic churchgoers to find out whether God and America do indeed jostle for primacy in their devotion. It seems to be enough to just cite the existence of Memorial Day or Independence Day themed services and be done with it. The lack of thoroughness leads one to suspect the offense given by these gatherings is an overabundance of kitsch rather than idol worship. Meanwhile, the more tasteful household gods remain in place. Online shopping, virtue signaling on social media (“this was church for me today” a friend once wrote to introduce a long screed against the political outrage of the day in a Sunday morning Instagram post) not to mention darker pursuits succumbed to in the wee hours of the morning are all mediated by the powerful operating systems in our pockets. This is the idolatry we ought to take seriously.
Of course, the concern that national mythologies might (ah…) trump the love of God is valid in theory, but I also find it to be somewhat outmoded. Compared to the true dangers of modern life, warning against patriotic feeling is rather like continuing to talk about pool halls or even “the mall” as the most concerning centers of debauchery, unaware that the kids have since moved on to Snapchat and Pornhub. Besides, such concerns are usually voiced in a way that seems to suggest that Christ requires his Church to abjure all affections for tribe and nation. But properly ordered pietas toward society and family was not despised by the early Church–though recent studies have tried to read it between the lines of the New Testament and Apostolic Fathers–and the current zeal for keeping our sanctuaries free from national idols smacks more of recent expansive readings of the liberal tradition of legally separating Church and State, instead of the tradition of the Church itself. We are rather more lenient when it comes to tolerating foreign Christians’ identifications with their respective nations, cultures, and tribes than we are with our own countrymen.
To be sure, the extravagant symbolism on display at places like First Baptist Dallas’s Freedom Sunday is certainly eye-catching enough to be discomfiting. But having grown up both in FBC Dallas and a rural Southern Baptist Church, I can confirm that this sort of display only happens one or two Sundays a year. Compared to the more liberal LaSalle Street Church I attended in college, where the gospel of social justice was preached every Sunday in sermons that sounded more like DNC rallies than Biblical exposition, the political messaging is many degrees more confined on the conservative side of the aisle. Once while attending an Episcopal Church service in New York on an ordinary Sunday, the priest denounced Iowans–I do not know why they were specifically selected–for their conservative opinions, and she did so from the pulpit. Whether kids in Sunday Schools are coloring in paper Old Glories or writing slogans on paper protest signs in crayon (<–yes, that was real), it is a sensible impulse to raise eyebrows. But we ought to take care that we do not inveigh only against the ugly gods of public life and leave unmolested the sleek, attractive household deities that more often command our attention and devotion.