The Idols of American Evangelicalism - Part 1

Mt Sanai Idol Worship.jpg
Then God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

“You shall have no other gods before Me.

“You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.
— Exodus 20:1-6

Idol worship is a serious deal in the Bible.  I don't think it is an accident that the first two of the Ten Commandments prohibit anyone or thing from assuming the throne upon which only God can reside.  Students of Scripture know that the sustained worship of false gods and idols was, next to committing injustice on the poor and oppressed, a key cause in Divine discipline on the Biblical nation of Israel, including their exile from the Land. 

In this and the next article (Part 2), I'm going to argue that Evangelical Christians, particularly the American Evangelical community, have a serious problem of idol worship.  I’m going to use the term "idol" more broadly to identify ideas and ambitions that American Evangelicals, in practice, place ahead of their stated priorities.  In short, it is a list of hypocrisies.  I will identify four idols that parallel and flesh out the four defining characteristics of modern American Evangelicalism which I previously shared in The REAL Quadrilateral.  So if you haven't read or listened to that piece yet, I highly encourage you to do so.

recognizing my roots

Some may fairly ask, who am I to make these kinds of serious accusations?  In my intro to this website, there is a section where I share some of my reasons as to why I should be a voices that is qualified to speak to the pros and cons of American Evangelicalism (scroll down to the section headed with the question, "Why take your precious time to read this blog?").  But I suppose you could narrow it down to the fact that I was a member of the American Evangelical community for pretty much my entire life until very recently. I feel Like I could run off a list like the Apostle Paul did in verifying his qualifications for critiquing the conservative Judaism of his day (see Philippians 3:2-6): in Sunday school my whole childhood, of the American people, specifically of the white tribe, an Evangelical of Evangelicals; in regard to theology, a graduate of two Evangelical schools and a professional pastor and leader in Evangelical organizations for 18 years; as for zeal, proclaiming guilt on all those who didn't believe as we do; as for perceived righteousness "based" on the Bible, at least as far as most knew I was a model of to be followed.  So based on this background, I hope it would seem reasonable for me to speak to these idols of American Evangelicalism.  I know them well because I once worshiped them.

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Before I share the first idol (the next three coming next week), let me recognize that there have been historically, and even in the present day through those whome I might call a "righteous remnant", some very noble strengths and contributions from American Evangelicalism.  At its inception, which inspired The Great Awakenings of the 1700’s, the movement advanced a much needed passion for personal conversion versus the impersonal religiosity and mere cultural Christianity that had previously dominated the religious landscape.  And those who seemingly relish in slamming Evangelicalism should remember the critical role that the movement and its leaders played in the Abolition movement along with challenging worker oppression with the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.  In my time working for World Relief, which serves as the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals, I worked with many who carried on this amazing legacy in standing with uniquely vulnerable immigrant and refugee communities.  

Let me briefly note here a book that I highly commend, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America, written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, Francis Fitzgerald.  It has even won some general praise among Evangelical historians and I believe it is a must read for any Evangelical student and leader who wishes to seriously examine their faith community's history.

Even with the positives, a few of which I just described, I believe that the American Evangelical community is plagued with idol worship.  Here is the first of them...

the idol of superiority

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Though few will openly state it this way, there is an assumed "upper hand" or advantage of intellectual superiority.  And why not?  When you can, at the end of the day, pull the card of Divine Revelation, that seems like an undeniable "winning hand".  There is a huge difference, however, between the personal religious conviction that God can communicate with human beings and a commitment to the humble journey to know and experience this revelation, and that of the ego that says or implies with over-inflated confidence that I can definitively exegete and almost comprehensively declare "universal truth".  The latter is a border-line claim to omniscience when in reality it is willful ignorance or lazy thinking cloaked in pseudo-intellectualism and dogmatism.  On the intellectual side of Evangelicalism, you can see this idol in the circular philosophy of Presuppositional apologetics.  Outside of the academic types, this pops up in a near allergic reaction to any attempt at nuanced thinking.  The popular retort?  "God said it.  I believe it.  That settles it."  What is actually being admitted is, "What other people have told me the Bible is and what it says is what I choose to believe and that settles it."

But as I mentioned in The REAL Quadrilateral, Evangelicals are fooling themselves if they think that the Bible is the only thing upon which they are basing their judgments.  If anything, I would argue that external, cultural factors are far more determinative of the beliefs, values, and behaviors of American Evangelicals.  This is especially true if you are white.  Here is where nativism, or to be exact the Gospel of America, has proven to be a true guiding principle.  Married to a sense of "manifest destiny", assumed ethnocentric superiority lays the foundation for another idol that we will talk about in Part 2.

One final observation related to this idol is that most Evangelicals much prefer to debate from a distance than dialogue in person.  They would rather talk about people (Muslims, homosexuals, liberals, etc.) than with them.  And here is where I wonder if the idol of superiority perhaps is masking a deeper insecurity.  While I am not a psychologist, that might help to explain the emotional angst that surfaces whenever anyone chooses to question their status quo.  Even if that isn't the case, a prevailing inability to talk directly to people you disagree with is a telltale sign of assumed superiority.

click here to go to part 2 of the idols of evangelicalism