Ideology, Identity, and Idolatry
Staunch conservatives (in the political/economic/social sense) will find affirmation of their views as they read the Bible. This reality would seem to suggest that those who believe the Bible should be conservatives – except for the fact that staunch liberals will also find affirmation of their views as they read the Bible.
Which group gets it right, and which group gets it wrong? I would suggest that each group both gets it right and gets it wrong.
I base this conclusion primarily on two factors. In this post I will address the first briefly and focus more on the second. In what sense do conservatives and liberals both get it right? Conservatives will legitimately see an emphasis on order, tradition, responsibility, and morality in the Bible. Liberals, on the other hand, will legitimately see an emphasis on justice (especially for the weakest members), compassion, and the dangers of getting stuck in tradition.
The legitimacy of these core values for each group points to the reason that both groups get it wrong. The values they latch on to are true, but they comprise only part of the picture.
We all develop biases toward any group or ideology with which we identify ourselves. To use a relatively trivial example, observe devoted fans of a team when that team plays a bitter rival. Fans tend to see their team as good and the opponent (as well as their fans) as evil. They see almost any ruling against their team by the officials as a bad call (perhaps the game is even fixed!). The same applies to ideological “teams.”
The groups/ideologies with which we identify shape our identity. We strongly value and protect our identity, leading us to hold to our biases equally strongly because so much is at stake. As a result, these biases incline our minds toward embracing information favorable to our identity and ignoring or rationalizing information that calls our chosen identity into question.
To complicate the situation even more, the very process that produces these biases also blinds us to them because it occurs largely on the unconscious level. As a result, we righteously reject any charge of bias because we do not consciously see it, even while others can see our biases as clearly as we can see them in the examples below.
Scripture regularly presents to us individuals and groups that have become blissfully ignorant of their blind spots. How easily we see King Saul’s disobedience to God’s command regarding the Amalekites in 1 Samuel 15 when he he spares the Amalekites’ king and the best of the spoil. Despite the obvious physical evidence to the contrary, Saul sincerely sees himself as obedient to God’s command to destroy everything. The majority of the Israelites who opposed the prophets were also confident they were living within God’s will, as were the Pharisees in their opposition to Jesus.
We tend to demonize and distance ourselves from such sinners, but Scripture surely uses them to warn us of the same tendencies in ourselves. Saul and the Pharisees in particular reflect the blindness to truth that challenges an identity in which people have become deeply invested. We all possess these self-serving blind spots to some degree.
Ideologies such as conservatism and liberalism are not dangerous because they are all wrong, but because they are not altogether right. They reflect human attempts to define reality, so loyalty to them endangers loyalty to the kingdom of God. I hear Christians expressing more passion for conservatism or liberalism or Americanism than for the kingdom values that transcend all such human categories.
The essential danger of idolatry lies in its function as a distorted lens through which we see God. As a result, it reduces him to something that serves our beliefs and values and goals. For this reason, we need to avoid the limiting, bias-inducing power of any identification other than Jesus himself. Scripture even warns us regarding that most treasured source of human identity: the family. If we do not practice this vigilance, our other identifications will shape our view of God rather than the other way around.