Don’t make politics an idol

| Jonathan Liedl | January 21, 2016 | 1 Comment

When we hear the word “idolatry,” we probably think first of a golden calf and pagan worship. But idolatry, giving the reverence and devotion owed to God to something created instead, is actually a much more commonplace sin. In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church warns us that idolatry “remains a constant temptation of faith.”

Idolatry can be a particular problem in politics, which is too often portrayed and practiced as if it is the solution to all problems and a font of salvation. In a society where belief in God and his promises is declining, people put their hope in other things, including the hope that the kingdom of heaven can be legislated into existence, or brought about by some revolution.

When this happens, concepts like “equality,” “rights” and “liberty” are divinized as idols, objects worthy of absolute devotion in their own right. We must remember, however, that these concepts are good only when understood as part of a broader, integrated vision of the person and society. Otherwise, these political idols become harmful and destructive ideologies.

Political idolatry is plainly illustrated in abortion politics, where many abortion advocates cite the absoluteness of a woman’s “autonomy” as the justification for the crime. A disordered attachment to an abstract political conviction compels abortion advocates to literally sacrifice unborn children at the altar of “autonomy.”

Of course, individual autonomy and privacy are not bad in themselves. The problem is that “autonomy” has become a golden calf for abortion advocates. They mistakenly treat it as an end unto itself, a self-contained truth.

But in order to be true, autonomy must be understood in the fuller context of God’s plan for the human person and society, where freedom is a gift meant for developing our powers, living our vocation and serving others — not as an immunity from responsibility. Autonomy, or any other political value, can never be used as a justification for violating human dignity and trampling on the common good.

Lest we get self-righteous, even pro-life advocates can become victims of political idolatry. We cannot isolate the truth of the evil of abortion from other truths, nor can we treat the mission of ending legal abortion as a god that must be served through whatever means necessary.

For instance, in combating legal abortion, one might resort to unethical and immoral tactics to score political points. One might demonize abortion advocates as not just wrong, but as fundamentally and irreparably evil. And one might be too easily satisfied by headline-grabbing legislation or speeches that provide a sort of emotional rush, but don’t actually accomplish anything except stirring up activists and donors.

Experience continues to show that the success the pro-life movement has enjoyed has not come about by turning abortion into a partisan issue. Instead of shrill screams and publicity stunts, it’s been an integrated vision that connects the push to end legal abortion with a broader and consistent ethic of life that has won hearts and minds, leading to legislative breakthroughs and changes in public opinion.

For instance, the theme of this year’s national March for Life is “Pro-Life and Pro-Woman Go Hand in Hand.” This approach deftly counters the “War on Women” rhetoric by correctly tying the dignity of unborn human life to the dignity of the mother. Both babies and women are better off when we choose life and support both mother and child.

By locating the wickedness of abortion within a larger conversation about human dignity, and by focusing on helping actual persons with real needs and challenges rather than merely attacking a court decision, we can avoid political idolatry and contribute to an integrated understanding of human life that is more complete, more Catholic and more winsome.

Liedl is the communications manager for the Minnesota Catholic Conference. Follow MCC on Twitter @MNCatholicConf and Facebook.

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Congress is considering a remedy called the Abortion Non-Discrimination Act (ANDA). The measure would close the loopholes and secure a private right of action for victims of discrimination. Stand with pro-life medical professionals and Catholic welfare agencies and support this important legislation.

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Category: Faith in the Public Arena

  • Charles C.

    I agree completely that many people see politics as the way to create good people and a good society. The view is based on the idea that goodness comes from Man and his desires and motives, that “Man is the measure of all things.”

    I also agree that placing politics above God as a source of goodness and growth is an error which doesn’t even supply the earthly paradise it promises.

    But after that point, I start getting confused by Mr. Liedl and his alarm about idolatry. Perhaps he meant to use a different word or phrase. “Inflamed (or swollen) Priorities” might have served his purpose better.

    In his example of “Autonomy” he identifies the problem of a person who claims to be able to make their own choices without concern for God’s commands. A good case can be made that such an individual is placing their wishes above God’s, thereby usurping God’s supreme position. That person is worshiping themselves, not choice, but that is the closest Mr. Liedl comes to pointing out idolatry.

    He describes the pro-life movement as susceptible to two forms of idolatry. One is to concentrate on the truth of the pro-life message while slighting other truths. There might be some basis for that in theory, but not in the world inhabited by humans.

    Being human, we are limited in our talents and abilities. We are also limited in our time and interests. Mother Teresa of Calcutta was a caregiver extraordinaire. She put her time, her life, into that. Pope Benedict XVI is a scholar, a holy intellect. His efforts were in those areas. Pope Francis is a warm, embracing, welcomer of all.

    Non omnia possumus omnest. Not everyone can do everything. It is wrong to fault people who work for one true goal for not working for all true goals. People who dedicate themselves entirely to the pro-life movement, as directed by the Holy Spirit, are doing good work.

    Mr. Liedl’s second basis for fear of idolatry in the pro-life movement comes here:

    “Nor can we treat the mission of ending legal abortion as a god that must be served through whatever means necessary.”

    He then enters into a discussion of tactics. He rightly condemns immoral and unethical actions in support of the pro-life cause, focusing on seeing pro-abortion supporters as evil and irredeemable. That may be overstating the case, the pro-life movement proudly claims those who have been “redeemed.” In fact, sidewalk counseling is designed to redeem women who had previously decided to support abortion through their active participation. I believe Mr. Leidl is wrong in that characterization of pro-life supporters. Do they think abortionists are evil? If so, is that wrong? It sounds Biblical. But sinners (the evil) can repent and be saved. That is the pro-lifer’s hope.

    But Mr. Leidl also condemns pro-life supporters who use tactics which he believes are unsuccessful.

    “And one might be too easily satisfied by headline-grabbing legislation or speeches that provide a sort of emotional rush, but don’t actually accomplish anything except stirring up activists and donors.”

    Activists aren’t “satisfied” with those things. They are, however, heartened and encouraged by them. And why would Mr. Liedl so easily dismiss the effect of stirring up activists and donors? That’s what the Minnesota Catholic Conference tries to do everyday. In fact, he does the same thing in his article by appending a call for activists to get stirred up and pressure their Senators to get headline-grabbing legislation.

    I’m sorry, Mr. Liedl, the pro-life movement is one of the few movements which is (or should be) entirely uncontroversial within the Church. Leave the pro-life movement alone. Don’t criticize them because they are not as passionate about open immigration, or universal health care, as the Catholic Advocacy Network is.