Tuesday, June 24, 2008

What is idolatry?

Image from www.myconfinedspace.com

It won't come as much surprise to those who know me that I've essentially read everything written about the current U.S. presidential election since before all the candidates had even declared their intentions to run. And I knew Barack Obama - he won a special place in my heart with his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Yet due to my bias (25 points if you guess my original candidate), it wasn't until the night of the Iowa caucuses that I really got a taste of the Democratic nominee-to-be.

That night will be a memory that sticks vividly with me throughout my life. I remember clear as day watching Barack Obama give his victory speech and feeling my stomach flip like it does when I'm about to ask someone out, or am on the verge of beating the next level in a videogame. I turned to Elizabeth, my election-viewing companion, and said out loud, "That's our next president."

Barack Obama isn't just running a campaign for president: he's leading a movement. If you don't believe me, ask an analyst.

I'm a peace studies major at Manchester College, as well as a student of anthropology at la Universidad Veracruzana. We are no stranger to heroes. I can't go to campus without seeing someone wearing a shirt depicting Che Guevarra, whose face can strike courage and purpose into the heart of any hippie. And now, finally, my generation has its hero. I've worked in politics for sixteen years, starting with helping in yard sign making efforts at the age of four, and I've gotten pretty into it - that tends to happen when your dad's job is on the line. But Obama is my generation's Bobby Kennedy. He is inspiring, with a populist message of hope and change that leaves our eyes tearing just like when Shadow limped home at the end of Homeward Bound (well, I cried). His image appears on T-shirts and phone poles. Obama is our hero.

But wait a second... are we maybe getting carried away? Is Che such a hero? He was an armed revolutionary, which certainly seems out of keeping with my Brethren pacifism. He accomplished some admirable things, and there's nothing wrong with recognizing that. Likewise, Barack Obama is not my beliefs embodied in a U.S. politician. I disagree with him on issues of great moral consequence, like the use of military force as a foreign policy tool and the legality of gay marriage. And while his overarching message is one I can definitely get on board with - a call to unity among people who do disagree about morality and policy, to work together towards solutions - maybe people are taking this hero thing just a little too far. Could it be bordering on idolatry?

When I think of the word "idolatry," I usually think of someone worshipping a golden calf thousands of years ago. A "false" god, represented by a physical object, and essentially not something to be concerned with in the Christian church today.

But I think, intellectually, we have to accept a broader idea of idolatry. I remember many years ago in Sunday School we talked about how some people worship money instead of God - and that's a very real concern that is very relevant to probably almost everyone that reads this. Yet do we have to stop with the inanimate? Perhaps idolatry should be understood as putting our faith and hope into the earthly instead of in God.

Barack Obama is a man. He is fallible. He is as capable of leading us into a disastrous war, robbing us of our civil liberties and alienating the rest of the world as our current president (if not as likely). And the more power you have, the easier it is to make bad decisions. So should we really be putting him up on this pedestal, trumpeting him as some sort of prophet? In fact, isn’t it dangerous for us to put so much faith in one man?

Hope doesn't belong to one campaign or party, and our faith should be put in God rather than in a human being. We are all flawed, and while it is necessary for us to trust one another and work together, we should be careful about idolizing someone. Biblical implications aside, such hero-worship can blind us to the downside of a candidate - or, indeed, any leader.

As for voting... well, that's a whole different mess.

Anyway, I just thought it would be interesting to explore this (I still love the man). Any comments?


mufasa said...

I am struck by your reference to Robert Kennedy in relation to Barack Obama. Especially considering how Kennedy's campaign ended. Kennedy was a champion of hope as well, and believing in the virtues of humanity and its ability to accomplish great things. What he said threatened the status of the current power structure and he was struck down. Is there a dangerous parallel in comparing Obama to Kennedy? I hope that Obama's future does not go the way of Kennedy's because anyone who is killed for a belief is a life that is lost to all.

Nico said...

That's the big fear, and the taboo of comparing Obama to Kennedy. But I think, based on your comment, that we both see the same parallels... some people I know from my parents' generation have commented that when Kennedy was assassinated, a whole generation lost faith and hope in our country, particularly in the political system. Obama is bringing that back.

mufasa said...

I want to be in favor of Obama, and for awhile was. However, I heard something today that I need to research further and if correct, will break my heart, which is the issue of campaign financing, but I am not going to get into that here. There is a great book I had to read for class called, "Failing a Generation" by Kennedy's daughter. She reflects on his life a lot during her book, and as history has looked back and viewed both the John and Robert Kennedy, we are often show the fallible side of John, while the human side of Robert has not been touched as much. We look back and see that he was struck down and taken so quick. I secretly enjoy when their is mud slinging going on against Obama, though I may rarely voice it, because the more that comes out, the less likely he is to be taken from us I think. I love our country, but the misguided destructive passion of just one person can throw a wet towel on the whole thing.

Nico said...

If you're referring to his forgoing of pubic funding bit, I posted a bit about that on my personal, blatantly political blog here. I don't really go into the ethics of the decision itself - I mostly focused on the whole "broken promise" aspect that's been flying around in the media.

mufasa said...

Yeah, that was what I was referencing, but that is his choice and every choice in life has its consequences, and since this is not a political discussion blog, I will limit my comments to just that ;-)

Nico said...

Well, the word "politics" is in the description, but I am trying to keep it through the lens of faith. You're right, a discussion on public financing might be driving off on a tangent.

Anonymous said...

Can faith and politics be separated? Faith should inform our political conversations...not hinder them. Knowledge of faith and politics is necessary in order to fully participate in both spheres. Then again, who am I, a public theologian? ;)