Ideology as Idol

When Jesus said you cannot serve two masters (Matt. 6:24), He was contrasting faith in money and faith in God. Many have erroneously used this to attack money and people with money – but money is not really the issue. Many things can be idols or the “master” of which Jesus is speaking. Money just lends itself so easily to that trust.

There is something deeper than faith in money going on here, though. Much deeper. The root of what the Bible calls “idolatry” is really the drive to make oneself a god – a master of all one surveys. Specifically, it is looking to someone or something other than God to give us ultimate satisfaction, joy, or meaning. Money, position, and power (among countless other things) are just things that promise that end and, therefore, lend themselves to idolatry.

As a point of reference, what can make you god-like in your particular context? For adolescents, it can be the status of gatekeeper for the inner circle of “cool kids”. (We’ve all run into that one). It could be the power to grant or withhold permits from the city. Maybe it is the position of the manager who can either promote or deny promotion. None of these are inherently bad in themselves – until they become the defining ultimate in one’s life; that is, until they become idols – points of leverage that give one worth or righteousness in some way.

In The Gulag Archipelago, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn discusses a striking thing. His context was a totalitarian, Marxist government which killed tens of millions of people and destroyed the lives of tens of millions more. Solzhenitsyn said the villains he dealt with weren’t like the villains of a simple good vs. evil story. They weren’t self-consciously evil. They believed they were doing good (Thanos, the villain of the movie Avengers 3, is in surprising congruence with this – as is Darth Vader of Star Wars).

Solzhenitsyn wrote:

Ideology – that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and other’s eyes, so that he won’t hear reproaches and curses but will receive praise and honors. That was how the agents of the Inquisition fortified their wills: by invoking Christianity; the conquerors of foreign lands, by extolling the grandeur of their Motherland; the colonizers, by civilization; the Nazis by race; and the Jacobins (early and late), by equality, brotherhood, and the happiness of future generations.

Thanks to ideology, the twentieth century was fated to experience evildoing on a scale calculated in the millions. This cannot be denied, nor passed over, nor suppressed. How, then, do we dare insist that evildoers do not exist? And who was it that destroyed these millions? Without evildoers there would have been no Archipelago.

p. 173-174 of Vol. I-II, Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, Harper & Row, 1973

It is ideology, their master, that convinces them they are doing good. For the Soviet villains of Solzhenitsyn’s day, it was Marxist ideology. For the Nazi villains, it was a blend of fascism and Aryan superiority. We can go down the line.

Is ideology in itself bad? Like money or wealth, no. We all have some form of ideology. Without it how could we make sense of the world and how could we function? We need reason and categories. It is when we make ideology dethrone God and instead set it up to give us our identity – to feed our sense of worth and righteousness – that it causes the sort of catastrophe described by Solzhenitsyn.

You cannot have two masters, then. We need to see ideology in service to our self-righteousness for what it is – a dangerous and dark form of idolatry that drives us farther and farther from the warm glow of the Gospel. I pray that, by the grace of God, we will recognize its powerful pull. God knows I need to repent of this form of idolatry every hour.