Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

When Christians Become Ideological Idolaters

From free marketeers to equality advocates, too many are replacing the faith with their own political programs.

Pope Francis made headlines recently when discussing concerns about a potential schism triggered by American conservative Catholics who have allowed political ideology to supersede their beliefs.

Although talk of a schism seems premature, the pontiff hit on a real problem in American politics: allowing ideology to turn into a religion. This trend is common among Catholics, Protestants, and even atheists who seek the power to anathematize anyone who dissents from one of their ideological positions.

“A schism is always an elite condition of an ideology separated from doctrine,” Francis said in a news conference. “An ideology may be right, but that enters into doctrine and separates and becomes ‘doctrine’ in quotes.”

Although one could reasonably disagree with the pope over how to tackle poverty or climate change while still respecting his papal authority, many have instead framed him entirely in political terms. Francis, in their minds, is an enemy, not because he has strayed from the faith, but because he has criticized one of their other gods, the free market or deregulation or tax breaks.

Although one can be a faithful Catholic and fall on either side of those political divides, many have opted against respectful dissent and in favor of nasty condemnations.

For example, Maureen Mullarkey, a Catholic writer, says that Francis “sullies his office by using demagogic formulations to bully the populace into reflexive climate action with no more substantive guide than theologized propaganda.” Catholic Fox News editor Adam Shaw wrote a ridiculous op-ed in which he conflated Francis’s papacy with Barack Obama’s presidency.

Pew Research statistics show that the American Catholic population more generally has been subsumed into these ideological monoliths. About half of the nation’s Catholics are Republicans and the other half Democrats, and their political ideologies are better predictors of where they stand on major issues than is their religion.

Catholic and non-Catholic Republicans poll about the same on major issues, such as global warming, aid to the poor, illegal immigration, and abortion. Catholic and non-Catholic Democrats also poll about the same on each of these issues, although Catholic Democrats are slightly less likely to support legal abortion.

The replacement of religion with ideology by those claiming to identify with a particular religion has a long tradition. A notable example is the classical liberal movement during the Enlightenment.

Many liberal thinkers argued in favor of God-given rights that could be assessed through reason rather than divine revelation. Violating such rights is thus a sin against liberalism. These thinkers even created their own genesis stories to defend their narrative by theorizing about the “state of nature.”

The state of nature was a thought experiment used to explain how individuals would have interacted before political institutions were set up. These narratives turned into their own origin myths, making sweeping claims about the original state of man. For example, in his Second Treatise on Government, John Locke claimed that man’s natural state is a state of liberty. Nature, he argues, is disrupted when one person tries to violate another’s liberty through aggression, such as theft, which can ultimately lead to a state of war.

Although many Christians quote Locke as though he is scripture, such notions are clearly meant to replace biblical teaching about man’s nature. In the Book of Genesis, man is not free in this individualistic sense; rather he lives with his wife in a state of harmony made possible by obedience to God. His problems don’t arise through conflict over property, but through pride and disobedience to God. Though Locke says he is a Christian, the two origin stories conflict.

Many religious and non-religious Westerners still appeal to this liberal concept of rights: my right to property, my right to abortion, my right to health care, and so on. Often, they don’t seek to demonstrate that something is good, instead appealing merely to whether one has a right to do it. Post-liberal ideologies, such as fascism and communism, have similar problems, with fascists deifying the state and communists deifying the collective will.

When discussing how to frame a constitution in Book VII of The Politics, Aristotle writes that the state should be crafted on the following premise: “The best way of life, for individuals severally as well as for states collectively, is the life of goodness duly equipped with such a store of requisites as makes it possible to share in the activities of goodness.”

If someone recognizes a highest good, whether it be God or a secular notion of virtue, then all things must conform to that good to share in its goodness. If a person instead has an obsession with conforming policy to principles, such as the market, liberalism, or equality, then he may be conflating those principles with the good rather than seeing them as potential means to achieve goodness. This replaces religion with ideology and can lead one into idolatry.

Tyler Arnold is a writer based in the Washington, D.C. area. His work can be seen in the Associated Press, Business Insider, National Review, and other outlets.