American Idolatry: The Dangers of Identity Politics



It has been an unusually mild winter in Iowa. Spring is around the corner and the warm temperatures we often associate with May are filling our mid-March days with more lamb-like than lion-like weather. For our family, the robins searching for worms in the yard signal not only warm temperatures but an end to our favorite winter activity and arguably our favorite sport; football. Football of course is not everyone’s cup of tea. Perhaps you are in Erma Bombeck’s camp on the subject. The American humorist once said that if a man watches three football games in a row, he should be declared legally dead.  However, in a house full of testosterone, its often you will find my daughter and me to be the more rabid,or should I say, enthusiastic fans of the gridiron. I grew up as a daddy’s girl in Western New York. For me Sundays in the winter were spent next to my father watching the Buffalo Bills.  I love football. Fortunately for me, I married a fellow football enthusiast.

My husband bleeds Chicago Bears Blue and Orange. He loves Bears’ football. The NFC football team from Chicago has gotten under his skin – literally – he has a tattoo of a Chicago Bear on his forearm. He is so engrossed with all things Bears that I promised him after our fourth child, our only daughter was born that if we were blessed with another boy we could name him after his favorite Chicago Bear of all-time, Walther Payton. Payton, our fourth son and fifth of six children was born in 2009. If you want to irritate my husband comment that you think it is terrific that we named him after Peyton Manning.  My husband also thinks the world of the current head coach of the Bears, Lovie Smith.   He appreciates Lovie’s coaching style, but more so he appreciates the Bears’ coach because he wears his Christianity on his sleeve.  During Smith’s Super Bowl XLI media session, he said he could spend hours talking about his team and their efforts to get a Super Bowl berth, but he also wanted to spend part of his allotted time talking about what was most important to him, his faith in Jesus Christ.  “God is the center of my life. It controls all that I do. I hope I don’t have to spend my time telling my players I’m a Christian. I hope they see it in my life every day,” Smith said.

My husband was shocked last week to learn of Chicago Bears’ Head Coach, Lovie Smith’s support of President Barrack Obama. Even though my husband is a staunch Constitutional Conservative, he isn’t bristling at Coach Smith’s ‘playing’ for the other team.   He was bothered more about the Bears’ head coach supporting our 44th President because of the color of his skin. My husband, who self-deprecatingly considers himself a redneck in no uncertain terms, is not a racist. His problem with Lovie Smith’s support of Obama is because it appears that the Bears’ coach is basing his support of our President solely on identifying with him because they are both African-American.  While my husband and I might be on different sides of the proverbial football; I am an AFC girl and he is an NFC guy, but we both agree that identity politics is dangerous because it smacks of idolatry.

Identity politics comes from the natural human tendency to bond with people who look and act like you. It’s human instinct to connect with your own. On an emotional level there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact those emotional ties become building blocks for society. Identity becomes problematic when we simply do not just accept and celebrate our diversity but when the differences seem to become important, even overwhelming factors in how we vote. While it is understandable that race, class, gender, ethnicity, and religion are factors and railing against them counting is like objecting to gravity, it should disturb us when these categories pass being factors and become determiners. Identity politics says, “I’m black, I’ll vote for a black person.” “I’m a woman, I’ll vote for a woman,” “I’m Christ-follower, I’ll vote for a Christian.” Identity politics divides human beings into “us” and “them.”  Americans have other Americans in our sights. Apparently unable to learn the cautionary tale of the former Yugoslavia or the catastrophic fracturing of Iraq, we are rolling our way down hill on the road to ruin of identity politics.  More dangerous to our way of life than Sunni Al Qaeda, more toxic than Shiite Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, more pernicious than Marxism is our voluntary decent into tribal identification and division. Identity politics, where we organize for or against by our tribal affiliations, is dangerous to our republic. The record of the discord that ensues when our labels become, not simply markers, but seem intrinsically important, is clear. It is a clear path to ruin and the rending of the fabric of society. When we cease being content to vote simply as American and place all of our emphasis on ‘hyphenated Americanism’, identity politics becomes our god.

The idolatry of identity politics is nothing new in America. Americans have been suffering from, as eminent American Historian Arthur Schlesinger observed, ‘too much pluribus and not enough unum’. The very term “hyphenated Americans” was first popularized by President Theodore Roosevelt back in 1915 when he gave a Columbus Day speech in which he derided anyone, whether immigrant or nativist, who did not identify solely as American. “There is no such thing as a hyphenated American who is a good American,” he decried.  “The only man who is a good American is the man who is an American and nothing else.” Historians, though they don’t necessarily use the term in this context, are keenly aware that Andrew Jackson’s rise to the presidency came as he rode a wave of unprecedented identity politics.  Although their candidate was a wealthy land speculator who owned a cotton plantation nearly two square miles in size and over 150 slaves, Jackson’s campaign presented him as an everyman.  They starkly contrasted him against and even mocked the well-heeled, blue blood elitism of his main rival, John Quincy Adams.

Going back even further in human history, we see the danger of identity politics in the Ancient World. In the biblical account of Jesus healing a woman on the Sabbath, Jesus cured a woman fairly debilitated with her disease on a day when it was forbidden by Jewish law to do so. The head of the synagogue was adamantly against that.  Part of being the long-awaited Messiah, Jesus was a wonder-working prophet in first-century Israel.  His job, as with all prophets, was to renew the people of God.   Now, normally, when a prophet did his work, he called people back to their roots, to their identity as Jews.  Jesus did this in one way—referring constantly to the earliest traditions and to the great prophetic teachings.  But one of the things he did not do was call people to a renewed engagement with the traditional marks of their Jewish identity.

There were three things that set Jews apart visibly in their world: circumcision, kosher, and Sabbath.  Jesus doesn’t say much about circumcision, but he has a lot to say about dietary laws and keeping the Sabbath day—none of which the community leaders of his day agreed with.  He set himself over against current teaching and actually undermined the Sabbath and kosher.  Two of his famous lines were: The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath; and, it is what comes out of a man that makes him unclean, not what goes in.

In doing this, Jesus created a lot of confusion and anger and outrage.  These were the badges by which Jewish identity had been secured.  Only a little more than 100 years in the past, Jews had died by insisting on eating kosher and keeping Sabbath and circumcising their little boys.  Practicing these rites and keeping these laws, were the main ways in which Jews set themselves apart.  Yet, here was Jesus, supposedly leading a movement to renew Israel, and he was constantly undermining the things that ordinary Jews were supposed to do in order to be good Jews.

The head of the synagogue wasn’t necessarily a hateful man because he didn’t want the woman healed on the Sabbath.  He was trying to maintain the whole idea of Sabbath as the Jewish badge of identity.  It’s a classic example of identity politics. Sometimes when people are holding on to things that are badges of identity, they do it in a way that hurts people around them.  They are afraid to let go of some symbol that tells them who they are, so that those who have no place within that symbol are made to feel second-class, even though they are thoroughly worthy people.  It was as if the synagogue leader used his zeal for the Sabbath to beat the poor sick woman over the head. Jesus was very clear: even the pastor gave his mule a drink of water on the Sabbath; why not help this poor woman?  In the name of maintaining a symbol of one’s identity in the face of people who seem to threaten it, there are those who treat their animals better than some of the people around them.  His identity became his god.

How do we avoid the danger of letting identity politics become our god? I do believe it is important to have a sense of who we are.  For example, I usually identify myself as a predominantly Irish and Czech American small town girl from Western New York who grew up Catholic.  Those things are important to me.  They go a long way towards defining who I am.  These factors might make me who I am, but they don’t go the most important distance and they should not be a determining factor in who I will or will not vote for in this election cycle. My father has always dressed well-   a nice suit, tie, and freshly pressed shirt so I appreciate a well-dressed man. All of the GOP candidates part their hair on the same side, wear dark suits, and power ties too. Should the fact that they are sharp dressers like my father help me determine whether or not they could help lead and govern the United States?  Of course not.  I am left-handed like President Barrack Obama, but that is hardly enough to justify me choosing him to be the leader of our country. Although I don’t get to hit the links as much as the President does, I also enjoy golf. But our shared love of the game does not parlay into Obama’s ability to govern effectively. My Catholic background is something I share with both Senator Santorum and Speaker Gingrich, but should not be a determining factor in casting my vote in November. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has five sons and so do we, but that does not justify me pulling the lever for him. If Governor Sarah Palin were running I could not legitimately vote for her just because she is a woman and a mother of a special needs child like me.  While I identify with all of the candidates on some level, I am, first and foremost, a follower of Jesus—not always the best, but I am determined to put that loyalty ahead of everything else.  Recently I have identified more with the conservative Midwest values of my husband and have also learned that the branches of my family tree are also Scottish, Swiss, German, and English in addition to Irish and Czech. Does all that matter much?  Not really.  The most important thing about me should be my relationship with Christ. I cannot resist quoting the old apostle Paul, who certainly put in his time in fights over identity politics:  “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” What matters is remembering that God partners with us: that God is with us as we work, learn, love, and live our lives. God is also with us as we are faced with making important choices about the future of our country.  God stands with us as we pull the lever in the voting booth.

If we don’t employ identity politics for choosing our next president, next senator, or next member of the city council how do we choose the best candidates? Do we avoid the election all together to avoid the sin of idolatry? If you are tempted to stay home on Election Day, dust off your copy of The City of God, in which Augustine introduces us to the idea that we live in both the City of God and the City of Man. In describing them, he reiterated Jesus’ teaching that while Christians live in the City of Man, they do not belong to it. We are like sojourners in a foreign country; our true home is the City of God. But Augustine also taught that if we are to enjoy the blessings of the City of Man, we must assume the obligations of citizenship. Instead of doing our civic duty out of compulsion, the Christian does it gladly, out of obedience to God and love of neighbor. Sitting out the election is not an option—it’s both our civic and sacred duty. Voting is required of us as good citizens and as God’s agents for appointing leaders. We Christians should live by revealed truth and turn to the Bible as our guide for selecting capable leaders for our nation. Regardless of our political affiliation, the standard of choosing a leader to rule over us should always be based on the Word of God. Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, advised him to appoint as rulers “able men” who “fear God, men who are trustworthy and who hate a bribe.” The standard is competence and integrity. Later, God ordered Samuel to pick Saul, who “shall save my people from the hand of the Philistines.” This passage reminds us of Paul’s teaching in Romans: Government’s role is to wield the sword to preserve order and restrain evil. So we should seek leaders best able to do that and to pursue justice. Today, God no longer chooses our leaders directly (although some of us wish he did, if only to spare us the years-long political campaigns). We live in a democratic republic, so God entrusts to us the job of choosing leaders he will anoint. (Deuteronomy 1:12-13 shows us that democratic principles go directly back to the Old Testament.) Like Samuel, we are commissioned to choose leaders of competence, virtue, and character. That is why voting for or not voting for a candidate because they are African-American or a man or an Evangelical Christian is a dereliction of our trust.  Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed that Americans would one day judge solely based on character and not on superficial identifying traits. He said in his historic “I Have a Dream” Speech, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” We need to judge our nation’s leaders in the same manner.

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