Posted on November 5, 2013 by Howard Snyder
Americans are fundamentally polytheists, worshiping at the shrines of many gods.
Many who call themselves Christians are as polytheistic as Hindus. We of course have different names for our gods of prosperity, fertility, good luck, or whatever.
Money and success have often been thought of as America’s gods. “God is gold,” “the Almighty Dollar,” and all that. But things have changed over the years. Money has been demoted to a somewhat lesser deity, though still devoutly worshiped.
America’s Top Gods
Here are North America’s seven most popular gods. By “god” I mean something (anything) in our life that commands more loyalty, dedication, and devotion than the one true Living God. Not necessarily the highest loyalty, since many of us are functional polytheists, whatever we claim. But sincere and central devotion.
The question then becomes: What is your or my functional pantheon?
From the biblical perspective, of course, such “gods” are really idols. Idols which the Bible both denounces and mocks.
America’s gods today, in inverse order:
7. National Security
Yes, for some people this is the One High God (“My Country, Right or Wrong”). It is a much higher god since the 9/11 terrorists attacks and the passage of the (idolatrous? blasphemous?) Patriot Act. Anything done in the name of national security, or now by the NSA, is by definition justified, since the end justifies the means.
National Security in the U.S. is the new name of the old god of Nationalism.
But for many in the U.S., this is not the High God. It is one among many, and it nudges out the other gods only in times of clear threat and crisis.
This is one of the gods, so-called, that the Bible denounces. Read Ezekiel.
6. Money, Riches, Wealth
Still a much-adored and sought-after god in the United States. The pursuit of wealth was one of the two founding pillars of the United States, and of course this is still in place. But it is now so taken for granted—so unquestioned—that the worship of this god is a little less prominent.
This god is also called Mammon, which Jesus referred to in Matthew 6:24 when he said, “You cannot serve God and Mammon.” (Was he wrong?)
The rise of technology has birthed other gods, however, so Money is a bit less adored than in times past.
The worship of guns in the U.S. is fully obvious and is well known globally—though quite puzzling to many folks in other countries, including Canada. A few months ago The Economist magazine from the UK ran a cartoon depicting a church service which was actually a worship-of-guns service in America.
How America’s gun culture developed is well documented in Michael Bellesiles, Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture (2000) and other sources.
All it took to turn fascination with guns (primarily by males) into a religion was linking it up with the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment.
Today all the marks of religion are evident when one either confronts a gun devotee or questions anything about this devotion. (For clarity: I am not speaking about legitimate limited uses of firearms but the deification of the gun.)
I know many folks would rank this idolatry higher, closer to the top. For many Americans it is indeed Top God. But the number devotees is a actually minority of the total population, so I rank it here.
4. The Automobile
This beautiful and more and more glitzy and gadgety god has been around now for over a century. Historians talk about “America’s love affair with the automobile.” The automobile quickly became a symbol of money, sex, and power, with a clear hierarchy identifiable by model and price. A divider of the haves from the have-nots.
When the automobile moves from being a means of transportation to something else, something more, a hierarchical status symbol, deification is complete. The marks of worship, from temples to worship rallies to lavish offerings, become obvious. Our casual obliviousness to the sacrifice of thousands of lives on our highways is another sign (32,000 last year—adult and child sacrifice).
But we’re not yet at the top.
3. Fame and Celebrity
Celebrity has been around for a long time—going back at least to Absalom, the Old Testament’s most famous celebrity, with his clever charm and his beautiful black flowing hair.
But modern technology—printing of course, but especially movies, radio, TV, and now the Internet—have given the Castor-and-Pollux god of Fame-and-Celebrity new prominence.
So now fame and celebrity are largely unquestioned, even among Christians. Being famous is always better than not being, and becoming a celebrity is always something to be applauded. Therefore aspired to.
In this value system, seeking obscurity is dumb. Becoming “less so that others may become more” is irrational, suspect, and likely a sign of mental derangement.
Many parents will sacrifice virtually anything for the chance for their child to become famous—whether in entertainment, sports, or even academia. (Ever seen a child beauty pageant?)
Note that the high god here is not money, but rather fame-and-celebrity.
2. Collegiate Sports
Collegiate sports is of course a way to achieve fame, celebrity, and wealth—at least potentially.
Compare the salaries and perks of university head coaches and athletic directors with those of presidents and deans, as a first indicator of this idolatry. Look at sports and media budgets.
But there are many other signs. Collegiate sports have become a whole elaborate high-tech profit-making system—a business, really—with big winners and many losers.
From the outside looking in, the idolatry is obvious. From the inside, even to raise the question
appears extreme, unjustified, irrational.
1. Professional Sports
This is America’s Top God at the moment. Not fifty years ago, but now. The growing popularity of and devotion to this god has happened so gradually that millions have not noticed the seduction. Instead what they see is high-tech glitz powered by advertising mega-dollars.
Professional sports have it all: Money, fame, sex, technology, and immense and growing economic clout.
It is professional sports, of course, that powers collegiate sports—to the point where the line between “professional” and “amateur” is often a joke.
College sports power high school sports—which power grade school sports. A huge, interlocking system, a hierarchy.
Result: today one of the most obscene, disturbing scenes on TV or the Internet or on a sports field is not is not sex or violence. It is a small boy, barely into grade school, nearly lost in a football helmet and uniform, being socialized into a culture and worldview that is artificial, unhealthy, and ultimately demeaning. Trapped in a uniform and trapped in a deadly culture. It is a tragedy and a training in idolatry. Actually a form of spiritual formation (or malformation).
Among many other things, this form of unrecognized child abuse insulates (literally) your child from normal, unprogrammed interaction with the natural world of trees, flowers, birds, rivers, and dirt. God’s good creation.
Tests for Idolatry
Oops! What’s that sound I hear? Ah, howls of protest! “No, no, no! These things are not really our gods! You are wrong! We don’t actually worship these things. We just like them. They’re diversions, entertainment, leisure-time hobbies. Pastimes. Innocent.”
Do I hear the squeal of sacred cows?
Well, here are five tests for idolatry. So we can decide for ourselves.
1. The test of time and attention. How much time, devotion, and unquestioned loyalty do I give to this “diversion”? What about passion and intensity of devotion and depth of loyalty? How much time and money go into this adulation, and at the expense of what other things?
2. The test of the willingness to question and evaluate. Do I ever—and am I willing to—step back and question my loyalty? To ask where the line is between interest and worship, and how we know when we cross that line? Especially: to question our loyalties and dedications by the light of the biblical prophets?
3. The test of public signs of devotion. Devotees of gods commonly make their devotion public through their behavior, clothing, and emblems. They give public displays, advertising where their loyalties lie, so everyone will know, and there will be no confusion. These often take the form of logos, flags, caps, T-shirts, and other clothing items.
Over the past week or month, what loyalties have I publicly advertised?
4. The test of comparative devotion with other gods or loyalties. For example, loyalty and devotion to Jesus Christ. If I evaluate my interests, time and money use, amount and intensity of attention, what comes out on top? What is second, third, fourth?
Whatever is on top is your or my functional god, and the others are proof of polytheism.
5. The test of ethical effects. What behaviors follow from my worship (that is, interest, hobby, avocation, relationship, whatever)? Are we ethically sensitive to the effects of our devotions? Or does my loyalty produce ethical insensitivity—most especially, insensitivity to the virtues and values of the Gospel of the kingdom of God.
“Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you? —unless, indeed, you fail to meet the test!” (2 Cor. 13.5).
Admittedly the above pantheon ranking is impressionistic and unscientific. Probably it could be tested by carefully measuring money, time, and media attention. My intuition is that if the pantheon of gods were so investigated and properly weighted for variable factors, it would come out confirming, more or less, what I suggest here.
Any ranking is of course fuzzy. It is not uncommon for polytheists to have many, many gods—one for each need or whim or lust or day of the week. Plus, there are many other potential deities not mentioned here: Pets, pills (for every need), health, beauty/figure/physique, clothing, jewelry, tools, books, food, individualism or individual rights, church buildings—whatever we allow to become or adopt as a god. And of course there’s the original U.S. Trinity of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”—good if properly placed, but idolatrous if they become objects of unquestioned worship.
Like all humans, we’re also good at demonizing whomever or whatever we don’t like.
So we should examine ourselves. In the best-case scenario, if we pass the examination—that is, if King Jesus emerges as the One True God in our lives by whose power we renounce all idols—we do well.
If we do not pass with clear conscience, then some pantheonic reassessment and probably renunciation is in order.
Yes, and I recall that Jesus said: “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you” (Mt. 5:3-6).
God says, “You shall worship no other god, because the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” (Ex. 34:14). “I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols” (Isa. 42:8).
“Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts” (Mal. 3:7).