lci featured

Avoiding Idolatry In Difficult Times

There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship … If you worship money and things, … then you will never have enough … worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need even more power over others to numb you to your own fear …. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is … they’re unconscious. They are default settings. ~David Foster Wallace, 2005.

The late novelist, David Foster Wallace said this at a commencement address at Kenyon College back in 2005. (I highly recommend listening to his whole speech). He wasn’t a professing Christian, yet he articulated the human propensity to worship with astonishing clarity. While we inevitably worship even when there is no crisis happening, whom or what we trust for caring control during hardship says more than perhaps we realize.   

We all worship; we’re made to worship. We all have an innate consciousness of the need for something greater than ourselves that is in control and that can save us. But humanity’s fall into sin resulted in our tendency to worship something other than the true God (see Rom. 1:21-25). 

In a way, the erroneous desire for government interventionism testifies to the need for a sovereign God and savior. When evil or suffering occurs some look to the state, as though it were a messiah to save us from our sin and misery. And those in power are happy to oblige and assume this role. 

Though libertarians tend to be good at avoiding statist idolatry, both government interventionism and libertarianism can be idolized, and Christian libertarians can (and should) avoid making an idol of a free society.  

Christians who are libertarian know more about why government interventionism should not be an idol

Libertarian Christians have learned the state is neither our messiah nor in actual control. We recognize the emergent order which arises naturally through humans acting and coordinating voluntarily, without aggression or centralization. Rather than calling for more government intervention and calling opposition to it “cowardice,” we understand that when people are left free to act voluntarily, it actually saves more lives.

One need not be a Christian to recognize this. By God’s common grace, non-Christian libertarians have observed what Christian libertarians know to be God’s design for society. Libertarians understand how the principles of liberty and a free society are the most conducive to human flourishing and a better life.  And we can see various manifestations of this fact in reality. 

Of course, this small list isn’t even the tip of the iceberg.

But libertarianism can become an idol too

The market responds faster, more effectively, and more compassionately than a “benevolent dictator” could ever dream. However, libertarianism too can become a false messiah. We can be tempted to think a free society could be the solution to most (or all!) that is wrong with the world. This is especially true when we’re faced with a particular crisis, and we see government intervention making it even worse. 

Liberty is God’s normative design for society. This means the best response to pandemics is found in the principles of a free society. But even this cannot keep the rate of suffering down to zero. Economist Thomas Sowell said, “There are no solutions, there are only trade-offs; and you try to get the best trade-off you can get, that’s all you can hope for.” This is true. If your ultimate hope is in a free society, you will be disappointed. Even in a free society, we still have trade-offs; we know it’s not the cure for all that ails us. There would still be a great deal of sin and misery in this life. 

Some Christians, like myself, respond to the temptation to idolize their desire for a free society by looking to God as the one who is in sovereign control. We seek to put our principles in an eternal perspective, knowing that while “thief, moth, and rust destroy,” God is our only all-sovereign Savior.  

Belief in a sovereign God is to put ultimate hope in Him and His consummate salvation, not an idol

The Christian’s ultimate hope should never be in this life. Even though a market economy can produce marvelous things that make living life easier, it’s a cheap substitute compared to our hope in the real deal: Christ and the coming kingdom of God. Christ is our real salvation, our real savior, our real healer. 

Some libertarian Christians reject the idea of God’s sovereignty, however. To them, the idea of God being in control of everything destroys the idea of human freedom and purposeful action, and makes God a Devil and the author of evil. This is certainly a contested theological topic, and I won’t try to resolve it here. Certainly those who might characterize the idea of God’s sovereignty so negatively would at least agree that God is in enough control to warrant our full confidence in His ability to guarantee salvation for those who trust in Him. 

In any case, for those who do believe in God’s sovereign control of everything, it’s important to remember that our belief doesn’t discourage our activism. Rather, it puts it in the right (eternal) perspective. Libertarian Christians aren’t (or shouldn’t be) libertarian because they idolize freedom. Liberty is good and works because it operates according to God’s created design for society. But knowing that in the freest society possible, sin and misery would still persist, we place our ultimate hope in what God alone can accomplish: the consummation of God’s kingdom in the resurrection and the new heavens and earth. Times of crisis remind us not to cling to this life but to God who truly saves and is coming again.