Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image . . .
Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them . . .
In the fourth chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel, Satan tempts Jesus with the offer of “all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them.” This is the third of his temptations, and perhaps the one that was the most difficult to resist, for he was tempting the Savior to take a quick shortcut to possess what He would gain through suffering, death, and resurrection. Jesus answered, “It is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve” (Matthew 4:10). Today, the Christian Church that survived war and persecution is in an unanticipated danger, the danger of being “surfeited with dainties,” to use Calvin’s colorful expression. Having withstood the lash, She is suffocating under toys and delicacies. Idols of the past were often cruel; today, they are sweet. It has been centuries since those of us in what used to be called Western Christendom have been tempted to worship graven images. Today, however, millions of us have bowed down and served other idols of human making.
There is a hymn in the old Harvard College hymnal with the lines, “Deep sands of time divide thy golden days from mine, / Thy voice comes strange o’er years of change, / How can we follow thee?” The hymn concludes with the hopeful promise, “Go, Lord, we follow thee.”
Unfortunately, it seems to have become increasingly difficult for us as children of the Enlightenment; of revolutions violent and industrial; of materialism, both sophisticatedly philosophical and crassly greedy, to hear that voice and discern the footsteps of that Lord in the shifting sands of time. We no longer have a cruel leader, at least not such as the Germans and Russians did, but we are learning not to care, because we have so many things to divert us. For Christians, the struggle is no longer between God and Mammon (Matthew 6:24), but between Jesus and the Market.
German theologian Karl Heim (1870-1958), attempting to explain what Jesus is and should be to Christians, wrote of the common human desire for a leader. This desire is all too easily misdirected into following a Führer (leader) into destruction. Even we iconoclastic Americans are not immune to this sort of emotion. Do not hearts thrill when “Hail to the Chief” announces the arrival of the president of the United States? “Hail to the Chief” in German is “Heil dem Führer,” a thought that may reinforce in our minds the importance of The Rockford Institute’s motto, “Put not your trust in princes” (Psalm 146:3). Inasmuch as that thrill affected even my “red”-tinged heart when the music resounded at the entry of our last “blue” president, Bill Clinton, it may also effect “blue” Democratic voters today. Today, however, there is no false leader to blind us as Hitler did the Germans. We have a different problem.
The Führerprinzip (leader principle) proclaimed by Hitler has no real power over most Americans, whose human idols come more from entertainment than from politics. The maximum leaders today in Cuba, in China, in North Korea, and, until recently, in Iraq want a certain idolatrous worship, but even they do not demand human sacrifice—not the ripped-out, bleeding hearts required by the idols of the Aztecs or the burned babies required by Carthaginian Moloch. The dangerous idols of today, those that do demand human sacrifice, are not made with hands but by human minds. The idols of the recent past sought to ensnare us with hero worship; the new idol is drowning us in luxury and ease.
French jurist and lay theologian Jacques Ellul did not envisage the “principalities, powers, rulers of the darkness of this world . . . spiritual wickedness in high places” of Ephesians 6:12 as the devils or demons of medieval art. He saw them as the political and ideological structures that can take on an almost personal character. There were structures of thought, ideologies that could first fascinate, then inspire, enslave, and finally destroy. What we confront today is an idolatrous structure of material and intellectual productivity that buries us alive.
The dangerous idols of the past claimed total allegiance, professing to solve all of the problems of social life and, ultimately, to reveal the meaning of existence. The idol today is not “graven” like the statuary of the Nazis and the communists and, therefore, is harder to recognize and insidiously more dangerous. The great idols of the recent past sought to restructure society, perhaps the whole world, and to give all of life, at least for the nations that they shaped, a new sense of meaning and destiny. Ill-fated Italian fascism sought to assume the heritage of Roma aeterna, the Rome of the Caesars, not that of the popes. Although, in the eyes of his detractors, Benito Mussolini may appear a clown, for a time he was taken seriously. He thought, and many believed, that he really could be a new Caesar. Mussolini took the word fascism from the fasces, the bundle of rods around an ax that symbolized authority in ancient Rome. Fascism did not last long enough to realize its dreams, and its future was cut short by Mussolini’s folly both in attempting the achievements of the Romans with too few men and too little time and in choosing Hitler as a model.
Nazism, a decade younger and crueler, sought to restructure all of German life on the basis of race and blood. As Eric Voegelin writes in Science, Politics, and Gnosticism, those who want to change everything and make it all new, to transform what he calls the “Order of Being,” must first of all kill God, the Author of that order. Marxism and Nazism had in common an outright rejection of the God of Christianity. Marxism was explicitly committed to atheistic materialism, the other dreaming of ancient myths. Nazism did not act to suppress Christianity but tried to supplant it with something more Aryan and Germanic. The Christian churches were not closed; the Protestants were transformed as far as possible into the Deutsche Christen, and the Catholics were largely coopted. Jesus was Aryanized. Heinrich Himmler and the SS wanted to resurrect a vision of the Nordic gods, but it did not catch on; the total defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945 left no one ready to be a martyr for Wodin and Valhalla.
Marxism was more direct, more systematic. It sought effectively to blot out all memory of God from public life; Christians were still allowed to sing and to pray, as long as they did it quietly and unobtrusively in their own quarters and made no attempt to evangelize. Atheistic propaganda was promoted.
Nazism has been wiped from the stage of history; the little groups of neo-Nazis that spring up from time to time are noteworthy only for their nastiness. Their vision has nothing of the comprehensiveness of Hitler’s “New Order.” They hardly rank as idols. Marxism has been wiped from the political stage in that part of the world that we call Western Christendom, although it survives politically in Asia and intellectually in Western academies.
Idols are expected to give gifts; the Marxist idols have failed. The experience of half a century of competing systems operating adjacent to one another—the Bundesrepublik over against the Deutsche Demokratische Republik in Europe; North and South Korea in Asia—has revealed the total inability of communist central planning to produce the wealth that people crave. Our markets satisfy such craving. Satiated, no one “panteth after thee, O God” (Psalm 42:1).
Communist China after Mao has succeeded in preserving totalitarian tyranny while creating wealth by adopting principles of a market economy. The astonishing growth of Christianity in communist China shows the truth of the biblical statement “Man shall not live by bread alone” (Matthew 4:4). Perhaps the Chinese have not had bread long enough, or in sufficient quantity, to be satiated; perhaps we in the West have. With isolated exceptions, Christianity has been effectively stifled in Europe and, increasingly, in North America—not by the virulently secularist antifaiths of Marxism and Nazism but by the indifferently secular substitute of capitalism and the abundance that it has given us.
In The Epoch of Secularization (1971), Augusto Del Noce warns against the dangers of capitalism. That great engine of economic productivity and material wealth that reemerged from war-blasted West Germany and Japan and has continued to flourish in the West has never opposed Christianity or any religion in principle, but, as Del Noce shows, it is increasingly effective in smothering it in practice. The Nazis told the Germans, “Forget God and Jesus, believe in Wotan and Thor!” The Marxists shouted, “Religion is the opiate of the masses.” Neither Aryan dreams nor Marxist oppression, however, proved able to blot out Christianity. Many Christians surrendered, churches faltered and closed, but the Faith survived.
Christians have always known that they must face opposition and oppression. Enduring to the end and waiting for the ultimate reward in Heaven is easier to sustain against active opposition when the opposition can offer few (if any) rewards on earth. Faithfulness becomes increasingly difficult, however, when mammon overwhelms us with this-worldy gratifications and rewards. Capitalism and the free market succeed in thoroughly diverting people’s attention from the things that endure to the things that are of the world. Christians in the West are becoming so “surfeited with dainties” in the over-abundant free market that they are losing all appetite for the truly nourishing meat and potatoes of faith in the God of Abraham, the God and Father of Jesus Christ.
It is unfortunate that Del Noce’s insights are available only in Italian or in a recent French translation, L’Époque de la sécularisation. He might wake American Christians up to the fact that the opulence bestowed by capitalism is enticing us away from the Faith that persecution did not crush. Already in the late 1960’s, Del Noce saw what was happening as Europe emerged from World War II. The Faith that had survived the adversities of war and poverty began to vanish under the avalanche of goods and pleasures.
The late German-emigré economist Wilhelm Röpke helped postwar West Germany choose the free market instead of the planned economy recommended by American Democrats and British Labour, and the Wirtschaftwunder (economic miracle) arose, gradually doing to faith what Hitler could not do. In A Humane Economy, Röpke gave a warning that has gone unheeded. The market, he says, produces goods in quantity, but it does not produce values: It consumes them.
Del Noce explains how this happens. Even in the Italy of 30 years ago, consumers were buried under an avalanche of material products. The profusion of things to buy produces permanent diversion and distraction. The expansion of credit makes it possible not merely to desire new toys of every kind but to obtain them, after which consumers became the prisoners of their own purchasing power.
When Jesus said, “No man can serve two masters . . . Ye cannot serve God and mammon” (Matthew 6:24), that false god had not yet taken on the dimensions that he has today. Nazism and Marxism detested Christianity but failed to destroy it, much less to bury it. Successful free-market capitalism does not detest Christianity, but it is defeating it nonetheless. It is not burning it in the ovens of the Kazetts or burying it in the mass graves of the Gulag. Instead, it smothers believers under the mass of the goods that they cannot resist acquiring. It would be a bizarre turn of world history if the system that produced the dangerous weapons to defeat the aggressive foes of Christianity ends by producing the enticing goods that will smother the surviving Christians.