To whom do we turn to for our income, housing, education, a good family structure, healthy children, alleviation of poverty, protection from evil and personal security?
If you’re a believer you may answer 'God'. But for many people today, the answer is the government. And so when it all goes wrong in our society, it’s the government that gets the blame.
Not evil, the devil, poor individual human choices, sin, or just bad luck. In our dominant cultural narrative, it’s always the government’s fault when there is poverty, crime, selfishness and greed. Government is god.
In this worldview, the hope for the future depends on good government. The 'correct' state will usher us into a greater age, a utopia, where there is less suffering and crying and pain. This tendency was shown so clearly after the referendum and the US election, and in our current general election: those who get their preferred outcome are ecstatic, those who don’t are despondent and hopeless.
Yet the Bible speaks of these things in a spiritual sense: God is our provider, our defender, our healer. For many Christians, it is God who they put hope in. It is the devil who is blamed for the evils of the world. People may make good or bad choices, but we believe that ultimately God is in charge, and people in government are still made in the image of God and have value.
However I think that the government is often an idol – a false god, and Christians are as risk as anyone else. When our hope is in government, the political situation causes us to be despondent or euphoric. It causes us to blame and hate the opposing side, whatever that may be. We create messiahs who we think will save humankind if they are in charge.
We stop looking to God and start looking to a fallible set of human beings for salvation, who try to control things that often aren’t under their control. Romans 13 can become a proof text to institute government as god: as if God has abdicated and handed his powers to the state.
I wrote an article recently that questions to what extent Christians should get into politics at all, at least as politics is understood as mission or part of following Jesus. The issue isn’t as clear cut biblically as some make it out to be.
Jesus commands us to act in many ways: to give to the poor, to love our neighbour, to heal the sick. He doesn’t say we should do this via the intermediary of a government. If there is a homeless person on the street, why blame the government? Why not take responsibility and do something about it ourselves? If someone is struggling financially, why is it the government’s responsibility to help, and not our own? I fear it’s a lot easier to project our sadness and disappointment towards a government rather than take action. Government can be a very useful scapegoat for a broken society.
Passing the buck to the state also means that we create an entity with a lot of power. We might intend to vote for a government that uses this power benevolently, but what if it decides to use it for ill? And who decides what’s right and wrong anyway? We may find that our attempts to create utopia, we create a Frankenstein that we can’t control.
As our society increasingly forgets or rejects God as a reality, perhaps it’s no surprise that there is a corresponding increase in rage and anger, political division, and intolerance: as people battle on behalf of their gods of ideology and politics, and seek for their ideology’s supremacy over others. Perhaps we have an intrinsic need to seek a higher power. Maybe we all need to be aware of exactly who we are placing in that role in our lives.
Whatever happens this week, I fear that those people whose god is government will ultimately be very disappointed.