Idolatry is complex, manifesting itself differently in various historical and cultural contexts. At its heart, idolatry is the worship of not-god. A tree, sex, the sun, money, Caesar, a spouse, a nation, likes on Facebook, fertility, and social status are all examples of not-god that people worship, turning those things into idols.
What does it mean to worship something? It is to ascribe worth and the life-giving power to something as the source of meaning and identity. We become like what we worship. We’re supposed to worship God alone. If we worship God, we become like him, and we fulfill our purpose as the creatures made in his image. If we worship not-god, we dehumanize ourselves and others. For example, worshipers of money reduce themselves to consumers and others to debtors, creditors, and customers rather than human beings; worshipers of power define themselves and their worth in possessing and exercising power and treat others as competitors, collaborators, or pawns. Hugh Hefner and the worship of sex provides a powerful concrete example of what I'm describing. We become like what we worship.
When it comes to idolatry and the relationship between the believer and the State, much could and should be said. For this inadequately short but hey-I'm-trying blog post, I’ll turn to two passages in the Bible, one from the OT and one from the NT.
Daniel chapter 3, paraphrased:The king demands that everyone must bow down and worship the Big Image when the music is played. Anyone who didn’t was to be thrown in a blazing furnace. I guess you could say that the king would shout, “You’re Fired!” to all who disobeyed. Several God-worshipers worked for the king as good citizens, but they refused to bow down. The king was livid. They got fired, hardcore. But God was with these heroes of the faith, and they were unharmed. Their faithfulness brought change.
Mark chapter 12:13-17, paraphrased:Jesus is asked by the religious leaders of his day if they should pay imperial taxes to Caesar (who claimed to be God). Jesus asked them to produce the hated coinage with Caesar’s image on it, and- surprise, surprise- they had one on them. “Whose image is on this coin?” he asked. “Caesar’s.” Jesus answers: Ok, pay back to Caesar in his coin with his image on it, and pay back to God in his own ‘coin’ with his image on it (i.e., the life lived by humans who are made in his image)! This does not relegate God to the realm of 'spiritual' things, leaving us on our own in the 'physical', 'worldly' realm. God claims rightful ownership of all of life (even taxes). Allegiance to God transcends but includes where we find ourselves in relation to the occupying power.
In short: respect rulers, be good citizens, but worship God alone.
That’s why early Christians under Rome couldn’t engage in the imperial worship, which proclaimed that Caesar is Lord. God is king/Jesus is Lord, and the kingdoms and lords of this world are therefore demoted to their proper place, under his authority.
Within that framework there is certainly room for an appropriate patriotism rooted in a commitment to good citizenship (which is ultimately based on obeying God's command to love our neighbors). But when uncritical allegiance is demanded to a symbol that stands for military might and first responders but not equally also for teachers, postal workers, librarians, sanitation workers, and other civil servants, the symbol runs the liability of representing Empire and a Police State. It begins to look like an idolatrous civil religion.
Christian author Rachel Held Evans tweeted: “The early church would be utterly baffled by the idea that future Christians would shame someone for not swearing allegiance to the empire.” She's not wrong.