Idols of Power

I always like to recommend good books. Usually, I focus on newer releases, but once in a while I want to point out a largely forgotten book that deserves more of an audience. One such book is Herbert Schlossberg’s Idols for Destruction.

Schlossberg aims at the various idols men create to take the place of God. One of his chapters, “Idols of History,” I use in my Historiography course. Another, “Idols of Power,” fits nicely in a new course I co-teach called Biblical Principles of Government and Policy. I’d like to offer a few samples from that chapter.

The state has become an idol for many of the elite, Schlossberg notes. They believe that only the state can solve all our problems, both material and spiritual. He remarks, “The state, for these devotees, is messianic in all its essentials, and their politics are directed toward religious ends. The state will provide for us whatever prosperity could not, because it has replaced God. In the hands of theologians of political redemption, the state is an idol.”

He gets to the heart of the problem of the nanny state when he says,

The paternal state not only feeds its children, but nurtures, educates, comforts, and disciplines them, providing all they need for their security. This appears to be a mildly insulting way to treat adults, but it is really a great crime because it transforms the state from being a gift of God, given to protect us against violence, into an idol. It supplies us with all blessings, and we look to it for all our needs. Once we sink to that level, as [C.S.] Lewis says, there is no point in telling state officials to mind their own business. “Our whole lives are their business.”

Even though this book was written in the early 1990s, it clearly analyzes current talk about how we cannot “afford” tax cuts. This mentality betrays an entirely different view of the world and property:

In the United States, federal tax policy illustrates the government’s unconscious rush to be the god of its citizens. When a provision in the tax laws permits the taxpayer to keep a portion of his money, the Internal Revenue Service calls this  “tax expenditure,” or an “implicit government grant.” This is not tax money that the state has collected and expended but money it has allowed the citizen to keep by not taking it. In other words any money the citizen is permitted to keep is regarded as if the state had graciously given it to him. Everything we have is from the state, to which we owe gratitude. In fact, we are the property of the state, which therefore has the right to the fruit of our labor.

It’s an upside-down explanation, but one that is still being used by the Obama administration, which comes from that same worldview, assuming that tax money naturally belongs to the government first.

But of course the little people can never understand the higher thoughts of the elite. As Schlossberg astutely recognizes, they view themselves as the only ones capable of grasping truth [as they perceive it]: “Combining social purpose with expertise sets the stage for a gnosticism in which only the special few have the key to the secrets of the universe.”

Yet, all the while they claim some sort of expertise and special knowledge, one must be careful: “Never ask the enlightened ones about their track record, which is a series of disguised disasters; just accept on faith that they have the secret to life.”

We see this in action in our day: the Obama policies are a disaster, yet they refuse to acknowledge it and continue to instruct us to trust them. They are the experts; they have all the answers. Yet they have no idea what they are doing:

Near the end of the chapter, Schlossberg lays it out plainly: “When loyalty to God disappears, there is no longer a barrier to an omnicompetent state. Social democracy makes society increasingly dependent upon the state for continued sustenance, thereby cementing its bondage.”

The chapter’s final paragraph sounds this warning:

Modern statism is the soured remnant of the Enlightenment idea of inevitable progress. This miserable wreckage, which once heralded joyfully the coming of the secular version of the kingdom of God, now hoarsely wheezes that if we worship it we shall receive salvation from extinction. The danger is not to be taken lightly. Woebegone as it is, with a record of fatuous incompetence, dishonesty, irrationality, and bloody repression almost beyond description, statism nevertheless boasts a hoard of fanatical adherents. Ignorant devotees or cunning and cynical hypocrites, they give it power and, equipped with modern technologies, make it a fierce and implacable enemy.

This is an enemy we need to overcome.