How America Turned Into a Nation of Small Gods
America has moved beyond Christianity, beyond post-Christianity, to a new religion of small gods everywhere. How did we get to this point?
I’m not talking about old-fashioned self-worship. This isn’t merely, “I’m more important than you.” Individuals are assuming the very power of God to create their own realities and command others to comply. As I’ve written recently,
What else besides a claim of godhood is going on, after all, when a man declares himself a woman, and insists that his new sex (“gender”) is reality, not only for himself but for everyone else? What else explains his demand that everyone kneel in obedience to the new reality he has created? How else do we make sense of doctors and judges claiming they can decide whose life is worth living?
We could trace this all the way back to Satan’s suggestion to Eve that she should become like God. But at least four modern streams feed this movement.
1. Discarding the True God
The first is the West’s gradual discarding of the true God. Not long ago I was with a group of men doing Bible study together. One of the older men said he could remember saying the Lord’s Prayer in public school. The younger men in the group were visibly surprised that anyone could recall such a thing.
For the U.S., 1963 marks a tragic turning point, when prayer was expelled from school. We all know the story since then. More and more, year after year, in both culture and policy, the Western world has continued finding creative new ways to reject God.
2. Increasing Personal Power (For Some)
The 60s were infamous for the sexual revolution, of course. But something even more significant lay behind: personal pleasure without personal responsibility. Sex was separated from childbirth by the Pill, and from venereal disease by still other pills. Despite high rates of inflation, the economy was strong enough to allow people to indulge in everything from unprecedented leisure time to unprecedented drug use.
Obviously not everyone benefited from that. Poverty and racial injustice were very real. For those who did, though, there was a new-found freedom from natural cause and effect. This “freedom” — almost god-like in its way — wasn’t real. But it felt like it.
3. Contempt for Authority
Meanwhile the Vietnam War gave rise to a new contempt for authority. Watergate in the 1970s was no help at all — to put it mildly. Neither were later revelations of corporate economic irresponsibility, of Roman Catholic disregard for priests’ child abuse, or a president’s power-abusive sexual escapades. Could any trusted authority be found anymore?
People began turning inward for the answer, making themselves their own authority, especially in regard to ethics and religious “truth.”
They called it “relativism.” It could as easily have been called the self’s assuming powers never known before. Individuals claimed the power to determine truth for themselves, regardless of what reality, tradition, religion or God Himself might say. They decided what would be true in their own worlds — again, a very god-like move to make.
This relativism was supported by an originally obscure academic movement called postmodernism. In his 1967 essay “The Death of the Author,” postmodernist Roland Barthes argued that there is something wrong in thinking an author “rules” over the “empire” of his creation. The reader ruled instead.
Other writers in that vein declared language a tool for getting power rather than for communicating meaning. And they cast aside all integrated explanations of reality (“meta-narratives”). Their world was fragmented into pieces. So were its citizens.
Where We stand, Where We’re Heading
I have written of the loneliness of the small gods, isolated in their separately constituted worlds. Reality, however, still says we share a real, common world. We can’t segment ourselves; we must interact. We can do it either as friends, or as a battlefield of small gods, each one fighting for supremacy. Too many are choosing the latter.
The conflict today is a religious battle through and through — even for those who call themselves secularists. On the one side are millions of small gods maneuvering their way through their shifting alliances, petty battles and grand wars. On the other there is the conservative, theistic remainder. It includes those of us who know there is one true God, and a reality we must discover and submit ourselves to, rather than create and control.
When situations change, strategies must change with them.
When situations change, strategies must change with them. Strategy will work only to the extent that it matches with reality: both eternal reality and the current lay of the land.
Which means we have to see today’s struggle for what it is. This isn’t just a political battle, though it has a political side to it. It isn’t just cultural, either, though culture features strongly in it. It’s a spiritual battle. It’s a battle against the religion of the small gods.
For more, see Tom Gilson’s Christians Today are Expatriates, Not Exiles and We Don’t Own Much of American Culture Anymore — What Now?.