Van Ens: A golden god not worth much
Christians believe God is everywhere and occupies all places. Similarly, Donald Trump’s presence permeated the recent Conservative Political Action Conference.
Before Trump took-over center stage in his first public appearance since leaving the White House, he benefited from a shiny likeness. A gold-plated statue was on display, mirroring the likeness of the former president. This likeness made Trump appear exceedingly bright in the same way fool’s gold shines as if it were 14-carat. It depicted Trump as entirely worthy of the Big Apple — showy, shiny, and sounding like an in-your-face Reality TV shock-jock.
CPAC attendees bowed before this statue, showing total devotion by having their pictures snapped with it. The idol stood larger than life as Trump’s supporters gazed at its shiny golden head. Clothed in a trademark dark suit jacket accented by a white shirt and red tie, this statue served as Trump’s stand-in. The golden right hand clutched a broadside with the bold constitutional headline, “WE THE PEOPLE.” The golden left hand held a stick topped with a flaming star, emblematic of Trump’s ability to mesmerize blindly loyal supporters.
This statue sparked memories of biblical proportions from pundits acquainted with the scriptural account of Moses receiving the 10 Commandments from God on Mount Sinai. The Hebrews huddled below this peak fretting and then got anxious when Moses did not promptly return.
Longing to see God and Moses up-close and personal, they constructed a golden calf from donated precious jewelry and ornaments. Moses got terribly angry when he returned and saw this golden idol. He incinerated it and ground the residue into powder. Then he dumped these acrid ashes into the Israelite’s water source. Their mouths puckered when Moses forced them to drink this water (Exodus 32).
These ancient Hebrews did not believe the golden calf was God. Intensely associating it with God, however, they felt motivated and secure when they bowed before the Golden Calf.
Sound familiar? Supporters treated Trump’s golden statue as if it were an idol.
Why does the Bible forbid idolatry? An idol is a figurine or other good-luck charm that supposedly defines God by drawing an explanatory circle around this deity. The Latin from which we get the word “definition” pictures a fence surrounding the gods we worship.
Consequently, the problem with showing devotion to an idol is that it “fences in” your god. Practicing idolatry makes your god too small. It suggests that we, with limited knowledge, can speak definitive words about this god.
We invent a smallish god to fit our perceptions of who the real God is. “To err is human — it only feels divine!” quipped naughty 1920s movie star Mae West. It feels spectacular to have a picture taken with your political idol. To believe your mind occupies the same space of that of a god-like leader who controls the nation’s destiny, if not the world, feels “divine.”
It makes us feel powerful when we can chop god down to manageable size, a god who gives us a “wink-wink” when we slip up. This god conveniently looks the other way when we mess up. This god is hard-of-hearing when we gossip, isn’t good at numbers when we do our taxes, and is too much of a prude to comment on our errant sex lives. Trump acts the part of an idol when, with mischief in his voice, he does not want his right hand to know what his left hand is doing because it isn’t doing anything that is worthy and just.
The Apostle Paul warned that a Roman Emperor, by bragging he was the only person who could fix a broken nation, sounded like “fools [who] exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles” (Romans 1:23).
When we cut God down to a manageable size, this idol looks and acts like us. Professor Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., former president of Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, gives instances of the kind of golden statues that bewitch our minds. “If we are intellectuals, God is a cosmic Phi Beta Kappa; if we are laborers, God is a union organizer (remember God’s son was a carpenter); if we are entrepreneurs, God is for free enterprise (didn’t God’s Son say, ‘I must be about my Father’s business)?”
“If we are poor,” continues Professor Plantinga, “God is a revolutionary; if we are propertied, God is nightwatchman over our goods [possessions]. The gods of the Persians, [the Greek historian] Herodotus noted, look a good deal like Persians.”
After the golden statue sprung to life and began speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Trump sounded full of himself, as a person should who defies human limitations and assumes power from on high. “Do you miss me yet?” he bellowed after taking stage.
He belittled President Biden’s achievements battling COVID-19 and creating an eight-year path for citizenship for the 11 million immigrants living and working in the U.S. without permanent legal status.
Like his garish-looking golden statue, Trump’s loud-mouthed put-downs and combative insults sounded peevish, juvenile and like repetitive campaign recordings.
He played the part of “too small a god” for most U.S. citizens to adore, much less support and follow.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.