American Idols: From Petro-theism to Empire-theism

January 4th, 2006 - by admin

Evan Augustine Peterson III / Public Theology – 2006-01-04 23:57:48

I am the Lord your God…
You shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourselves a graven image, or any likeness of anything…
Your shall not bow down to them or serve them…

— Decalogue’s First and Second Commandments, Exodus 20:2-5 (NRSV)

In our market-driven consumerist culture, there are many things that we’ve “just gotta have,” regardless of the consequences. In a very real sense, we don’t end up possessing these things so much as we’re possessed by them. In short, we’re being held captive by idols of the mind, heart, and pocketbook.

Theologically speaking, an idol is a false substitute for ultimate truth. When we substitute an idol for the ultimate truth, we become “constructive atheists” — people who say “God exists,” but who live as if God did NOT exist. For instance, in the American context, our nation’s motto says “In God We Trust,” but we’ve long since placed our trust in other things. Or, as the French like to say, “Les Americains aimez les choses!” (“Americans love their things!”).

Postmodern pundits have acknowledged our hypocrisy by identifying at least five idols that possess us today: addiction to fossil fuels; the market; technopoly; militarism and war; and the false religiosity of empire.

What about our heedless dependence on non-renewable fossil fuels? As a direct consequence, there are large holes in this planet’s protective ozone layer, and global climate change is a disaster waiting to happen. And yet we don’t have to burn oil and coal to be an industrially-developed nation. There are alternatives. We need to get serious about clean renewable energy and conservation.

However, current indications are that we won’t because our federal government’s leaders are either oil men themselves or slavishly beholden to Big Oil.

Therefore, Mark Fiore sees a stark contrast between:
(a) the Decalogue’s first and second commandments prohibiting idolatry; and
(b) “Petrotheism,” which is vividly depicted in his must-see animated essay.

Also see John Howe’s book, The End Of Fossil Energy And The Last Chance for Sustainability (New Hampshire: McIntire Publishing, 2004). To request a copy, send Mr. Howe an e-mail at:

What about cheap-labor conservatism’s doctrine of the laissez-faire market as a false god? Whenever we elevate something, or someone, over the basic morality of right and wrong, we make it into an idol. Hence, the New Testament emphasizes not only the exceeding wickedness of idolatry (e.g., 1 Cor. 6:9-10, Gal. 5:20, Eph. 5:5, Col. 3-5, 1 Peter 4:3, Rom. 1:18-32, Rev. 21:8), but also that idolatry is a matter of the heart, associated with pride, self-centeredness, greed, gluttony, and a materialistic love of possessions (e.g., Matt. 6:24, Phil. 3:19).

Theoretically, one’s market investments could be done in a morally-justifiable manner. Realistically, the American investor class routinely makes lucrative investments in defense contractors that profit from destroying humans, in polluting industries that profit from destroying the environment, and in corporations that employ slave labor in their overseas sweat-shops.

Their faith in the “miracle of the market” allows them to rationalize their morally-depraved investment behavior: they adore those profits, but turn a blind eye to the evil consequences.

Does anyone credibly argue that Americans have created yet another false god in the capitalist theology of “The Market,” the symbolic form for which — like unto the Golden Calf — is the bull on Wall Street?

Yes. Harvard theologian Harvey Cox’s famous 1999 essay, “The Market As God: Living In The New Dispensation,” convincingly demonstrates that market-theism is, indeed, the new faith of our nation’s investor class (read essay; the time-constrained reader might prefer to read Professor Jim McGoin’s concise summary of Harvey Cox’s essay)

What about an entire people who worship at the altar of technology? Does anyone credibly argue that technocrats are the new high priests, and that technical expertism has subsumed the last vestiges of our culture?

Yes. Neil Postman’s must-read book, Technopoly: The Surrender Of Culture To Technology (New York: Knopf, 1992), identifies us as such a people. Note that this is NOT merely a Luddite screed. Rather, it’s a level-headed analysis of the USA’s obsession with, and monopolistic over-reliance on, technology, including:

(a) our naive belief that a high-tech panacea exists for every problem; and

(b) our frenetic search for ever-new sources of profit, which has caused us to consistently misapply inappropriate technologies, as if people and the planet really did not matter.

The time-constrained reader might prefer to visit this website for editorials about, and reader reviews of, Neil Postman’s Technopoly

What about MILITARISTS and their idolatrous infatuation with WAR? American militarists prefer to intimidate the world through the example of our force, instead of leading the world through the force of our example.

Does anyone credibly argue that our militarization of US foreign policy, and our adoption of the “Bush Doctrine of Preemptive War,” has resulted in more unjust wars of aggression? Yes. Andrew Bacevich does in his must-read book, The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced By War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

It’s written from an insider’s perspective, because the author: graduated from West Point; served as a combat officer in Vietnam; was awarded a conservative Bush Scholarship for postgraduate studies in Berlin; and is a tenured Professor of International Relations at Boston University.

Also see two searing critiques of American militarism:

(a) UCSD Professor Emeritus Chalmers Johnson’s outstanding book, The Sorrows Of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy And The End Of The Republic (New York: Metropolitan, 2004). Professor Johnson warns that the Pentagon has consolidated political power with military power, because it controls not only the federal budget but also a far-flung empire of bases. He concludes that the ultra-secretive Pentagon won’t voluntarily restore civilian power, and that a revolution might be required to restore democratic governance in our republic.

(b) Dr. Joel Andreas’ devastating book, Addicted To War: Why The US Can’t Kick Militarism (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2004), uses vivid illustrations and insightful footnotes to make the case that our nation is addicted to war, in both the historical and the financial sense. Readers can order this eye-opening book for $10.00 at:

Finally, what about thinly-disguised imperialists masquerading behind false religiosity as if it was authentic discipleship?

A theological predecessor can be found in the doctrine of “Manifest Destiny,” which was the American belief that “the white race” is “predestined” to conquer and colonize the “non-white races,” supposedly “for their own good.” Of course, this racist doctrine of Caucasian superiority was thoroughly discredited during the 20th century.

Today, the American Religious Right’s Empire-Theism is based on the same triumphalistic exceptionalism that undergirded Manifest Destiny. And they are similarly absolutizing their American Way Of Life (“AWOL”), despite the absence of any national consensus about which values are distinctively “American.” From their ethnocentrically-blinkered perspective, this nation is on a divinely-ordained mission to convert the heathen foreigners — but to what?

Underneath their theological facade, the subtextual message of their messianic nationalism is that the USA is going to impose “AWOL” on other nations by force: “Attention! The Empire orders you to surrender yourselves to the five American idols immediately, or you will be eliminated!”

Contrastingly, authentic Christianity is transcultural and supranational, genuine conversion is based on freedom of conscience, and the real Jesus Christ is the Prince Of Peace.

Has anyone credibly argued that the American Religious Right has inverted Christianity by transforming the imperialist nation into a false messiah, and “holy war” into the preferred means of conversion? Yes. Jim Wallis’ spiritually-discerning essay, “Dangerous Religion: George W. Bush’s Theology Of Empire,” correctly contends that our president’s bellicose theology bears no resemblance to the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, but rather is an idolatrous heresy:

Much lip-service has been given to our self-characterization as a people of extraordinary faith. However, the question we must ask ourselves is this: “Has our faith been well placed, or idolatrously misplaced?” More lip-service has been given to the messianic notion that our nation is the sole superpower, so it must change the world. The question is: “Will that change be positive or negative?”

You be the judge! It will become obvious, AFTER you’ve considered the aforementioned evidence, that truthful answers require your total honesty. We must get real about who — or what — we’re actually serving: deadly idols of the mind and heart, like Mammon and Mars; or the authentic living God? To serve false gods is to forsake the true God; to eliminate idolatry is a sign of repentance, reform and restoration.

The new American idols — petro-theism, techno-theism, market-theism, war- theism, and empire-theism — have profound real-world consequences. Individually, they manifest themselves in the hardened habits of our hearts, and in the jaded condition of our souls. Collectively, they manifest themselves in the downward spiral of our government’s increasingly-regressive domestic and foreign policies. We’ve seen how much havoc they’ve been wreaking, and it’s high time for a reckoning.

Hence, Americans must decide — individually and collectively, domestically and internationally, for now and posterity — whether we’re going to: (a) serve IDOLS, love THINGS, and use PEOPLE to get them; or (b) serve GOD, love PEOPLE, and use THINGS to bless them?

Evan Augustine Peterson III, J.D., is the Executive Director of the American Center for International Law (“ACIL”). He writes on international law, human rights, foreign policy, government, politics, ethics, theology, and culture. His articles have been published online by — among others — Axis Of Logic, Bella Ciao, Buffalo Report, Centre For Globa lResearch, Coalition For Free Thought In Media, ColdType,, Eklektikos, EnvirosAgainstWar, Foreign Press Foundation, Information Clearing House, Irish Antiwar, Newtopia Magazine, Nuclear Free Peacemaker/NewZealand, Online Journal, OpEdNews, OrbStandard, Pinellas Greens, Populist America, Public Theology, Santa Barbara Progressive, Scoop, The Modern Tribune, The Peoples Voice, The Republic, Todays Alternative News, UrukNet, VHeadline, and ZNet. His e-mail address is:
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