In “those rare moments when we find ourselves alone and the gadgetry silent, we feel we are at a loss,” Elizabeth Scalia writes in Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life. “With nothing to distract us, we come face to face with a keening emptiness.” Scalia, known on the Internet as “The Anchoress,” says that “silence” can be “terrifying” then. ”But only because it lays bare our loneliness, our self-recriminations, and our doubts. Possessing nothing that is equal to those depths, we sense the need to distract ourselves and the cycle begins to churn again.”
Sound familiar? Read on. Scalia talks with NRO’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about her new book.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What’s so “strange” about the idols of modern American life?
ELIZABETH SCALIA: Perhaps primarily what is strange about our idols — beyond the fact that they are strange gods we were never meant to place before the Creator — is that they are so interior to us. When you mention an idol, the first image most people will conjure up is the golden calf the Hebrews created while Moses was on the mountain. It was an external thing, something outside of the people themselves — and they understood the God of Abraham to be outside of themselves, too. We are more sophisticated in our understanding, now — so comfortable with the notion of “God within” that we barely think what it means.
We may still have idols residing outside of ourselves — if we allow our things, our possessions and creations to stand between us and God, and to essentially own us — but we are very adept at burnishing the godlings of the mind, the ideas and opinions and beliefs formed interiorly. These are petted and loved and fed, and they grow directly in proportion to how much we indulge them, until they become the object of our enthrallment and the entity we serve. If our ideology, for instance, has become an idol, then we nourish it by reading only what suits our point of view; we speak and gather with only those who think as we think; we visit websites that echo our thoughts back to us, until we lose sight of anything beyond it — even the humanity of the one who does not conform to our beliefs. We begin to serve the idol of the idea, alone.
LOPEZ: Do you come close to sacrilege when you write, “As a Catholic priest stands ‘in persona Christi,’ Obama stood, ‘in persona meum’” in 2008? Was it so in 2012, too? Now?
SCALIA: Wow, that’s a big question. Sacrilege? No, I don’t think so. It is a rather apt comparison. As a Catholic, I believe that a priest truly does stand “in persona Christi,” and as a living, breathing observer of the world, I do believe that for some people, in 2008, Obama was a personification of the wonderfulness of themselves, made manifest. And I think Obama would agree. In The Audacity of Hope Obama wrote, “I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.” He completely got the idol thing; he knew he was an idol, and in 2008 he brilliantly exploited it. The grandiose speech in Germany, the Greek columns behind him at the Democratic National Convention — Obama, I believe, understood that these events and props were as much meant to flatter his admirers as to shape world opinion. People who thought themselves smart, urbane, sophisticated globalists saw themselves shining in Obama, just as the Hebrews saw their reflections coming back to them with the golden calf. There is a line from the musical Evita: “I came from the people/ they need to adore me/ so Christian Dior me/from my head to my toes.” The idol flatters the idolator. The idolator wants to be flattered.
And by the way, in 2008, the idol-as-candidate model was also true on the right, but it was the veep candidate, Sarah Palin, and not John McCain, who was the adorable reflector: People looked at Palin, with her despised non-Ivy degree and her “you betcha” ways and her blue-collar background, and they saw themselves, their values. When she was savaged by the media, they saw themselves being savaged, and they got to the point where they — like the Obama lovers — would not tolerate a negative word said about her. Palin, quite unlike Obama, didn’t realize she was an idol until after the election, when her patina quickly rubbed away.
Was it the same in 2012? Not the same, but idolatry still played a part. People who were disappointed in Obama had no intention of admitting it because to do so would, in a way, be an admission that they had been wrong — his failures and disappointments were reflective of them, because — again — the idol reflects the idolators. Having no way to justify his reelection beyond “he is us” (more correctly, “he’s not them!”), a fake “war on women” was mounted; the press continued to ask him nothing more difficult than “How’d you get to be so great?” and whoever the Republican contender ended up being would — we all understood — be a villain of the first order, and stupid and out-of-touch with “regular people” to boot.
On the Republican side, of course, the Great Idol of Ronald Reagan was used to smash any-and-all contenders, none of whom could (or perhaps would be allowed to) compare favorably with a Sainted President who (it must be said) often battled the far-right within his own party, but whose hagiography seems to have air-brushed all that away. Republican candidates had plenty of faults, but the party always managed to find even more, which is why it seemed like every contender had a three-week shelf-life-in-turn during which they were hosanna’d as “the last best hope” until they would say or do something that the base couldn’t handle, or they made national fools of themselves, and thus imploded.
And yes, the Republicans are still finding and discarding saviors at a remarkable pace — now Cain, now Rubio, now Christie, now Cruz. And yes, the Democrats are still, for the most part, falling in line, although perhaps falling less in love.