Book review part 1 of Idols for Destruction: The Conflict of Christian faith and American Culture by Herbert Scholssberg

Not all books are for everybody. But this book may be a must-read for you if you are any of the following:

  • If you are an American. Or you know an American. Or are at all interested in American culture.
  • If you are a Christian. Or you know a Christian. Or you are all interested in Christian social philosophy.
  • If you are a political conservative. Or you know a political conservative. Or you are at all interested in political conservatism.
  • If you are interested in American culture, Christian social philosophy or political conservatism for personal reasons, professional reasons or academic reasons.

So, if you are reading this, there is a good chance that this book is for you.

Idols for Destruction

This book is an academic masterpiece of American Christian conservatism, and is ranked by World Magazine as one of the 100 most influential books of the 20th Century. The author, Herbert Schlossberg of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, has been known for decades as a “leading scholar on the relationship between Christianity and the societies in which it has existed.” The book also comes with ringing endorsements of conservative pillars including Robert Bork and Charles Colson.

This book was a must-read for me, and I owe a great deal of gratitude to the Values and Capitalism twitter follower who recommended this book. I would go so far as to say that this was one of the most interesting books I have ever read. And that is saying a lot.

What I enjoyed so much about this book is not that I agreed with every argument Schlossberg makes, but that from page to page I would swing from whole-hearted concurrence to rabid disagreement. Schlossberg made me think, and re-think, and continue to think about issues that I had previously taken for granted. And that is the sign of a great book.

Moving forward, the remainder of this post will be a discussion what I found to be the single most interesting item of the book. Another post or two will be about the issues with which I most disagree and those which arguments I found most compelling.

The Single Most Interesting Item of the Book

The “idols” that Schlossberg addresses throughout the book include humanism, money, naturalism and of course—power.

What I found to be the single most interesting item of the book was that in his discussion of the idol of humanism, Schlossberg discusses the politics of envy that increasingly re-define poverty. He pointedly addresses William Ryan’s 1976 edition of “Blaming the Victim” and his argument of who was “relatively poor.”

[Ryan] no longer considers only the 15 percent of the population that is below the federal poverty line to be deprived. “At least two-thirds, perhaps three-fourths of us are relatively poor compared to the standards of the top 10 or 5 percent.” He could, of course, have used a ratio of 80-20, 60-40 or 99-1. Any arbitrary division will do because his concept has nothing to do with poverty but with resentment.

Woah, let’s look at that again.

He could, of course, have used a ratio of 80-20, 60-40 or 99-1.

Schlossberg penned these words with a flurry of hyperbole in the late 1980s, and one can almost hear the humored exasperation with which he wrote. 99 percent to 1 percent?! Surely that number is so utterly ridiculous that no serious political analysis would ever make such a statement.

Occupy Wall Street

Source: Paul_S/Flickr

To paraphrase Schlossberg’s statement: Any arbitrary division will do because this concept has nothing to do with poverty but with resentment.

Only about 20 years after the publication of the book, the depths of resentment within American culture have reached the level that Schlossberg thought unbelievable.

Almost prophetically addressing this point, Schlossberg goes on to say that “there is no refuge in the cry that the system is responsible.” The problem is with people, and there will be problems with envy in any economic system.

The lesson here is not about Occupy Wall Street, is not about income inequality, and is not about political marketing.

The lesson here is to never underestimate the capacity of the human condition for envy.