The Politics of the Divine Image

Ray Waddle

In moments of hopeful reverie I imagine a new political party that would revolutionize ill-tempered times. Call it the Divine Image party. It would declare everyone is made in the image of God, and everyone is a member. We’re all on the same side: creatures of God, tending the earth, making it bloom.

At one stroke our exhausting stalemates would end. Racism would finally be shamed and eclipsed. Old ideological binaries of left and right would retreat. Media punditry, that lucrative line of work that obsesses over conflict, would be cashiered. Statesmanship might make a comeback.

Alas, challenges would arise. What about people who dismiss the image of God idea, or reject God outright? Nobody could force them to join. They’d likely try to organize their own party. At that point, deft strategic skill would be needed to avert dangerous new factions of God versus no God, or their God versus ours. History’s killing fields have seen enough of that. The whole point of an Image of God movement would be to release a benign spirit of solidarity into community life.

American Paradox

This idea of a new party – a renewed search for unity – is, I concede, still in rough draft. It might have to wait. In the US, the dream of common purpose, historically a theological intuition, has always been at war with other instincts – individualism, tribalism, class, racial identity, loyalty to region or state or ancestors. Our noisy American paradox – the fretful attempt at e pluribus unum – is as ambivalent as ever.

In recent decades monumental efforts have tried to rise above the internal contradictions and stir national purpose. After World War II, a cohesive language was sought. The term “Judeo-Christian” was given an expansive meaning after the world was traumatized by the toll of the war – the 50 million dead, the Holocaust, the atom bomb, the grim Cold War aftermath. Notable theologians argued that the era’s stupefying nihilism and totalitarianism must be met by a recommitment to democratic values and humane habits of the heart, a vision underwritten by biblical monotheism. It was a hopeful time for internationalism, UN resolutions, and civic club membership. A Judeo-Christian foundation of meaning was offered as moral glue, the cornerstone of civilization in a era of peril.1

Reinhold Niebuhr and others drew on a new appreciation of Jesus’ Jewish roots, the ethical passion of the Hebrew prophets, and a biblical suspicion of human hubris. Defenders hoped the religious framework was specific enough to stir millions to civic nobility yet not so precise or sectarian that it would be overbearing. But they underestimated the spirit of the times: The culture was moving elsewhere fast. Society was metabolizing new magnitudes of pluralism religious, cultural, and ethnic.

The story of postwar religious consensus and fragmentation is compellingly told by Mark Silk in Spiritual Politics. These latter-day forms of spiritual unity had giddy moments of promise but never overcame the political convulsions of the time. Critics left and right always had doubts.

By the 1960s, sociologist Robert Bellah offered the idea of an American civil religion. In his interpretation, it had always latently been there: a liberal, ecumenical spirituality that informs our public rituals and hopes. It has its own sacred documents (the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address), existential trials (the Revolutionary War, the Civil War), saints (Lincoln and King), and holidays (Thanksgiving and now King Day), all honoring our best virtues.

By the 1970s, as Silk notes, Bellah abandoned the idea. The civil religion had failed to stop Vietnam and Watergate. It disqualified itself as an ethical binding agent in a body politic that was never comfortable fully embraced any such binding.

Era of Liberation

The ambitious search for cohesive purpose has receded since then, or has rallied only smaller and smaller demographic subsets. Instead, it has yielded to a different story of American promise – not the assertion of common spiritual coordinates but the extraordinary series of movements for civil rights, women’s rights, laws protecting minority religions, laws upholding same-sex marriage. For four decades, pluralism has been claiming its power and place, forging a vocabulary, confronting historical wrongs, filling the world.

The advancements of pluralism – and the fierce reactions against them – now define national life. Every day, pluralism strips away another layer of our provincialism, the complacent unawareness of other faiths, other forms of emancipation. But backlashes intensify – condemnations of political correctness, calls for a return to Christian America, the triumph of outlier politicians, a spike in gun sales. We haven’t seen such ideological division in a century. And yet the future of human liberation, rights, and tolerance – despite pockets of resistance – cannot be stopped.

Is the search for collective purpose still possible? Is it necessary? The author Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says we better try, and there’s no time to lose. The West’s prosperous secularism has created a climate of casual relativism, a void being filled by an entirely different set of unifying ideas, those of hatred, extremism, and, as always, anti-Semitism. In his latest book, Not in God’s Name, Sacks worries that we are losing our religious ideals – reverence, altruism, public service, the peaceable co-existence of multiple faiths. If those values fade, only power and bloodshed will matter. Sacks is addressing Christians, Jews, and Muslims. He implores them to rediscover their common ancestry in Abraham, put aside their sibling rivalries, and realize they are all precious in God’s sight. We are all blessed: “Our common humanity precedes our religious differences,” he declares.

“Today Jews, Christians, and Muslims must stand together, in defense of humanity, the sanctity of life, religious freedom and the honor of God himself,” he writes.2

“We must train a generation of religious leaders and educators who embrace the world in its diversity, and sacred texts in their maximal generosity.”

It is a very old and mysterious idea: We are made in the divine image, and it is our responsibility to live as if everyone else bears that image too. Perhaps such an idea will find its way to public consciousness again, in unpredictable, planetary, political, healing ways, and just in time.

Ray Waddle is editor of Reflections. His latest book is Undistorted God (Abingdon, 2014).


1 See Mark Silk, Spiritual Politics: Religion and America Since World War II (Simon & Schuster 1988).

2 Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence (Hodder & Stoughton, 2015), p. 262.