THE IDOLATRY OF INSTITUTIONS

From Richard Beck:

In my most recent book The Slavery of Death I provide a psychological and theological analysis of how we become beholden to and practice idolatry in relation to the principalities and powers of the world, the various nations, organizations and institutions we are a part of…

And yet, as William Stringfellow notes, the principalities and powers are also enslaved by the power of death. We can’t escape the power of death in idolatrously serving institutions as institutions are also driven by death anxiety. At root the motive force behind all nations, organizations and institutions is survival. The principality and power will do what it has to do to survive. Which means that nations, organizations and institutions are driven by death anxiety as much as any person.

So what happens when we are a part of an institution or organization is that our personal fears of death become entangled with institutional and organizational fears of death. In fact, as I describe it in The Slavery of Death, our personal fears of death–worries over material well-being and self-esteem–are exploited by institutions and organizations to secure and ensure their own survival.

Institutions die, and they are constantly looking for ways to survive. I think that is a very important observation to make. We don’t often think of this because institutions have a lot more staying power than we do. They can last decades or centuries, but eventually they do die, and organizations/institutions live with this fear, and they do everything they can to survive. Often, we do everything we can do to support that survival.

What happens when your material well-being and self-esteem get tangled up with the survival of an institution?

What happens is that you are tempted, in quite powerful and profound ways, to sacrifice your personal moral integrity to protect and save the institution.

And for good reason, as both material livelihood and a legacy of success are at stake.

The associated and very legitimate fears here sit at the heart of idolatry.

Yes, we and institutions are slaves to death. But there is resurrection.


  1. See Francis Fukuyama’s series on The Origins of Political Order and Political Order and Decay for a political science perspective.

  2. Also Why Nations Fail is a good read as well from an economic perspective.

  3. Neither of these have to do with idolatry or slavery of death, but they do provide valuable insights into the life of institutions.

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