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“The Ides of March” and the Danger of Idolatry

October 27, 2011


George Clooney’s taut political thriller “The Ides of March” commences with a beautiful depiction of the act of idolatry, and everything else in the film flows, by a strict logic, from that act. At the prompting of his gifted and hyper-focused press aid Stephen Myers (played by Ryan Gosling), Governor Mike Morris (played by Clooney himself), a Democratic candidate for President, responds at a televised debate to a question dealing with his religion. “I was raised a Catholic,” he calmly explains, “but I’m no longer a practicing Catholic. I’m not a Protestant, a Jew, a Muslim, or an atheist. My religion, what I believe in, is the Constitution of the United States.” At this point, his audience enthusiastically applauds. Now one can love the Constitution; one can defend it and admire it. But to believe in it is to commit what the Bible calls idolatry, for it is to make something less than God into God, which is to say, into one’s ultimate concern, one’s central preoccupation. The wager of the Scriptures is that right worship, which is to say, the worship of God alone, conduces toward the right ordering of the worshipper. Once a person’s central focus is clear, then all of the secondary desires and longings of his soul will find their proper orientation and integration. Concomitantly, when a person’s worship is misguided, when it is centered on anything other than the true God, that person falls apart; he disintegrates, his secondary desires devolving into a jumble of warring impulses. More to the point, the Bible shows over and again that a community marked by idolatry crumbles apart and tumbles into violence. 

“The Ides of March” is a brilliant depiction of the effects of idolatry at both the personal and collective levels. All of the major figures in the film center around Mike Morris and hence are marked by his false worship—and not one of them is happy. All of them are driven, many of them are smart, most are politically canny and energetic, but they never seem to find any joy in what they’re doing. And their relations to one another are nothing but cold, brutal, and calculating. The plot of the film is driven by the machinations of Tom Duffy (played by the wonderful character actor Paul Giamatti), the manager of the rival Presidential campaign, who, it appears, is trying to lure Stephen into his camp. In fact, he is trying simply to take a gifted opponent out of the game. In the wake of their meeting, Duffy leaks the news of their encounter to the always-hungry press, which leads Stephen to lose his job due to disloyalty. When the younger man comes back to Duffy, expecting to be welcomed with open arms, he is tossed aside—just one more victim of hardball politics. 

In the meantime, Stephen has been consorting with a young intern on Morris’s staff (played by Evan Rachel Wood), a girl eager to get what she wants both sexually and professionally. After one of their late-night encounters, the girl’s cell-phone rings and Stephen picks it up and realizes, to his dismay, that the caller on the other end is Morris himself. His jealousy is eclipsed by his concern that the Governor has put himself in a precarious position politically. And his concern develops into panic when he learns that the young intern is pregnant with Morris’s child. Oblivious to the woman’s feelings and never even bothering to tell the Governor, Stephen spirits her off to an abortion clinic and instructs her to take care of the mess as quickly as possible. Afterward, ashamed of what she had done and frightened that the story will leak out, the intern commits suicide. When Stephen learns that he has been fired, he turns on Morris with a vengeance, threatening to reveal the sordid details of his affair with an underage girl. Realizing he is cornered, the Governor fires his devoted campaign manager and replaces him with Stephen.

What we witness, in short, is a sordid series of betrayals and manipulations, all in service of political success. It is no accident that the film is entitled “The Ides of March,” recalling the day when Caesar was stabbed to death by his erstwhile colleagues, for practically every major character stabs every other major character in the back at some point in the course of this movie. What I would urge you to see is that this is not simply a depiction of political corruption and moral turpitude; it is a story of the spiritual corruption that sets in when something less than God is put in the place of God. When people believe in the Constitution or in success or in a political personality, they necessarily lose their spiritual and ethical center and this means that, at the end of the day, any kind of morally outrageous behavior becomes possible. Notice how relentless the Bible is on this score. When people are tempted to idolize kings or the Israelite empire, the Bible gives us David the adulterer and murderer, Solomon the apostate, and a whole line of hopelessly corrupt leaders. When people are tempted to idolize their families, Jesus says, “Unless you love me more than your mother and father, more than your very life, you are not worthy of me.” The Old Testament authors have nothing against kings in themselves and Jesus has nothing against the family in itself, but when kings or families become one’s ultimate concern, trouble will follow as night follows day. “The Ides of March” tells that truth with extraordinary clarity and power.