Altars to Un-Religion?

In today’s readings for Mass, we hear proclaimed both the apostasy of Solomon (1 Kings 11:4-13) and the casting out of the demon from the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:24-30). In the first reading, we see the swapping of the one, true God for false Gods. In the Gospel reading, we see the swapping of a false god (the demon) for the one, true God. While we are fortunate that Jesus Christ is still making the latter type of swap in the hearts of those who seek Him, the swap of Solomon is still all too prevalent.

In 1 Kings, we find:

When Solomon was old his wives had turned his heart to strange gods, and his heart was not entirely with the LORD, his God, as the heart of his father David had been. By adoring Astarte, the goddess of the Sidonians, and Milcom, the idol of the Ammonites, Solomon did evil in the sight of the LORD; he did not follow him unreservedly as his father David had done. Solomon then built a high place to Chemosh, the idol of Moab, and to Molech, the idol of the Ammonites, on the hill opposite Jerusalem. He did the same for all his foreign wives who burned incense and sacrificed to their gods. The LORD, therefore, became angry with Solomon, because his heart was turned away from the LORD, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice (for though the LORD had forbidden him this very act of following strange gods, Solomon had not obeyed him).

The act of turning to false gods is disturbing in itself, but the truly horrendous nature of the gods Solomon chose to honor should be eye opening. One of the gods chosen was Moloch. Moloch was worshiped through child sacrifice. Parents would turn their children over to be burned. Solomon’s apostasy had dire consequences for Israel. For example, in 2 Chronicles 28:1-3 we see the fall of Ahaz:

Ahaz was twenty years old when he became king, and he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem. He did not do what was right in the sight of the LORD as David his father had done. He walked in the ways of the kings of Israel and even made molten idols for the Baals. Moreover, he offered sacrifice in the Valley of Ben-hinnom, and immolated his children by fire in accordance with the abominable practices of the nations whom the LORD had dispossessed before the Israelites.

The Valley of Ben-hinnom is also known as the Hinnom Valley or Gehenna. It is remembered as a place where a King of Israel “immolated his children by fire.” At the time of Christ, Gehenna was a garbage dump where refuse was burned. Jesus refers to the flames there as an “unquenchable fire” (Mark 9:43).

When the Syrophoenician woman comes to Jesus, it’s no shock that her daughter is plagued by a demon since one of the idols the Phoenicians worshiped was Moloch. Phoenician parents had handed their children over to Moloch for generations. In turning to Jesus, this desperate mother was breaking that trend. She gave her daughter to the one, true God. By healing her daughter, Jesus demonstrates his absolute authority over Moloch and all the powers of Hell.

Here’s the troubling truth underlying the encounter: we all worship something. Solomon and Ahaz knew the names of the idols they turned to when they turned away from God. Just because we don’t hear the names of the idols the Syrophoenician woman worshiped before Christ, doesn’t mean they don’t exist. While the names of certain idols and demons are no longer prominent, they are still being worshiped today.

When we remove God from His rightful place, the place of honor does not remain vacant. Something fills the void. Today in America and many parts of the world, God is being swapped out. Some would like to frame this trend as simply a shift toward neutrality. However, what is really happening is a shift in honor from God to realities that just go unnamed. Bishop William Lori put it this way when he addressed the US bishops last November as the head of the USCCB’s Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty:

But let us make no mistake. Aggressive secularism is also a system of belief. In failing to accommodate people of faith and religious institutions, both law and culture are indeed establishing un-religion as the religion of the land and granting it the rights and protections that our Founding Fathers envisioned for citizens who are believers and for their churches and church institutions.

There is no such thing as being “religiously neutral.” We no longer have the luxury to pretend that secularism is neutral. Secularism has its own altars and we are still sacrificing our children.

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