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The Sigh of The Oppressed? Marxism and Religion in America Today

A 2008 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that more than half of Americans rank the importance of religion very highly in their lives, attend religious services regularly, and pray daily. Despite the predictions of some eighteenth- and nineteenth-century social observers, the riotous success of capitalism and the democratization of higher education did not diminish religious life. If anything, the modes of capital have merely incited religious energies, with the markets of one feeding off of the promises of another. This is fertile territory for the Marxist observer, since it seems to fulfill Marx’s prophecies as well as resist his plotted rebellions. For Marx, capitalism was a systematic misrecognition. Individuals are taken not as human beings, but as means of production. To comfort themselves amid their objectification as labor, individuals may embrace a variety of false ideologies, none of which—according to Marx—finally resolve the primal misrecognition of capitalism. Marx imagined that if their alienation grew great enough, workers might, finally, resist all such ideological distraction and seize the modes of production themselves. To live in the contemporary United States is to live in an era of extraordinary income disparity and abundant religious life. Is this a disappointment of Marx’s prophecies? Or a fulfillment  of them?

If I know religion to be man’s alienated self- consciousness, then what I know to be confirmed in it as religion is not my self-consciousness but my alienated self-consciousness.

The monk belongs to the world, but the world belongs to him insofar as he has dedicated himself totally to liberation from it in order to liberate it.

The conjunction of these italicized quotations intends to establish the complexities found in the concept of religion as described by Marx. If we focus on the first quotation, we find ourselves in familiar Marxist territory. This is the Marx that argued for the abolition of religion as a form of illusory happiness. In his writings, Marx explained how people came to believe certain confused ideas about themselves in the world, and how those ideas were successful precisely because they seemed liberating, and not oppressing. This is how ideology finally works in a capitalist society: not as bold-faced barking propaganda, but as cheerful reminders to be joyful in the light of Jesus, or to be made well by wearing the rightly-fitting jeans. Whether it is talk about a divinity or a consumer good, the seduction of such ideology results in you (as worker, believer, or consumer) being alienated from the real material facts of things, and, consequently, from real happiness. You may feel conscious, but you are not. You are alienated from your wakefulness by competing claims to your consciousness. One word for such a proxy consciousness is religion.

Yet Marx is hardly totalizing in his dismissal of religion. He famously wrote: “Religious suffering is at one and the same time the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is a sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions.” Here we see Marx consider religion as a reply to the world as it truly is. Religion is an “opium” insofar as it is a wrongheaded fix for a true experience—the wrong way of protesting something that deserves to be pro- tested. In the early twentieth century, Antonio Gramsci argued that religion need not only be understood as an ideology for the elites to suppress those that materially support their power. He suggested that popular forms of religion could function as subaltern protests against hegemony: against the hegemony of clergy, of industrialists, of the structures that seem to determine consciousness through delimiting freedom. In the second quotation, we see another speaker reaching for the same conceptual point, as he suggests that whatever religions exist—wherever and however they exist—they may contain the possibility of real consciousness.

Over the last two centuries, religious figures have considered the writings of Karl Marx to be more kin than nemesis. Those believers found that within religion itself there may be the possibility of ridding oneself of ideological illusions. For example, the speaker in the second quotation, Trappist monk Thomas Merton, wrote about Marxism during his travels in Asia, where he encountered communists, as well as Buddhist monks living within communism. In his reflections on the relationship between monasticism and Marxism, he cited student Marxists who had claimed, “We are the true monks.” How could the ardently atheistic Marxist claim any association with the most committed Christian? “The monk is essentially someone who takes up a critical attitude toward the world and its structures,” Merton would write. The criticisms of the monk and the Marxist are different, Merton concedes, as are the ultimate ends of their critique. But they share a common recognition that the claims of the world are fraudulent. And they each work for the revolution of real consciousness to begin.

I begin with the conjunction of these perspectives to consider the strange bedfellows Marxism and religion make, and to wonder whether it is even conceivable to find their most productive relation—as seen in the Merton quotation—anywhere else in the American context. Most of contemporary religion in America is hardly monastic, and to most observers it would seem that no place better exemplifies the fulfillment of Marx’s critical predictions about the effects of capitalism than America. In the United States, consumer culture has effectively become the primary articulation of human values, and religious life has rightly been described as a marketplace. This is not merely a contemporary history of the pervasion of consumer culture. The constitutional disestablishment of religions produced largely free markets of religion in which any sect or prophet might have circulation.8 To be sure, the resultant commodity religions created their own economic strictures. Religions prescribe dietary restrictions that create alternative consumer markets; religions advocate Sabbath days that influence the work-week calendar; religions recommend certain careers and criticize others. Yet the limits religions place on the American marketplace are only conceivable in a free marketplace. The United States has simultaneously (and not coincidentally) supported a marketplace of religions and a free market; it has, in so doing, produced an environment in which Marx would identify an abundance of “alienated self-consciousness.”

It is tempting, then, to conclude any consideration of religion and Marxism in America with claims of absolute apposition, placing religion on the side of capital and Marxism on the side of its upending. In the mid-twentieth century, for instance, religious belief was understood as an essential weapon in the struggle to preserve American capitalism against communism. James German writes, “The pairing of the terms godless and communism implied its opposite: the pairing of religion and capitalism.” Even prior to the Cold War, many Americans understood prosperity itself as a God-given right, and interpreted those who were successful in their pursuit of capital as touched by God. The dominant idiom of American religious history, evangelicalism, possesses an especially analogous relationship to capitalism, insofar as the primary definition of evangelicalism is that of communicating the good word to anyone you can, through whatever medium possible. “Few religious groups in modern America have been as enthusiastic about free-market capitalism as evangelicalism,” writes historian Catherine Brekus, suggesting too that few religions have been so gleefully capitalist as those denominations, leaders, and sects animated by evangelicalism. Finally, in their study of General Social Survey data from the 1980s and 1990s, the sociologists Christian Smith and Robert Faris conclude that the “American religious system at the end of the twentieth century reflected major socioeconomic differences between groups within that system.” With Americans believing there to be a correlation between theism and prosperity, with evangels proposing good news like advertising copy, and with the resultant class structure map- ping onto denominational difference, how could Marxism be found in concert with any American religion? It seems that America is an apotheosis of Marxist critique, while lacking any of its alienated resistance.

Nevertheless, encounters between religious actors and Marxist writings recur throughout American religious history, as individuals articulated dissent from the given economic structures through religious activism. Indeed, dissent seems uniquely possible in American religious life, as no individual parishioners in the United States imagine themselves simply obedient to religious elites; most surveys suggest that Americans pick and choose what they like from whatever religious repository they like. Thus the interaction between the devotedly religious and the critical Marxist suggests that apposition is not the right description for their American relation. Even without the writings of Marx in hand, many religious groups in America have creatively re-imagined economic institutions, arguing that religious life might be the grounds for new social structures. For some religious groups, this has involved the development of alternative sects that possessed their own internal market principles, such as the Puritans, Moravians, or Shakers in early America, or the communities founded at Amana, Koinonia Farm, Oneida, or Rajneeshpuram in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Each of these experimental sects countered commonplace concepts of property ownership and inheritance with commitments to alternative consumer cultures, industrial economies, and communal property. Short on duration and demographics, these groups possessed more power as emblems of cultural dissension than as indicators of broader economic shifts.

More successful would be individuals whose writings or preaching superseded sectarian borders. For instance, a loose confederation of Protestant theologians advocated on behalf of a new “Social Gospel” in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The theology emphasized the importance of reforming the world in preparation for the final coming of the Kingdom of God. Walter Rauschenbusch, a Baptist seminary professor in New York, called for the “spiritual force of Christianity” to be turned against “the materialism and mam-monism of our industrial and social order.” He condemned religious men as being too “cowed by the prevailing materialism and arrogant selfishness of our business world.” While it would be hard to enumerate parishioners of this new gospel, the millennial ambition and social critique of this movement would continue to be taken up by a variety of progressive liberal thinkers over the next century, including leaders of the civil rights movement.

“Our industrial order…makes property the end, and man the means to produce it,” Rauschenbusch would write. “Man is treated as a thing to produce more things.” Rauschenbusch’s worry about man as a thing is strikingly similar to a description Marx offered when he wrote: “The peak of slavery is this: It is only as a worker that he can maintain himself as a physical subject, while as a worker he is only a physical subject.” Many participants in the labor movement were motivated by new readings of scripture that emphasized the importance of individual human beings and their full self- realization as democratic citizens. In 1891, Pope Leo XIII published “On the Condition of the Working Classes,” in which he advocated a series of reforms including limits on the length of the work day, a living wage, and the elimination of child labor. Most significantly, he argued for the right of labor to organize, an advocacy that inspired many participants in the diffuse labor movement to galvanize their efforts. “In a fundamental sense,” according to historian Jama Lazerow, “the early American labor movement was something of a Christian movement, too.”1 Participation in groups like the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) became a kind of religious devotion for some workers, who believed their value as humans was produced through their consciousness as laborers. Attending meetings, proselytizing to colleagues, and reciting creed-like mission statements, workers involved with the IWW would later recount that their involvement replaced other forms of church and ethnic community, creating a global movement for the betterment of humanity. That the IWW offered such a context for its participants carried some irony, since organized religion was a pronounced enemy to their efforts, insofar as it was implicated with the perpetuation of the bourgeoisie. Labor organizing inspired many religious thinkers to reject church authority and revise their tradition.

Labor organizing inspired many religious thinkers to reject church authority and revise their tradition. On May 1, 1933, The Catholic Worker newspaper made its debut with a first issue of 2,500 copies. The newspaper advocated, first, a viewpoint: “The Catholic Worker Movement is grounded in a firm belief in the God-given dignity of every human person.” Second, the newspaper represented committed activists who promoted that belief through their own voluntary poverty, pronounced advocacy of nonviolence, and hospitality for “the homeless, exiled, hungry, and forsaken.” Dorothy Day served as the headlining figure of the movement, writing about her own personal experiences as well as her broader philosophical commitment to protest injustice and violence in all forms. In her memoir, she writes that she became a socialist for essentially religious reasons, believing that “the poor and oppressed were going to rise up, they were collectively the new Messiah, and they would release the captives.”

Such a Christian frame pervaded the experience of the Depression-era working poor. Recent historical research by Jarod Roll and others has illuminated the new forms of religious activity that emerged to serve the disenfranchised working class. Roll has especially focused on the relationship between political movements and grassroots religious revivals in the American South. He argues that the burgeoning Pentecostal movement offered spiritual vigor and democratic energy to farm workers seeking to secure economic futures in a rapidly changing agricultural economy.A Presbyterian named Claude Williams is especially indicative of this “gospel of the working class.” Originally inspired by modernist and Social Gospel theologies emerging from mainline denominations, Williams became disenchanted with the institutional church, believing it cooperated with wealthy interests rather than engaging the struggles of working men and women to achieve a fair standard of living. Radicalized by his activism in the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union, Williams began to study Marxist thought, and while he never ascribed to Marxism, he used it to sharpen his faith, and to found a Proletarian Labor Church and Temple that served as a spiritual and political base of operations for his activism.

Even as mainline Protestants and Catholic groups seemed never to equal the revolutionary spirit of the labor movement, during the later twentieth century many within seminaries organized in reply to American economic colonization. In the wake of the Vietnam War, many Americans became increasingly aware of the relationship between their economic prosperity and the colonization of what had come to be called the Third World. The effort to contain “godless” communism encouraged American imperialism, and the U.S. government consistently supported autocratic regimes that were friendly to American economic and geopolitical interests on the grounds of spreading democracy. Yet those same regimes denied their own people the political and economic rights touted in the American Constitution. Christian thinkers in these post-colonial spaces developed a “theology of liberation” that sought to enlist the gospel on behalf of the material needs of the poor and oppressed. This new social gospel compelled many American religious leaders—like Catholic priests Daniel and Philip Berrigan, Virgilio Elizondo, and William Stringfellow—and during the 1980s a number of Christian churches in the United States gave sanctuary to refugees from political oppression in Latin America. Those same churches were often mobilized to face anew the ongoing inequalities of de facto segregation in post-civil rights American cities.

Liberation theology did not overtake the majority of American churches, however. In the wake of 1960s countercultural efforts, any talk of revolutions seemed an adolescent fantasy. Liberal activist solidarity transformed into the “Me” generation and its neoliberal self-help solipsism. What happened? Why did the social gospels of 1960s radicalism not transfigure the economies of the ‘70s and ‘80s?

Many answers might be and have been mounted, focusing on the effects of deindustrialization, segregated sub-urbanization, and the expansion of information technologies over every aspect of the human experience. Marx might note the increasingly fetishistic power attributed to money itself during the late twentieth century, as signaled by the diversification of financial industries and pervasive governmental acceptance of supply-side economic theories alongside the expansion of state lotteries and payday lenders. These patterns were reflected in religious life, so that by the late 1990s, any worries about economic inequality had turned inward, with American parishioners seeking religion to revive their wealth rather than consider its redistribution. Contemporary evangelists like Creflo Dollar, Joyce Meyer, Joel Osteen, and T.D. Jakes espouse variants of the prosperity gospel, the belief that material wealth is God’s desire for the faithful. The luxurious lifestyles of these evangelists are, then, not ironic counterpanes to their Christian proposals, but “material rewards of a life committed to spiritual discipleship.” For the past several decades, this strain of Christianity has gone by several names (Word of Faith, The Faith, Faith Formula, Health and Wealth, Word Movement, Name It and Claim It, Prosperity Theology), but no matter the particular invocation, the pastor espousing its ideas emphasizes the same dream of physical and spiritual wellness through accessing God’s abundance. Appealing to the disadvantaged and the middle class alike, this is a global theological phenomenon with constituencies in Brazil, Guatemala, Scandinavia, South Africa, and South Korea. In Ghana, the “new Faith churches subscribe to a political theology by praying for a God-fearing leader who brings his people prosperity.” The Global South that had been the theater for a Marxist Christianity now becomes a major mission field for a Christianity bent on capital. American parishioners seek religion to revive their wealth rather than consider its redistribution.

The prosperity gospel is an odd climax in a discussion on Marxism and religion. On the one hand, with its obsessive enchantment of “the money form,” prosperity gospels may seem antithetical to Marxist hope of proletariat solidarity. However, as a component of the broader evangelical tradition, the prosperity gospel is an idiom of individual uplift and individual access. Individuals might be seen, then, as designers of their own hegemony, styling a prosperity consciousness through consumer practice rather than through orthodox obedience to elites. In such a landscape, participants imagine they are the ultimate agents of their religious life and their economic life.

Yet this, too, is another illusion. Whereas once ecclesiastical authority colluded with the maintenance of the bourgeoisie, now we might see corporate authority as in similar cahoots, managing individual choice through the matrices of Facebook profiles, Amazon.com recommendations, and Wal-Mart superstores. It could seem that we are left in the apposition where we began, wondering whether any productive conversation between Marxism and religion in America is conceivable, since Americans seem succored by social media and trapped by vast financial bureaucracies.

Yet as the recent Occupy Wall Street protests show, there is a discomfort with the economic status quo. While the story of Marxism and religion in America may seem to have come to a dead end in denominational and sectarian life, there are other locations for creative thinking about the structures of experience and the values we share. And as religion itself develops within and through con- sumer culture and celebrity adulation, we may find that new sources of revelation, and new modes of protest, may emerge from the magic embedded in commodity fetish. Consider the seething critique of capital embedded in Suzanne Collins’s young adult Hunger Games trilogy. In that series, the messianic heroine is pitted not against an amorphous monster, but against Capitol City, the most elite region in a country suffering from starvation. An annual sacrificial ritual—the Hunger Games—is designed largely for the pleasure of the viewing wealthy in that city. “To make it humiliating as well as torturous, the Capitol requires us to treat the Hunger Games as a festivity, a sporting event pitting every district against the others,” the heroine observes, explaining that at the end of this event the winning district will receive a year of bread as repayment for its successful circuses. Upon arriving for the first time in Capitol, the heroine observes decadence. In other works of fiction, such an urbane vision might elicit wonder from the provincial girl, but for her it only produces discomfort. “All the colors seem artificial, the pinks too deep, the greens too bright, the yellows painful to the eyes,” she explains. To be sure, the basic myth is familiar, plotting precocious children to triumph despite personal disadvantage and adult manipulation. The violence of the story, however, organized around a potential rebellion against Capitol, encourages an exploration of the precise ideology that this particular myth exposes and encourages. In an era without common scripture, popular serial fictions become the premise of new communities, and new discussions of familiar values. Toward the end of Book One in the trilogy, the heroine reflects: “The Hunger Games are their weapon and you are not supposed to be able to defeat it. So now the Capitol will act as if they’ve been in control the whole time…But that will only work if I play along with them.” Even as the Hunger Games magnifies itself as a commodity (through spinoff texts, films, and figurines), it also contains a plot to deconstruct the power of those commodities. This was always the hope of religion: not that it is merely a tool of authority, but that it was also the way we named authority, practiced submission, and interpreted life itself. Popular culture, like religion, could be merely another emblem of alienated self-consciousness. Or it could incite the beginning of new self-consciousness, for liberation from the very obsessions it compels.

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