Last week was a good week for Herbert Marcuse. Bob Dylan won a Pulitzer Prize and Karl Marx was published on the op-ed page of The New York Times, and in German. In America, revolution is a career move. Marcuse thought this was the bad news, but it is the good news. In any event, it is springtime for repressive tolerance. The plan is working. There, on page A27, right above the Microsoft advertorial, were the surprising words: "Die Religion ... ist das Opium des Volkes." Even more surprisingly, they were rained upon the heads of the paper's breakfasting readers by William Kristol, who graciously provided a translation from an old college paperback: "Religion ... is the opium of the people," learnedly adding that "Marx somehow always sounds better" in the original. No, the English is pretty exact, and the German is not quite poetry. And over on the other side of the page, there was Kautsky, in Bob Herbert's unexpected column on Die Agrarfrage: Eine Uebersicht uber die Tendenzen der modernen Landwirthschaft und die Agrarpolitik der Sozialdemokratie. I'm kidding, I'm kidding. But not about Kristol's Marx, who was resurrected to establish the culpability of Barack Obama.
Kristol was denouncing Obama's sensational claim that people "cling to ... religion" out of economic frustration. The Republican protector of religion detected in this the Marxian doctrine of the materialist origins of consciousness, and more specifically the Marxian notion that religion is ideology, an illusion that renders the oppressed helpless before the forces of oppression. I must say that I somewhat agree. Despite Obama's protestations to local cable stations about the epiphenomenal nature of his analysis of base and superstructure in the Christianity of the workers and peasants of feudal Pennsylvania, his "bitter" remark looked to me, too, like a shallow reduction of faith to circumstances, and also like another expression of the sweet feeling of superiority that Obama frequently confuses with leadership. And yet Obama's disastrous sentence was not entirely erroneous. It is silly to suggest that the motives of belief are always high and philosophical, and divorced from human utility and human need. Amid all the buttery Democratic disquisitions on faith, it might be useful to remember the desperate and grubby purposes to which religion is put. The reasons for belief are human reasons, creaturely reasons, and so they are often unedifying ones. And the conservative beautification of religion, its denial of the cosmic opportunism into which religion sometimes decays, is incorrect and even hypocritical.
There is nothing wrong with the desire for consolation, but there is nothing especially rigorous about it. Suffering stimulates various kinds of hope, and hope stimulates various kinds of metaphysics; but there is no relation between the need for a belief and the truth of a belief. What is the spiritual status of need? When the Psalmist lifted his eyes unto the hills, he was wondering whence cometh ... his help. The Psalmist was one needy mortal. "I love the Lord because he hath heard my voice and my supplications." And who would not? Such love has been given in return for a gain. "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble": that is not exactly the ontological proof for the existence of God. Suffering is an old ally of religion. How else to interpret the outlandish particulars of eschatology, except as measurements of pain? Why would a happy person invent a paradise? It is because suffering is so hospitable to illusion that philosophers have often made an ideal out of lucidity. Ironically enough, the secular believer in man may live more comfortably, more compassionately, with the historical and psychological grounds of faith than the religious believer in God, who ought to be concerned not only with what works but also with what is true. The serviceability of religion may be real, but it is hardly one of its glories.
"You'd think he'd do other believers the courtesy of assuming they've also thought about their beliefs," Kristol remarks about Obama. Auf keinen Fall, Genosse! American religion may be the most unreflective religion in the world. It is unreflective almost as a matter of principle. The most significant American contribution to theology--the merry dismissal of thought known as "the will to believe"--lifts the soul up with probabilities and risks, with a vaguely economic calculation that the profit is worth the gamble. In recent years "studies have shown" that religion is even good for your health. What if it is good for your health, but false? And what if it were bad for your health, but true? It would be wonderful one day to meet an American whose God has made his life harder, not easier. But here belief is relief. It is "elitist," I know, to expect philosophy of every man and woman: whether or not all intellectuals are God's children, all God's children are not intellectuals. Still, Christians in America care more about what Jesus would do than about what Jesus would think. This accounts also for the wild politicization of religion. Obama, remember, champions mainly "the Social Gospel," and first entered the church in Chicago for the purpose of community organizing. But the Social Gospel is about benevolence, not transcendence; and there is no moral difference between the good works of believers and the good works of unbelievers. May the world be improved by whoever can improve it! As for Obama's neoconservative critics: they are second to none, and close students of Machiavelli, in their insistence upon the usefulness of religion to society as an authority and a principle of order, and also upon its usefulness to their candidates. They, too, hunger for the benefits, and not for the mysteries.
And now for the grossly undialectical bit. The ink on the Times was not yet dry when Andrew Sullivan rushed to the defense of his idol, I mean Obama. When one types all the time, sooner or later everything will be typed, and so Sullivan, in his fury against Kristol, typed this: "A non-Christian manipulator of Christianity is calling a Christian a liar about his faith." Ponder that early adjective. It is Jew baiting. I was not aware that only Christians can judge Christians, or that there are things about which a Jew cannot call a Christian a liar. If Kristol is wrong about Obama, it is not because Kristol is a Jew. So this fills me with a certain paschal wrath. Nice little blog you have there, Obama boy. Pity if frogs or locusts should happen to it. Let my people be!
By Leon Wieseltier