His economics leave a lot to be desired, especially by underestimating his own Jewish doctrine of sin and the human selfishness and will to power that the story of Adam and Eve illuminates. Worldly goods will never be distributed based on "each according to his or her ability and need."
On religion, however, Marx had some profound ideas which illuminate the use of religion in our political campaigns.
Here is his most famous statement on religion from his essay "Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right":
"Religious suffering is at the same time an expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions."
He concludes, "Religion is the opium of the people."
One does not have to be a religious believer to appreciate the truth of his observation.
Consider the consolation of religion for black slaves in the 1800s in America, or the hope and faith directed at God by a parent whose child has cancer. In times of stress and conflict, we all need something to soothe us. Some people smoke a joint, have a cocktail, or chain smoke.
Others flock to the pews, as we did after 9-11. Churches were packed, for a while. Then attendance went back to normal.
The function of religion as a means to discover hope and share in God's love within a caring community is undeniable.
Marx also wrote about a darker side of religion; how it is used by the upper class to keep others within their place in the social structure. To dampen change and even revolution, in other words.
For Marx, what made society tick was class structure and the distribution of wealth. Those with the most money use religion as part of power politics to maintain their wealth and place in the structure of society.
Karl Rove saw, with brilliant insight, that evangelistic Christianity, especially in the South, could be wedded to "country club Republicans" — and thus create an unbeatable coalition when Bush and Gore, then Kerry, squared off. Churches and corporations married, but it was an uneasy marriage, and the stresses are now evident.
For example, the GOP platform is against abortion, with no stated exceptions. This is a huge issue in many churches, but hardly in corporate boardrooms. Business people on TV decry the "crazies" in the GOP, and many evangelical Christians distrust the corporate world, and sometimes suspect they are being used to attain power, after which their agenda will then be neglected. Overturning Roe v. Wade was hardly a priority for either Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush.
To sum up a very complex social dynamic for a short article, Marx saw religion as the expression of real suffering, especially economic. In our present economy, those with stock portfolios are much better off than four years ago, but the unemployed and underemployed are not.
Marx also saw, correctly, that politicians will use religion as a means to maintain or attain economic and political power. Both parties do this from different perspectives; e.g., the social gospel vs. biblical literalism. The GOP has been incredibly effective in convincing people to vote against their own economic self-interest, using religion as a way of motivating voters.
Religion can never be removed from our politics. However, using Marx as a lens, we can see how people today in this upcoming election are using religion, both sincerely and insincerely, to maintain their power and wealth, or as the lubricant to attain them.
As Marx taught us, to understand society, follow the money. To understand religion, see how both the rich and poor use it for their own economic agendas.
— By the Rev. Henry Idema, Tribune religion columnist