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IDEMA: On religion: Was Karl Marx right?

• Jun 20, 2018 at 1:00 PM

Last month marked the 200th birthday of Karl Marx. His most famous observation on religion was that "religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the the people." Was Marx right?

If we consider — in light of our epidemic with drugs derived from opium — how these drugs affect the mind, Marx was right on two counts. First of all, most people who now misuse these drugs took them initially to alleviate pain. Then far too many people became addicted.

Religion does alleviate pain, especially when people are suffering from anxiety and fear, or the loss of a loved one in death. Faith reduces anxiety, as Jesus taught, and the hope of life after death is of great comfort to those who are grieving. Religious communities provide support and love. There are many benefits of religion to those who are suffering. Scientific data support that claim.

But drugs also distort our cognitive processes, leaving us with little ability to think critically. This is the aspect of all religions which has led to much blindness and fanaticism, which in turn have led to murder and wars.

Religion has also played a crucial role in recent elections. Were it not for white evangelicals, George W. Bush would not have been elected. Karl Rove was the architect of that planned appeal to this block of voters, while the Democrats made no effort to speak to religious people. Did religion distort critical thinking in Bush's election and especially in his re-election while the Iraq war was raging on?

Or take the election in 2016. Trump claimed the White House with 81 percent of the white evangelical vote, 61 percent of the Mormon vote, 58 percent of the votes of Protestants and other Christians, and 60 percent of white Roman Catholics. Granted that the two dominant political parties gave us two aging Baby Boomers with deep flaws and low popularity among the American people. But why did Trump do so much better than Clinton among religious voters? Did the emotional appeal of religion trump critical thinking on all the moral issues facing voters from climate change to deficits to war? With our two flawed major party candidates maybe that question is hard to answer. Even so, why did Trump get so many more religious people to vote for him than Clinton?

These large percentages of Trump support among religious people are especially surprising because Trump has a long history of adultery, a history he has bragged about. These large percentages are also surprising because Trump has said he can never remember asking God for forgiveness for anything, and that he rarely attends church. Was Marx right here, that people lose their ability to think critically when facing human sin and immorality, or their own desires for power and wealth?

Or is it the case that religion provided relief to evangelicals from their anguish about for them some very important moral issues, a relief that turned into hope, which then created such enthusiastic support for Trump? (The word "enthusiasm" means full the spirit of God, as "theology" is the study of God, and indeed many evangelicals felt that God was working through them to elect God's chosen candidate.)

Many white evangelicals, as a recent study out of the University of Pennsylvania found, switched parties to back Trump "motivated by the vision of a frightening fall in social status." These voters believed that the traditional primacy of "white, Christian males" was under "serious threat." Thus Trump was able to use identity politics to speak to this block of Christians. Many evangelicals also feared the loss of traditional values, such as traditional gender roles of men and women, and believed that white Christians face more discrimination than blacks or Muslims (see the article "The Real Reason Trump was elected" by Tom Jacobs in "Pacific Standard"). In other words, religious hope fueled the Trump campaign, whereas Clinton had little of that fuel in her tank.

The bottom line is that many Christians are opposed to some of the recent changes in society, such as gay marriage and abortion on demand. Thus they voted for a man who promised to make American great again, which many Christians interpreted as going backwards in time, to perhaps the 50s (no legal abortion, whites pulling the levers of society, gays remaining in the closet, and women staying in the kitchen or the bedroom, etc.)

All that fear is understandable from a psychological point of view, but what many Americans are shocked by is how — in their view — religion has distorted critical thinking, just like opium, to the point that many prominent evangelicals such as Franklin Graham and Robert Jeffress have used religion to dismiss the sins of the president, such as his alleged and admitted affairs while married, and his offensive statements about Mexicans and countries in Africa. These evangelicals even used religion to justify Trump's alleged behavior, even with a porn star and a Playboy playmate! What if Obama had had these same accusations? Congress and the evangelicals would have been pushing for impeachment.

Religion does alleviate pain but it also may distort our thinking to the point where we are blind to immorality, and our desires for wealth and power. What adds to this distortion is that far too many religious people read their Scriptures literally, whether it is the Bible or the Koran or the Torah. These Scriptures were written by only men centuries ago, but white evangelical leaders in particular quote these Scriptures as if they were the literal word of God. That practice has justified the hanging of witches in Salem and the burning of heretics in Spain and suicide bombings in the Middle East. Southerners even used the Bible to justify slavery before the Civil War.

What I find particularly immoral is that when clergy are promoting their political candidates, even from the pulpit, their efforts are fueled by tax-free dollars, which the entire population makes possible. Clergy are not taxed on their housing allowances — and see the mansion that Joel Osteen lives in — and church property and income are not taxed either. So huge piles of cash are available for clergy to draw upon to promote their political agendas and chosen candidates — and of us foot the bill.

Trump benefited mightily from the political activities of white evangelicals, and especially their prominent leaders, who helped and continue to help elect candidates with our tax dollars.

Marx believed that the rich and powerful use religion to justify their privileged place in the power structure of society, and then continue to use religion to maintain their power and wealth. These weird bed fellows — Trump and evangelicals — would not surprise Marx.

— By Henry Idema, Tribune community columnist

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