Identity politics, unlike Christianity, is not the heart of a heartless world. Far from it. Christianity calls out sin and demands repentance; but it has grace and forgiveness at its heart. The shrill voice of identity politics screams for repentance, yet it presumes that no actual act of repentance will ever be sufficient. It offers neither grace nor forgiveness. That is because total victory, not reconciliation, is the real name of the game. Even Marx recognized in Christianity the heart of the heartless world.
Identity politics is the new religion of the United States. Some will dissent from this claim. There are those who simply don’t want to see how deep-seated the factionalism of the public square now is. And there are those who have a vested interest in minimizing the righteous religiosity of what is commonly called “wokeness.” But in its demand for full conformity, its rituals and liturgies, and its unfailing ability to sniff out heresy, it resembles nothing so much as a religious cult. And this, ironically, is where the man whom many consider the founder of the feast, Karl Marx, may prove useful to those of us wondering how to respond.
Of all Marx’s sayings, the best known is surely that religion “is the opium of the people.” Yet anyone who has read Marx knows that he did not think in sound bites. The silliness of Twitter, with its economy of characters, disregard for context, and superficiality of content, would not have suited his Hegelian disquisitions on the world. This opium claim is no exception; and set in its context, in the introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, its meaning is enriched and its content rendered helpful in thinking about the current civic religion of the U.S.
Quoted in full, the paragraph reads as follows:
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the 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. It is the opium of the people.
It is clear from this that Marx has a somewhat more subtle approach to religion than is often attributed to him. In his view, religion may be false, but it is a function of something real. Religious people may be putting their faith in nonsense, but they do so because they are truly suffering. We might say that, while Marx has no sympathy for religion, he has deep sympathy for the poor people who put their trust in it.
This passage strikes me as helpful for understanding today’s identity politics. The temptation on both sides of the political divide is to dismiss the identity politics of the other side as self-interested special pleading, rooted in trivial concerns: the accidental use of a wrong word; the tantrum of somebody who isn’t getting his way; a power play by an ideological bully. And certainly there is much truth here. As I noted in my last column, ideas such as critical race theory have provided easy career paths for populists and professors alike. But we should beware of reducing the whole of identity politics to the self-serving ressentiment of those who want a turn in the limelight. Surely it is more. For many it is the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering.