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.
In light of this, it is important that critics of identity politics take note of two things. First, we must take seriously the conditions that have given rise to this unfortunate phenomenon. The one thing that binds all identitarian groups together is the human experience of wanting to belong and yet finding no place in contemporary society. The family is a mess. Religious institutions lack authority. The nation state is no longer a source of unity but a theater of conflict in which we fight about what is and is not America with much heat and little light. And yet that basic human need to belong persists, a need that is now being met by new identitarian communities—which I would argue are unstable and often illusory. Identity politics is in part a response to this tragic state of affairs. Christians must take this lack of connection seriously and counter chimerical forms of belonging with the true community of the church.
Second, it is noteworthy that Marx considered the criticism of religion foundational to making people face up to the reality of their lives. We should similarly consider the criticism of identity politics to be central to our task in this present age. For all of its passionate rhetoric, identity politics witnesses to the social disconnection that results from the metaphysical void at the heart of modern Western society. We want something bigger than ourselves to which we can commit, yet the old forms of belonging seem lost to us. Unable even to agree on what humanity is and therefore on what binds us together, we fragment into constructed identity ghettoes and engage in an endless will-to-power war for center stage. Thus, exposing the empty promises of identity politics must be part of the quest for true human freedom and belonging.
In closing, however, it is useful to note one last point on which religion—at least, the Christianity that Marx had in his sights—and our current cult of identity politics differ. 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. I am inclined to think, as the rhetoric of identity is ratcheted up, that identitarianism represents not the heart of our heartless world so much as that same world’s unforgiving heartlessness pushed to its ruthless and destructive practical conclusion.
Carl R. Trueman is professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College and senior fellow at the Institute for Faith and Freedom.