Don’t Let ‘em Steal the Gods like They Steal the Rent
“There is nothing radical nor inherently leftist about atheism, and dismissing religion for political reasons is counterrevolutionary.”
From Alfred Peeler
Religion is the opiate of the people. This iconic statement expresses Marx’s structural understanding of religion: capitalism renders the working class and the poor needing both expression and antidote for their worldly ills. Often understood out of context, this statement is regularly used in the political Left’s dismissal of religious faith; a dismissal prevalent among liberal academic types, progressives and hard leftists alike.
Coupled with this conception of religion is a more dogmatic rejection represented by Bakunin’s argument: “If God is, [then] man is a slave.” There seems to be something incongruous between Leftist politics and belief in God.
Leftist atheism is nothing new. It’s as ubiquitous as it is uncontroversial, and I won’t comment on it any further. With leftist anti-theism – the position that leftist politics obligates one to atheism or to hostility toward religion – we have mad beef. There is nothing radical nor inherently leftist about atheism, and dismissing religion for political reasons is counterrevolutionary. It can also indicate a subtle racism that I’ll explain below.
To begin with, Leftist anti-theism enables the political Right in a number of ways. The Republican Party relies heavily on a religious voting bloc manufactured for it. White evangelicals vote overwhelmingly for Republicans – 81% for Donald Trump – and this affords the political Right energy in (re)defining what religion is in America.
There is a clear sense in which American Christianity resides under the auspices of the Right. It has become nearly synonymous with homophobia and the anti-choice movement, not because Jesus condemns homosexuality or abortion – he literally doesn’t mention either in any of the four Gospels – but because these issues serve the purpose of rallying an electorate behind the Republican Party and its benefactors.
The conflation among American Evangelicals of Christianity with American patriotism, and of American patriotism with American militarism, buffers this perversion of the Gospel. Incidentally, the Right’s American Christianity has come to blame the poor for their poverty, condemn the imprisoned to their cells, ostracize, oppress and murder our brothers and sisters who aren’t white cis-male heterosexuals, to leave the sick’s health to the whims of privatized markets, champion the purveyors of war, turn their backs on refugees, and view success in financialized terms. In addition to not vindicating the Right’s homophobic and anti-choice bearings, Jesus was very specific in his condemnation of virtually everything the Republican Party (and the Democratic Party for that matter) stands for.
But there is yet an even more insidious claim over religion at work here in that Leftist anti-theism enables the Right to designate the very nature of God. And that nature is hierarchical power itself.
God is conceived as an enumeration of omnis – omnipotence, etc. – sitting in judgement of his creation – yep, he’s definitely a man – and punishing his children when they stray from the path. Punishment and holy cliquishness are the defining characteristics of conservative Christianity even when it’s hidden on Sundays in the language of peace and charity, or when lip service is made to God’s loving personhood. Much how Trump represents what the American right has always been, the Westboro Baptist Church isn’t so much an aberration, but a visceral explication of what conservative Christianity is at its roots.
This is a cosmic hierarchy, with American conservative Christians being on the right side, and everyone else being on the business end, of unmitigated transcendent power.
This hierarchical conception undergirds Bakunin’s staunch anti-theism. We are God’s slaves and the master commands our focus be on a distant otherworldliness. For those who aren’t properly focused, there is only eternal fire. If Bakunin’s conception of God exhausts what’s on offer, then we should join him in joyous rejection of the deity. But of course it isn’t even Bakunin’s conception. He has been fed this conception – just like the rest of us – and by treating it and its ilk as valid theology we reinforce the Right’s conception of God. Our rejection is precisely our acceptance of the Right’s God.
Thankfully, hierarchical conceptions don’t exhaust theology. I would argue that God as hierarchy is decidedly rejected in the figure of Jesus. The weakness of God, as understood by radical theologians like John Caputo, remind us that Jesus’ life, works and Gospel were earthly, vulnerable and in solidarity with the oppressed. Caputo’s God, far from sitting atop an ultimate hierarchy, doesn’t even ‘’exist’’. Rather, God “insists’’; God’s ontological status is here literally understood as a constant call – from a place below our very Being – to the cosmic contingency of hierarchical power structures. God is an insistence to commune with every pariah and every victim of power’s oppression. Radical weakness translates into radical community and radical anti-hierarchy in Caputo’s theological conception of Sacred Anarchy.
Other radical theologians, like Jean Luc Marion, have argued that, among other things, our power conceptions of God are bits of idolatry. God functions as a mirror, from which reflects our own prejudices, linguistic habits and obsessions with power. In leaving religion to the Right, we enable its idolatrous perversion of the God of love to be used as a political weapon against the very people Jesus communed with: the oppressed. Power interprets all, including religion, in terms of power, and incorporates an existentially cosmic anti-hierarchy into its quest for domination. The world of the rich is not the world from which to pull a religious hermeneutics. James Cone, the American scholar of theology and Black Power, makes the point pithy in his dictum: “theology which doesn’t arise from the historical consciousness of the poor is ideology.”
Cone’s work on Black Theology, arguably the most important American theological work of the second half of the 20th Century, testifies to mainstream theology being White Theology. The white image of Christ is nothing if not a power grab. Leftist hostility toward religion, in a sense, lends validity to White Theology, if only to grant its status as the legitimate representative of Christianity and then reject it as false. Why, by way of anecdote, do we, progressives and leftists, think of American religion as the Fallwells and Robertsons, as the anti-choice and anti-marriage equality movements, as the fights against science and as the rampant Islamophobia and Nationalism threatening people and the world every day? Why don’t we think of Malcolm and Martin? Why don’t we think of the political activism embodied in the historical Black Church? Why don’t we think of the legacy inherited from the Central and South American traditions in Liberation Theology? It’s because we are white, and we let white religion define religion for us.
In contrast to accepting White Theology as religion and then rejecting it, Cone’s response is far more subversive. He stresses that “if Christ isn’t black, then the historical Jesus lied.” This statement, despite having relevance to the profound topic of relating the historical Jesus to the Christ figure, and despite scaring the hell out of all the right white people, emphasizes that the religion we’ve been fed is highly politicized. As is our rejection of it. Imagine, again by way of anecdotal explanation, a white leftist telling Malcolm X – a Muslim inspired by his faith to dedicate his life to the liberation of all from the fetters of capitalism and racism – that religion is the opiate of the people or that his faith – and not the white oppressor his faith motivates him to fight – enslaves him. White leftist anti-theism is a cosmic and ultimate form of Whitesplaining. Removing the blinders of white supremacy requires critical assessment of each and every way in which the world shows up for us. Leftist hostility to religion is no exception, and needs to be purged of its background white supremacist suppositions.
If any of these theological approaches sound radical or deviate too far from what folks typically mean by ‘religion’, that’s because they ARE radical and they DO deviate from mainstream discussion of religion. But radicalism is relative. Hierarchical conceptions of religion reign hegemonic, so liberationist conceptions are as anathema to the status quo as the pariahs Jesus consorted with were to the social mores of his day. Heretical conceptions of God are necessary when mainstream religion serves power and has become a violent mixture of idolatry and ideology. Instead of accepting a hierarchical conception of God only to reject it in a defiant act of atheism, the Left should open itself to a deconstruction of the Right’s very way of thinking about God; instead of countering the Religious Right by saying “God doesn’t exist”, we should say “Your God is the Fucking Devil!” I’m not out to convert anyone, but a living faith in an anti-hierarchical God centered around the liberation of all and stemming from the historical consciousness of the oppressed is endlessly more subversive than atheism ever could be.
Christianity isn’t what your ignorant white parents told you it was. It’s what Black Theology tells us it is! It’s what Feminist Theology tells us it is! It’s what Queer Theology tells us it is! It’s what Liberation Theology tells us it is! It’s what Radical Theology tells us it is! Don’t let ‘em steal the Gods like they steal the rent.
I want to close with a somewhat lengthy quote from Caputo. God be with the Revolution:
“Suppose the event that is sheltered by the name of God is not identified with timeless infinite power invested in an omnipotens deus, but with the powerless who suffer the ravages of time? Suppose the sense of ‘God’ is to interrupt and disrupt, to confound, contradict, and confront the established human order, the human, all too human way and sway of doing business, the authority of man over man – and over women, animals, and the earth itself – human possessiveness and dominion – to pose, in short, the contradiction of the ‘world’? Suppose God has no time for the hierarchical power structures that human beings impose on one another and even less time for the power of God over human beings, which is actually the power that human beings exert ‘in the name of God’? Suppose the event that simmers in the name of God, if it were to be written out, would read: ‘No God, No Master?’ Suppose that God’s power over human being is limited by love and that God takes up a place beside them in their powerlessness?”
Alfred is a parent, heretical Christian and Libertarian-Marxist writing on the intersection of radical Christianity with leftist politics.