Ideology, Religion, and the Pope: Conservative Christians Are Losing Their Grip

By Doctor Comrade

The Pope's visit to the US has elicited an exciting response from American conservatives (even many conservative Catholics). They repudiate the Pope's call for an economy that benefits all people and not just the very rich; they reject the Pope's insistence that the world must address climate change. They accuse the Pope of being too progressive.

Religion, as a crucial aspect of ideology, has long been attacked by Marxists and other critics as a delusion suffered by most people. Marx himself has been repeatedly misquoted and misrepresented, often in reference to his writing that religion is "the opiate of the masses." Religion, and particularly religious leaders, certainly have deluded many people of the working class into forming fractious alliances that prevent full realization of class consciousness. When proletarian Protestants were too busy worrying about proletarian Catholics, as was the case for decades in American labor history, it was impossible to form a cohesive resistance to exploitation by industrial elites. Too often, workers' organizations would exclude (often with violence) people who were from different countries and who belonged to different religions. During this time, religion was an advantage of the elite class, a convenient obstacle to working-class revolution.

To this point, Lenin argued "Religion is the opium of the people: this saying of Marx is the cornerstone of the entire ideology of Marxism about religion. All modern religions and churches, all and of every kind of religious organizations are always considered by Marxism as the organs of bourgeois reaction, used for the protection of the exploitation and the stupefaction of the working class."

The Pope's visit, however, has demonstrated the other side of Marx's writings on religion. Referring to the full quote about religion as an opiate, historian Howard Zinn summarized the dual nature of religion found in Marx's thinking: "[Marx] saw religion, not just negatively as 'the opium of the people,' but positively as the 'sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions.' This helps us understand the mass appeal of the religious charlatans of the television screen, as well as the work of Liberation Theology in joining the soulfulness of religion to the energy of revolutionary movements in miserably poor countries." The mass appeal of religion, as an ideological tool, could be used to harness or direct the revolutionary potential of the working class. Historically, that revolutionary fervor has been turned against itself in order to limit the working class' power.

There seems to be a heightened contradiction between the principles of Christianity and the exploitative classes when it comes to progressive religious leaders. The Pope, who has been hostile to capitalism, has helped to expose the fissures in reactionary thought. For reactionaries, religion has--so far--been a bastion of bourgeois protection. But as soon as this stalwart position came under attack from one of the world's preeminent religious leaders, their reaction has been nothing short of full-scale condemnation. As if to ask, How dare the Pope challenge our religious principles?

We can't forget that the Pope has actually called for a more widespread welfare state and not a socialist revolution. But he has successfully shown that religion is a cornerstone of ideological manipulation. Religious elites have helped form the historical circumstances in which the working class has found itself. The elites have become complacent in their arrogance. When their arrogance was challenged, they reacted, exposing their true values: religion is a means to an end for them, for their benefit, not the benefit of the religious followers. Religion does not mean salvation, it means profits, hierarchy, and control. They acknowledge the power of religion, and they are afraid that they might lose it, and they are afraid it might be harnessed and directed against them.