Did you hear the one about the Marxist who praised religion?
Sometimes truth issues from a most unlikely source.
- Melchizedek, king of Salem, appears as if from nowhere to bless Abraham, patriarch of God’s covenant people (Genesis 14).
- Balaam, who presents as a pagan priest in some ways, repudiates Israel’s enemy and blesses God’s people (Numbers 23).
- “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, for all his works are right and his ways are just” (Dan 4:36-37 ESV).
One could read these stories and wonder, “A ‘pagan’ speaking truth to God’s people? What’s wrong with this picture?” But truth is not the exclusive property of any people. Truth is built into the creation order and hard-wired into every imago Dei human. The fall has corrupted, but not obliterated, that imprint. And it’s intriguing when truth comes from an improbable speaker.
I thought of that observation recently when I viewed a video (see below) produced by Clayton Christensen, a professor at Harvard Law School. Dr. Christensen reported on a conversation with a Marxist economist from China who was finishing a Fulbright fellowship at Harvard. Christensen asked this man if he had learned anything surprising or unexpected in his studies. Without hesitation, the economist replied, “I had no idea how critical religion is to the functioning of democracy.”
What’s this? A Marxist extolling the virtues of religion? Wasn’t it Karl Marx who famously said, “Religion is the opium of the people”?
Here’s the larger context of that well-known quote:
The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. … It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion. …
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.
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. (quotation from Wikipedia article entitled “Opium of the people.”)
The Fulbright scholar professed himself a Marxist. Yet, his founder’s convictions notwithstanding, this Marxist economist (a citizen of atheist China, another irony, this one political) recognized and affirmed the positive and vital effect of religion on the practice of democracy.
Of course America’s founding fathers understood this truth (even if many in today’s political class want to suppress it). As President John Adams observed, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
The Marxist told Dr. Christensen that democracy works not because a government was designed to oversee what everybody does, but rather because most people most of the time voluntarily choose to obey the law. “In your past most Americans attended a church or synagogue and were taught there to respect the law. Americans believed they were accountable to God.”
As Dr. Christensen notes, the implications for the future are troubling.
As religion loses its influence over Americans, what will happen to our democracy? Where are the institutions that will teach the next generation of Americans that they too need to voluntarily choose to obey the laws. If you take away religion you can’t hire enough police!
Are we now discovering the futility of applying a constitution designed for “a moral and religious people” to an increasingly irreligious society?
– Gary Brumbelow
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