Karl Marx said that religion is the opium of the people, but by that he meant that it was a drug that treats genuine suffering. Carl Trueman says that the ideology of identity politics is a similar drug, which–though false–also treats genuine suffering.
He thus offers a take on identity politics that is simultaneously sympathetic and devastating.
Trueman, author of The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self (a book I keep hearing excellent things about and that I intend to read for myself), quotes the context of Marx’s notorious statement. From A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right:
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.
Marx is not saying that religion is oppressive. It is “the heart of a heartless world.” It is “the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering.” Opium was one of the few substances known in the 19th century that could anesthetize pain. Those who suffer need that. Marx was sympathetic to the suffering masses and saw religion as a helpful phenomenon. But he went on to say that religion needs to be overthrown so that the people could face up to their condition and rise up against it. They need to be weaned off of their opium, despite the pain they will feel, in order for them to battle the “heartless world.”
Trueman sees the identity politics of race, gender, and sexuality as a similar opiate, but one that is likewise an expression of real suffering, as well as a protest against it:
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.
Read the entire essay.
This lack of acceptance and belonging that is anesthetized by the dominant ideologies can be countered, Trueman says, by “the true community of the church.” Of course, churches haven’t seemed very accepting either, and sometimes congregations fall short of embodying a sense of community.
And yet, Scripture addresses some of the very categories we are struggling with, teaching that Baptism and the Gospel it conveys does indeed bestow a more profound acceptance, belonging, and identity:
For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:27-28)
How can congregations communicate this truth to those craving acceptance and belonging? Not as an opiate, to deaden their pain, but as the reality they can face up to?