Was Marx Right?: Is Religion the Opium of “The People?”

By Alex Gonzalez

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people— Karl Marx  

When Rick Santorum stretched his criticism of Obama’s advocacy for universal college attendance, he also directed it toward a broad attack on college, American intellect, and conservatism itself.   Santorum has three college degrees himself, yet he presumes that ordinary Americans ought not to aspire to higher education and instead should focus on some type of religious fervor to find solace.  As with so many of Santorum’s statements, this criticism of higher education contains a grain reactionary religious dogma.  Santorum wants Americans to follow a pious religious fervor and forget a constitutional separation between church and state. Perhaps the real reason why Santorum wants “the people” to stay uneducated is so he can tout his religious dogma to “non-college,”  blue-collar” Republicans, who are becoming the majority of the Republican base.

 By far, the largest group supporting Santorum are Evangelicals. According to Robert Putnam in his book American Grace: How Religion Divides us and Unite us, it is no surprise to anyone that Evangelicals, as a group, are more likely than others to believe in the inerrancies of the Bible—the bedrock of Evangelical theology.  In this belief, the Bible is the literal word. And this view is still prevalent among 60% of evangelicals, while only 30% among other conservative protestant denominations. But this “literal” belief is not too important to younger generations of evangelicals who are “university” educated; and the more educated the people are, the less “literal” is their interpretation of the Bible.  Also, among evangelicals, if you are non-college educated and have a lower income, the attitude will be more religious.   Whereas the more college educated they are, the less religious tendencies they have.  But while Santorum’s anti-education speeches may be entertaining for the media, it also has serious repercussions for the future base of the Republican Party.

Additionally, according to Ron Brownstein of the National Journal, there is a growing blue collar vote in the Republican constituency.  As Brownstein argues:

The changing nature of the GOP primary electorate reflects the overall shift in each party’s coalition over the past generation… In the first decades after World War II, every Democratic presidential nominee ran much more strongly among white voters without a college-education than whites with at least a four-year degree. But, particularly as non-economic issues from racial integration to abortion grew more important, the parties have switched positions. In each presidential election since 2000, the Democratic nominee has run better among college-educated whites than non-college whites; meanwhile working-class white families have become the cornerstone of the Republican electoral coalition.

 This strategy by Santorum, who preaches to a group that believes the Bible is more important than the Constitution, is contrary to the foundation of the Republican constitutional protector.  Similarly, Santorum is also preaching to a growing “non-college, blue-collar white base,” by appealing to them with fear of attack on their religious and social beliefs.

 However, the idea that one has to choose between religious fervor over higher learning is not what American conservatism really is.  For instance, if Santorum was to create a base made of religious and “non-college blue-collars” followers,  the religious “non-college” Republican base (“the people”)  will  tarnish  the intellectual conservatism of the GOP by suppressing core conservative values such institutionalism.

Conservative Edmund Burke argued that what makes society prosper is our disposition to reverence for tradition, wisdom acquired through the centuries.  A conservative Burkean would argue that “each individuals private stock of reason is small and that political decisions should be guided by the accumulated wisdom of the ages”.  Thus, Conservatives believe in civilization — in social structures, permanent institutions, and just authorities, which embody the accumulated wisdom of the ages and structure individual longings.

Therefore, Santorum does not see a nation of free thinkers and wise educated people, rather he wants to suppress and grow masses of religious non-college blue-collar followers who can be easily impressed, or indoctrinated, with religious abstract speeches, or what Marx calls “the opium of the people” (the masses).  This is a startling reality as Robert Putnam underscores in his book , in American, the lower your income ( non-college blue collar), the more religious you are.  Thus, Santorum does not see a nation composed of free thinkers and intelligent average individuals who should be given maximum liberty to make choices. Instead, according to Santorum the individual is part of a religious organism who thrives only within the attachments to family and religion, and possesses scant education, which is exactly what Marx describes as “the people”.  Moreover, how can individuals like those summoned by Santorum make rational political choices if they are under-educated, and thus, do not have access to “accumulated wisdom of the ages?”

Send comments at alex@latinosreadytovote.com

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