First Water, Then Wine

Spiritual needs are more likely to be satiated if the basics — food, clothing, shelter, and employment — are met first.

Illustration by Rose Wong

For years, the lineup for this November’s election was widely prophesized — its fulfillment is hardly a miracle. Still, for some the rematch between Joe Biden and Donald Trump looks divine. Ahead of this year’s Iowa caucus, Trump posted a video narrated by an AI-generated simulacrum of the late conservative radio host Paul Harvey. Where Harvey’s original 1978 “So God Made a Farmer” speech hailed rural Americans as stewards of the Lord’s creation, the AI on Truth Social spoke of a different caretaker. “God said, ‘I need somebody willing to get up before dawn, fix this country, work all day, fight the Marxists, eat supper, then go to the Oval Office and stay past midnight at a meeting of the heads of state.’ So God made Trump.” Through some mystical realignment in the heavens, the billionaire has apparently taken over the role previously allotted to farmers.

His God, like others, has often relied on worldly instruments and adapted to technological innovation, secular ideologies, and media trends. This is frequently in tension with the religious message itself. For part of today’s online right, there is no greater sin than presentism — the submission of all culture and all values to the fads of the current moment. To stand against this tide, to aspire for a higher, eternal guidance, is to cling on to a rock of identity, purpose, and control. It is to once again reach for God.

Using the masters’ tools to tear down the house of the world’s godless masters, “trad Caths” churn out Instagram reels in rejection of a materialistic and heathen postmodernity; even Hindu nationalists flooded TikTok with memes about marrying Kashmiri girls before Narendra Modi’s government banned the app. But the emergence of new forms of public religiosity isn’t just about new tools for proselytizing. Across both new democracies and older ones, professions of faith are key to the rise of identity politics. Even where denominations are new or rapidly rising — conservative brands of Islamism among Indonesian youth or Pentecostals opening one new church a week in São Paulo — they take up the banner of protecting an eternal past from the demons of globalization and postmodernity.

But this also has a material basis. If evangelical faith grants spiritual energy to Brazilians’ individual striving, this also ensures its close bond with class politics: a gospel of submission hitched to the redemptive arc of those whose industriousness pays off.

In some cases, this identity runs well ahead of actual godliness. It’s especially visible in former Eastern Bloc countries, where the replacement of the old state atheism with a fusion of national and religious conservatisms isn’t actually filling pews. Recent studies have found that three-quarters of Russians identify as Orthodox, with a rising Muslim minority — yet only 1 or 2 percent of the population attends religious services even once a month. So is faith just a way of expressing more worldly beliefs? Is it doomed to die out? And should we as socialists combat religious ways of thinking or use them ourselves?

Six Sermons

For philosopher Joseph Dietzgen, a contemporary of Karl Marx, the rising workers’ movement fused the mission of religion with the tools of science. In his “Six Sermons,” written between 1870 and 1875 and collected under the title “The Religion of Social Democracy,” Dietzgen spoke of religion as a force for material renunciation in the name of the liberation of the soul — a mobilizing force from which politics could learn. In stirring tones, he countered the ambient religiosity with a new and superior faith in humanity itself. “Religion was until now a matter for the dispossessed. Now, however, the matter of the dispossessed is becoming religion, that is, something which takes hold of the whole heart and soul of those who believe.” The socialist “religion” resisted eternal laws in favor of a new and truly human one: “The old gospel required of us patience and submissiveness; the new gospel requires of us energy and activity. In the place of grace it puts conscious work.”

For Dietzgen, religion promised relief from the “tyranny of Nature,” both explaining what forces humanity could not control and promising spiritual liberation from them. Man’s “inborn helplessness” demanded submission, in exchange for redemption in an afterlife unbound from worldly constraints. Yet for this early German Social Democrat, there was a “new redeemer” afoot: labor. Social democracy was “all the more the true religion as it strives for the very same end, not in a fantastic way, not by praying and fasting, wishing and sighing, but in a manner positive and active, real and true, by the social organization of manual and mental work.”

This was not just to counterpose the supernatural world of ghosts and gods to the real one. Dietzgen recognized that religion drew its strength not only from filling in “the gaps in knowledge” but from the fact that it answered the “insufficiency of the individual” to determine his own fate. This insufficiency was real and materially rooted — and is today the fuel for the most traditionalist identity politics. As a way of restoring agency, he proposed a collective redemption, one that was certainly built on equality among individuals but also on the constructive effort and material abundance that could be inspired through the “highest spiritual being” — a faith in the creative powers of the human race itself.

Redemption Arc

Aimed to replace divine omnipotence with man’s “systematic conception of the universe,” Dietzgen’s vision of man fighting to extend his grip over nature uses a today unfashionable vernacular. Dietzgen extols the mobilizing force of a “religious” message in order to transcend religion — without reflecting on just how Christian his language is. But most questionable is the vision’s confidence in the forward march of human knowledge and cooperation.

As Hannah Proctor writes in this issue, in 1940 philosopher Walter Benjamin critiqued this nineteenth-century gospel of social progress with his own combination of Marxist materialism and Jewish messianism. One epigraph in Benjamin’s theses “On the Concept of History” directly cites Dietzgen as an apostle of this mechanical vision, in words that appear even pithier in the common US English translation: “Every day our cause becomes clearer and people get smarter.” This sold an idealized image of what Benjamin called “the process of history  . . . passing through a homogeneous and empty time.”

Written at the beginning World War II, just a few months before his suicide, Benjamin’s text offered a damning critique of nineteenth-century socialists’ gospel of progress: “This vulgar-Marxist conception of the nature of labor bypasses the question of how its products might benefit the workers while still not being at their disposal. It recognizes only the progress in the mastery of nature, not the retrogression of society” — and worse, “it already displays the technocratic features later encountered in Fascism.” Even its redemptive arc was amiss: to cast socialism as a project for the freedom of future generations was to make “the working class forget both its hatred and its spirit of sacrifice, for both are nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than that of liberated grandchildren.”

As reactionary passions again shape our modernity, it is easy to embrace Benjamin’s more critical notes. Vast economic abundance, the rampant quest for individual self-realization, and even liberation from an enforced “ignorance” of the natural world have hardly created harmony — or cast off religion itself. Even in Dietzgen’s reading, the blissful tomorrow was surely no automatic product but the result of a collective, human striving. For him, too, man should “not look up to science, but draw it down to earthly purposes.” But the real historical movement of which Dietzgen spoke achieved only some part of its mission.

End of History

That movement spoke of bread but roses, too. St Matthew’s Gospel insisted that the faithful should not worry about clothing, food, or water: “Strive first for the Kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added to you as well.” Benjamin’s vision instead drew inspiration from Hegel: “Seek for food and clothing first, then the Kingdom of God shall be added unto you.” The class struggle was a “fight for the crude and material things without which no refined and spiritual things could exist.” Yet the revolution in the present would draw on these spiritual resources and humanity’s sense of its own eternal condition to rewrite history. It would replace an insufficient individual condition with a transcendental, collective one, and redeem the dead as well: for class struggles “constantly call into question every victory, past and present, of the rulers.”

Today the accusation of presentism — an unreflective obsession with modern-day assumptions — has migrated from a tool of analysis used by literary scholars and historians to a talking point ubiquitous in right-wing memes. It contrasts the valuelessness of the present with the true faith and sure bearings of the idealized past.

Yet rising religious movements are also constantly refashioning their own identities, adapting their divinely inspired values to the more worldly demands of the present. Partly because religions themselves are businesses, but also because of the rise of individualist mores, the decline of the doctrine of renunciation, and upheavals in positions of status and class that were almost unknown to the premodern world. In the class struggle — and not only on the proletarian side — the striving for crude and material things is always producing new versions of what is considered “refined and spiritual.”

Maybe God did not really create farmers (or even Trump) as caretakers for his creation. But faced with today’s crises, the idea of humans as stewards of the planet is an attractive one — not in the name of austere renunciation and waiting for a better world but rather in the interest of making this world fit for human beings and ensuring it remains livable for future generations. This means a rational planning of our fate, not driven by boundless faith in science and progress but by the recognition that this is the material basis for achieving our spiritual needs.