Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. 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. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.
The above quote is taken from Karl Marx's Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. I was reminded of it by an article I've just read in the New York Times discussing how church attendance is spiking in the United States in the wake of the subprime crisis. Although figures indicate that attendance is increasing across all denominations, the most marked jumps are at evangelical churches. The latter finding is the most interesting one to me as it serves as a good entry point for a straightforward Marxist analysis of the situation, after having applied Marxist thought to some other situations [1, 2, 3].
There is no doubt that Americans have fallen under hard times. There is no doubt either that Americans fault President Bush to some extent for these hard times given his rock-bottom approval ratings. Now, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engel are famous for their brand of economic determinism, i.e., all history is the history of class struggle. In Marxist thought, the base of whatever society is always economic. To Marx, struggles over economic resources occur between different classes; namely, the bourgeoisie (holders of capital) and the proletariat (those who command little capital thus forced into wage slavery). The interest of the landed classes is to perpetuate a system of oppression by removing the accentuation on class conflict. Hence, to the economic base we must add other elements to keep the proletariat in line by creating an illusion that "we're all in this together": politics (to create an illusion of participation), religion (to create an illusion of a higher power), and culture (to create an illusion of shared history justifying oppression). These and other elements are incorporated in the superstructure.
Bush has famously enlisted the support of the Evangelical or "born again" movement. At the same time, he has heavily courted Wall Street interests. During the 2004 election cycle, 9 out his top 10 contributors were financial services concerns--many of which now occupy the headlines, some of which are now defunct. Marx would marvel at this ingenuity of it: Bush courted political support from those who are ultimately hurt by his economic policies. As the subprime mess lurches across the land, however, the end result is not a refutation of Bushite interests but a reinforcement of it as regular folks flock to churches in even larger numbers. Some commentators have argued that the evangelical vote is weakening, and that Republicans will no longer be able to count on this vote in the future. A Marxist mode of analysis suggests otherwise: the illusion perpetuates itself as poor economic times gather the masses into a convenient location for savvy Republican candidates to once again gather their votes.
How can the bourgeoisie improve on a situation where, the worse you make the situation for the people, the more they flock to your favored religion? Like with so many other things, Marx was indeed prescient. I will leave you with this research paper by David Beckworth at Texas State University (natch) demonstrating the relationship between attendance at evangelical churches and sour economic times. Here is the abstract:
Some observers believe the business cycle influences religiosity. This possibility is explored in this paper by empirically examining the relationship between macroeconomic conditions and Protestant religiosity in the United States. The findings of this paper suggest there is a strong countercyclical component to religiosity for evangelical Protestants while for mainline Protestants there is both a weak countercyclical component and a strong procyclical component.