The worst thing that can happen to most idealists is to realize their ideals: they have no one to blame the consequences on–except themselves. This is the figure Mi­chael Harrington cuts in The Poli­tics at God’s Funeral: The Spiritual Crisis of Western Civilization (New York; Holt, Rinehart & Winston). As a “democratic Marxist” and atheist, Harrington realizes that he is part of a long line of thinkers who have prayed for the end of religious faith. “God,” he observes, “has been a leading conservative in Judeo-Christian society.” His fu­neral was supposed to be a joyous event ushering in a new age of equality and justice. That religious faith, if not God himself, is dying, Harrington documents all too well. Although recent sociological sur­veys indicate that America is as religious as it has ever been, rela­tively few Americans (especially among the elite) now attempt to conform either their lives or their thinking to any well-defined set of religious doctrines. When almost half of the clergymen admit to hav­ing made no attempt to convert anyone in the last decade, devotion is in serious trouble.

But now that leading theologians and clerics are cheerfully providing God with “a Christian burial,” Har­rington is beginning to have serious misgivings. The disappearance of faith sought by Marxism has not produced properly Marxist results. On the one hand, Harrington sees Western hedonism and decadence, while on the other he sees commu­nist totalitarianism. In neither “late capitalism” nor “mature commu­nism”  has Marx’s Promethean vision come to fruition. Harrington is left in the embarrassing position of having to apologize for a mentor who was “naive with regard to the ease with which socialist values would replace religious values.” Be­sides, Harrington reminds us, de­spite a few “careless” antireligious passages Marx did not really hate religion, just the socioeconomic structures that make religion neces­sary. If this hairsplitting seems less edifying than counting the angels dancing on the head of a pin, then so too do many of Harrington’s other revisionist arguments. Dis­gusted by the “cult of No God” now regnant in the Soviet Union, Har­rington repudiates it as almost the “exact opposite” of true Marxism. Properly understood, Marxism, he contends, is simply humanism and does not seek to create a substitute religion but does seek to preserve much of the now-threatened moral substance of traditional faith. “The present crisis demands something unprecedented: a united front of believers and atheists in search of a common transcendental which is neither supernatural nor anti­-supernatural.”

How is this “transcendental” to be found? Naturally, it is through socialist politics and not through prayer or worship. Unfortunately, Harrington cannot point to any so­ciety at any time that has embodied his vision of the just and true. Even if there were such a society, Marx­ism is so decidedly untranscendent that after years of promoting it, Friedrich Engels could envision no final future for mankind except ex­tinction as “the earth becomes a dead, frozen globe, like the moon.”

It becomes harder every day to believe Harrington’s assurances that the socialism of the future–decentralized, communitarian, and democratic–will give every­ one an equal opportunity to partici­pate in the formulation of the new consensus. The proposed “alliance between the intellectuals and the simple people” will founder on the same rock that has shattered every other egalitarian movement: the need for a leader. When a move­ment aims to make people forget religion, its leader will have to pose as God. T. S. Eliot saw clearly when he wrote in 1939:

As political philosophy derives its sanction from ethics, and ethics from the truth of reli­gion, it is only by returning to the eternal source of truth that we can hope for any social or­ganization which will not, to its ultimate destruction, ignore some essential aspect of reality. The term ‘democracy’ does not contain enough positive con­tent to stand alone against the foes you dislike–it can  easily be transformed by them. If you will not have God (and He is a jealous God) you should pay your respects  to Hitler or Stalin.

Harrington admits that the prin­ciples he is promoting are mere “cliches” to many people who find it “extremely difficult to take them seriously.” Because of this skepti­cism, he concludes that his pro­gram might well fail, leaving us in “catastrophic nihilism.” The real danger, however, is that many of America’s religious leaders who long ago lost their faith to the World Council of Churches, will regard Harrington’s stale agenda as a godsend.                                            cc