Our Universities Are Incorrigibly Religious

If he could’ve seen what has happened in many American institutions in the last half-century, especially the university, Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), the famous Italian Marxist and co-founder of the Italian Communist Party in 1921, would be beaming.

World War I was a major disappointment for him. Rather than unite against their wealthy “oppressors,” the proletariat seemed more than happy to fight against each other during the Great War. Nationalism trumped the class struggle. For Gramsci, the revolution wasn’t happening fast enough, and reality was tumbling short of his utopian dreams.

What was needed, he concluded, was a “long march through the institutions,” in which Judeo-Christian culture would be eradicated in such powerful precincts of power as the judiciary, education, the media, politics, and the churches, in order to make way for the revolution.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

Gramsci wrote over 2000 pages devoted to this agenda, and his influence was profound, but much of the intellectual heavy-lifting would be done by the Frankfurt School, founded, not surprisingly in Frankfurt, Germany in 1923 by the Hungarian Communist Georg Lukacs.

Lukacs would be joined by such notable intellectuals as Herbert Marcuse, Max Horkheimer, Jurgen Habermas, Theodor Adorno, Erich Fromm, and Leo Lowenthal. Marcuse would leave the greatest legacy.

With the rise of Hitler they were forced to leave Germany and moved to America where they took positions in influential American universities. At the top of their agenda was to translate the economic terms and ideas of Marx into cultural ones. This became the matrix of Critical Theory.

Every aspect of Western civilization rooted in the Judeo-Christian heritage was attacked as benighted and destructive—Christianity, capitalism, authority, patriotism, the family, patriarchy, traditional sexual morality, etc. The West was viewed as a bastion of all kinds of evil: sexism, racism, imperialism, colonialism, nationalism, homophobia, etc.

The Religious Motivation Of Frankfurt School Disciples
The seeds that Gramsci and the Frankfurt School sowed have come to full flower. In fact, anyone who takes more than just a cursory glance at the American university today will discern a religious fervor among the children of Marcuse. This is not to overlook the influence of post-modernism on campus. It has its own pantheon of deities and deserves its own essay, but, for now, we’re looking at the legacy of the Frankfurt School for the university and in the broader culture. Consider just two incidents chronicled by Katherine Timpf that happened in 2016:

A group of student leaders at the University of Oregon debated removing the famous “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. I have a dream…” quote from a wall in the student center because it only talks about racial discrimination and not discrimination based on things like gender identity … and that’s just not inclusive enough.

A school cancelled a performance of The Vagina Monologues because a white lady wrote it. The cancellation happened at Southwestern University in Texas. American University cancelled their performance of the show, too, but for a different reason: It was not inclusive enough to women without vaginas.

A third incident: in December of 2016, students at the University of Pennsylvania, without permission, removed a portrait of William Shakespeare and replaced it with a portrait of black feminist poet Andre Lorde.

Many other recent examples could be furnished. Notice how, in all three examples, both the student leaders and the administration lay prostrate before the god of equality, who, like the God of the Christian religion, is a sacred trinity: race, class, and gender.

We’re in the Lenten season and the first two stories especially make me think of an earnest Catholic, who, in taking serious spiritual inventory of his or her life, realizes something is missing: “I’ve prayed and fasted but I haven’t given any alms. Who should I give to and how much?”

The descendants of Gramsci must always be vigilant to give religious sacrifices to race, class, and gender. They offer oblations to deities that are never satisfied but efforts to propitiate them confer virtue on the worshipper with his fellow parishioners nonetheless. This is what many observers describe as “virtue signaling.”

Leaps of Faith Taken By The Children Of Marcuse
Practicing Catholics and other devout Christians are often denigrated for making leaps of faith in the face of reason and the findings of science. When I was in seminary, I received a letter from a friend, who I would describe as a lapsed Catholic and “cultured despiser.” He went to the “best schools” and was concerned about me “buying into all the silly biblical myths and exaggerated claims about Christ’s divinity.”

Christians should admit that we do take certain beliefs on faith. Take the historicity of the Exodus. I think the unflattering portrayal of the Israelites in the Torah (like the portrayal of the very flawed disciples in the Gospels) is evidence against it being myth, and, yet, I must admit that believing that the event really happened, in light of the lack of historical evidence, takes faith.

However, the children of Marcuse take leaps of faith that would make Kierkegaard blush. Counterfactual dogmas abound at the American university that are accepted a priori. One is the myth of “white privilege” that is based on blacks having higher poverty rates than whites.

The evidence reveals that family structure, rather than racism, plays the biggest role in poverty rates among blacks. The poverty rate among two-parent black families is only 7 percent compared with 22 percent among white single-parent homes.

The scion of the Frankfurt School would be better served talking about “two-parent privilege” than white privilege, and, with Asian Americans surpassing whites in so many significant ways, one wonders why they never talk about “Asian privilege.”

Another counterfactual article of faith zealously affirmed by the religion of Marcuse is the alleged pay gap between men and women. This doctrine even has its own corresponding mantra chanted by people as diverse as comedian Sarah Silverman and former president Barack Obama: “Women make 77 cents for every dollar men make.”

No one has studied the issue more than Claudia Goldin, professor of economics at Harvard University, who concludes that, though there may be isolated episodes of sexism here and there, there is no longer a “smoking gun” of discrimination in America. Much of the gap can be explained, she asserts, by choices women make concerning careers, number of hours worked, and time off.

In 2010, Time, no purveyor of political conservatism, reported that “according to a new analysis of 2,000 communities by a market research company, in 147 out of 150 of the biggest cities in the U.S., the median full-time salaries of young women are 8 percent higher than those of the guys in their peer group. In two cities, Atlanta and Memphis, those women are making about 20 percent more.”

The Cudgel of Political Correctness
The Catholic Church has its hierarchy of bishops, priests, and the lay priesthood; the university has a corresponding structure with the administration, the professoriate, and the student body. The lecture hall is the sanctuary where Mass takes place.

The university can also be seen as one large secular seminary where, especially in the humanities, students aren’t taught how to think but what to think, where they’re not given an education but an indoctrination. Orthodoxy can be maintained because ideological diversity no longer exists: in the academy, leftist professors outnumber their conservative counterparts about 5 to 1.

While the Catholic Church explores the many dimensions of the Seven Deadly Sins (Pride, Greed, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Anger, and Sloth), the children of Marcuse are not to be outdone in identifying their enemies: racist, sexist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, misogynist, and fascist individuals who oppose the gospel of inclusion and diversity.

In the university, inclusion and diversity are some of the most exalted virtues. Unfortunately, as the old saw goes, if you overemphasize a virtue, it becomes a vice. The civil rights revolution of the 1960s that gave minorities greater access to the many dimensions of American society was an example of inclusion and diversity being a virtue. In our day, by penalizing Asian students 50 points and awarding black and Latino students 250 and 185 points respectively on the SAT, we turn virtue into a vice.

“Heaven,” for today’s disciples of the Frankfurt School, is not where society insures an equality of opportunity for its citizens, but where an equality of outcome is achieved. Since the West is riddled with the aforementioned “sins,” totalitarian measures must be taken at the university to usher in the desired utopia of equal results and “fair” treatment of oppressed races, classes, and “genders.” The cudgel of political correctness must be wielded to discipline and perhaps even excommunicate the heretics.

Consider the case where a professor was disciplined by the administration at Brandeis University in 2007. A faculty monitor was placed in the classroom of Professor Donald Hindley, a 50-year teaching veteran nearing retirement, after he used the word “wetback” in one of his Latin American Politics classes.

Dr. Hindley merely introduced the word without derision and sought to explain its origins, but administrators claimed he was guilty of racial harassment. Whether Hindley did anything objectively right or wrong was not the issue at Brandeis. What is at issue is that some students’ cocoons of serenity were disturbed—their sacrosanct subjective feelings—and administrators, with their usual Pavlovian pusillanimity, folded like an accordion.

The cudgel of political correctness even felled the president of Harvard University, Larry Summers, in 2005. He merely suggested, Stuart Taylor, Jr., writes, “that sex discrimination and the reluctance of mothers to work 80 hours a week are not the only possible explanations for gender imbalances in the math-science area. He noted that high school boys have many more of the highest math scores than girls, and suggested that this might reflect genetic differences. He also stressed the need for further research into all three possible explanations.”

In the world of the university an inverted morality is exercised by a kind of Marcusian version of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It doesn’t divide the world between right and wrong, truth and falsehood, or, as Victor Frankl did, between the decent and the indecent; no, it divides the world between rich and poor, white and black, male and female, straight and LGBTQ. It’s an upside down moral theology informed by the god of equality (race, class, and gender) that was midwifed by the Frankfurt School into the classrooms, faculty lounges, and administrative offices of the American university.

Therefore, as Ben Shapiro points out, if you have a black man and a white man in the same room, and the black man has one dollar and the white guy has four, there must be racism afoot, and every power on heaven and earth will be brought to bear to make sure they both leave the room with $2.50. All this will be done without one thought as to what public policy disasters (e.g., black America since the War on Poverty) they leave in their wake. Consequences be damned.

The Source and Summit of the Marcusian Faith
As exalted as the god of equality is in the pantheon of university deities, there is one still higher. The religion of Marcuse takes the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob off the throne and puts man in his place. Humanity jettisons a Divine Metanarrative (e.g., Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium) and becomes the sole arbiter of truth and morality. For today’s disciples of the Frankfurt School, the source and summit of their faith is their own autonomy that reverberates back to the primordial promise in Genesis: “You shall be like gods!”

The Eucharist they eat is themselves and this self-cannibalizing act accounts for what one intuitively senses at many of our major universities: a nihilism that leads to the loss of transcendence (Beauty, Goodness, and Truth) and a diminishing of the image of God; a relativism that leads to what C.S. Lewis called “men without chests,” and a morality that makes abortion a Sacrament and Peter Singer a tenured professor.

Practicing Catholics need to be aware that the religion of Marcuse is alive and well in the broader culture and competing daily in the marketplace of ideas. Consider the totalitarian tendencies among the Millennial generation who wish to shut down the First Amendment through the barrel of a gun.

A November 2015 Pew Research Poll found that 40 percent of Americans, 18-34 years of age, believed it was proper for the government to prevent citizens from making statements that minority groups would find offensive. The faith of the Frankfurt School—i.e., the Left—must be one of the fastest growing religions in America. How sobering to think that if some Millennials ran the show, you could get thrown into jail, or pay a hefty fine, for saying the obvious (e.g., radical Islam is not a tiny minority within the religion).

Such realities are sobering and should cause us all, during this Lenten season, to raise a prayer or two in the hopes that the religion of Marcuse finds itself one day on the slag heap of human history.


  • Jonathan B. Coe

    Jonathan B. Coe writes from the Pacific Northwest. Before being received into the Catholic Church in 2004, he served in pastoral ministry in rural Alaska and in campus ministry at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...