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December 20th, 2011
12:17 PM ET

My Take: Kim Jong Il and the danger of deifying leaders

Editor's Note: R. Albert Mohler, Jr., is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the flagship school of the Southern Baptist Convention and one of the largest seminaries in the world.

By R. Albert Mohler, Jr., Special to CNN

There are no atheists in dictatorships. The death of North Korea’s “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il underlies a basic fact of earthly politics: when a political regime denies any transcendent supernatural reality, it deifies itself.

The communist regime that has been in control of North Korea for over half a century is officially atheistic, following the example of its first protector state, the Soviet Union.

Like the Russian communists, the North Koreans sought to expunge any trace of Christianity or other religious faiths. But make no mistake, this does not mean that the Pyongyang regime did not believe in worship.

To the contrary, the North Korean regime mandated worship, the worship of its own supreme leader.

As Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis explained, North Korea’s founding dictator Kim Il Sung “was allowed to build a Stalinist state, with its own cult of personality centered on himself, at just the time when Khrushchev was condemning such perversions of Marxism-Leninism elsewhere.”

The North Korean cult of personality goes far beyond anything Josef Stalin could have envisioned. Kim Il Sung became known as the Great Leader, the nation’s protector, gifted with supernatural powers.

The Great Leader was said to be able to control the weather with his moods. Kim was credited with saving the North Koreans from “flunkeyism,” or subservience to foreign powers.

All this was backed up with an ideology known as “Jucheism,” which demands total self-sufficiency and isolation for the Korean people. As journalist Jasper Becker observed, Jucheism “served a useful purpose by establishing a national church of Communism” in North Korea.

Indeed, Kim’s regime turned completely inward, eventually forbidding even the reading of works by Marx and Stalin. Kim Il Sung was recast at the center of cosmic history. In Becker’s words, “At this point the propaganda began to veer into the realms of madness by presenting Kim as the Christ-like savior of Korea.”

Kim Il Sung came to be considered a god. He was the “iron-willed brilliant commander,” the “Fatherly Leader” and “the leader who unfolded paradise.” The calendar was reset to start with his birth year. His birthday replaced Christmas. Children were taught to give thanks to the Fatherly Leader before eating meals.

North Koreans were subjected to coerced indoctrination, especially through the schools. They were told that Kim Il Sung was immortal and would never die. Thus, they were unprepared for his death in 1994.

As veteran reporter Barbara Demick recalled about the shock around the death that Kim Il Sung “wasn’t merely the father of their country, their George Washington, their Mao, he was their God.”

Next in line came Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung’s son and chosen successor. Once he had consolidated power, the cult of deification went into full swing. Kim Jong-Il was the deified “Dear Leader” whom North Koreans were commanded to adore and follow.

Like his father, Kim Jong Il constructed a cult of personality that defied imagination. His birth was claimed to have been accompanied by supernatural special effects, heralding his arrival as the infant of destiny.

What did North Koreans receive from the hands of their “Great” and “Dear” leader? Year after year of disastrous harvests followed by starvation. The North Korean regime is among the most paranoid on the planet, and human rights organizations consistently place North Korea’s regimes among the world’s most repressive.

The hermit kingdom of North Korea is largely dark at night, starved of electrical power, and yet the regime has been determined to develop nuclear weapons.

There are important lessons to observe here. A big one is that officially atheistic states are never so atheistic as they appear. Something or someone will be worshipped and acknowledged as ultimate.

If the worship of God is forbidden, the state may well turn its own dictator into a deity. This transforms the leader and the regime into objects of devotion and worship. The state is then beyond all rational critique and consideration.

In other words, citizenship is transformed into idolatry. History records the tragic legacy of idolatrous states, led by despots who range from ancient kings to warlike emperors and delusional Fuhrers.

The worship of the North Korean leaders is not all that different than what the philosopher George W. F. Hegel envisioned when he hoped for the emergence of an authoritarian state that would be “the march of God in the world.”

Friedrich Nietzsche would later reduce the vision for that state to a single individual, an iron-fisted strongman.

Now, Kim Jong Il has been revealed to be, like his father, mortal after all. Waiting in the wings is his own son and chosen successor, Kim Jong On. The North Korean regime has already started the process of deifying Kim Jong On as the third “Fatherly Leader” of the North Korean people.

I expect the consequences to be as disastrous as they were under his father and grandfather.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Atheism • North Korea • Opinion

soundoff (765 Responses)
  1. Zander

    Albert Mohler believes in a young earth. In other words, he believes the earth is only 7000 years old.

    December 20, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
  2. Saby

    The same reason dictators want to rid their nation of belief in a supreme being motivates people in this country who have the same agenda: idolatry. They want to be their own god. The consequences are the same: the demeaning of human dignity.

    December 20, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
    • GodofLunaticsCreation

      Kim propheced to be of divine origins. He was eliminating his competltion.

      December 20, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
    • Andrew

      Well said

      December 20, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
    • Larry

      Kim Jong ll, meet God... Um, that's BIG G.... Yeah, this isn't going to go well..... Will that be smoking or not smoking? Just kidding! It's ALL smoking LOL!!!!!!!

      December 20, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
  3. eyeson

    Any statement that is not mathematical or scientific in nature should be discarded as rubbish.

    December 20, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
    • Saby

      including your statement? haha

      December 20, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
    • eyeson

      please discard my previous statement into the incinerator. lol

      December 20, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
  4. Immortality

    "They were told that Kim Il Sung was immortal and would never die. Thus, they were unprepared for his death in 1994."

    They should have hired Harold Camping to explain it all to their people.

    December 20, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
  5. GodofLunaticsCreation

    It's pretty simple. Science and Religion are both ways of "knowing". Science is based on measurable FACTS (Theories are formed on that basis) and Religion is based on FAITH/Intuition or our minds raw connection to the Universe. Science is a more RELIABLE path to the truth and it's power to illuminate the unknown is increasing exponentially. Also, Science has proven that Faith/Intuition is totally and unquestionably, unreliable. The reason for this is that Science eliminates bias (measurement) whereas Faith does not. Faith says the bird is in the cage, whereas Science says there is a bird on one side of the paper and a cage on the other but when you spin it fast enough it looks like the bird is in the cage. Can I appreciate the beauty of the optical illusion? Yes. Will I then realize that my senses are unreliable? Yes. Will I kill or force someone who says that the bird is in front of or behind the cage and not in it, to agree that the bird is IN the cage? No! Thats my summary of the sad state of affairs on this planet. Can't wait for us to get beyond this point. Which does include an acceptance that although my senses may deceive me, there is a beauty to them and that they are my connection to this Universe. If religious people just stopped insisting that, what they have faith in is the Truth and stopped impeding the most reliable path to the truth we have, then humanity could finally achieve it's potential. Faith will have it's place and may even guide Science but it cannot take precedent over it, as a path to truth or else humanity will stagnate into oblivion, which is sadly what many religious people today call for.

    December 20, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
  6. Whateva

    Good exists, Evil exists, Creation exists, Time progresses all things to completion. Man came from a microbe according to science, then what shall man progress to?And if not man then even that same microbe. What is the conclusion of endless time and should man assume he has any knowledge of such things. It is no wonder I hate you and your ignorance. Your thoughts and deeds are an affront to wisdom and intelligence. Your condemnation of faith will in itself condemn you. You need to understand that religion and self-glorification are not reflections of the Divine. They are only the whims of fools and the designs of greedy and prideful men. Boo to mankind and all that it fails.

    December 20, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
  7. Donald

    I'm sorry, but your conflating of totalitarianism and Neitsche's ubermensch is simply an incorrect reading of the material. Please try again and correct.

    December 20, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
  8. Anomic Office Drone

    Google "North Korea Party Rock Anthem ft. Kim Jong Il"

    You're welcome.

    December 20, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
    • Tom

      no.

      December 20, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
  9. Noah1003

    I read the second sentence and I almost gagged. Having a secular state does not mean that the state becomes a God in itself...this statement is an offensive non-sequitur and I can't even fathom why it was published. I would love to list all the religious tyrannies that took place throughout history and occur today, even though they acknowledged a so-called higher power they used it to stifle dissent and kill millions of people internally and in religious wars. Jesus Christ....

    December 20, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
  10. John

    These so called gods will face the Almighty GOD and may GOD have mercy on their worthless souls.....

    December 20, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
    • GodofLunaticsCreation

      Kim thought the same thing about you.

      December 20, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
    • FauxNews

      This is the propaganda they tell you to make you a good sheep during the only life you have. If you believe tyrants will get some sort of justice in an afterlife, you will ignore justice NOW.

      December 20, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
  11. eyeson

    This universe is a miracle and scientists don't know why it is here. I once saw an astrophysicist talk about the origin of the universe and he declared that when it comes to finding an answer a scientific or theological explanation are both potentially true. That's because nobody has an answer. You and I will leave this earth in a few years or decades and never know the answer.

    December 20, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
  12. Church Mouse

    Captain America: put the crack pipe away and give your head a shake for starters .....

    December 20, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
  13. Levi

    "false attribution"... sorry no spell checker on this computer..

    December 20, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
  14. Ramesses

    I I found this article hillarious. Yeah, leaders shouldn't be gods, otherwise you'll have crap like Christianity that becomes a state religion.

    December 20, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
    • Buzz

      LOL!! Agreed!!

      December 20, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
    • Jeff Williams

      In a hundred years, the story will be told that Dear Leader rose from the dead, was hungry, and invented the hot dog. And it was gooooood.

      December 20, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
  15. Colin

    Is believing in the supernatural powers of a Jewish carpenter any less silly than believing in the supernatural powers of a Korean dictator?

    December 20, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
  16. Miguel

    Lots of misdirection from blind worship to specifically blind worship of a dictator. The more important lesson is not the danger in blind leadership of a dictator, but in blind worship. Plenty of "Christians" blindly follow their deity as the North Korean people do.

    December 20, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
  17. Unconventional Southerner

    The headline for this article captured my attention. I then saw who authored the article and decided it wasn't worth reading. Although, on second thought, Dr. Mohler should be considered an expert on authoritarian regimes and power brokering. He is, after all, a leader of Southern Baptists.

    December 20, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
  18. Carl, Secaucus, NJ

    We have to watch out for idolatry of the state in our country, too–the idea that America is a special country chosen by God. In America, it's the flip side of the official atheism of North Korea–it's very difficult for someone who admits they don't believe in God to get elected to Congress or the Presidency. I say, "admits." Who knows what a politician really believes, and why should they be more honest when they talk about religion than they are about anything else? So instead of "officially atheist," in America you have to be "officially religious."

    December 20, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      Cue the captain...

      December 20, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
    • GodofLunaticsCreation

      How is it atheist to worship a divine leader?

      December 20, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
  19. Levi

    What we see in this article is false attribument. Authoratative states, atheistic or not, often deify their leaders. Modern Iraq and Ancient Egypt did this, and both were theistic. Same with Christian Monarchies, God "chose" their bloodline, and gave them divine authority. This forced worship of leaders is NOT a property of Atheistic statse.

    It is true, however that the notion of an Atheistic state is misguided. It is up to each citizen to personally decide their beliefs. The government/state should be areligious.

    December 20, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
  20. eyeson

    We are alive in this universe. That is a miracle. I love astronomy but scientists can't explain why there is a universe. Even amongst scientists there is much disagreement. I once saw an astrophysicist talk about the origin of the universe and he declared that when it comes to finding an answer a scientific or theological explanation are both potentially true. That's because nobody has an answer. You and I will leave this earth in a few years or decades and never know the answer.

    December 20, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
    • GodofLunaticsCreation

      Wrong! A miracle is defined as a suspension of the natural order.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
    • Whoopdeedoo

      If you believe in the Big Bang theory, life isn't natural and is a cosmic accident.

      December 20, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
    • GodofLunaticsCreation

      Who says the big bang is not a natural occurrence?

      December 20, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
    • Whoopdeedoo

      Who says it is?

      December 20, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
    • GodofLunaticsCreation

      If it occurred then it is by definition a natural occurrence. It followed it's own laws which are the laws I allude to.

      December 20, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
    • GodofLunaticsCreation

      The laws of nature/Univers are the laws I allude to. If the big bang is what the laws of nature demand then they are well within those laws and NOT a miracle.

      December 20, 2011 at 5:16 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.