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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. Stefan

    Nicely done. The first sentence says it all "There are no atheists in dictatorships"

    December 20, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
    • Ancient Curse

      Absolutely right. I was about to post the exact same comment.

      December 20, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
  2. Justin Clark

    The author overlooks a major difference between fundamentalist societies and dictatorships. Under most dictatorships, people may pretend to revere the dictator in public, but at home they can criticize him and feel a measure of freedom. Fundamentalists, believing that their God is always watching, never feel that freedom - which is why many of them want to strip it away from the rest of us. BTW, it's not "George" Hegel, but Georg.

    December 20, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
    • Joe from CT, not Lieberman

      Under the dictatorship known as North Korea, it wasn't safe to criticize the Kim family even in the privacy of one's home. All it would take was a member of the family going to the police reporting the member who did the criticizing for that person to be arrested. The reward may have been an extra week's rations for loyalty to the state. In the meantime, in a country where most of the people are starving, did you ever see such obesity as Kim Jong Un shows?

      December 20, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
  3. Bubba

    He's right, of course; there's an impulse to worship and adore that's built into us. We'd never get those babies to sleep without it, and they love us no matter what sorry mutts we are otherwise. If it's not channeled, we wind up worshiping the sun or a tree or Glenn Beck, so be aware of basic psychology.

    December 20, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
  4. SportsLogic

    The Evangelical Church indoctrinates people the same way NK does – Serve and spread for the dear leader. Stop being a fool.

    December 20, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
  5. Ronaldo

    Excellent article because it shows how one human 'god' can control the hearts and minds of an entire nation. Really scary!!!

    December 20, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
  6. Tom

    “Contrary to the rumors you’ve heard, I was not born in a manger. I was actually born on Krypton, sent here by my father Jor-El, to save the planet Earth.”

    Barack Obama and the danger of deifying leaders.

    December 20, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
  7. C'ann

    A part of me finds this video a bit funny, but the other side of me finds it absolutely disgusting.

    December 20, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
  8. Pay

    Does anyone know what time the Willie Nelson – Rudolph special is on tonight?

    December 20, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
  9. edvhou812

    I'm so ronery. So ronery. So ronery and sadry arone.

    December 20, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
  10. imamccon

    Christopher Hitchens likes to point out that, although many terrors have been committed in the name of religion, none has been committed because of non-belief. This, to Hitchens, shows the moral superiority of atheism or, at least the moral bankruptcy of faith. However, it misses the point altogether. Man will always be inhumane to one another and the professed “why” is usually just a cover. The many wars of so-called Christian nations, Hitchens would have us believe, are due to our faith but the secularism of the communist world is just a coincidence and unrelated to their near century long drive to spread Marxism by any means possible. The Arab-Israeli conflict could be solved if Yahweh and Allah would just butt out, but the secularism of Stalin, Castro, Chavez, Mao, etc…is irrelevant when considering the tens of millions who have died under their officially God-less regimes.

    Hitchens is half-right. Atheism is not to blame for the Gulags, The Great Leap Forward, the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge, or any of the many other atrocities associated with secular regimes. However, neither is faith to be blamed for the wars that Hitchens and the rest lay at its feet. The secular humanism of the socialists is just a tool; it is the cover for the idiocy of human nature that is so often driven by envy and often manifests itself in policies of forced redistributionism. However, religion is just as often a cover, or scapegoat. Human nature, e.g. greed, envy, racism, whatever; drives us to do “x”, so we whitewash our baser instincts and selfish goals with terms like faith, social justice, patriotism, or any other more noble ideal to take the edge off the reality. Nevertheless, it would seem that the New Atheists are willing to give secular tyrants a pass because they arrive at their policies via “reason” rather than faith. That, somehow, lessens the stain of their victims’ blood.

    Taken from The Four Pillars of the Kingdom by Joe Brooks

    December 20, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
    • hesto2012

      Thanks i'll be reading that book .

      December 20, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
    • Bible Clown

      Right, so according to some guy who wrote a book, it's ok to hate atheists because he theorizes that they might be somehow less offended by secular murders? You and Joe Brooks both sound foolish.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
    • Zeke2112

      "The Arab-Israeli conflict could be solved if Yahweh and Allah would just butt out"

      Nice try. The conflict is A DIRECT RESULT OF the differences in faith. These people are fighting for the butt end of nowhere over whose god if the biggest.

      "but the secularism of Stalin, Castro, Chavez, Mao, etc…is irrelevant when considering the tens of millions who have died under their officially God-less regimes."

      If you could be bothered to crack a book or do some research, you'd learn that these people are not god-less. They don't want their people believing and trusting anyone but themselves. They make THEMSELVES the god. They most certainly are not waging war against others in the name of a religion – they do it in the name of their egos.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
  11. Brathead

    Yeah he should be considered a god, OK whatever.....He selfishly was more concerened with the development of nuclear weapons rather than making sure his own people had food to eat. I get so sick and tired of all of these foreign countries and their stupidity that follows. The people in these countries are brainwashed and are left without contact from the outside world. Education is power and countries like North Korea are never going to be any different. They are taught to hate the US just because we believe in freedom and will stand shoulder to shoulder with any country that has the same beliefs. We will fight for our freedoms. Can North Korea, Iran, Syria, or any of those other countries say the same thing? No they kill their people for speaking the truth. Religion is neither here nor there. Religion and policis have no place together.

    December 20, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
  12. Think clear

    .....All people commenting here are idiots........even the author of this article is ____*ss ....the challange of the western world is that we see everything from our perspective and than wonder.....how and why anybody can be different than us......time to point fingers to ourselves .....GW Bush....Tony Blair.....Rudy G.....

    December 20, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
    • DefyTheGods

      You have a point. There were many, who voted for Geroge W. Bush, because "God" told them to do so.

      December 20, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
    • Andy

      So you are saying that what is happening in North Korea is a good thing? Thousands starving and worshiping a man who oppresses them, yet they are brainwashed to believe all good things come from him. Have you ever even been to Korea? My grandfather to this day tells me of his experiences while there during the Korean war. How the North has been brainwashed and how the people were treated. There is plenty of room for differing views and even systems , but to oppress a people to the point that they do not even know they are being oppressed.

      I am so tired of socialist sympathizers in the west saying that we just don't understand them and the oppression is all made up, when they themselves have never even been outside the western world. The very fact you can post on this thread is a testament to the freedoms you enjoy. If you like it so much over there and think it is so great, then go there!

      December 20, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
    • Bible Clown

      "oppress a people to the point that they do not even know they are being oppressed" Go to the library and read any magazine from the 1950s, especially the women's mags. Husband is the lord and master, be happy in your kitchen, God picks the president in the greatest country on Earth.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
    • Andy

      So you're equating gender stereotypes in the US to the oppression of an entire nation? WOW?!? As bad as gender issues in the US in the 1950's and prior may have been, to say they are on the same level of oppression, mass murder, starvation, and a military dictatorship is ignorant. You are equating first world problems to the third world! That is typical westerncentric thinking and shows a complete misunderstanding of not only history but of human suffering!

      December 20, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
  13. imamccon

    Mankind, across all cultures, always seeks to deify something: the weather, volcanoes, totems, ancestors, etc… Why is this?

    Atheists will say that it is our feeble way of trying to explain the unexplainable. They say that early man feared thunder, so he created a “thunder god” and then tried to appease this manmade deity. Or gods were created by the powerful in society to enforce codes of conduct on the masses. Now, I do not believe that truth is determined simply by the number of adherents to a proposition, but it never ceases to amaze me that in world where the estimates of self-described atheists or “nonreligious” are somewhere between 2% to 12% of the total population, that its so easy for skeptics to dismiss the faithful as idiots. I would wager that the number of people who think the moon landing was faked or that the moon is made of cheese is somewhere in the same 2-12% range.

    Mankind is geared to believe in a creator and to believe that the creator is still involved in our lives on some level and atheists are the one’s swimming against the stream of truth. John Calvin also believed that we are made with a natural inclination to believe and it was our sin nature that blunted this predisposition towards God. I would also add willful ignorance to the list of things that can separate us from our Creator, an ignorance born of and magnified by pride. The atheists like to think they are independent thinkers and they, like the man who tore free of his bonds in Plato’s “Parable of the Cave,” are the ones to walk out of the darkness and into the light. However, in reality, they are fighting against the nature instilled in us all to turn towards our Creator. Locke’s slate is not so blank, after all, but the doubters are doing there best to wipe away the truth and rewrite man’s story with a secular god of their own making.

    From The Four Pillars of the Kingdom by Joe Brooks

    December 20, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
    • Cody

      There was a time when 99% of humans believed that Earth was flat and the center of the universe.

      December 20, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
    • MartinT

      I have one thing to ask, do you have an original thought in your head? Or, perhaps your entire life is spent quoting what others have thought and said... how sad.

      December 20, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
    • Bible Clown

      You and Joe Brooks can go fork yourselves for all I care. Apparently you worship him and his silly book instead of the Bible.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
    • just wondering

      Question for Cody, When was that time with the 99% and all?

      December 20, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
  14. Served seven years in the ROK

    We seem to be focused on the belief of people or thier belief in a higher power or made to their-in. No matter what the belief people are at stake here in this very high stakes game of life and death. It is the people of north Korea who are suffering. I hope the world can find some good during this holiday season so we may learn that all men and women are created equal, be it north Korea or any other nationality. I was taught through 20 years of military service to the United States that we all bleed red. May god bless the world. Peace be with you all.

    December 20, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
  15. Uthor

    Hmm. But if people thought he was a god, how did they get past the idea that he needed lenses to correct his vision? That is, wouldn't a god who's worth his salt be able to cure his own nearsightedness?

    December 20, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
  16. s~

    If you think too many people have been killed in the name of religion ask yourself how many have been killed in the name of communism and atheism? How many have Stalin killed? How about Mao Tse Tung and Kim Jong Il? Oh, and don't for get about Hitler and Kmer Rouge under Pol Pot in Cambodia. What were these men's religion?

    December 20, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
    • TheRationale

      You can kill in the name of communism, although killing in the name of atheism is a logical non-starter. There is no doctrine of atheism or anything about atheism that could compel anyone to do anything whether it's good or bad.

      Also, Hitler was a Catholic.

      December 20, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
    • just sayin

      Hitler was a catholic because all Europeans were born Christian. It just ain't so, Hitler was not a believing catholic, he was an atheist.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
    • Bible Clown

      It is vitally important to fundamentalists that Hitler, who believed in God and was a Catholic, was an atheist who was never Catholic. This is "received truth" to them and cannot be denied. No matter how many times they see those quotes, or pictures, or read his book, they just shrug and say "Faked by god haters, no question." They will become very angry and say you're against god, and want to fight you over Hitler. Besides, as a fundie told my friend this summer, "it all happened back in 1758 and we'll never really know now." Against stupidity, the gods themselves contend in vain.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
    • just sayin

      It appears you know equally as much about National Socialism as you do about the Bible. Where did you get to be such an authority? Todays message was brought to you by Bible Clown and the key words are BULL SH IT !

      December 20, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
  17. Think clear

    All people commenting here are idiots.....even the author of this article is ____*ss ....the challange of the western world is that we see everything from our perspective and than wonder.....how and why anybody can be different than us......time to point fingers to ourselves .....GW Bush....Tony Blair.....Rudy G....

    December 20, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
    • just sayin

      Where you been these three years? GW Bush, Tony Blair? It is almost 2012 .

      December 20, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
    • Zeke2112

      You just commented. Are you calling yourself an idiot? LOL.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
  18. Voltaire

    "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him" – Voltaire

    December 20, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
  19. Meki60

    Its more like Kings of Crap

    December 20, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
  20. Meanwhile, back to the article...

    Interesting observations from Dr. Mohler. I would most intrigued if he would do a follow-up article; a comparison between deifying an autocratic leader and identifying a particular party or ideology with God's will or His favor. Would he say one is as destructive as the other?

    December 20, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
    • Rich

      Looking to justify your own theory?

      December 20, 2011 at 2:20 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.