The term “political religion” designates the infusion of political beliefs with religious significance. Political religions involve grand plans to transform society into a new sacral order unrelated to how humans have lived beforehand. Political religions also typically divide people into the righteous and the evil based on whether they conform to its transformational vision. They treat differences of opinion as heretical and call for suppressing dissenting views as a rejection of the Good. The priesthood of political religions demand that we punish those who express unsanctioned views as morally wicked—in the contemporary vernacular, these are “racists,” “sexists” and “homophobes.”
The concept of political religion is especially pressing because in the West, the struggle of intersectional, antiwhite politics takes on the elements of religion. The now-dominant woke political religion has permeated Christian confessions, which often seem unable to resist ideological invasion. Complicating the matter is that the so-called liberal democratic opposition to the left’s political religion often resembles what it claims to be resisting.
Both sides exalt equality and universalism and view the end of human history in a similar fashion. Each sees history as culminating in triumph of their progressive doctrines, the effect of which will be the disappearance of human prejudice and the increasing indistinguishability or interchangeability of humankind.
Where today’s political rivals differ is that one believes that designated victims of past injustices must be allowed to humiliate their supposed one-time oppressors at the present time. The other, supposedly more conservative, side wishes to dispense with such tribulations as we continue to overcome past sins on the way to a radiant future. Political religion has become so prevalent in our time that even what opposes the more dominant form often overlaps with what it claims to be combating.
My interest in political religion goes back to when I was writing a doctoral dissertation at Yale in the mid-1960s. The topic I chose to explore was the romantic revival in Southern Germany in the early 19th century. It was a development that reflected religious concerns, flowing from its connection to a Catholic renewal after the French Revolution and a reaction to the secularization of church property during the Napoleonic era. But this apparent return to religious tradition also incorporated romantic myths about the happy, socially integrated, and spiritually suffused Middle Ages, together with belief in an even older harmonious society from which primitive humankind had fallen away.
These mythic visions fueled a critical view of a then-incipient capitalist Europe, in which the cash nexus and profit motive were seen as weakening traditional hierarchical human relations. Although these romantics shared a conservative view of political and social organization, at least some of their critical perspective and appeal to an original human harmony poured over into early socialist attacks on economic modernization.
Not surprisingly, similar myths turn up in Benjamin Disraeli’s novel Sybil, written in the 1840s, and in the Young England movement that Disraeli fashioned as a vehicle for Tory renewal. One can discern in Disraeli’s view of the past, which was also found in German and French romantics, a restatement of the biblical account of the Fall and the subsequent search for redemption.
While I was slaving away on my dissertation, which eventually became a book, I took out of the Yale Sterling Library the original 1938 German edition of Eric Voegelin’s Political Religions. I came across the author while leafing through an early copy of the magazine Modern Age, which a friend in graduate school loaned me. Political Religions, published as Voegelin was fleeing Nazi-occupied Vienna, is by far his most compelling work. It shows how pre-Christian religious myths and images were poured into the cultlike veneration of Nazi leadership, and how a millennialist vision ran through the Nazi movement. I was impressed by Voegelin’s evidence of the religious motifs that went into modern totalitarian politics.
The same emphasis on the mythical underpinnings of modern dictatorial movements can be found in Emilio Gentile’s studies of Italian fascism as a political religion. Gentile explicitly identified the Italian fascist movement as an all-embracing form of substitute religion and affirmed his conceptual debt to Voegelin.
The tie between the political and religious makes another appearance in a slightly different form in Leszek Kołakowski’s Main Currents of Marxism, which highlights the ecclesiological aspect of Marxism as a body of evolving theory with its own church doctors and sacred traditions. In Kołakowski’s case, a Catholic upbringing in Poland surrounded by a Communist regime may have led him toward his view of Marxism as an accretion of holy doctrine, which generates both defenders and heretics.
My encounter with Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology, first published in 1922, came decades after I had studied other works on this subject. Although Voegelin was surely influenced by Schmitt’s study, from all evidence he never mentioned that fact in print until he published his Autobiographical Reflections in 1973.
Although an admirer and biographer of Schmitt, I believe Voegelin’s Political Religions makes him the more provocative of the two. In comparison to Voegelin’s troubled picture of ancient myths driving modern political disasters, Schmitt’s study of the correlation between established Christian religions and concepts of sovereignty is tame stuff indeed. According to Schmitt, the Catholic worldview lends itself more to miracles and to a mystique of monarchy than does the Protestant one, while Protestants are better disposed than Catholics by their religious beliefs to republicanism and even a pantheistic worship of the “people.” Such speculation makes for interesting debates but lacks the desperate sense of urgency that pervades Voegelin’s analysis of Nazism as a political religion.
Schmitt does however raise in Political Theology and its 1970 sequel Political Theology II the critical question of whether Christianity carries political implications. Schmitt underlines the point that Christian theology has led to different political dispositions and different forms of government, and this connection has not been accidental. We may therefore be justified in assuming a nexus between Christian religious beliefs and political theology.
Political theology, according to Schmitt, refers to the view that “theology served as the original basis for law, structure, and organization.” It is the concept of divinity in various iterations of Christian theology that shapes the worshipper’s view of sovereignty. Thus, Protestants who identify the operation of God in the world with a sacred text and its accompanying laws, incline toward a legalistic and constitutional form of government. Catholics, by contrast, who view divine forces at work in their daily lives and who accept hierarchy in the state as well as in the Church, are more open to personal authority and exceptional political circumstances.
Schmitt famously argued that normal political life must always take into account the “state of emergency” that hovers over us even as our daily existence plays out. Schmitt believed Catholic societies were, all other things being equal, better able to live with this situation than Protestant ones, which placed greater confidence in legal procedures.
Although Schmitt was not speaking specifically about political religion, he did outline a relationship between politics and religion that would lead to Voegelin’s more fully developed concept. He also in my view came closer to grasping the formative role of Christianity in producing modern political ideologies.
One need not return to ancient Gnostics to comprehend the rise of political religions. Ideologies of the left, like communism and wokeism, recycle Christian elements, which even in their mangled or denatured state, are still recognizable in terms of their point of origin. Indeed, it is impossible for me to imagine any leftist ideology that does not adapt such Christian principles as universalism and the spiritual equality of all people. The left also recycles teachings about serving the poor and about the harmony of the messianic age, which are present in both the Old and New Testaments.
This is not to deny that what ideologues do with what they have taken denatures the borrowed principles and teachings. But it is unnecessary (pace Voegelin) to hunt among ancient pre-Christian cults to find material that modern ideologues can adapt to their purposes. They can easily extract their key themes from the religion they are working to destroy.
Needless to say, Schmitt’s preferred political theology would support a traditional hierarchical society, which is not exactly what modern political religions promote. Our current ideologues are moving in the opposite direction, toward a leveled, homogenized, interchangeable humanity.
A point that Voegelin, Gentile, and other writers on political religion sometimes miss, or perhaps avoid confronting, is the relevance of their subject for the United States. These researchers have typically viewed Americans as immune to the danger they are describing. Their inability or unwillingness to notice the obvious may come from a misguided attempt to appeal to patriotic Americans or, in Voegelin’s case, to personal circumstances: namely that America offered him asylum from Nazi-occupied Austria, and he enjoyed living and studying in the U.S. in the 1920s.
As Jack Trotter and Grant Havers both show in their contributions to this Chronicles number, any study of political religion is incomplete if it doesn’t point to its specifically American manifestation. In America, political religion has masked itself as civil religion, which celebrates increasingly those who are viewed as progressive heroes. It also provides an at least implicit exaltation of consolidated managerial government and assigns a special place in its pantheon to Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, both significant builders of the U.S. administrative state.
In modern America’s celebration of “who we are,” the heroes sometimes change to fit an advancing political agenda. Thus such “racist” figures as General Robert E. Lee and John C. Calhoun have been desacralized, while the more politically useful Martin Luther King, Jr., and Barack Obama have been added to the liberal democratic communion of saints. This manipulation of the pantheon of heroes by the state and, more recently, the media is different from the reverence for past rulers that one finds in traditional monarchical societies. It is not based on respect for a dynasty that is coextensive with the life of the nation and which expresses the continuity of a people. The heroes in America’s changing civil religion are intended to reflect a revolutionary process.
Clearly the hagiography of the French and Russian Revolutions, both of which attempted to replace Christian saints with revolutionary ones, prefigured what is going on in our time and country. Like the cults associated with earlier revolutionaries, our American political religion acquired a powerful presence for patently political reasons, and this happened in the first part of the 20th century, with the elevation of public heroes by the state and educators and with the growing emphasis on American exceptionalism. This adoption of an American political religion coincided with the Progressive Era and the centralization of an administered state and its unprecedented range of government-directed services.
Although there were earlier American cultic figures, for example, Lincoln in the North and in the South Lee and Andrew Jackson, and a shared veneration of Washington and other founders everywhere in the republic, a worship of American leaders chosen and promulgated from the top surfaced by the 20th century.
The centrality of Lincoln in what Robert Bellah defines as this “American civil religion” was far from an accident. Lincoln was an unabashed centralizer, who appealed to equality and America as the world’s “last best hope.” His cult was useful in eliciting approval for an expanding managerial regime and justifying foreign wars. Please note that I am not “bashing” Lincoln or his nationalism in noting this, but explaining why he was central to a state-sponsored American civil religion. The presidency of Woodrow Wilson, which combined a dramatic expansion of the modern welfare state with a bloody “Crusade for Democracy” in Europe, also exemplified the new political religion.
Attempts to see this development as an American adaptation of Prussian paternalism or English social democracy overlooks the truly revolutionary nature of what occurred. It was a revolution in form that brought with it, as Walter McDougall and Robert Nisbet have maintained, the demand for an American crusader state together with ideological mobilization within the country.
Solzhenitsyn and Burke understood the long-range danger of political religion better than Gentile or Voegelin. Political religion harks back to its leftist precursors in the French and Russian Revolutions. The Italian fascist “total state” or the Third Reich may be less relevant for grasping the continued appeal of political religion. While I am at a loss to think of current examples of fascist forms of political religion, leftist variants thrive everywhere in the West. The left has been methodical in borrowing from Christian culture and using it to shape its own successor religion based on political control and continuous indoctrination.
Fascist political religions were much more hamhanded. There was always something farcical about Mussolini’s grand design for the Italian state. Even when Nazi Germany took over the northern half of the country in the summer of 1943, they were more savage and aggressive than totalitarian. Once they had Nazified universities by kicking out Jewish professors and spreading Nazi propaganda, they proceeded to transform these institutions into army camps. Neither the Nazis nor the Italian fascists, moreover, undertook the massive economic reforms that the post-World War II English Labour government carried out.
Leftist political religions by contrast are entirely systematic in how they change society. They will not stop their work until every mind has been reshaped.
The left does well in attracting adherents for a reason given by religious anthropologist Mircea Eliade: It wields myths that fit into a culture that has long been Christian. The fascist vision of warrior nations locked in perpetual struggle pales next to the leftist dream of the suffering just triumphing in the fullness of time and creating Heaven on Earth. Unlike the right, the left has been able to harness moral guilt on behalf of its transformative vision. Even more significantly, it has weaponized hatred by recasting it as moral indignation in the face of injustice or prejudice.
The left has even been able to maneuver its wannabe opposition into becoming a pale imitation of itself, a tendency illustrated by the conservative establishment’s borrowing of the left’s rhetoric and positions. This indicates not only opportunism but also the difficulty that awaits those who wish to challenge the left and its community of ideological faith.
These observations should not be read as an endorsement of what the left is selling, which is dangerous totalitarianism that proceeds from a destructive vision of undoing human history and human nature. It also operates like a runaway train; conceding any ground to the left will not cause it to stop roaring forward. Only a counterforce with equivalent power can halt its advance.
Like the ancient Gnostics the left sees itself as engaged in a struggle of Good against Evil in its own equivalent of the End Times. It therefore deals ruthlessly with its adversaries standing in the way of the long-sought victory over “prejudice” and “fascism.” Misrepresenting reality, stealing elections, and allowing alleged “right-wing extremists” to rot in jail are small prices to pay for the prejudice-free age that they imagine awaits the righteous. This golden age will come more quickly if the opposition can be driven out of the public square and into fearful silence.
Although there is resistance, those on the right are not armed with a vision even remotely as compelling as what drives the left. Exposing the left’s double standards and glaring lies is fine up to a point, but opposing effectively what Burke recognized in the French Revolution as an “armed doctrine” can only be achieved with something equally compelling. Telling Americans, as I heard Fox News host Tammy Bruce do in early June, that racial relations “have never been better” will only convince those who have been secluded in their attics for several decades and haven’t noticed the spasms of black racial hate.
Equally foolish is the conservative establishment’s affirmation of the left’s egalitarian values. The conservative establishment insists that we’ve already realized those values but must stop before we reach “socialism,” and that the Democrats are the real “racists” because they remain (at least in some Republican speechwriter’s fevered imagination) the party of Calhoun.
Against the left’s contagious, militant political religion, one cannot win with such drivel.