That political ideology and activism have become a new religion is something the average individual sees signs of nearly every day. A black man is killed in an altercation with police and his face instantly becomes an icon to be carried in protests, his name a phrase to be repeated with adoration. A slogan such as “Black Lives Matter” or “Defund the Police” is repeated with the regularity of praying beads on a rosary. And Critical Race Theory is taught with fervor to schoolchildren, catechizing them in the doctrines of this leftist ideology.
Yet while these signs of political religious fervor are relatively new, the idea of politics as religion is decades old, fostered largely through the political and historical thinker Eric Voegelin. A German who fled Austria for America during the Nazi takeover, Voegelin had firsthand experience of how political ideology could be infused with religious fervor, and the connection between the two would become the critical thrust of Voegelin’s assessment of political science and his approach to the ideological temptations of the modern age, ones we are facing with an even greater intensity today.
Born in Cologne, Germany in 1901, Voegelin moved with his parents to Vienna as a child and was later educated in political science at the University of Vienna. At that institution Voegelin studied with such outstanding scholars of the age as the jurist Hans Kelsen and the conservative social theorist Othmar Spann. He also developed long-lasting friendships with the phenomenologist Alfred Schütz and the social economist Friedrich von Hayek. Both these figures were close to the Austrian School of Economics, as was another scholar, Ludwig von Mises, with whom Voegelin also formed a connection in Vienna.
This transplanted Rhinelander eventually became an associate professor of political science while also a member of the University of Vienna’s law faculty. In these positions he produced Political Religions (1938), a work that contained the theoretical seeds of later studies and which he wrote while both Nazi and communist ideologies were on the rise.
Voegelin and his wife became American citizens in 1944, only six years after emigrating to the United States following the Anschluss. He then spent most of his later academic career at Louisiana State University, the University of Munich, and the Hoover Institution of Stanford University.
Voegelin’s youthful work focused on the adaptation of religious myth to modern political movements and was obviously influenced by the German legal theorist Carl Schmitt, a pioneer in analyzing the interrelationship of religion and political concepts. But the young Voegelin went beyond Schmitt in underscoring the religious origins of modern ideologies, something which would become an overshadowing theme in most of his post-World War II publications.
The range and variety of his work revealed an extraordinary knowledge of both ancient and modern history, classical languages, philosophy, and theology. Reading his five-volume Order and History, with its erudite overview of Plato, Aristotle, the ancient Jews, and early Christianity, one stands in awe of the knowledge and insight that the author reveals.
Particularly noteworthy is Voegelin’s attempt to do justice to the mystical search for the source of being in both Greek and Hebrew teachers, a search that he believed found its most dramatic “leap into being” in the visions of St. Paul. Unlike his contemporary and longtime correspondent Leo Strauss, Voegelin was struck by the overlaps rather than the line of demarcation between Hebrew revelation and Greek philosophy. He characteristically treated the mystical outgrowths of Platonic philosophy not as a distortion of what Socrates and Plato taught, but as an understandable and defensible extension of their teachings.
above: book covers for Vol.1 of Eric Voegelin’s Order and History (1956) and The New Science of Politics (1952)
In shorter post-World War II works, like The New Science of Politics and Science, Politics and Gnosticism, Voegelin presents the main problem that political scientists and others should be considering (but are obviously not), namely, the spiritual derailment (Entgleisung) that has led to the destruction of social and inner human order. In its most virulent form this derailment has contributed to totalitarian regimes like the Nazi and Communist ones, but even in less-derailed Western societies the same moral disintegration was evident. Voegelin identified this spiritual and political problem with the rise of ideology as a “political religion,” a situation that he began examining after the rise of Nazism.
He also famously traced this outburst of ideological fervor to Gnosticism, the ancient and medieval Christian heresy that scorned the world in its present form as irredeemably evil. Voegelin did not contend that modern ideologies or political religions entirely replicated the Gnostic heresy. Rather he found aspects of these political religions—for example, revulsion for the world as it has existed, the expectation of a sudden cosmic transformation, and the distinction between those who carried the inner light and a fallen humanity—in modern revolutionary ideologies.
Voegelin was critical of the left wing of the Protestant Reformation, which he maintained became a vehicle for carrying Gnostic and apocalyptic themes and expectations into modern political religions. A Lutheran by birth, he showed no discernible sympathy for his ancestral religion, which he may have identified with the willingness of the Evangelical Church in Germany to cooperate with the Third Reich. Although not an orthodox Christian, Voegelin defined himself at least temperamentally as a “pre-Reformation Catholic.” This self-description may have been why most of his American followers and his patrons (at Notre Dame and in Bavaria where he also taught) were traditional Catholics. Yet these devoutly Catholic disciples were forced to acknowledge that he was not really of their persuasion each time Voegelin published a book.
As far as his own theological position was discernible, he was a Neoplatonist with strong mystical proclivities, who hated modern totalitarians. His widely expressed distaste for Gnostics may have hidden Voegelin’s own attraction to Gnostic ideas, for example, his stress on an inward awareness of spiritual truth and his lack of interest in conventional religious ritual.
Most Gnostics came out of a Neoplatonic tradition of thought, but moved from there into a heretical form of Christianity. Still, according to Voegelin, they had fallen into disastrous error. They allowed themselves to become derailed and went from their exploration of being into projects of cosmic transformation. From there it was only one more step to the dangerous revolutionary religions of the modern world, in which Gnostic elements were still allegedly present.
Voegelin outlined his own religious belief perhaps better than anywhere else in a 1943 German essay on the philosopher and metaphysician F.W.J. Schelling. In that essay, Voegelin wrote that theology was to be “grounded in a system of symbols which expresses the relationship between consciousness, as transcendent, and inner-worldly classes of being, and the world-transcending ground of being in the language of immanently understood process.” In other words, religion and philosophy both yield truth, but are equally required to interpret “worldly transcendence” in language that is humanly comprehensible. Although this statement does not rule out the Christian system of symbols, it also does not categorically affirm it.
Like Nietzsche, Marx, Hegel, and other critical thinkers whom Voegelin declaimed against, it may be necessary to protect this polymath against his own enthusiasts.
Voegelin’s key ideas, about Gnosticism and its ramifications, apocalyptic ideologies, and even the history of humanity as punctuated by “leaps into being,” were not entirely original. Karl Jaspers, Hans Jonas, Carl Schmitt, and Schelling all contributed to Voegelin’s conceptualizations. What made him stand out was the use that he found for ideas that were then circulating in the Germanophone world.
Curiously, Voegelin treated that world quite critically and never ceased looking for aberrant German thinkers whom he believed had prepared the way for the Nazi catastrophe. But his mind was obviously shaped by a German conceptual framework, and its imprint can be seen in his work. He also synthesized the insights that he drew from an older generation in a way that profoundly affected posterity. What he achieved theoretically and analytically became distinctly Voegelinian.
Voegelin’s American disciple, Ellis Sandoz, who wrote The Voegelinian Revolution (1981), posited that his subject pointed the study of politics in a new direction. Although Sandoz may have overstated the point, the focus on ideology as a religious heresy owes more to Voegelin than any other thinker. And what the Italian historian Emilio Gentile says about Italian fascism as the “sacralization of the political” is as relevant for the cult of liberal democracy as it was for the fascist enthusiasms of interwar Italy. For Voegelin the contagion of ideology and the derailment of being were problems for modern Americans as well as for Italian fascists and a fortiori German Nazis and communist zealots.
It is hard to imagine that Voegelin would have recognized his project fully in the praise bestowed on him by National Review Editor Frank Meyer. According to Meyer, Voegelin, in Order and History, had set out to “controvert the two related theories of history which have created the world view that dominates our age; Marxism and the Liberal theory of progress.”
above: Eric Voegelin (Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo / Alamy Stock Photo)
Although Voegelin was certainly no friend of Marxism, it’s unlikely that he was motivated to study the Greeks and the Hebrews because of a crusade against Soviet Communism. If anything, Voegelin was more deeply marked by the Nazi takeover of Europe than by the Cold War, an attitude that was equally true of his fellow-refugee Leo Strauss. Despite their anti-communism, these refugee scholars thought of the Nazis first when they spoke about the totalitarian danger. A look at Voegelin’s posthumously published Hitler and the Germans should indicate how obsessed he was by the collaboration of German academics with the Third Reich. Although he may have been overly critical of former colleagues who stayed behind in Nazi Germany, clearly Nazism was an evil that Voegelin never forgot.
It may also be necessary to reassess Voegelin’s relationship to the American conservative movement that venerated him from the 1960s on. In a response to a request from George Nash for a photograph to be included in The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, Voegelin caustically rejoined, “Just because I am not stupid enough to be a liberal does not mean I am stupid enough to be a conservative.” This response may have encapsulated how Voegelin regarded the American conservatism of his time. It failed to meet his fastidious intellectual standards and seemed overly absorbed in partisan, ephemeral politics.
Significantly, Voegelin did not come out of the European right but, like his professor Hans Kelsen, leaned strongly toward the social democrats during his youth. His German disciples, Jürgen Gebhardt, Gregor Sebba, and Peter Opitz, were also not identifiably on the right, contrary to his American conservative admirers, who seemed more anti-communist than his European exponents.
None of this is said by way of criticism. Rather we are suggesting that Voegelin’s greatest accomplishments transcend the context of the Cold War and American Catholic anti-communism. More than any other political analyst, Voegelin grasped the derailment of religious impulses and principles that is inherent in modern ideologies. Whether ideologies are really Gnosticism in disguise, if that was Voegelin’s position, is open to dispute.
Less contestable to this writer is that all leftist belief systems present themselves in a heretical Christian gestalt. While the Nazis drew from the Gnostic heritage their own forms of a transformational myth, Voegelin would have contended that the Nazi adaptation failed to resonate as well as that form of the Gnostic myth that has endured through the modern left.
Voegelin had no trouble seeing through the left’s claim to be “scientific,” and already in the 1930s he recognized this claim as false. The left, particularly in its most current form, is exactly what Voegelin revealed it to be, an agglomeration of religious heresies pretending to be true “science.” To Voegelin’s credit, he also perceived the need to show historically how these Gnostic derailments occurred. They did not just appear. They arose out of a deep emotional need and a failure to recognize what is permanent in human nature.