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.