Political Religions

In two remarkable books, Earthly Powers and Sacred Causes, British historian Michael Burleigh, has traced the clash of religion and politics from the French Revolution to our own times. Burleigh shows that modern materialist creeds – Jacobinism, Fascism, Communism, and Nazism – had these common traits: They viewed man, not as a person created Imago Dei, but as a speck within mass society devoid of freedom, self-responsibility, and conscience; and to supplant organized religions, these secularists portrayed themselves as pseudo-divine and elevated their revolutions to religious status.

The French Jacobins suppressed the Church (by 1794 only 150 of 40,000 churches were offering Mass) and replaced it with a civic religion. The Declaration of the Rights of Man was a political gospel. Baptism was redefined “as the regeneration of the French revolution begun on July 14, 1789.” Communion: an association of French people “to form on earth only one family of brothers who no longer recognize or worship any idol or tyrant.” Penitence: “the banishment of all those monsters. . .unworthy to inhabit the land of liberty.”

To eliminate the Lord’s Day, a calendar was created with ten-day weeks. Holydays were replaced with secular feast days called Virtue, Genus, Labor, Recompenses, and Opinion. Notre Dame Cathedral was converted into a “Temple of Reason.” An opera singer was worshipped as the “Goddess of Liberty.”

Mussolini described Fascism as “a religious conception in which man in his imminent relationship with a superior law and with an objective Will that transcends the particular individual and raises him to conscious membership of spiritual society.”

Determined to destroy Italy’s Catholic culture, Mussolini promoted a politics laced with religious symbols. There were mandatory oaths that affirmed the sacrificial community, consecrated political symbols, veneration of war dead and party martyrs.

Ballia, the Fascist youth movement, issued a catechism whose creed included these words: “I believe in Rome the eternal, in the mother of my country and in Italy her eldest daughter who was born in her virginal bosom. . . .I believe in the genius of Mussolini, in our holy father Fascism, in the communion of its martyrs, in the conversion of Italians and in the resurrection of the empire.”

In Russia, the Bolsheviks, who closed 31,000 Orthodox and Catholic churches and persecuted 10 million in the gulag for their religious beliefs, modeled themselves on the Society of Jesus and issued infallible doctrines of salvation. The Soviet nation was designed as a theocracy: the state was the administrative bureaucracy and the Party was the designer and guardian of socialist ideological orthodoxy.

Lenin’s mummified body was worshipped. He was proclaimed “the apostle of world communism…a leader of cosmic stature, a mover of worlds…the chosen one.”

The Nazi creed was soteriological, “a redemptive story of suffering and deliverance, a sentimental journey from misery to glory, from division to mystic unity based on the blood that linked souls.” The holy of holies was the Swastika blood-stained in the failed November 1923 Munich putsch. Hitler consecrated new flags at rituals by touching them with the blood-stained one.

To overshadow the established religions, the Nazis instituted holydays honoring Hitler’s birthday and the Munich putsch martyrs. Every November 18, Hitler would attend a “Last Supper” dinner in Munich, with surviving “Apostles” of the putsch. Annual rallies were held in the new Mecca, Nuremberg, the “capital city of the movement.”

Reviewing the German revolution’s economic materialism, racist biology, corrupt psychology and scientism, political philosopher Eric Voegelin’s assessment applied to all these state religions: “Modernity without restraint.”

In the aftermath of this age of guillotines, gallows, gas chambers and gulags, the secularists have continued to pursue their agenda but under the guise of good government causes. In the United States, for instance, do-gooding social theorists have elevated to religious status drives to stop over population and pollution.

The group EarthFirst! displays an extreme form of a broad ecological current, but openly expresses some of the common elements concealed by others. For example, it insists that Western culture must be eliminated because it is responsible for “ecocide.” These Eco-Warriors call for “the holiest fight of all. . .an eco-jihad.”

By appealing to man’s religious instincts to promote atheist ideologies, do these secularists implicitly affirm what they explicitly deny? Catholic historian Christopher Dawson, whose work influenced Burleigh, would say yes.

For Dawson, man knows by nature that there is something greater than himself and is driven to the transcendent. Religion serves man “as a bridge between the spiritual and the physical.” “A culture that has by and large rejected its religion or secularized itself,” Dawson argued, “has merely substituted some false religion – most likely an ideology of some kind – for its lost faith.” Ideologies are merely “religious emotions divorced from religious belief.”

The recently deceased philosopher Leszek Kolakowski agreed: “Mankind can never get rid of the need for religious self-identification. . . .Religion is a paramount aspect of human culture. Religious need cannot be ex-communicated from culture by rationalist incantation. Man does not live by reason alone.”

Michael Burleigh has performed a great service. His books further bolster Dawson’s belief that a “completely secularized civilization is inhuman in the absolute sense – hostile to human life and irreconcilable with human nature itself.”

We see what secularized civilizations did in the past. Are we alert to what they are producing in the present and will in the future?

George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.