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Princeton University Press
Politics as Religion / Edition 1

Politics as Religion / Edition 1

by Emilio Gentile, George Staunton


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691113937
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/23/2006
Edition description: ANN
Pages: 200
Sales rank: 467,543
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Emilio Gentile is Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Rome La Sapienza. His books include The Sacralization of Politics in Fascist Italy; The Struggle for Modernity: Nationalism, Futurism, and Fascism; The Origin of Fascist Ideology; and The Italian Road to Totalitarianism: The Party and the State in the Fascist Regime (forthcoming). In 2003 he was awarded the Hans Sigrist Prize by the University of Bern for his studies on political religions.

Read an Excerpt

Politics as Religion

By Emilio Gentile

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2006 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-691-11393-9

Chapter One


Our logical apparatus is an imperfect instrument. The word, that indispensable aid, always has the tendency to deceive us with its splendid appearance of immediate truth, and the more the balance of time is shaken, the greater the danger of words that pretend to pass for wisdom. On the other hand, our debate should be as simple as possible. We will leave profound lucubration to others. -Johan Huizinga


Civil and political religions belong to a more general phenomenon, secular religion. This term is used to describe a more or less developed system of beliefs, myths, rituals, and symbols that create an aura of sacredness around an entity belonging to this world and turn it into a cult and an object of worship and devotion. Politics is not alone in this: any human activity from science to history or from entertainment to sport can be invested with "secular sacredness" and become the object of a secular cult, thus constituting a secular religion. In politics, however, the term "secular religion" is often adopted as a synonym for civil religion or political religion.

There does not appear to be any doubt about the attribution of theconcept of "civil religion" to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who introduced it to define a new citizen's religion that he considered essential for democracy. This civil religion was to be distinct and different from Christianity, and in some ways antagonistic to it. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the term "secular religion" was explicitly adopted to define ideologies and ideals that intended to replace traditional metaphysical religion with new humanist concepts that created a cult of humanity, history, nation, and society. On the other hand, the concept of "secular religion" is commonly attributed to the French sociologist Raymond Aron, who used it in an article written in 1944 to define doctrines that promise the salvation of mankind in this world. In truth, the expression had been in use since the early thirties. The editor of a collection of essays on dictatorship, which was published in 1935, observed that the novelty of contemporary dictatorship in relation to dictatorships of the ancient world was to be found in the "powerful technique of controlling the masses by means of propaganda through radio, cinema, the press, education and a secular religion of their own creation." In 1936, the Protestant theologian Adolf Keller wrote that bolshevism had transformed the scientific philosophical system of Marxism into a secular religion. Two years later, the English journalist Frederik A. Voigt conducted a comparative analysis of Marxism and national-socialism, treating them as secular religions.

The concept of a secular religion was therefore already in use in the thirties as a definition for the forms in which totalitarian regimes created political cults. As for the term "political religion," it is generally attributed to the Austrian philosopher Eric Voegelin, who published The Political Religions in 1938. Here again, the term had been used before the publication of Voegelin's book; Condorcet had used it at the time of the French Revolution. Abraham Lincoln defined reverence for the laws handed down by the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence as the "political religion of the nation." Luigi Settembrini called the Giovine Italia (Young Italy), a nationalist movement of Risorgimento, a "new political religion." Fascism explicitly used the term since the twenties to define its own fideistic and totalitarian view of politics. In 1935, the Austrian historian Karl Polanyi studied the "tendency for National-Socialism to produce a political religion," while the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr applied this term to Marxism and communism.

Even though these terms have been in use for some time, it was only in the mid-sixties that civil and political religions became the subject of systematic research and debates, which at times could be extremely impassioned. You only have to recall the long debate provoked by the article on American civil religion that the sociologist Robert Bellah published in 1967. After defining religion as "a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in a collectivity," Bellah asserted that there was a religious dimension to politics alongside the traditional religions but distinct from them. Borrowing the term from Rousseau, he defined it as a civil religion, one that had been developed and institutionalized through a system of beliefs, symbols, and rituals that conferred a religious significance on the American national experience.

In more recent times, secular religion has increasingly become the object of new studies as a phenomenon in the political world. These studies have mainly concentrated its ritualistic and symbolic features, often dissociating them from the beliefs, myths, and dogmas of which they were an expression, in order to treat them solely or principally as useful political instruments in the conquest and maintenance of power. Today we can turn to numerous studies that contain detailed descriptions and comparative analyses of the principal manifestations of the sacralization of politics in both democratic and totalitarian states, although the definition of secular religion is still the subject of fierce debate. The controversy inevitably also involves civil and political religions and their specific characteristics.

Doubts have been expressed about the actual existence of an American civil religion. Objections have also been raised to the concept of secular religion, and there are those who firmly reject the idea that any political phenomenon could be defined as a religion. For example, those who argue that only belief systems that refer to a supernatural being can be considered true religions argue that there can be no such thing as a secular religion. For them the term "secular religion" is a kind of conceptual oxymoron on a par with "square circle." Others argue that we should avoid using the term "religion" to describe political movements that adopt forms of words, rituals, and symbols of a religious kind, and at the very most are willing to concede that such movements could be defined as "pseudo-religions" because they are simply political phenomena that dress themselves up in religious garments in order to beguile the masses. Yet others claim that calling a political movement a religion is nothing more than making use of a metaphor. This means that the political movement cannot be considered a real religion and studied as such. In conclusion, these viewpoints suggest that secular religion and therefore civil or political religion simply does not exist. Anyone who says anything else has mistaken a metaphor for reality and does not know what a religion is. Alternatively, they are victims of an illusion that led them to believe in a "never-never religion."

Clearly, the definition of a religious phenomenon plays a decisive role in this controversy over whether there is a secular religion in the modern world. If, for example, your definition of a religion is premised on the existence of a supernatural divinity, then you would be justified in denying that a belief system that considers a secular entity to be sacred could be a religious phenomenon. However, if we accept this definition, we would be obliged to deny that Buddhism is a religious phenomenon, because it does not allow for the existence of God, whereas the Nazi political religion could be considered a religious phenomenon, because it did not deny the existence of a god, even though it dressed that god up in its own ideology. However, not all scholars link religious phenomena to the presence of a supernatural divinity. This presence is not considered indispensable by sociologists and anthropologists, who interpret religion as a social and cultural phenomenon, namely a system of beliefs, myths, rituals, and symbols that express the common principles and values of a collectivity. Fundamentally, there are various interpretations of religious phenomena, and some of these make it possible to include some political phenomena within the wider context of religious phenomena.


At the end of the nineteenth century, Gaetano Mosca, one of the founders of political science, provided us with a classic formulation of what we could call the crowd manipulation interpretation of religion and the sacralization of politics perceived as a mere expedient and artifice made up of seemingly religious myths, symbols, and rituals that are consciously adopted for propagandistic and demagogic reasons. In The Ruling Class (original title: Elementi di scienza politica, 1895), Mosca discussed churches, religious sects, and political parties in the same chapter, and put founders of religions and founders of sociopolitical schools within the same category. He observed that the latter "ultimately are quasi-religions stripped of the divine element." According to him, religious sects and political parties operate in the same way, and "as long as their followers are loyal to the flag, they cover for and excuse their worst villainies." As far as they are concerned, whoever wears the habit immediately becomes someone quite different. Mosca believed that the ritualistic, symbolic, and fideistic aspects of political movements were a secular form of Jesuitism used to dupe and beguile the masses:

One notes, on close inspection, that the artifices that are used to wheedle crowds are more or less alike at all times and in all places, since the problem is always to take advantage of the same human weaknesses. All religions, even those that deny the supernatural, have their special declamatory style, and their sermons, lectures, and speeches are delivered in it. All of them have their rituals and their displays of pomp to strike the fancy. Some parade with lighted candles and chant litanies. Others march behind red banners to the tune of the "Marseillaise" or the "International" All religions and all parties which have set out with more or less sincere enthusiasms to lead men toward specified goals have, to varying degrees, used methods similar to the methods of the Jesuits, and sometimes worse ones In our day sects and political parties are highly skilled at creating the superman, the legendary hero, the "man of unquestioned honesty," who serves, in his turn, to maintain the luster of the gang and brings in wealth and power for the sly ones to use.

No further studies or consideration into the nature of a civil or political religion are required for those who share this interpretation: it is simply a demagogic expedient to gain the support of the masses. The historian Alphonse Aulard applied this interpretation to the religious manifestations of the French Revolution, such as the cult of the Goddess Reason and the Supreme Being. He argued that the revolutionary cults were only stop-gap solutions that were imposed by the war and dreamed up to promote patriotism among the masses and to incite them to fight against the Revolution's enemies at home and abroad. Similarly, Guglielmo Ferrero in 1942 interpreted the sacralization of politics as the legitimization of power by surrounding it with "an almost religious fervor that exalts it and confers a transcendent virtue upon it":

This exaltation can only be perceived through an emotional crystallization of admiration, gratitude, enthusiasm, and love around the principle of legitimacy that transforms its imperfections, limits and lack of common principles into something that is absolute and inspires devotion. This fervor and this total, sincere, joyful but partly illusory acknowledgment of the superiority of power causes legitimacy to achieve its complete maturity and highest degree of effectiveness, which then transform that legitimacy into a kind of paternalistic authority. What are the means for achieving this fullness of legitimacy? There are many devices that can be used, but art has always been one of the most powerful. Painting, sculpture, and architecture did not just cooperate with monarchies and aristocracies of the Ancien Regime, but with governments of all times and all places, by presenting the masses with magnificent works that demonstrate the greatness and excellence of power in relation to the mediocrity of the world and people's mundane lives We should add to these the parades, processions, military reviews, triumphal displays, warrior assemblies, great public festivals, the pomp of great religious, and civil celebrations and other such ceremonies.

According to this interpretation, the representation of politics through myths, rituals, and symbols can never be considered a religious phenomenon, but has to be explained exclusively in terms of a conscious invention of myths and ritual practices of an essentially utilitarian and instrumental nature. They are demagogic expedients needed for finding new ways to establish, preserve, and reaffirm the legitimacy of power in a mass society.

Many historical examples can confirm that this has indeed been the origin and nature of some manifestations of the sacralization of politics. On the other hand, the theory that all the manifestations of the sacralization of politics can be explained by the crowd manipulation interpretation is not very convincing, particularly if it is applied to the religious aspects of mass movements, which do not always prove to be simply a means to an end. By restricting itself to utilitarian explanations of the sacralization of politics, the crowd manipulation interpretation effectively attempts to resolve in an oversimplified way the weighty and complex question of the irrational dimension of faith and belief in mass politics and more generally in human experience as a whole.


The fideistic interpretation of religion, as argued by Gustave Le Bon at the end of the nineteenth century, makes the existence of civil and political religions appear plausible. According to Le Bon, the concept of religion does not necessarily presuppose the existence of a transcendent divinity. The gods are figments of our imaginations: "It was undoubtedly man who created the gods, but he then became subjugated to them immediately after their creation. They are not the products of fear, as Lucretius claims, but of hope, and therefore their influence springs eternal ... Of course, the gods are not immortal, but the spirit of religion is eternal. This spirit becomes torpid for a period, and then reawakens as soon as a new divinity is created."

Le Bon, who studied the psychology of the crowd, considered religion in whatever form it manifested itself to be the expression of an irrepressible human sentiment. Religion originates in the most peremptory of human instincts, namely "the need to submit oneself to a divine, political, or social faith, whatever the circumstances."

This sentiment has very simple characteristics, such as worship of a being supposed superior, fear of the power with which the being is credited, blind submission to its commandments, inability to discuss its dogmas, the desire to spread them, and a tendency to consider as enemies all by whom they are not accepted. Whether such a sentiment apply to an invisible God, to a wooden or stone idol, to a hero or to a political conception, its essence always remains religious A person is not religious solely when he worships a divinity, but when he puts all the resources of his mind, the complete submission of his will, and the whole-souled ardour of fanaticism at the service of a cause or an individual who becomes the goal and guide of his thoughts and actions.

The religious beliefs produced by this sentiment are the primordial force that created and established empires and civilizations. Religion's strength is to be found in its power to mold and transform the character of a human mass by inculcating shared feelings, interests, and ideas in the individuals that make it up. It thus produces a formidable power to generate enthusiasm and action and to channel individual and collective energies toward a single purpose, the triumph of their beliefs: "The majority of historical events were created indirectly by the variation of religious ideas. The history of humanity is parallel to that of the gods. The birth of new gods has marked the dawn of a new civilization."


Excerpted from Politics as Religion by Emilio Gentile Copyright © 2006 by Princeton University Press . Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

INTRODUCTION: The Sacralization of Politics xi

Chapter 1: A Never-Never Religion, A Substitute for Religion, or a New Religion? 1

Chapter 2: Civil Religions and Political Religions: From Democratic Revolutions to Totalitarian States 16

Chapter 3: The Leviathan as a Church: Totalitarianism and Political Religion 45

Chapter 4: The Invasion of the Idols: Christians against Totalitarian Religions 68

Chapter 5: Toward the Third Millennium: The Sacralization of Politics in States both New and Old 110

Chapter 6: Religions of Politics: Definitions, Distinctions, and Qualifications 138

Notes 147

What People are Saying About This

Maurizio Viroli

This book offers readers a wide and accurate account of various experiences of religions of politics ranging from American democracy (which Emilio Gentile analyzes with remarkable finesse) to Communism. Because of its clarity and the wealth of historical references it provides, it will be particularly useful for courses on politics and religion.
Maurizio Viroli, Princeton University

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