Saturday, March 14, 2009
'Political religion' is a weird thesis that, like its twin 'totalitarianism' theory, was long descredited before experiencing a revival during the 'war on terror'. (On 'totalitarianism' it is worth pointing out, as Corey Robin does, that Hannah Arendt has not been served well by her epigones. They take the more strange and least incisive of her arguments from the last third of The Origins of Totalitarianism to subsume difficult contemporary phenomena in a peasoup of pseudo-psychoanalysis.) Since the second half of 2001, there has been an academic journal devoted to disinterring this discourse. Its founder, the conservative historian Michael Burleigh, has produced several relatively popular books reheating the arguments of Eric Voegelin and Raymond Aron. Burleigh, being an ideologue of the counter-revolution, has taken the opportunity to recast Jacobinism, anarchism, Marxism and Nazism as movements reconstituting Christian metaphysics and eschatology.
The basic argument is that the secularization of church and state produced a sacralization of politics resulting in the Nazism and Stalinism of the twentieth century. The 'totalitarian' movements were political religions to the extent that their total claim over the lives of subjects enjoined them to fully determine the meaning and ultimate aim of those lives. They developed belief systems, myths and rituals equivalent to those of the overthrown church. Their fetish-object was not the cross but the state. As Eric Voegelin put it: "the divine head is cut off, and the state takes the place of the world-transcendent God". For Voegelin, a Christian theologian who hated all forms of collectivism, Nazism was a "satanical" force (he literally believed that evil was a "real substance", a "force that is effective in the world"). It was, moreover, a force made possible by the "secularization of life" that accompanied the "dissolution of Western imperial unity", the emergence modern states, and of doctrines such as humanitarianism. In short, while most critics of 'totalitarianism' hold it to be an anti-modern reflux, Voegelin holds modernity itself responsible. Human experience since the Diet of Worms has been characterized by spiritual cannibalism.
Burleigh draws extensively on this argument and shares its sympathies. As a result, he covers for the behaviour of the Catholic church during WWII, and casually expedites the whole history of Christian authoritarianism, persecution, antisemitism, racism, pogroms, etc from the narrative. As the historian Neil Gregor points out, the Nazis were not exactly reinventing the wheel when they progenerated their antisemitic texts: they drew on a history of pungent Christian slanders against the Jews. But the game is really given away by his deployment of the very apocalyptic gesture that he identifies as the hallmark of 'totalitarianism'. He indulges the rather commonplace idea that a tiny band of transnational jihadis represent a threat to "western civilization". Such doom-laden nonsense was given a free ride in the months following 9/11, and I deal with some of it in Liberal Defence (buy it already!). Essentially, it is a moral and political sanction for a wide-ranging and open-ended war in defence of said "civilization" which, if it is serious about defending itself, is adjured to restore its Christian roots.