Political theology or political theologies?

Another problem with political theology stems from Carl Schmitt’s own classification of political ideologies. If the conceptual analogy between theological and political concepts is indeed so complete as he suggests, it becomes extremely difficult to make a distinction between “genuine” theology, and merely “secular” or “political” theologies.

Schmitt’s own examples are also of little help in this regard. Continental conservatism can hardly be called secular, since it preserves the idea of a divinely appointed sovereign, and the “conservative authors of the counterrevolution” were definitely “theists” (Schmitt 1985, 37). It remains therefore unclear why this sort of political theology is not genuinely, only analogically “religious”.

On the other hand, the problem with liberalism is that it lacks the concept of personal sovereignty (Schmitt 1985, 60), and since Schmitt’s concept of sovereignty is evidently personal, it is hard to tell why an ideology which lacks this central concept should be called theological even in a “secular” sense.

In the case of socialism, Schmitt’s own terminology becomes a source of confusion. If socialism is the political analogy of atheism (Schmitt 1985, 63), then it does not only lack the aforementioned concept of sovereignty, but could also be called “secularized atheism”, which would sound almost senseless – an atheist atheism, in contrast to religious atheism – if Schmitt admitted that this was the case.

All in all, the very existence of different ideologies and not just one “modern theory of the state” raises enormous difficulties for the original Schmittian version of political theology already.

Two concepts of political theology

One of the most confusing things about political theology is that it’s used in at least two senses. One is the Schmittian sense of “political concepts as secularized theological concepts.” This stands fairly close to the idea of political ideologies as secular religions. The other sense is “theology with a political purpose or meaning,” which is something else altogether. In the first case, we start with political ideologies and arrive at their hidden theological presuppositions. We “unveil” them, so to speak, in order reveal their real nature. In the second case we follow the opposite route. We start with explicit theological principles, and arrive at political ones. You might also say that Schmitt’s “political theology A” is about politicians playing the priest without knowing it. “Political theology B”, on the other hand, is about priests playing the politician.

The only thing left to understand is why most handbooks, thematic journals and conferences mix up these two.

“Political religion” and “religion as politics”

One of the better books written on political or secular religions is still Emilio Gentile’s Politics as Religion (2006).

The best part of Gentile’s approach is to speak of the “sacralization of politics”, which is the exact opposite of the Schmittian concept of politics as “secularized theology.” At least it acknowledges that terms like “secular”, “secularized”, or “secularization” are extremely hard to define. Should he be ready to say that a “sacralized politics” is no different from any other forms of the sacred, this would be a great achievement.

The problem is that toward the end of his book he falls back on the usual distinction between “a religion of politics” and religion per se, without reflecting on the non-empirical character of both political and religious absolutes. Moreover, his definition of the “religion of politics” has very little to do with the definition of “religion” in general. It rather sounds as a description of apocalyptic fanaticism.

“A religion of politics manifests itself when a political movement or regime

a. Consecrates the primacy of a secular collective entity by placing it at the center of a set of beliefs and myths that define the meaning and the ultimate purpose of the social existence and prescribe the principles for discriminating between good and evil;

b. Formalizes this concept in an ethical and social code of commandments that binds the individual to the sacralized entity and imposes loyalty, devotion, and even willingness to lay down one’s life;

c. Considers its followers to be community of the elect and interprets its political action as a messianic function to fulfill a mission of benefit to all humanity;

d. Creates a political liturgy for the adoration of the sacralized collective entity through the cult of the person who embodies it, and through the mythical and symbolic representation of its sacred history – a regular ritual evocation of events and deeds performed over a period of time by the community of the elect.”

(Emilio Gentile: Politics as Religion. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006, 138-139.)

If this – otherwise accurate – description of totalitarian millenarism (but not of politics and religion) is the best that one of the best scholars can come up with, what do we expect from others?

Is a definition of “secular religion” possible?

As almost everyone almost immediately recognizes, the term “secular religion” is an oxymoron. No matter how we define religion, “secular” can hardly mean anything else than “non-religious”, so secular religions are supposed to be “non-religious religions”, which is a contradiction in terms. You don’t have to be a Hans Kelsen to understand just that much. (See his Secular Religion: A Polemic against the Misinterpretation of Modern Social Philosophy, Science and Politics as “New Religions.” Wien‐New York: Springer, 2012.)

Since defining an oxymoronic term is by definition impossible, all that remains for us is to analyze its rhetorical use, and that’s what the present project aims to do in the first place. So before anyone becomes suspicious of the whole enterprise, let us make it very clear that our own starting point is also one of suspicion. None of us wants to say that everything (from social philosophy to science and politics, to quote Kelsen) is a “religion.” But don’t rejoice too soon, for our thesis is no less radical: it states that in fact nothing is.

It is the very distinction between the religious and the secular that becomes enormously problematic when you take a fresh look at it from the angle of “secular religions” rhetoric.

The “secular religions” project

About terminology

The terminology is still pending. For a time I used “political theology”, but this refers only to analogies between theological and political concepts and theories. I also tried to use “political religions” to emphasize practical and institutional implications, but it too strongly evokes totalitarian allusions. Right now I use “secular religions”, although it is clearly a contradiction: if something is secular, it is not religious and vice versa. The contradiction itself, however, may help to bring home the message that the separation of the “religious” and the “secular” is anything but clear and self-evident.

About the project

This is part of a larger project we’re working on at the National University of Public Service, Budapest. For more information, see:


The first step would be to make a catalog of all political ideologies, social, economic, and cultural theories (and their corresponding institutions and practices) that have ever been called “religious” in an analogous sense. Sometimes they’re also called “quasi, pseudo, ersatz” and the like, but this already supposes that we know what a “real” religion looks like, which is certainly not the case. For a preliminary list see:


Request for contributions

If anyone is aware of further authors and works in the field, please don’t hesitate and let me know. I would be most grateful for any suggestions.

The vertical invasion of the barbarians

Two-hundred years of democratic baloney finally achieved its greatest victory. No single tyrant in the world now fails to resort to the people for support. And let there be no mistake: under certain circumstances the people have always provided such support and will continue to do so, ever more willingly. Populism and democratic despotism are not exclusive to some underdeveloped nations. All political leaders in America and Europe start learning the lesson. None of them, for example, will try to save a university from a popular government when “majorities” everywhere seem to hate everyone who is capable of articulated phonation.

Today, everyone’s talking about immigration and the threat it poses to our culture. Much less they speak of the damage done by our own people: what Walter Rathenau called “the vertical invasion of the barbarians.” It is, actually, more than a threat, it is a fait accompli. I don’t see the “culture” we’re trying to defend. Like Thiemann in Hanns Johst’s Schlageter, “When I hear the word culture, I release the safety on my Browning!”

Yes, the friends of Johst killed Ratheneau, but nothing like that is likely to happen here. Today’s barbarians are numerous enough to kill the spirit before the flesh.


Everything is democratic

Yesterday’s experience once again convinced me that democracy is indeed an “all-embracing idol concept.” If one member from the audience can maintain that democracy means “deliberation” (and therefore majority decision is the death of democracy), while another thinks that democracy means the involvement of the “greatest possible number” of voters in decision-making (whatever that means), I really start to wonder whether the word means anything at all.

Speaking less about democracy

Yesterday, I had a wonderful time at a national conference of history teachers. It actually helped me to clarify my own position, and explain why speaking less about democracy (and more about other moral and political values) would be more fortunate in the present situation.

What is the problem with speaking too much of democracy?

It is a commonplace in political science recently that democracy is “backsliding” in the world. But this is misleading. The truth is that in the 1990’s the number of liberal democracies seemed to be steadily growing, while today, all other sorts of democracy seem to be winning the day. Non-liberal democracies are not backslides, but an entirely different, and – for that matter – more genuine type of democracy. That some countries with universal suffrage, a multi-party system, and free elections are becoming increasingly monolithic and tyrannical is not a derailment of democracy, but democracy in its prime: where election results and opinion polls legitimize leaders to an extent that is unrivaled in more liberal ones. If we insist too much on “democracy” or the “will of the people” (which is in fact always the will of an artificially construed majority), we will soon have to give up our moral objections in favor of a mathematical concept.

Does it mean that the word “democracy” should be abandoned?

Not necessarily. The democratic element is an integral part of all modern political governments. It would be better, however, if we realized that the best form of government was what the Middle Ages called a “mixed government” (regimen mixtum). Popular participation is an important, but only ONE important element in governance. The rule of law, the separation of powers, the system of checks and balances are equally important. If you don’t like the medieval word of “mixed government,” you can also call it a “republic.” Kant or the framers of the American Constitution never called their system “democratic,” only “republican.”

So what follows from that in a practical sense?

What follows is that we should concentrate more on concepts like the rule of law, on the legal and moral constraints of power, on institutional checks and balances, or political culture and tradition; not only on the hypnotic word of “democracy.” Democracy can be just as oppressive as any other political regime. There have been enough great political thinkers from Plato to Tocqueville to teach us just that much.

The magic word of democracy

My whole discussion of majority tyranny boils down to the fact that there is no such thing. Tyranny there is, and majority is a very good thing to justify tyranny; but majorities always have to be construed before they can justify anything. Construction is a work for expert minorities who seem to get better and better in this demanding task nowadays.

It seems that the same goes for democracy. There are so many democracies available at the marketplace that any minority (don’t let us forget that in a complex modern society there are only minorities) is able to choose that single type which fits its purposes. A majoritarian minority will call liberal democracies anti-democratic, a liberal minority will call majoritarian democracies dictatorial. Direct democrats will call representation a non-democratic idea, while d’Argenson had the guts already in the 18th century to call everything but representation a “false democracy.”

When the same regime may be called a dictatorship, an illiberal democracy, a hybrid system, a hacked democracy, or an elected autocracy, you start wondering whether any of these terms mean anything any more. Democracy being the most popular, its problems are the most vexing. The easiest solution would be to get rid of a word which has never meant what its etymology suggests, anyway.