“A kind of political religion”

Speaking of the French Revolution, it is somewhat odd that it was not the altars of the Fatherland, the cult of the Nation, or the revolutionary oaths and feasts that reminded Condorcet of a political religion, but the way the Constitution was treated by public education plans. The word was mentioned twice in his Cinq memoires sur l’instruction publique (1791). The first passage gives some vague criteria for the religious analogy:

“It has been said that the teaching of the constitution of each country should be part of national education there. This is true, no doubt, if we speak of it as a fact; if we just explain it and expound it; if, in teaching it, we limit ourselves to saying: This is the constitution established in the state and to which all citizens owe obedience. But if we say that it must be taught as a doctrine conforming to the principles of universal reason, or excite in its favor a blind enthusiasm which renders citizens incapable of judge her; if they are told: This is what you must worship and believe, then it is a kind of political religion that we want to create; it’s a chain that we prepare for the spirits, and we violate freedom in its most sacred rights, under the pretext of learning to cherish it. The goal of instruction is not to make men admire legislation ready-made, but to enable them to appreciate and correct it.”

The second passage is more of a historical argument:

“Let the example of England become a lesson for other peoples: there, a superstitious respect for the constitution or for certain laws to which they attribute national prosperity, a servile worship for a few maxims devoted to the interest of the rich and powerful classes are part of education, they are maintained by those who long for fortune or power, they have become a kind of political religion which makes it almost impossible to make progress towards perfecting the constitution and laws.”

In other words, the first modern suspect for being a “political religion” was something as apparently harmless as a sort of constitutionalism or legal traditionalism. This line of argument was not even rediscovered until the 20th century. Condorcet’s immediate posterity was more concerned with another “religious” threat: that of democracy. But more on that next time.

Condorcet Marie

Is “political religion” a better term?

After dealing so much with the problems of “political theology”, let’s turn to the term “political religion”. Although the most famous author who used it was Eric Voegelin in 1938, its first mention probably goes back to Condorcet in 1791. Moreover, Condorcet used it in very much the same way as we do today: a political ideology that shares some similarities with “religion”. (in Condorcet’s case, as in most other cases, “religion” was identified with Christianity, of course. Knowingly or unknowingly.) To be sure, Condorcet meant this as an insult: he attempted to show that some revolutionary ideas (about public instruction) were no better than the religious ones they wished to replace. There was no full comparison, however, only a few scattered remarks on both being dogmatic and prescribing an obligatory creed for the citizen.

Voegelin was more nuanced in this sense. Although there is no mention of Carl Schmitt in his Die Politischen Religionen, it seems that the term was chosen to include practical and institutional aspects as well, not only theoretical ones as in Schmitt’s Politische Theologie. This is certainly a good point, the problem lies elsewhere. First, Voegelin also fails to make a clear distinction between “real” and “political” religions. Although he uses “inner-worldly” instead of “secularized”, it soon turns out that the inner-worldly or political religions of Nazism of Fascism also include “spiritual” elements like the spirit of the People (Volksgeist) or the mystical “objective will” of the leader (volontá obiettiva). So, while Voegelin avoids the explicit error of mentioning “secular religions” he nevertheless brings back the same oxymoron in another form.

It is also important to add that because of Voegelin’s focus on Nazism and Fascism the term “political religion” is still mostly associated with totalitarian regimes. This is no logical necessity, but we have seen that in political theology / political religion / secular religion discourse there is little logic, anyway.