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.