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Political religion

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Title: Political religion  
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Subject: State religion, Civil religion, Secularism, Religious aspects of Nazism, Sociology of religion
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Political religion

The theory of political religion concerns governmental

  • Political Religions section of Religion Compass
  • Initiative on Religion in International Affairs at Harvard
  • Religion and Foreign Policy Initiative Council on Foreign Relations.
  • Conference on Political religions in the modern era, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 7–9 May 2004
  • [1] Academic Search Premier.
  • Totalitarian Movements & Political Religions, "Special Issue: Political Religions as a characteristic of the 20th century", Volume 6 Number 1/June 2005, Taylor & Francis (requires subscription)

External links

  • Klaus Vondung (2005), "National socialism as a political religion: Potentials and limits of an analytical concept", Totalitarian Movements & Political Religions 6(1)
  • Wolfgang Hardtwig (2001) "Political Religion in Modern Germany: Reflections on Nationalism, Socialism, and National Socialism", Bulletin of the German Historical Institute, Volume 28
  • Jacques Ellul,The New Demons. Trans. C. Edward Hopkin. New York: Seabury, 1975. London: Mowbrays, 1975.
Identity Orientation ." Totalitarian Movements & Political Religions 10.3/4 (2009): 303- 
325.Academic Search Premier. Web. 1 Apr. 2014.  
  • Emilio Gentile and Keith Botsford (Translator) (1996), The Sacralization of Politics in Fascist Italy, Harvard University Press
  • Emilio Gentile (2005), "Political Religion: A Concept and its Critics - A Critical Survey," Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions, Volume 6, No. 1
  • Emilio Gentile (2006) Politics as Religion, Princeton University Press, Princeton & Oxford
  • Gates, Donald K., and Peter Steane. "Political Religion - The Influence Of Ideological And


  1. ^ Gentile, Emilio: Politics as Religion (2006) Princeton University Press
  2. ^ "Political Religion -the influence of Ideological and Identity Orientation" (2009)
  3. ^ a b c d Maier, Hans, ed. (2004–2012) [1996-2003]. ]Totalitarianism and political religions (3 vols.) [Totalitarismus und politische Religionen. Routledge. p. 108. 
  4. ^ Gentile, Emilio: Politics as Religion (2006) Princeton University Press, s.xxii
  5. ^ Morris, Benjamin Franklin: The Christian Life & Character of the Civil Institutions of the United States; Developed in the Official and Historical Annals of the Republic (1864) Philadelphia: George W. Childs
  6. ^ Gentile, Emilio: Politics as Religion (2006) Princeton University Press, p.22
  7. ^ For a different opinion on this important distinction, see Angela Astoria Kurtz, "God, not Caesar: Revisiting National Socialism as 'Political Religion'" in History of European Ideas, Vol. 35; No. 2 (June 2009)
  8. ^ Angela Astoria Kurtz, "God, not Caesar: Revisiting National Socialism as 'Political Religion'" in History of European Ideas, Vol. 35; No. 2 (June 2009)
  9. ^ Gentile, Emilio: Politics as Religion (2006) Princeton University Press, p.20
  10. ^ Keller, Adolf (1936). Church and State on the European Continent. London. p. 68. 
  11. ^ Voegelin, Eric (1999) [1938]. Die politischen Religionen [The political religions]. The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, volume 5. University of Missouri Press. 
  12. ^ a b Gentile, Emilio: Politics as Religion (2006) Princeton University Press, chapters 3-4
  13. ^ Gentile, Emilio. "Political Religion: A Concept and its Critics - A Critical Survey". Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions 6 (1): 25.  
  14. ^ Gamble, Richard: Savior Nation: Woodrow Wilson and a gospel of service (2001) Humanitas vol.XIV, nro.1
  15. ^ a b Griffin, Roger Fascism, Totalitarianism and Political Religion, p. 7 2005Routledge
  16. ^ Gentile, Emilio: Politics as Religion (2006) Princeton University Press, chapters 2-4
  17. ^ Maier, Hans, ed. (2004–2012) [1996-2003]. ]Totalitarianism and political religions (3 vols.) [Totalitarismus und politische Religionen. Routledge. pp. 110–111. 
  18. ^
  19. ^ Kennedy, p. 345. (A Cultural History of the French Revolution)
  20. ^ "The Sacralization of Politics in Fascist Italy". Harvard University Press. 
  21. ^ Gentile, The Sacralization of Politics in Fascist Italy, p.ix.
  22. ^ Eatwell, Roger (2003). "Reflections on Fascism and Religion". Totalitarian Movements and Politics Religions 4 (3): 145–166.  
  23. ^ Burleigh, The Third Reich, (London: Macmillan, 2000) pp.8-9.
  24. ^ N. Goodrick-Clarke, The Occult Roots of Nazism (Wellingborough: the Aquarian Press, 1985), and P. Levenda, Unholy Alliance (New York: Continuum, 2002).
  25. ^ Riegel, Klaus-Georg (June 2005). "Marxism‐Leninism as a political religion". Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions (Taylor & Francis) 6 (1): 97–126.  
  26. ^   From the issue entitled "Religion in America".


See also

Sociologist Robert Bellah argued in 1967 that Americans embrace a common civil religion with certain fundamental beliefs, values, holidays, and rituals, parallel to, or independent of, their chosen religion.[26]

United States of America

During the long rule of president Saparmurat Niyazov large pictures and statues of him could be seen in public places in Turkmenistan. In an interview with the television news program "60 Minutes", Niyazov said the people of Turkmenistan placed them there voluntarily because they love him so much, and that he did not originally want them there. In addition, he granted himself the title "Türkmenbaşy", meaning "Leader of all Ethnic Turkmens" in the Turkmen language. A book purportedly authored by Niyazov, Ruhnama ("Book of the Soul") was required reading in educational institutions and was often displayed and treated with the same respect as the Qur'an. The study of Ruhnama in the academic system was scaled down but to some extent continued after Niyazov's death (in 2006), as of 2008.


The North Korean government has promulgated Juche as a political alternative to traditional religion. The doctrine advocates a strong nationalist propaganda basis and is fundamentally opposed to Christianity and Buddhism, the two largest religions on the Korean peninsula. Juche theoreticians have, however, incorporated religious ideas into the state ideology. According to government figures, Juche is the largest political religion in North Korea. The public practice of all other religions is overseen and subject to heavy surveillance by the state.

North Korea

Modern examples

Klaus-Georg Riegel argued that "Lenin's utopian design of a revolutionary community of virtuosi as a typical political religion of an intelligentsia longing for an inner-worldly salvation, a socialist paradise without exploitation and alienation, to be implanted in the Russian backward society at the outskirts of the industrialised and modernised Western Europe."[25]

Soviet Union

"Among committed [Nazi] believers, a mythic world of eternally strong heroes, demons, fire and sword - in a word, the fantasy world of the nursery - displaced reality."[23] Heinrich Himmler was fascinated by the occult, and sought to turn the SS into the basis of an official state cult.[24]

Nazi Germany

"The argument [that fascism was a ‘political religion’] tends to involve three main claims: I) that fascism was characterized by a religious form, particularly in terms of language and ritual; II) that fascism was a sacralized form of totalitarianism, which legitimized violence in defence of the nation and regeneration of a fascist 'new man'; and III) that fascism took on many of the functions of religion for a broad swathe of society."[22]

According to Emilio Gentile, "Fascism was the first and prime instance of a modern political religion."[20] "This religion sacralized the state and assigned it the primary educational task of transforming the mentality, the character, and the customs of Italians. The aim was to create a 'new man', a believer in and an observing member of the cult of Fascism."[21]

Italian fascism


Revolutionary France was well noted for being the first state to reject religion altogether. Radicals intended to replace Christianity with a new state religion, or an atheistic ideology. Maximilien Robespierre rejected atheistic ideologies and intended to create a new religion. Churches were closed, and Catholic Mass was forbidden.[18] The Cult of the Supreme Being was well known for its derided festival, which lead to the Thermidorian reaction and the fall of Robespierre.[19]

The Festival of the Supreme Being, by Pierre-Antoine Demachy.

Revolutionary France

Historical cases

Political religions often rely on a myth of origin that may have some historical basis but is usually idealized and sacralized. Current leaders may be venerated as descendants of the original fathers. There may also be holy places or shrines that relate to the myth of origin.

Myths of origin

A political religion often elevates its leaders to near-godlike status. Displays of leaders in the form of posters or statues may be mandated in public areas and even private homes. Children may be required to learn the state's version of the leaders' biographies in school.

Cult of personality

Loyalty to the state or political party and acceptance of the government/party ideology is paramount. Dissenters may be expelled, ostracized, discriminated against, imprisoned, "re-educated", or killed. Loyalty oaths or membership in a dominant (or sole) political party may be required for employment, government services, or simply as routine. Criticism of the government may be a serious crime. Enforcements range from ostracism from one's neighbors to execution. In a fundamental political religion you are either with the system or against the system.

Absolute loyalty

Juan Linz has posited the friendly form of separation of church and state as the counterpole of political religion but describes the hostile form of separation of church and state as moving toward political religion as found in totalitarianism.[17]

Political religions vie with existing religions, and try, if possible, to replace or eradicate them.[3] Loyalty to other entities, such as a church or a deity are often seen to interfere with loyalty to the political religion. The authority of potential religious leaders also presents a threat to the authority of the political religion. As a result, some or all religious sects are either suppressed or banned. An existing sect may be converted into a state religion, but dogma and personnel may be modified to suit the needs of the party or state. Where there is suppression of religious institutions and beliefs, this might be explicitly accompanied by atheistic doctrine as in state atheism.

Suppression of religious beliefs

Not all of these aspects are present in any one political religion; this is only a list of some common aspects.

  • Belief
    • a coherent belief system for imposing symbolic meaning on the external world, with an emphasis on security through faith in the system;
    • an intolerance of other ideologies of the same type
    • a degree of utopianism
    • the belief that the ideology is in some way natural or obvious, so that (at least for certain groups of people) those who reject it are in some way "blind"
    • a genuine desire on the part of individuals to convert others to the cause
    • a willingness to place ends over means - in particular, a willingness to use violence and fraud
    • fatalism - a belief that the ideology will inevitably triumph in the end
  • Structural
    • differentiation between self and other, and demonisation of other (in theistic religion, the differentiation usually depends on adherence to certain dogmas and social behaviours; in political religion, differentiation may be on grounds such as nationality, social attitudes, or membership in "enemy" political parties, instead)
    • a transcendent leadership, either with messianic tendencies, often a charismatic figurehead;
    • strong, hierarchical organisational structures
    • the control of education, in order to ensure the security, continuation and the veneration of the existing system.

Key qualities often (not all are always strongly present) shared by religion (particularly cults) and political religion include

Typical aspects

An academic journal with the name Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions started publication in 2000. It was renamed Politics, Religion & Ideology in 2011. It is published by Taylor & Francis.

Yale political scientist Juan Linz and others have noted that secularization of the twentieth century had created a void which could be filled by a total ideology, making the political religions of totalitarianism possible.[3][15]

The 18th century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau had already argued that all societies need a religion to hold men together. Because Christianity tended to pull men away from earthly matters, Rousseau advocated a "civil religion" that would create the links necessary for political unity around the state. The Swiss Protestant theologian Adolf Keller (1872-1963) argued that Marxism in the Soviet Union had been transformed into a secular religion.[10] Before emigrating to the United States, the German-born political philosopher Eric Voegelin wrote a book entitled The political religions.[11] Other contributions on "political religion" (o associated terms such as "secular religion", "lay religion" or "public religion") were made by Luigi Sturzo (1871-1959), Paul Tillich (1886-1965), Gerhard Leibholz (1901-1982), Waldemar Gurian (1902-1954), Raymond Aron (1905-1983) and Walter Benjamin (1892-1940).[12] Some saw it as a response to the existential void and nihilism caused by modernity, mass society and the rise of a bureaucratic state, and in political religions "the rebellion against the religion of God" reached its climax.[12] They also described them as ‘pseudo-religions’, ‘substitute religions’, ‘surrogate religions’, ‘religions manipulated by man’ and ‘anti-religions’.[13] The secularization of the twentieth century had created a void which could be filled by an ideology claiming also a hold on ethical and identitetical matters as well, making the political religions based on totalitarianism, universalism and messianic missions (such as Manifest Destiny[14]) possible.[3][15][16]

Origin of the theory

The term political religion is based on the observation that sometimes political ideologies or political systems display features more commonly associated with Founding Fathers of the United States.[5][6] Although a political religion may co-opt existing religious structures or symbolism, it does not itself have any independent spiritual or theocratic elements - it is essentially secular, using religion only for political purposes, if it does not reject religious faith outright.[7] Typically, a political religion is considered to be secular, but more radical forms of it are also Transcendental.[8][9]



  • Overview 1
  • Origin of the theory 2
  • Typical aspects 3
    • Suppression of religious beliefs 3.1
    • Absolute loyalty 3.2
    • Cult of personality 3.3
    • Myths of origin 3.4
  • Historical cases 4
    • Revolutionary France 4.1
    • Fascism 4.2
      • Italian fascism 4.2.1
      • Nazi Germany 4.2.2
    • Soviet Union 4.3
  • Modern examples 5
    • North Korea 5.1
    • Turkmenistan 5.2
    • United States of America 5.3
  • See also 6
  • Footnotes 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9

The term is sometimes used outside academia, often with meanings tangential to or opposite to the sociological usage (for example, applying it to a church), with the use intended as a derogatory description of excessive adherence to something political or ideological. Even when used correctly, supporters of an ideology will generally reject the application of the term "political religion".

The term is sometimes treated as synonymous with civil religion, but although some scholars use the terms as equivalent, others see a useful distinction, using "civil religion" as something weaker, which functions more as a socially unifying and essentially conservative force, where a political religion is radically transformational, even apocalyptic.[4]

Totalitarian societies are perhaps more prone to political religion, but various scholars have described features of political religion even in democracies, for instance American civil religion as described by Robert Bellah in 1967.

[3].Hans Maier Political religions generally vie with existing traditional religions, and may try to replace or eradicate them. The term was given new attention by the political scientist [2]

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