This contribution is based on the author’s presentation at the Colloquium on Postsecular Conflicts, organized by Kristina Stoeckl at the University of Innsbruck on January 24, 2017. R.R. Reno and Sergei Chapnin participated in the panel discussion at the colloquium together with the author.
Isaiah Berlin famously described the twentieth century as an antagonism of Communism and Nazism, “totalitarian tyrannies of both right and left.” They were intrinsically connected with each other not only through the prevalence of propaganda over truth, collectivism over individuality, and idea over human life but because both were “religions” in a certain sense. This sort of religion was called “political.” There were hopes after the collapse of the Soviet Union that this sort of religion would never re-emerge, at least in the civilized world. It seems, however, these hopes were premature. Political religion is making its come back in Russia, and it is even lurking in the United States.
Political religion is a phenomenon of modernity and a product of its ideologies. Secular ideologies sold themselves to not-yet-secularized people as political religion. It began in Russia, where the atheist ideology engaged with its base of peasants and proletarians, who remained largely untouched by the process of secularization. Thus, atheism turned to a political religion, with its “saints,” “magisterium,” “priests,” “sacred calendars,” etc. Soviet people were supposed to receive the atheistic Communist regime with religious awe. Those who disagreed were sent to Gulags or executed.
Later on, Nazis developed their own political religion. Nazism evolved as a rejection of Communism with its state-enforced atheism. Yet, it was not interested in Christianity. As a matter of fact, it had existential difficulties with the figure of Jesus Christ and his Jewishness. As a result, it developed a sort of religiosity, which was alternative to Judeo-Christianity–its own edition of political religion, with Nazi’s own “saints,” “magisterium,” “priests,” “sacred calendars,” etc. The coercive route of this religion began with ignoring or violating laws. This was justified, by the way, by Carl Schmitt. In his Politische Theologie he laid down the foundations of the religion, which later on was identified as “political” by Eric Voegelin in his book Die politischen Religionen, and by a number of other scholars. They applied this term not only to Nazism, but to any authoritarian regime that features elements of religion.
Voegelin was forced to immigrate to the United States, where he flourished as a political philosopher who explained many sides of the American political system. Another immigrant from Germany, Paul Tillich, inspired American sociologist Robert Bellah to develop a concept of American civil religion, which became central in defining the American political culture. Bellah borrowed the phrase “civil religion” from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for whom it constituted one of the foundational elements of social contract. The American social contract, in contrast to the French, featured many Christian elements.
Civil and political religions are similar in many respects. In their core, they are political phenomena and only appear to be religious. Their difference from religion proper is that they are products of the secular age. They cannot go beyond Charles Taylor’s immanent frame, where they have been born. Although their political promises to voters sound almost metaphysical, they cannot elevate anyone to the sphere of the divine.
Politicians like these religions. They are particularly attracted by the capacity of these religions to enhance the legitimacy of their authority, especially when this authority suffers from the deficit of conventional legitimacy. Thus, the Rousseauian civil religion secured legitimacy for the republican government in France, which replaced a monarchy that drew its legitimacy from God. The same happened to the independent American states, which could not rely on the sources of the traditional legitimacy that served the British Crown: the divine hierarchy with God on top reflected in the figure of a king. Instead, the United States of America based themselves on the idea of covenant: an agreement between citizens and God, without the mediation of kings.
With all their similarities, political and civil religions have irreconcilable differences. The most fundamental difference between them is that the former is coercive, while the latter is consensual. Most political religions have been created in the image and likeness of the authoritarian regimes which they served. They force their adepts to participate in their rituals. Civil religion is not coercive. It is like an advertisement on television: it can manipulate and mislead, but cannot force acceptance.
Nevertheless, civil religion can mutate to political. The case of Russia illustrates how rapidly this can happen. The Communist political religion, which had completely substituted religion proper, disappeared with the collapse of the Soviet Union as well. For approximately a decade there was no any significant civil or political religion in Russia. Russians rediscovered Christian faith and filled the restored churches, without experiencing any form of politicized religion. Soon, however, politicized religion reemerged on the margins of the church life, and gradually turned to a religious mainstream during the recent decade.
One of the earliest tokens of its reemergence was the sanctification of the Russian tsar Nicholas II Romanov in 2000. This reopened the church to political agendas featuring nationalism and imperialism. Approximately at the same time the Russian church embarked on the doctrine of the “Russian world,” which became a core tenet of the new Russian civil religion. This religion was actively constructed by the church, without being yet received by the Kremlin. The Russian political establishment accepted it only when it felt the need to enhance its own legitimacy. Legitimacy of the Russian political system was shaken after the elections to the State Duma, the Parliament, in December 2011. There was evidence that they were falsified, which caused mass protests in Moscow. The protests became even stronger after Vladimir Putin succeeded Dmitry Medvedev as the president of Russia in March 2012, for the third time. The protests thus undermined his legitimacy. The crisis of legitimacy, in result, urged the Kremlin to embrace the civil religion, which had been prepared by the Russian Orthodox Church.
The reception of civil religion by the Kremlin, however, changed the character of the former—it soon mutated to a coercive political religion. The turning point was the trial of the band Pussy Riot. This trial marked a transformation from the civil religion to a coercive political religion. This transformation coincided with the dramatic increase of totalitarian tendencies in Russia. The coercive nature of the Russian political religion culminated in the annexation of Crimea and the war against Ukraine. The doctrine of the “Russian world” became the engine of the anti-Ukrainian mobilization. Thousands of Russian military came to Ukraine in the name of the “Russian world.” They came to kill Ukrainians, because the Russian propaganda had told them that Ukrainians allied with the “godless” West, were controlled by “evil” America, and therefore constituted a threat to the “Russian world.”
Initially the civil religion, and later its coercive edition, effectively constituted new social contracts, which the Kremlin offered to the people of Russia. They differ from the social contract, which is supposed to be upheld by the Russian Constitution, and therefore are not quite constitutional. Nevertheless, they secure the legitimacy of the current political regime in a more effective way than the constitution does, and for this reason are preferred by the regime.
A similar transformation of civil religion to a political one can happen in any country. Even the United States is not exempt from such a risk. Indeed, as it was mentioned, the American civil religion was designed to enhance the legitimacy of the American states in the wake of their fight for independence from the British Crown. Nowadays, Mr. Donald Trump is facing an increasing crisis of his personal legitimacy as a president. As a result, he might be tempted to tackle this issue by gearing up civil, or even political, religion. Unlike the original civil religion, however, which served the institutions of the American state, its latest version could be focused on serving the personality of the American president.