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The Theory and Practice of Political Religion
In keeping with a venerable conservative-liberal tradition, in both works Burleigh highlights the links between Jacobinism, the secular “civil religion” par excellence, and the political religions that would do so much to despoil the twentieth century. Jacobinism was not only proto-totalitarian, it was the prototype for later and more fully developed ideological justifications of terror and tyranny.
Burleigh observes in Sacred Causes that the term “political religion” has a “more venerable history than many imagine.” It was widely used after 1917 to describe the new regimes established by Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin. In the middle of the nineteenth century the French historian and political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville had already invoked the idea of political or secular religion. He did so in the opening section of The Old Regime and the Revolution (1856) when discussing the social passions unleashed by the French Revolution of 1789. The Revolution “took on the appearance of a religious revolution” despite the contempt in which its progenitors and principal actors held the Catholic Church in particular, and the Christian religion in general. It brought forth a uniquely modern fusion of religious sentiment and rationalism, a “new kind of religion, an incomplete religion, it is true, without God, without rituals, and without life after death, but one which nevertheless, like Islam, flooded the earth with its soldiers, apostles, and martyrs.”
For its twentieth-century analysts and critics—heirs to both Tocqueville and Burke—secular religions, especially in their totalitarian forms, are so horrific and so destructive of human dignity in no small part because they are idolatrous. They erase the distinction, integral to Christian civilization and to decent and humane governance, between the things of God and the things of Caesar. They establish an unprecedented monism that makes the theocratic despotisms of the past seem humanly bearable. But—and here Burleigh’s approach is wanting, or at least incomplete—it is still necessary to painstakingly confront the philosophical sources of the misplaced modern emphasis on human self-sovereignty. As Pierre Manent has pointed out, for example, communism does not stand as an antithesis to modern democracy; rather, it can be located on a continuum with modern democracy in its inebriated confidence in Man as the “sovereign author” of the human world, in its faith in progress and “humanitarian” values, and in its belief that human beings are essentially “historical” beings not beholden either to nature or to God. At the same time, communism destroyed everything that is decent and good about the democratic order. Political philosophy is indispensable for unraveling this conundrum and for more fully exploring the vexing question of the relationship between modern rationalism and the totalitarian movements and ideologies that “radicalize” rationalism’s underlying premises.