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Political Religion: A User’s Guide



In an article published in September 1939, in the very eye of the storm of twentieth-century Europe's ‘age of extremes’, the British historian Christopher Dawson attempted to get to grips with the temper of his times. Opining on what he saw as the failure of nineteenth-century liberal individualism and its deleterious encroachment on spiritual values, he wrote:

Now the coming of the totalitarian state marks the emergence of a new type of politics which recognises no limits and seeks to subordinate every social and intellectual activity to its own ends. Thus the new politics are in a sense more idealistic than the old; they are political religions based on a Messianic hope of social salvation. But at the same time they are more realist since they actually involve a brutal struggle for life between rival powers which are prepared to use every kind of treachery and violence to gain their ends.

When not researching medieval Christian encounters with the Mongols, Dawson wrote history with a grand narrative sweep such as he admired in the work of the German historian Oswald Spengler. His output has recently sparked a revival of interest, with claims that he was one of most significant Catholic historians of the century. Yet this Augustinian pessimist was only one of a broader band of contemporary intellectuals – not all of them religious apologists – to brandish the label of ‘political religion’ as a descriptor, and as a moral warning. Seventy years on, the same moral seriousness characterises several of the books under review here, especially those addressing the more terrifying consequences of political religion in its various forms. For as A. James Gregor declares when introducing his intellectual history of Totalitarianism and Political Religion, ‘the unnumbered dead of the past century’ are surely owed some posthumous explanation:

Amid all the other factors that contributed to the tragedy, there was a kind of creedal ferocity that made every exchange a matter of existential importance. The twentieth century was host to systems of doctrinal conviction that made unorthodox belief a capital affront, made conflict mortal, and all enterprise sacrificial (Gregor, xi).



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1 Dawson, Christopher, ‘The Claims of Politics’, Scrutiny, 8, 2 (1939), 136–41, here 138.

2 For biography of Dawson (1889–1970), see Hitchcock, James, ‘Christopher Dawson’, American Scholar, 62, 1 (1993), 111–18. See also Birzer, Bradley J., Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson (Front Royal, Va.: Christendom Press, 2007) and the on-going series of republications, ‘The Works of Christopher Dawson’, The Catholic University of America Press, General Editor Don. J. Briel, available at (last visited 20 May 2014).

3 David D. Roberts has given an excellent and extensive discussion of ‘political religion’ and its uses and disadvantages as an analytical category, to which I am indebted; Roberts, David D., ‘“Political Religion” and the Totalitarian Departures of Inter-war Europe: On the Uses and Disadvantages of an Analytical Category’, Contemporary European History, 18, 4 (2009), 381414.

4 Reviewing the recent literature on fascism, for example, António Costa Pinto has written of ‘classificatory “essentialism”’ and the ‘intuitive and dysfunctional use of the concept of totalitarianism’. Pinto, António Costa, ‘European Fascism: The Unfinished Handbook’, Contemporary European History, 21, 2 (2012), 287300, here 298.

5 Gentile, Emilio, The Sacralization of Politics in Fascist Italy trans. Keith Botsford (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996), a translation of Il culto del littorio: La sacralizzazione della politica nell’Italia fascista (Rome and Bari: Laterza, 1993).

6 Roberts, ‘Political Religion’, 383; Gentile, Emilio, ‘The Sacralisation of Politics: Definitions, interpretations and reflections on the question of secular religion and totalitarianism’, Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions, 1, 1 (2000), 1855, here 22. See also, Gentile, Politics as Religion, trans. George Staunton (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), translation of Gentile, Le religioni della politica. Fra democrazie e totalitarismi (Rome and Bari: Laterza, 2001).

7 Roberts, ‘Political Religion’, 382; Kershaw, Ian, ‘Hitler and the Uniqueness of Nazism’, Journal of Contemporary History, 39, 2 (2004), 239–54, here 250.

8 Roberts, ‘Political Religion’, 387.

9 Roberts, ‘Political Religion’, 385; Payne, Stanley G., A History of Fascism, 1919–1945 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995), 494.

10 Dagnino, Jorge, ‘The Intellectuals of Italian Catholic Action and the Sacralisation of Politics in 1930s Europe’, Contemporary European History, 21, 2 (2012), 215–33, here 233.

11 Maier, Hans, ‘Political Religion: A Concept and its Limitations’, Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions, 8, 1 (2007), 516, here 9: Werfel's biography is extraordinary; an early novel relating to the Armenian genocide of 1915 was widely read, not least in the United States. His final wartime escape to America included a period of sanctuary at the Marian shrine at Lourdes, in gratitude for which Werfel wrote The Song of Bernadette (1941) made into a Hollywood movie in 1943 in which the peasant girl's steadfast faith is pitted against the caution of clerics and the sneering of secularist officials. United States Holocaust Museum, ‘Franz Werfel’, Holocaust Enclyopedia, (Last visited 30 June 2015).

12 Passmore, Kevin, ‘The Ideological Origins of Fascism before 1914’, in Bosworth, R. J. B., ed., The Oxford Handbook of Fascism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 1131, here 14.

13 Roberts, ‘Political Religion’, 391; Kershaw, ‘Hitler and the Uniqueness of Nazism’, 250.

14 Overy, Richard, The Dictators: Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia (London: Allen Lane, 2004).

15 Pollard, John, ‘“Clerical Fascism”: Context, Overview and Conclusion’, Totalitarian Movements and Political Religion, 8, 2 (2007), 433–46; Box, Zira and Baz, Ismael, ‘Spanish Fascism as a Political Religion (1931–41)’, Politics, Religion and Ideology, 12, 4 (2011), 371–89; Douglas, R. M., ‘Handmaids of the Revolution: Ailtirí na hAiséirighe, Women and Irish Fascism’, Politics, Religion and Ideology, 13, 2 (2012), 237–52.

16 Jackson, Paul, ‘“Union or Death”: Gavrilo Princip, Young Bosnia and the Role of “Sacred Time” in the Dynamics of Nationalist Terrorism’, Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions, 7, 1 (2006), 4565.

17 Becker, Annette, War and Faith: The Religious Imagination in France, 1914–1930 (Oxford and New York: Berg, 1998), translation of La guerre et la foi. De la mort et la mémoire: 1914-années 1930 (Paris: Armand Colin, 1994); Becker, , ‘Faith, Ideologies, and the “Cultures of War”’, in Horne, John, ed., A Companion to World War I (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 234–47.

18 Passmore, ‘The Ideological Origins of Fascism before 1914’, 13.

19 Passmore, ‘The Ideological Origins of Fascism before 1914’, 14.

20 Dal Lago, Enrico, William Lloyd Garrison and Giuseppe Mazzini: Abolition, Democracy and Radical Reform (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2013), 73.

21 Dal Lago, William Lloyd Garrison and Giuseppe Mazzini, 75.

22 Riall, Lucy, ‘Martyr Cults in Nineteenth-Century Italy’, The Journal of Modern History, 82, 2 (2010), 255–87; for an Irish comparison, see Newsinger, John, ‘“I Bring Not Peace But A Sword”: The Religious Motif in the Irish War of Independence’, Journal of Contemporary History, 13, 3 (1978), 609–28; On the nineteenth-century revival of Catholicism and the transnational resonance of the cult of the pope as a ‘living martyr’, see Viaene, Vincent, ‘International History, Religious History, Catholic History: Perspectives for Cross-Fertilization (1830–1914)’, European History Quarterly, 38, 4 (2008), 578607.

23 Mazower, Mark, Governing the World: The History of an Idea (London: Allen Lane, 2012), 155.

24 Burleigh, Michael, Earthly Powers: The Clash of Religion and Politics in Europe from the French Revolution to the Great War (New York: Harper Collins, 2005). For a highly critical review of Sacred Causes (2007), see Tony Judt, ‘Defender of the Faith’, The New York Times, 11 Mar. 2007. A more mixed appreciation of Burleigh's twin volumes can be found in Jackson, Paul, ‘Re-enchanting Europeans: Michael Burleigh and Political Religion Theory’, Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions, 9, 1 (2008), 123–8.

25 Kaiser, Wolfram, Christian Democracy and the Origins of European Union (Cambridge: Cambridge Unviersity Press, 2007).

26 Chenaux, Philippe, L’Église catholique et le communisme en Europe, 1917–1989: De Lénine à Jean-Paul II (Paris: Cerf, 2009), 21–8.

27 Wolf, Hubert, Pope and Devil: The Vatican Archives and the Third Reich (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Belknap Press, 2010).

28 Burleigh, Michael, Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism (London: Harper Collins, 2009).

29 Similar reservations can be found in Brian Sandbergh's review of Alessandro Orsini, Anatomy of the Red Brigades: The Religious Mind-Set of Modern Terrorists. H-War, H-Net Reviews. October, 2013. URL:

30 For another perspective, see Mark Mazower, ‘Under the Ustasha’, London Review of Books, 6 Oct. 2011, 29–30.

31 Payne, Stanley G., ‘The NDH State in Comparative Perspective’, Totalitarian Movements and Political Religion, 7, 4 (2006), 409–15.

32 Sturzo to Sangnier, 29 Aug. 1929, ILS, fasc. 436, c. 20, Istituto Luigi Sturzo, Rome; On Marc Sangnier's Franco-German interwar peace movement and its religious dimensions, see Barry, Gearóid, The Disarmament of Hatred: Marc Sangnier, French Catholicism and the legacy of the First World War, 1914–45 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 120 and 158–63.

33 Winter, Jay, Dreams of Peace and Freedom: Utopian Moments in the Twentieth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006).

34 Ceadel, Martin, Pacifism in Britain, 1914–45: The Defining of a Faith (Oxford: Clarendon, 1980).

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