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From “Political Theology” to “Political Religion”: Eric Voegelin and Carl Schmitt1

  • Thierry Gontier

In his work Politics as Religion, Emilio Gentile credits Eric Voegelin with having invented, if not the expression itself, then at least the concept of “political religion” which the latter would use consistently throughout the 1960s to describe totalitarian regimes. In his Autobiographical Reflections, drawn from an interview recorded in 1973, Voegelin revisits the use of this expression and gives an indication of the sources that inspired him to adopt it:

When I spoke of the politischen Religionen, I conformed to the usage of a literature that interpreted ideological movements as a variety of religions. Representative of this literature was Louis Rougier's successful volume on Les Mystiques politiques.

Besides the work by Louis Rougier, it is highly likely that Voegelin is thinking of the French Catholic “personalist” philosophers, such as Jacques Maritain, Henri de Lubac, and Joseph Vialatoux, who also interpreted the emerging totalitarian movements less in terms of social and political phenomena than as a profound spiritual disorder. These readings are also enriched by Bergson's work (which proved decisive for Voegelin) The Two Sources of Morality and Religion. It may appear surprising that Voegelin does not refer to the emblematic work by Carl Schmitt, the Political Theology of 1922. Schmitt had also invented, if not a term, then at least a concept destined for a productive career. Moreover, Political Theology and Voegelin's Political Religions (1938) have similar objectives, namely, to show that all political doctrines involve a relationship between mankind and the sacred in one form or another—even (and perhaps especially) those that claim to have eliminated the religious element entirely.

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All references to the works of Voegelin are taken from the The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, ed. PaulCaringella, JürgenGebhardt, Thomas A.Hollweck, and EllisSandoz, 34 vols. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press and Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1990–2009) (henceforward CW).

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2 On the use of the term “political religion” before Voegelin, see Gentile, Emilio, Politics as Religion, trans. Staunton, G. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 2, which cites Condorcet, Abraham Lincoln, Luigi Settembrini, Karl Polanyi, and Reinhold Niebuhr. In fact, Voegelin rarely uses this term (only twice, excluding the title, in the 1938 work), and it barely makes an appearance after 1938.

3 On the causes of Voegelin's abandonment of the term (although not necessarily the idea), see Gontier, Thierry, “Totalitarisme, religions politiques et modernité chez Eric Voegelin,” in Naissances du totalitarisme, ed. de Lara, Philippe (Paris: Cerf, 2011), 157–81. In summary, we can say that the reasons for this abandonment are twofold. (1) Totalitarianisms are false religions, since religion implies a relationship with a pole of transcendence, which is immanentized in totalitarian regimes. (2) The term “religion” is ambiguous, in that it designates both a fundamental experience of human existence and an institution based on a body of doctrine (“I would no longer use the term religions because it is too vague and already deforms the real problem of experiences by mixing them with the further problem of dogma or doctrine” [Autobiographical Reflexions, in CW, 34:78]). However, the main issue within this subject is religious experience (regardless of whether it is corrupt or not). It would therefore be better to speak of religiosity or spiritual experience than of religion. Even though the terms might change, Voegelin's fundamental idea (that all politics involve a relationship with the sacred, and that the forms of totalitarianism themselves involve a spiritual act) thus remains unchanged after the 1930s.

4 CW, 34:78.

5 Although it is highly improbable that Voegelin might somehow have known of the work of Simone Weil, the affinities between the two authors are striking, as Sylvie Courtine-Denamy shows in her recent monograph Simone Weil: La quête des racines célestes (Paris: Cerf, 2009), as well as in her two articles La chasse aux démons: Eric Voegelin et Simone Weil; points communs et divergences,” in Politique, religion et histoire chez Eric Voegelin, ed. Gontier, Thierry (Paris: Cerf, 2011), 6787, and The Revival of Religion: A Device against Totalitarianism? A Philosophical Debate between Eric Voegelin and Hannah Arendt,” Voegeliniana: Occasional Papers, no. 88 (2011): 729.

6 The expression “political theology” was already being used by Varro (see Augustine, The City of God VI.5), who had himself retrieved it from the Stoic tradition. It is still in use in a pamphlet by Bakunin against Mazzini (The Political Theology of Mazzini and the International) of 1871, which is probably Schmitt's immediate source.

7 A simple footnote in the first chapter refers—without comment—to “new categories” in Schmitt's thought (Authoritarian State, in CW, 4:62n).

8 We will not dwell here on the personal relations between the two thinkers. Judging from the letter written by Voegelin to Schmitt in 1955 (CW, 30:249–50), those relations appear more courteous than truly warm. In the two volumes of the Collected Works devoted to a selection of Voegelin's correspondence (CW, vols. 29–30), we find only two letters addressed to Carl Schmitt; but the four letters by Schmitt located in the archives of the Hoover Institute (file 33-5) indicate clearly that there were more (although I have been unable to find the name of Schmitt in the various lists of the addressees to whom Voegelin sent his books and articles). A letter by Schmitt dated 1931, relating to the review made by Voegelin of Constitutional Theory, shows that the two authors knew each other before the Nazi period (see also CW, 30:249–50). This file also contains a typed manuscript of Ex captivitate salus sent by Carl Schmitt, although it appears that Voegelin failed to respond to this communication (see Voegelin's letter to Carl Schmitt of May 1951, in CW, 30:90n1). This correspondence between Schmitt and Voegelin is not mentioned in Heimes, Claus, Politik und Transzendenz: Ordnungsdenken bei Carl Schmitt und Eric Voegelin (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 2009).

9 CW, 13:42–66. The same work is discussed at the lectures held in Geneva at the beginning of the 1930s, recorded in the Collected Works under the title “National types of mind” (CW, 32:470–71).

10 CW, 4:58–63.

11 CW, 4:218–21.

12 See especially the unfinished work of 1930–1932, the Theory of Governance (CW, 32:360–66). In 1937, Voegelin also wrote a brief critical review of a text by Hans Krupa on the political theory of Schmitt (CW, 13:109).

13 One of the rare instances of this is to be found in New Science of Politics, chap. 3, §8 (CW, 4:170–74), where Voegelin summarizes the thesis developed in the 1935 work by Erik Peterson, Der Monotheismus als politisches Problem: Ein Betrag zur Geschichte der politischen Theologie in Imperium Romanum, on the impossibility of a Christian political theology. Admittedly, the work does not question the general premise that it might be possible to model political power in theological terms (for example, in Jewish or Roman Pagan theology), but only the legitimacy of drawing such parallels in relation to Christian theology. Following Peterson, Voegelin speaks of the “end of political theology in orthodox Christianity” (174). This reference by Voegelin to Peterson is interesting insofar as the latter, in a scholarly study of the various theologies of the earliest centuries of the Roman Empire, and in particular Eusebius of Caesarea and Augustine, openly contests the notion of “political theology” developed by Carl Schmitt—even if, for other reasons which will become clearer in the remainder of this study, the general concept of an “apolitical” Christianity appears inadequate to both Voegelin and Schmitt.

14 In addition to the Political Religions of 1938, see especially the letter to John Hallowell of 28 January 1953, in CW, 30:140.

15 The rare references Carl Schmitt makes to the works of Voegelin are also quite superficial. The few that I have found relate to (1) analysis of the historical context of normativism in Austria, especially during the interwar period, in The Authoritarian State. (See Schmitt, Carl, Die Wendung zum diskrimierenden Kriegsbegriff [Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 2003], 6n8. The same work is cited in passing in a letter by Schmitt to Sander in 1975, in Schmitt, Carl and Sander, Hans-Dietrich, Werkstatt-Discorsi: Briefwechsel 1967 bis 1981, ed. Lehnert, Erik and Maschke, Günter [Schnellroda: Antaios, 2008], 363.) (2) Analysis of Goethe's worship of the force of the soul in German Romantic thought, which is found in The History of the Race Idea: From Ray to Carus (Schmitt, in common with Voegelin, sees in the Goethean concept of the demonic the intellectual origin of the modern political idea of race), a result perhaps of a reading made in the 1930s, to which two passing references are made in the Glossarium. See Schmitt, Carl, Glossarium: Aufzeichnungen der Jahre 1947–1951, ed. von Medem, Eberhard Freiherr (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 1991), 65, 240.

16 On the authoritarianism found in both authors, see also Heimes, Politik und Transcendenz, 40.

17 See my article Le ‘fétichisme de la norme’: Voegelin critique de Kelsen,” Dissensus, no. 1 (December 2008): 125–47,

18 See especially Voegelin's review of Die Moderne Nation, by Heinz O. Ziegler (1932), in CW, 13:68, as well as his review of Politische und soziologische Staatlehre, by Max Rumpf (1934), in CW, 13:84.

19 Heimes, Politik und Transcendenz, chap. 2 is about this same topic, although viewed from a different perspective (which, in my opinion, has a tendency to interpret Voegelin using Schmittian categories).

20 Schmitt, Carl, Constitutional Theory, ed. Seitzer, Jeffrey (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 64.

22 Ibid. Thus, for example, “The Weimar Constitution is valid because the German people ‘gave itself this constitution’” (ibid., 65).

23 Thus, in the Constitutional Theory, we read that “the concept of legal order contains two entirely different elements: the normative element of justice and the actually existing element of concrete order” (ibid., 65).

24 Voegelin, review of Carl Schmitts Theorie des “Politischen,” by Hans Krupa (1937), in CW, 13:109–10. Unless otherwise stated, translations of Voegelin are my own.

25 Voegelin, review of Die Verfassungslehre, by Carl Schmitt (1931), in CW, 13:44.

26 Ibid., 49.

27 CW, 2:2–3.

28 The “Catholic” moment in Schmitt's thought is mentioned in the letter to Theo Morse of 18 November 1953 (CW, 30:184). The “institutionalist” phase is vaguely alluded to in The Authoritarian State (CW, 4:53) and in more precise fashion in the review of Krupa's Theorie des “Politischen” (CW, 13:109).

29 Voegelin, letter to Theo Morse, 18 November 1953, in CW, 30:184.

30 Voegelin, “National Types of Mind and the Limits to Interstate Relations,” in CW, 32:477–78.

31 Schmitt, Carl, Die Diktatur: Von den Anfängen des modernen Souveränitätgedankens bis zum proletarischen Klassenkampf, 4th ed. (Berlin: Duncker & Homblot, 1978), 23.

32 A similar criticism of Schmitt's occasionalism, although from another point of view, can be found in Karl Löwith (who is close on this point to German jurists such as Hermann Heller and Erich Kaufmann). See his article “The Occasional Decisionism of Carl Schmitt,” first published, in German, in 1935: “Hence it will remain to be asked: by faith in what is Schmitt's ‘demanding moral decision’ sustained, if he clearly has faith in neither the theology of the sixteenth century nor the metaphysics of the seventeenth century and least of all in the humanitarian morality of the eighteenth century, but instead has faith only in the power of decision?” (Löwith, Martin Heidegger and European Nihilism, ed. Wolin, R., trans. Steiner, Gary [New York: Columbia University Press, 1995], 140). Löwith underlines the fact that, paradoxically, Schmitt's hostility toward romantic occasionalism (i.e., a way of seing the whole world as an occasion for spiritual expression) turns into a new type of occasionalism (everything being an occasion for the diktat of decision). Heimes tends to miss this point, by defending Schmitt (and, he thinks, also Voegelin) for using “ideas of order” (Ordnungsideen) from a strictly normative perspective, and independently of any actual content (Politik und Transzendenz, 52). On this point, see also Sidgwart, Hans-Jörg, Das Politische und die Wissenschaft: Intellektuell-biographische Studien zum Frühwerk Eric Voegelins (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2005), 161–76: Sidgwart speaks of an “existential formalism” (162) in Schmitt, who, according to Voegelin, fails to rise above an immanentist position about the law, and so to reach a position of transcendence (within a theory of the individual and his motives).

33 On this point, see Meier, Heinrich, The Lesson of Carl Schmitt: Four Chapters on the Distinction between Political Theology and Political Philosophy, trans. Brainard, Marcus (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 1025.

34 See Gontier, Thierry, Voegelin: Symboles du politique (Paris: Michalon, 2008), 7182.

35 CW, 31:219–21. See also the humorous barbs directed against the “functionaries of mankind” in Veogelin's letter to Alfred Schütz concerning Edmund Husserl, 17 September 1943, in CW, 6:49 and CW, 29:367.

36 Blumenberg, Hans, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, trans. Wallace, R. W. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1983), 178.

37 Schmitt, Political Theology I, 65.

38 Ibid., 57.

39 Schmitt, Carl, The Concept of the Political, ed. Schwab, G. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 58, 61.

40 Voegelin, “The Growth of the Race Idea” (1940), in CW, 10:50.

41 This remark can also be found in the analysis of Schmitt's political theory by Löwith in 1935: “So little does Schmitt return to ‘unscathed, uncorrupted nature’ that on the contrary he leaves human affairs in their corrupt condition” (“The Occasional Decisionism of Carl Schmitt,” 144).

42 See Meier, Heinrich, Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss: The Hidden Dialogue, trans. Lomax, J. Harvey (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 112.

43 However, is it really as “dark” as all that? Although it is true that we find highly “pessimistic” formulations of hostility (The sufferings inflicted by men upon each other are terrible [furchtbar],” Ex captivitate salus: Erfahrungen der Zeit 1945–1947, 2nd ed. [Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 2002], 60), we nevertheless find others which are undeniably “optimistic.” Thus, in the same work, while continuing to refer to Hegel, Schmitt also adopts a Rosenzweigian, pre-Levinasian tone: “Who should I, in fact, recognize as my enemy? Quite obviously, only that person who calls me into question. By recognizing him as an enemy, I recognize that he is able to call me into question. Who then is truly able to call me into question? Myself alone. Or, indeed, my brother. There it is: the other person is my brother. … Remember the great words of the philosopher: the relation to the other in oneself, that is the truly infinite” (ibid., 168). Schmitt also cites a verse by Theodor Däubler: “The enemy is our own question as figure” (Der Feind ist unsere eigene Frage als Gestalt). If hostility, as a pure form of otherness, constitutes the “truly infinite,” is not the world of the political, however stained it may be by the abjection of sin, more than sufficient for the desire of the human soul?

44 Voegelin, Theory of Governance, in CW, 32:364.

45 Ibid., 367.

46 On the Schmittian figure of the Grand Inquisitor, see Paléologue, Théodore, Sous l'œil du Grand Inquisiteur: Carl Schmitt et l'héritage de la théologie politique (Paris: Cerf, 2004). On this figure in Voegelin, see Theory of Governance, in CW, 32:326–32, and also Sigwart, Hans-Jörg, “Modes of Experience—On Eric Voegelin's Theory of Governance,” Review of Politics 68, no. 2 (2006): 259–86. For a more general approach, see Sandoz, Ellis, Political Apocalypse: A Study of Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor, 2nd ed. (Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000).

47 The analysis carried out by Voegelin on the political concept of race in the 1930s may help to clarify this point. The self-representation of society as a racial community is only meaningful for Voegelin when correlated with the representation of a “counter-race.” In this sense, race has no political reality of itself; it is only, as it were, “counter counter-race.” The idea of race understood in this way is a product of the phenomenon of secularization, of which one of the fundamental properties is what Voegelin calls the “exteriorization of evil,” namely, the projection of an inherent evil in man onto a demonized enemy (the Jew being the image of Nazi totalitarianism) that must be eliminated. In his 1933 works, Voegelin does not cite Schmitt, who would only begin to publish openly anti-Semitic texts after his acceptance of Nazism. That anti-Semitism would nevertheless become the target of indirect critiques by Voegelin—see, for example, the remarks made by Voegelin concerning the Jewishness of Bodin in his letter to Carl Schmitt of May 1951 (CW, 30:89). In his Autobiographical Reflections, Voegelin confronts Schmitt ironically with the Semitic roots of the Arab thinkers to whom certain Nazi authors elected to refer (CW, 34:80, 85–86).

48 Moreover, on occasion, does Schmitt himself not reveal a secret fascination with these Promethean thoughts? See, for instance, Political Theology II: The Myth of the Closure of Any Political Theology, ed. Hoelz, M. and Ward, G. (Cambridge: Polity, 2008), 128–30, where Schmitt pushes the Blumenbergian idea of modernity as epoch of the self-affirmation of mankind to its logical conclusion. Jan-Werner Müller views this text merely as a satire and caricature of Blumenbergian thought (Müller, A Dangerous Mind: Carl Schmitt in Post-War European Thought [New Heaven: Yale University Press, 2003], 162). In common with Donoso Cortès, who spoke of his “contempt for liberals and his respect for his mortal enemy, anarchistic and atheistic socialism, to which he imparted a diabolic dimension” (Political Theology I, 71), Carl Schmitt never hides his admiration for the courage of the great radical nihilists, such as Bakunin or Lenin, nor his disdain for the compromises of bourgeois liberal thought.

49 See Hobbes, Thomas, The Elements of Law Natural and Politic, ed. Tönnies, F., 2nd ed. (London: Frank Cass, 1969), 4748. This idea, which is found in substantial form in chapter 1 of De cive (Hobbes, De Cive, ed. Warrender, H. [Oxford: Clarendon, 1983], 4146, 89–95), is however substantially modified in chapter 11 of the Leviathan (Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Curley, E. [Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994], esp. 58). On this point, see McNeilly, F. S., The Anatomy of Leviathan (London: Macmillan, 1968), 144–55, and Luc Foisneau, “Que reste-t-il de l'état de nature de Hobbes derrière le voile d'ignorance de Rawls?,” in “Hobbes et les néocontractualismes contemporain,” special issue, Études philosophiques, no. 4 (2006): 439–60.

50 It is important not to confuse this “Realpolitik” with the political pragmatism that Voegelin adopts, and for which political authority must maintain an awareness of sociohistorical circumstances. As I have written above, Voegelin does not possess a doctrine of authoritarianism, rooted in a theological concept of authority: the former remains a last resort, reprehensible in itself, although sometimes necessary in order to escape even greater disorder—as was the case, for example, in the Germany or Austria of the 1930s. The model adopted by Voegelin is not, as for Schmitt, the Roman dictator, but rather the Platonic archon who maintains order in society using the means of persuasion at his disposal.

51 Although Voegelin abandoned the symbolization of the immanentization of eschatology, via the figure of the Gnostic, after the 1950s, the actual concept of a disorder of the soul and society that takes hold owing to an impatience when confronted with existential questions that are insoluble in this world, remains a constant feature of his work.

52 Voegelin, letter to Alfred Schütz, 20 May 1950, in CW, 30:56.

53 CW, 5:60.

54 One of the consequences of this is that the churches cannot withdraw from the life of the city for the sake of an “apolitical” ideal—this is a major point that Voegelin emphasizes in his lectures on Hitler and the Germans. “If we speak in clichés of church and state, it then looks as if two different societies are opposed to one another here, and we forget that the personnel of these societies is indeed identical, that they are thus the same societies, only with different representations, temporal and spiritual. … That is not a situation where first there are churches and second a political people: rather, the people are the same in both cases” (Hitler and the Germans, in CW, 31:156, 175).

1 All references to the works of Voegelin are taken from the The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, ed. Caringella, Paul, Gebhardt, Jürgen, Hollweck, Thomas A., and Sandoz, Ellis, 34 vols. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press and Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1990–2009) (henceforward CW).

A condensed version of this article has appeared at the Voegelinview website, edited by Fritz Wagner ( I am grateful to Céline Jouin, Dominique Weber, and Bruno Godefroy for helping me to locate certain references in this article pertaining to Schmitt and Löwith. I would also like to thank both the reviewers of this article, whose insights I have incorporated as far as is possible, and Johanna Louw for translating this article into English.

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