Politics as Religion
by Mark English
In a recent piece, I referred to a dispute between Hannah Arendt and Jules Monnerot that brought into sharp relief some perennially important – and contentious – questions about the nature of politics and political commitment. In the late 1940’s, Monnerot had written a book which characterized communism as a secular religion, and in quite negative terms. Needless to say, Monnerot’s book, Sociologie du communisme, made him very unpopular in French (and other European) academic circles. In 1953, Arendt criticized Monnerot’s thesis in an article in an American journal, claiming that the very notion of “secular religion” is incoherent and (puzzlingly) accusing Monnerot of blasphemy. Their exchange was revealing not only of the differences between their respective points of view but also of the deep divide that exists between those who apply certain kinds of philosophico-theological modes of thought (specifically Kantian or Hegelian) to politics and those who don’t.
In his reply to Arendt, Monnerot defended his use of the notion of secular religion. Applying the notion of religion to movements like communism or Hitlerism may well, he conceded, be theologically absurd, but it is not absurd from a sociological point of view.
He was right about this. What possible objection could there be to highlighting the psycho-social parallels between the functioning of religious groups and the functioning of groups bound together by political ideology or other kinds of secular allegiance?
I listed some parallels in my previous article but did not elaborate. Take in-group/out-group dynamics, for example. In the case of many political movements – as in the case of religions – these dynamics are associated with a set of core values and beliefs which forms the basis of (usually implicit and informal) decisions concerning inclusion and exclusion. This set of core values and beliefs is, therefore, “sacred” – at least in the sense that it is non-negotiable and not to be questioned. Moreover, it gives the group – whether it be a religious or a political alliance – an aura of moral and sometimes intellectual seriousness that tends to be lacking in respect of most other close-knit and exclusive groups (in respect of street gangs or followers of football teams, for example, or of groups of fashionable friends or in respect of racially-defined or family-based groups).
The blasphemy concept is relevant here. Although it is used jokingly in a wide range of contexts, any serious use of the term implies, as Monnerot pointed out, a belief in something sacred. What was it, he wondered, in the name of which he had blasphemed in comparing communism to a religion?
Another feature of a secular religion is the tendency to sanctify or make heroes of founding figures and prominent practitioners of the past and to demonize opponents and apostates. Yet another is moral certainty. This may or may not be associated with a Kantian or similar commitment to moral realism. But it is virtually always associated with a sense that a vindication of core values and a fulfillment of goals and expectations will somehow be forthcoming. The classical Marxist, for example, is not a moralist but is committed to a view of history which owes not a little to Hegel’s view (and which, as Monnerot claims, is essentially a providential one).
Brian Leiter (in a video discussion with Daniel Kaufman) emphasized the distinction between so-called cultural Marxists – many of whom were/are neo-Kantians – and classical Marxists. Though Leiter recognizes the power of ideas, he distances himself from idealism and clearly opts for Marxian materialism, a view that is not readily compatible with Kantian approaches to morality.
Leiter points out that thinkers associated with the Frankfurt School represented the same general position as that promoted by Bruno Bauer and his fellow left-Hegelians. Marx and Engels ridiculed Bauer and his circle relentlessly, mocking them for remaining basically religious thinkers (“the Holy Family”) despite their protestations to the contrary. Marx may well have been justified in calling attention to and questioning the basis and political efficacy of Bauer’s Kantian moralizing, but he had his own illusions.
Marx (as Leiter points out) had an optimistic and progressive view of history which he took (at least in part) from Hegel. Leiter, in common with other Marxists, seems to share these assumptions.
If the borders between political and religious thinking are ill-defined, so too are the borders between philosophy and theology. Plato is full of Pythagorean and other religious ideas, and the writings of the Stoics have a strong religious dimension. Modern Western philosophy came to be within a theological matrix (Christian, Christian Platonist…) and much of the tradition remained (remains?) very close to those origins. Elements of idealism are implicit in many varieties of religious thought and experience, and theological and/or mystical elements are evident in many forms of idealism.
Hannah Arendt intended at one point to major in theology and just about all the thinkers who influenced her were either explicitly Christian or heavily influenced by Christian philosophy. Even Heidegger started out as a Catholic interested in scholastic philosophy before rejecting Catholicism for a liberal Protestant position and then moving to something else entirely. Jaspers (who probably influenced Arendt more than any other teacher or friend) drew on Christian mystics and was a follower of Kant (whom I see as a profoundly Christian thinker, especially in respect of his concerns with morality and human freedom) and of Kierkegaard.
As I noted, in her attack on Monnerot, Arendt talked about blasphemy and quoted Christian writers like Pascal and Kierkegaard. Theological sources were always important to her. The major (unfinished) work Arendt was engaged in writing in her later years drew on these sources as well as the work of Kant.
John Kiess (in his book, Hannah Arendt and Theology (2016)) has argued convincingly that Arendt’s early training in theology had a profound and lasting effect on the way she thought and the way she approached the themes that characterize her work. Two early influences were the eclectic Catholic theologian Romano Guardini and Rudolf Bultmann. She explicitly engaged with Bultmann (as did Jaspers), but seems to have had more in common with Guardini who first introduced her to Kierkegaard. Her doctoral dissertation was on the thought of St. Augustine.
Arendt’s engagement with theology continued throughout her life and it is no surprise that her work continues to be discussed in contemporary Christian theological circles, particularly in relation to such topics as the nature of evil, love, political action and the life of the mind.
Theology and philosophy can be seen to occupy an intellectual space that is neither strictly literary nor rigorously scientific or empirical. Other discursive forms (sermons, essays, religious and political polemics, etc.) share this general territory.
Arguably, this intermediate intellectual space encapsulates what matters most to us as human beings. Unfortunately – and perhaps in part because of this fact – there are no procedures available within these areas of activity which can (in the manner of scientific and certain scholarly procedures) be relied upon to sift the true from the false or sense from nonsense.
We draw the lines differently, according to our respective beliefs, opinions and assumptions. What is of interest or even compelling to one person might seem like utter nonsense to another. This can apply to particular works or even to entire disciplines. For example, the claims of theologians – and, by extension, theology as a discipline – are taken seriously by some but deemed to be of no value or interest by others.
Or take the writings of Marx. Arguably, the early work included some interesting insights into human experience. And Marx’s rejection of Hegelian idealism coupled with the view that our respective social and economic situations determine how we are inclined to interpret the world in terms of values may also be seen as insightful and (perhaps) compelling. But why anyone today would see his supposedly “scientific” view of history or his economic theories and prognostications as having any enduring merit – as being anything other than of purely historical interest – escapes me entirely.
Well, not entirely. These writings represent a kind of magical thinking to which those with certain kinds of political hopes and predispositions tend to be irresistibly drawn.
Bitter splits and schisms are an integral part of the history of all major (and probably most minor) religious traditions. A history of Marxism reads very much like a religious history in this respect, and the internecine battles between present-day intellectuals and activists who identify as progressives and/or as leftists seem to reflect similar patterns.
Why do I single out the Left here when right-wing movements have their own history of internal splits and battles? Two reasons. The Left has a greater presence in the universities and intellectual circles more generally. Also, left-wing thinkers – precisely because they are more inclined to reject religious traditions than conservatives are – have a greater incentive to “religionize” politics and to seek in the political sphere something analogous to what might be called salvation or deliverance in a religious context.
Most modern conservative philosophies seek to limit the scope of politics and put a high value on non-political traditions and institutions, both religious and secular. And, to the extent that traditional customs maintain their hold and churches and schools and professional bodies and self-help groups and other such institutions maintain their autonomy, both the need for political intervention and the expansion of political power to which such intervention necessarily leads, is minimized. Social life is seen as being divided into many separate (albeit sometimes interlocking) spheres of activity, an arrangement which enhances not just individual freedom but also societal resilience and stability.
The prevailing conservative metaphors of society are organic and open rather than mechanical or deterministic. Societies are complex systems which develop slowly and unpredictably over time.
This is all very well, but the failure of traditional institutions (such as we saw in the 1920’s and 30’s, and such as we are seeing again today) poses a dilemma for those committed to a conservative outlook. Some will respond by becoming detached from politics and seeking satisfaction in personal and private spheres; others will be tempted to abandon moderate conservatism for reactionary or radical forms. The latter approach may bring them closer to the religionized politics of the left.
In this connection, it is widely understood that – at least in respect of recent forms of American and European populism – left/right distinctions (always problematic to some extent) are becoming increasingly difficult to maintain.