How the Politicians Hijacked Religion; Books

The Evening Standard (London, England), October 3, 2005 | Go to article overview

How the Politicians Hijacked Religion; Books


Byline: NOEL MALCOLM

Earthly Powers: The Conflict Between Religion and Politics from the French Revolution to the Great War by Michael Burleigh (HarperCollins, [pounds sterling]25)

AFTER all the millions of words that have been written about Nazism, it must be hard to think of anything new to say; but Michael Burleigh managed it, five years ago, in his powerful book The Third Reich. His argument was that the only way to understand Nazism was as a "political religion" - a quasi-cult with its own Messiah (Hitler), its own Satan (the Jews) and, in the end, its very own Armageddon.

Elements of this had been said before, of course, but Burleigh was the first major historian to take it as the organising principle for the whole Nazi story. And while other historians have raised various objections, they have all had to admit that his version puts back into the story key elements that were neglected in the textbook accounts, with their old-fashioned concentration on politics and economics.

If Burleigh was at least partly right about "political religion" in the Thirties and Forties, though, his work must prompt some larger questions.

Where did that political religion come from? If it was not utterly new, did it belong to a longer tradition of such pseudo-religions in modern politics?

And how is it that such cult movements exert so much power over people's minds?

Burleigh's new book tries to answer some of those questions, by looking at a whole range of political and religious phenomena in modern European history.

He begins by taking us back to the French Revolution, when the Catholic Church, having started off as a willing collaborator in social and political reform, ended up as the object of a brutal campaign of destruction.

Seizing the Church's assets, murdering many of its old priests and installing new ones as state functionaries was not enough; there was now a gap in people's lives that needed to be filled. So, high-minded revolutionaries invented public ceremonies to propagate a new, rational religion: there were hymns to the Republic sung by massed choirs, secular sermons by Robespierre and morally uplifting tableaux in which a flaming torch was applied to cardboard figures of Atheism, Ambition, Egoism, Discord, and (a nice touch, this) False Modesty.

Burleigh has no difficulty in tracing a line of development from this sort of ersatz cult to the political religions of various 19th-century socialists, idealists and anarchists. …

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