Review Essay of Politics as Religion
EMILIO GENTILE, Professor of Modern History at the University of Rome, an internationally renowned authority on fascism and totalitarianism, argues that politics over the past two centuries has often taken on the features of religion, defining the fundamental purpose and meaning of human life. Secular political entities such as the nation, state, class, and party became the focus of myths, rituals, and commandments and gradually became objects of faith, loyalty, and reverence.
Emilio Gentile defines political religion as a “more or less developed system of beliefs, myths, rituals and symbols” that creates an “aura of sacredness around an entity belonging to the world and turns it into a cult or object of worship or devotion.”
“Gods” are one class of objects or entities that human beings worship. However, other objects or entities likewise may become sacred within societies. One such object worshipped in the modern world—inspiring a cult of devotion—is the Nation-State. The state can appear as a “numinous reality:” an “enthralling and awe-inspiring power that invokes a feeling of absolute dependency.”
Gentile cites Gugielmo Ferrero on the sacralization of politics—where the nation-state comes to be surrounded with a religious fervor that “exalts it and confirms a transcendent virtue upon it.” This exaltation, Ferrero says, can be perceived through an “emotional crystallization of admiration, gratitude, enthusiasm and love” that transforms the state’s imperfections and limits into something that is “absolute and inspires devotion.”
Recent social theory—focusing on the concept of power—seeks to show how forces emanating “from above” impose themselves upon “the subject.” Gentile’s concept of political religion contains a more sophisticated psychological paradigm. At the heart of his approach is recognition that human beings possess a need or desire to attach to objects or entities conceived as greater than the self.
Writing at the end of the 19th Century, Gustav Le Bon stated that religion originates in the need to “submit oneself to a divine political or social faith.” This sentiment has very simple characteristics, such as worship of a being supposed superior, fear of the power with which this being is credited, blind submission to its commandments, desire to spread its dogmas, and a tendency to “consider as enemies those who do not submit to the commandments of the superior being.”
Fascism revolves around the following psychological dynamic: (1) Worship of the nation-state, conceived or imagined as an entity superior to the individual. (2) The presence of a leader who represents the nation and conveys its ideology. (3) Submission to the nation and its leader—and desire to accept its ideology. (4) The tendency to view those who do not worship the leader and accept the ideology he propagates as mortal enemies of the nation.
Gentile writes of the “fusion of the individual and the masses in the organic union of the nation” combined with “discrimination and persecution against those outside the community.” According to the totalitarian fantasy, there can be no separation between the individual and the state: they must exist in a condition of “perfect union.” Those Others who disrupt the experience of perfect union are branded enemies of the state who must be eliminated or removed—in order to achieve or restore a perfect union.
According to Le Bon, the religious impulse—the need to worship or submit to an entity conceived as superior—is manifest whether this sentiment applies to a wooden or stone idol, a hero or a political concept. What’s more, Le Bon says, a person is religious not solely when he worships a divinity, but whenever he “puts all the resources of his mind, the complete submission of his will and fanaticism at the service of a cause or an individual who becomes the goal and guide of his thoughts and actions.” The religious impulse, according to this view, involves attachment to an entity placed high above the individual—one that inspires fanatic devotion.
The term “fungible” conveys the idea one object may substitute or replace another—and nothing will be lost. This term may be applied to the religious impulse: different objects or entities may serve to express the same psychic function.
For example, societies differ with regard to the object or entity that people worship. However, perhaps the psychological gratification obtained is identical. People may worship a God called Allah, or a country called America, or an ideology called Communism. What is significant is the desire to bind one’s ego to an idea or entity imagined to be omnipotent. By virtue of attachment to this object conceived as greater than the self, one partakes of its omnipotence.
Gentile suggests that political religion may be understood through the concept of the sacred developed by German theologian Rudolf Otto in 1917. The sacred, according to Otto, is an inexpressible spiritual experience that cannot be understood rationally. This experience occurs in the presence of the numinous,which refers to the manifestation of an “immense, mysterious and majestic power that, through its enthralling and awe inspiring nature evokes a feeling of absolute dependence in whoever experiences it.”
Hitler evoked an experience of the numinous through the idea and experience of “Germany,” particularly at mass rallies when hundreds of thousands of people gathered together to worship an entity that he—like a medium—brought into being. Hitler explained to his people: “You are nothing, your nation is everything.”
Germany was this immense, majestic power that evoked a feeling of absolute dependence. The individual was small and insignificant in comparison to this omnipotent entity. Perhaps there was a painful dimension to the conception of oneself as “nothing.” However, compensation was provided for the individual by virtue of his or her capacity to become linked or identified with an enthralling, awe-inspiring entity.
Totalitarianism, Gentile observes, revolves around the “fusion of the individual and of the masses in the organic and mystical union of the nation.” Mystical union with one’s nation evokes the presence of the numinous: being bound to a gigantic, powerful and awe-inspiring object.
Thus, the religious experience—sense of the sacred—comes to be contained within one’s relationship to one’s nation. In the nation, sacred and secular merge: the numinous experience becomes coextensive with everyday life. The sacred permeates the real world.
Otto suggests that worshipping the sacred object—linking oneself to its mysterious and majestic power—releases an irrational energy engages man’s sentiments and drives him to “industrious fervor.” The sacred object—awe it evokes—acts as an inspiration and goad to action, bringing about an inner excitement that erupts as “heroic behavior.”
Hitler explained: “Our love towards our people will never falter, and our faith in this Germany of ours is imperishable.” He called Deutschland ueber Alles a profession of faith, which today “fills millions with a greater strength, with that faith which is mightier than any earthly might.” Nationalism for Hitler meant willingness to act with a “boundless, all embracing love for the Volk and, if necessary, to die for it.”
“Germany” was the entity or object that lay at the heart of the political religion called Nazism. Everything the Nazis did was based on their feeling for and sense of being connected to this numinous object. However, this sacred entity—Germany—required a representative on earth. Germans believed that Hitler had been sent to them. He became their rescuer or savior, inspiring industrious fervor and heroic, sacrificial behavior.
Gentile cites the political sociologist, Robert Michels, who observed that the masses experience a “profound need to prostrate themselves,” not simply before great ideals, but also before “individuals who in their eyes incorporate such ideals.” The German relationship to Hitler embodied this “adoration of a temporal divinity.” What the German people did—the horrendous actions they performed—was based on their relationship to Hitler. As Rudolf Hess put it, “We know nothing but carrying out Hitler’s orders—and thus we prove our faith in him.”
Scholars often view the atrocities carried out by the German people according to the concept of “obedience to authority.” Hannah Arendt wrote famously about the “banality of evil.” Perhaps this interpretation is naïve. If one characterizes the relationship of the German people to Hitler as one of “obedience,” one might as well say “obedience to Elvis Presley,” or “obedience to the Beatles.”
Documentaries on the Nazi period appear endlessly—testifying to the hysterical enthusiasm that Hitler evoked. He was worshipped, perhaps the most popular political leader of the Twentieth Century. We don’t ordinarily use the term “obedience” to characterize such fanatic devotion.
Hitler—a numinous object for the many Germans during the Nazi period—evoked religious devotion and inspired radical, fanatic forms of action. Understanding what occurred requires acknowledging Hitler’s extraordinary power—how he controlled the minds and bodies of the German people.
The Final Solution came into being insofar as Germans divined and executed the “will of the Fuehrer.” Religious devotion—to Hitler and Germany—led the nation and its people onto path from which there was no return. Faith in Hitler and love for Germany transformed into obedience unto death.