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A political religion is a political ideology with cultural and political power equivalent to those of a religion, and often having many sociological and ideological similarities with religion. Such political religions vie with existing religions, and try, if possible, to replace or eradicate them. [1]

The term is sometimes treated as synonymous with civil religion, but although some scholars use the terms as equivalent, others see a useful distinction, using "civil religion" as something weaker, which functions more as a socially unifying and essentially conservative force, where a political religion is radically transformational, even apocalyptic.

The term is sometimes used outside academia, often with meanings tangential to or opposite to the sociological usage (for example, applying it to a church). Even when used correctly, supporters of an ideology will generally reject the application of the term "political religion".



The term political religion is a sociological one, drawing on the sociological aspects of religion which can be often be found in certain secular ideologies. A political religion occupies much the same psychological and sociological space as a theistic religion, and as a result it often displaces or co-opts existing religious organizations and beliefs; this is described as a "sacralisation" of politics. However, although a political religion may co-opt existing religious structures or symbolism, it does not itself have any independent spiritual or theocratic elements - it is essentially secular, using religion only for political purposes, if it does not reject religious faith outright.

The first scholars to use the concept of political religion (or occasionally-used synonyms such as "secular religion" and "lay religion") were Protestant and Catholic intellectuals and theologians, such as Luigi Sturzo, Adolf Keller, Paul Tillich, Gerhard Leibholz, Waldemar Gurian and Eric Voegelin.[1] These linked the concept to modernity, mass society and the rise of the bureaucratic state, and seeing in political religions "the climax of the rebellion against the religion of God", also described them as ‘pseudo-religions’, ‘substitute religions’, ‘surrogate religions’, ‘religions manipulated by man’ and ‘anti-religions’.[2] Yale political scientist, Juan Linz and others have noted that secularization of the twentieth century had created a void which could be filled by a total ideology, making the political religions of totalitarianism possible[2][3],

Aspects of political religions

Key qualities often (not all are always strongly present) shared by religion (particularly cults) and political religion include

  • Structural
    • differentiation between self and other, and demonisation of other (in theistic religion, the differentiation usually depends on adherence to certain dogmas and social behaviours; in political religion, differentiation may be on grounds such as nationality, social attitudes, or membership in "enemy" political parties, instead)
    • a charismatic figurehead, with messianic tendencies; if figurehead is deceased, powerful successors;
    • strong, hierarchical organisational structures
    • a desire to control education, in order to ensure the security of the system
  • Belief
    • a coherent belief system for imposing symbolic meaning on the external world, with an emphasis on security through purity;
    • an intolerance of other ideologies of the same type
    • a degree of utopianism
    • the belief that the ideology is in some way natural or obvious, so that (at least for certain groups of people) those who reject it are in some way "blind"
    • a genuine desire on the part of individuals to convert others to the cause
    • a willingness to place ends over means - in particular, a willingness to use violence and fraud
    • fatalism - a belief that the ideology will inevitably triumph in the end

Not all of these aspects are present in any one political religion; this is only a list of some common aspects.

Suppression of religious beliefs

Political religions vie with existing religions, and try, if possible, to replace or eradicate them. [4] Loyalty to other entities, such as a church or a deity are often seen to interfere with loyalty to the political religion. The authority of potential religious leaders also presents a threat to the authority of the political religion. As a result, some or all religious sects are either suppressed or banned. An existing sect may be converted into a state religion, but dogma and personnel may be modified to suit the needs of the party or state. Where there is suppression of religious institutions and beliefs, this might be explicitly accompanied by atheistic doctrine as in state atheism.

Juan Linz has posited the hostile form of separation of church and state as the counterpole of political religion and describes the hostile form of separation of church and state as moving toward political religion as found in totalitarianism.[5]

Absolute loyalty

Loyalty to the state or political party and acceptance of the government/party ideology is paramount. Dissenters may be expelled, ostracized, discriminated against, imprisoned, "re-educated", or killed. Loyalty oaths or membership in a dominant (or sole) political party may be required for employment, government services, or simply as routine. Criticism of the government may be a serious crime. Enforcements range from ostracism from one's neighbors to execution.


The political religion often helps maintain its power base by instilling fear of some kind in the population. For example, North Korea holds frequent air raid drills to emphasize the possibility of imminent invasion. In China, the government emphasizes the danger of instability. The Stalinists maintained a state of panic by claiming that Trotskyist conspirators were sabotaging the Soviet Union. In Germany, the Reichstag fire, blamed on Communist terrorism, provided an opportunity for Adolf Hitler to declare a state of emergency.

Domestic displays of military power may be frequent. Citizens may obey harsh state mandates out of fear of being reported by fellow citizens or caught by the secret police.

When the political religion lacks complete control of the state, it may instead emphasize the threat posed to society by some otherwise-recognized or hypothetical threat or whichever rival party or group it deems to be the most "demonic".

Externalize blame

A common tactic of political religions is to pin blame for the nation's problems on a particular entity or group. North Korea blames its economic problems on the Western world. In Nazi Germany, Jews and other minority groups were the target.

Cult of personality

A political religion often elevates its leaders to near-godlike status. Displays of leaders in the form of posters or statues may be mandated in public areas and even private homes. Children may be required to learn the state's version of the leaders' biographies in school.


Political gatherings may supplement or replace religious ceremonies to help reinforce loyalty. The state usually controls the mass media for similar reasons, filling it with propaganda. Political religions that do not have such a level of mandated control may, instead, use commercial means to influence editorial and programming decisions. Certain leisure or cultural activities may also be mandated to reinforce some aspect of loyalty or the state ideology.

Traditional cases


See main articles Fascism, Fascist symbolism

Italian fascism

According to Emilio Gentile, "Fascism was the first and prime instance of a modern political religion."[3] "This religion sacralized the state and assigned it the primary educational task of transforming the mentality, the character, and the customs of Italians. The aim was to create a 'new man,' a believer in and an observing member of the cult of Fascism."[6]

"The argument [that fascism was a ‘political religion’] tends to involve three main claims: i) that fascism was characterized by a religious form, particularly in terms of language and ritual; ii) that fascism was a sacralized form of totalitarianism, which legitimized violence in defence of the nation and regeneration of a fascist 'new man'; and iii) that fascism took on many of the functions of religion for a broad swathe of society."[4]


See main articles Nazism, Nazi mysticism

"Among committed [Nazi] believers, a mythic world of eternally strong heroes, demons, fire and sword - in a word, the fantasy world of the nursery - displaced reality."[7] Heinrich Himmler was fascinated by the occult, and sought to turn the SS into the basis of an official state cult.[8]




Japanese Fascism


Possible or recent cases

North Korea

The North Korean government has promulgated Juche as a political alternative to traditional religion. The doctrine advocates a strong nationalist propaganda basis and is fundamentally opposed to Christianity and Buddhism, the two largest religions on the Korean peninsula. Juche theoreticians have, however, incorporated religious ideas into the state ideology. According to government figures, Juche is the largest political religion in North Korea. The public practice of all other religions is overseen and subject to heavy surveillance by the state.


During the long rule of president Saparmurat Niyazov large pictures and statues of him could be seen in public places in Turkmenistan. In an interview with the television news program "60 Minutes", Niyazov said the people of Turkmenistan placed them there voluntarily because they love him so much, and that he did not originally want them there. In addition, he granted himself the title "Türkmenbaşy", meaning "Leader of all Ethnic Turkmens" in the Turkmen language. A book purportedly authored by Niyazov, Ruhnama ("Book of the Soul") was required reading in educational institutions and was often displayed and treated with the same respect as the Qur'an. The study of Ruhnama in the academic system was scaled down but to some extent continued after Niyazov's death (in 2006), as of 2008.

See also


  1. ^ Maier, Hans and Jodi Bruhn Totalitarianism and Political Religions, p. 108, 2004 Routledge
  2. ^ Griffin, Roger Fascism, Totalitarianism and Political Religion, p. 7 2005Routledge
  3. ^ Maier, Hans and Jodi Bruhn Totalitarianism and Political Religions, p. 108, 2004 Routledge
  4. ^ Maier, Hans and Jodi Bruhn Totalitarianism and Political Religions, p. 108, 2004 Routledge
  5. ^ Maier, Hans and Jodi Bruhn Totalitarianism and Political Religions, p. 110-111, 2004 Routledge
  6. ^ Gentile, The Sacralization of Politics in Fascist Italy, p.ix.
  7. ^ Burleigh, The Third Reich, (London: Macmillan, 2000) pp.8-9.
  8. ^ N. Goodrick-Clarke, The Occult Roots of Nazism (Wellingborough: the Aquarian Press, 1985), and P. Levenda, Unholy Alliance (New York: Continuum, 2002).


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