One of the world’s most distinguished historians, Michael Burleigh, has written a two volume study detailing the struggle between religion and politics during the past two centuries. In short, he argues, political movements (particularly the revolutionary call for “change”) have frequently taken on notably religious characteristics while religious communities have often abandoned their traditions so as to promulgate a sociopolitical gospel. Volume one is entitled Earthly Powers: The Clash of Religion and Politics in Europe, from the French Revolution to the Great War (New York: Harper Perennial, c. 2005). Beginning with the French Jacobins, continuing through various 19th century utopian socialisms, culminating in 20th century totalitarianisms, we witness political religions wrecking havoc in the world.
Burleigh cites a prescient statement of Frederick Voigt, a “Burkean neo-Tory” in a “remarkable  book called Unto Caesar.” Therein “he compared totalitarianisms with religions: ‘We have referred to Marxism and National Socialism as secular religions. They are not opposites, but are fundamentally akin, in a religious as well as a secular sense. Both are messianic and socialistic. Both reject the Christian knowledge that all are under sin and both see in good and evil principles of class or race. Both are despotic in their methods and their mentality. Both have enthroned the modern Caesar, collective man, the implacable enemy of the individual soul. Both would render unto this Caesar the things which are God’s. Both would make man master of his own destiny, establish the Kingdom of Heaven in this world. Neither will hear of any Kingdom that is not of this world’” (p. 9).
It all began with the Enlightenment, wherein (as Carl Becker noted long ago in his little classic The Heavenly City of the 18th Century Philosophers) thinkers such as Rousseau who sought to establish a perfect world. As Alexis de Tocqueville explained, these intellectuals ignored the social wisdom of the ages and “’built an imaginary society in which everything seemed simple and coordinated, uniform, equitable, and in accord with reason’” (p. 44). They imagined a world more to their liking—a world that ought to be—and sought to establish it by whatever means necessary. Since the Catholic Church in France represented all that the intellectuals despised, it became the target of intense persecution during the Revolution. Within five years, “only 150 of France’s 40,000 pre-Revolution parishes were openly celebrating mass” (p. 66). Vandalized churches, the suppression of monastic orders and widespread killing of priests and the laymen who defended them, characterized the Jacobin “terror.”
In 1793 a large-scale revolt (the Vendee uprising) occurred in western France. Most of the anti-revolutionary “rebels” were farmers, artisans, middle class merchants outraged by the excesses of the Revolution. The Jacobins in Paris dispatched the army, and 250,000 “fanatics” were slaughtered. In an area near Nantes, “up to a third of the population perished, a statistic roughly equivalent to the horrors of twentieth-century Cambodia” (p. 101). “This was the first occasion in history,” Burleigh says, “when an ‘anticlerical’ and self-styled ‘non-religious’ state embarked on a programme of mass murder that anticipated many twentieth-century horrors” (p. 97).
Though Napoleon and the restoration of the monarchy in 1815 reestablished significant elements of the Church in France, the Revolution of 1789 had unleashed turbulent currents that troubled and reshaped Europe throughout the following century. Particularly powerful was its stimulus for Nationalism. In Burleigh’s judgment, “Nationalism was the most pervasive and potent Church to emerge during the nineteenth century, although for most people belonging to their nation was entirely compatible with Christian, Jewish or other devotions” (p. 199). The revolutions of 1848, the unification movements in Italy and Germany, all reveal a deep attachment to Nation, a virtual deification of the State. One’s loyalty shifted from the Church to secular regimes. Still more: while encouraging some forms of sentimental piety, the Romantic movement generally incubated a deeper passion for one’s fatherland.
Coupled with Nationalism was another equally secular outgrowth of the French Revolution—Socialism. Discarding the Christian portrait of a Golden Age in the past from which we are fallen, secularists in the 19th century envisioned a perfect world just ahead of us, to be inaugurated by scientific and technological breakthroughs. Man, by nature, was considered good, not sinful. All that was needed, to eliminate ignorance and poverty, was scientific education and social transformation. “Saint-Simon was the ur-guru of all future technocratic solutions to social problems and one of the early lights of European central socialist planning through which so much misery was inflicted on so many. Beyond that, he was the ancestor of those who seek global governance, world parliaments and world peace, the contemporary manifestation of the utopian legacy” (p. 224).
Saint-Simon opened a Pandora’s box of utopian socialist fantasies, including those of Auguste Comte (the “Father of Sociology”), Charles Fourier and Robert Owen (both of whom inspired some American settlements such as Brook Farm and New Harmony, Indiana). There was usually a “religious” aspect to such endeavors, but, as Burleigh notes: “Sectarian millennial doctrines were effectively transformed into an ideology of social progress whose Advent would come not with the millennium described in Daniel or Revelation, but as a consequence of general subscription to the communitarian way of life” (p. 24). Interestingly enough, he thinks that Chartism, a reform movement that significantly changed England in the 1830s, “was little more than a secularized form of Methodism” (p. 242).
In Karl Marx’s “scientific socialism” there appeared an atheistic version of communism intent on reviving the radical “Babouvism,” named for Gracchus Babeuf, who sought to establish, reacting against Napoleon and the Directory in 1798, the “equality of goods, to be achieved by distributing the property of the rich, would guarantee paradise on earth” (p. 243). Equality everywhere! Though Marx himself was irreligious, many 19th century communists blended a religious fervor with their heaven-on-earth aspirations. To Burleigh, Marxism itself is studded with religious trimmings: “Marxism combined the assurance that everything was operating according to the dispositions of secularised versions of higher powers with Gnostic sectarian belief that the messianic elect that had grasped these laws was morally entitled to destroy existing society (which was entirely without virtue) in order to achieve earthly paradise. Like medieval millenarians or early modern Protestant zealots, Communists took it upon themselves to realise heaven on earth through transforming violence: that exercise in regrettable but necessary killing which would murder eighty or a hundred million people in the twentieth century” (p. 251).
Yet another movement, overtly politicizing religion, was “Christian Socialism.” Many 19th century Christians, abandoning the doctrines of the Faith, sought to transform their religion into a social ethic. In England especially, hand-in-hand with Victorian moralism, Christian Socialism attracted a corps of converts. “Salvationism gave way to meliorism” (p. 253). Rather than saving souls, these Christians worked to rectify society. “Equality, justice and plenty were not endlessly deferred to an afterlife, but were attainable in this life through faith in Jesus Christ” (p. 262). Rather quickly, of course, the “Christian” aspects faded and a secular Socialism (evident in various Fabians and the resultant Labor Party) emerged.
There were, admittedly, significant critiques of all this. Pope Pius IX and John Henry Newman sought to counteract liberalizing trends within the Catholic Church. The Pope called Vatican Council I, the first General Council in 300 years. He and the Council sought to build a fortress, resisting the “satanic conspiracy of anticlericals, freemasons and liberals” that he detested. In Germany, Catholics were battered by Bismarck’s Kulturkampf but clung to the ancient faith and “mounted an impressive counter-campaign of civil disobedience and passive resistance” (p. 332). Nevertheless, by the century’s end, effective conservative resistance to the revolutionary message of the French Revolution had markedly faded.
Burleigh concludes this volume with a chapter titled “Apocalypse 1914.” In the “great war” the mixture of politics and religion stood clearly revealed. In Germany, for example, “the immanentist and Hegelian strain in German liberal Protestant theology, in which whatever one felt powerfully enough was indicative of the developing presence of God, meant that He was manifest in the intense emotions of August 1914, directing the movements of German armies at war. As a wartime German cleric put it: ‘God is what the god-inspired people do’” (p. 442). Nationalism easily usurped the catholicity of the ancient Christian creeds. Politics became a religion; religion embraced politics.
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Burleigh’s second volume, Sacred Causes: The Clash of Religion and Politics, from the Great War to the War on Terror (New York: HarperCollins, c. 2007), brings his narrative into the present. Impoverishment and disillusionment, as well as massive political changes, resulted from WWI. The Russian and German and Austro-Hungarian empires collapsed. Italy’s liberal regime was displaced by Mussolini in the 1920s and Germany’s Weimar Republic barely survived the decade before falling to Hitler. Totalitarians—all sharing a thoroughly socialistic worldview—triumphed in much of Europe. Their totalitarianism, according to Langmead Casserly, was “’founded not only on the will to power of autocratic statesmen, but also on the will to security, and the impulse to adore and propitiate, of the mass of citizens . . . The pseudo-divinity of the modern state is perhaps not so much a divinity which it has arrogantly usurped as a divinity thrust upon it by the masses of insecure and frustrated people, insistently demanding some powerful and venerable object of faith and trust’” (p. 15).
In a lucid chapter entitled “The Totalitarian Political Religions” Burleigh analyzes Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler. While granting their many differences, he finds remarkable their remarkable. Before any of them appeared, a clairvoyant thinker, Semyon Frank (born into a Russian-Jewish family but converting to Orthodox Christianity in 1912), assessed “the nihilistic moralism of the Russian intelligentsia. Of the socialists’ infatuation with the idea, he presciently declared: ‘Sacrificing himself for the sake of this idea, he does not hesitate to sacrifice other people for it. Among his contemporaries he sees either merely the victims of the world’s evil he dreams of eradicating or the perpetrators of that evil . . . This feeling of hatred for the enemies of the people forms the concrete and active psychological foundation of his life. Thus the great love of mankind of the future gives birth to a great hatred for people; the passion for organizing an earthly paradise becomes a passion for destruction’” (p. 39).
Legions of Western Europeans were enchanted by the 1917 triumph of Bolshevism in Russia. One of them was Bertrand Russell, who joined a delegation of the Labor Party that visited the promised land in 1920. Witnessing what actually happened, he discerned (within 24 hours) the impact of Lenin: “’I felt that everything I valued in human life was being destroyed in the interests of a glib and narrow philosophy, and that in the process untold misery was being inflicted upon many millions of people’” (p. 39). Groping about for an explanation of what he saw, Russell concluded: “The war has left throughout Europe a mood of disillusionment and despair which calls aloud for a new religion, as the only force capable of giving men the energy to live vigorously. Bolshevism has supplied the new religion. It promises glorious things” (p. 39).
Substitute Fascism or National Socialism for Bolshevism and you have a valid explanation for much that transpired during the third and fourth decades of the 20th century. Italy’s Il Duce, for example, had been “a rising star of the revolutionary left-wing of the Italian Socialist Party” before the war (p. 55) whose “concern with culture and values led Mussolini to a quasi-religious conception of politics, in which a dedicated elite would help regenerate mankind from the social and spiritual ills that were commonly held to debilitate it” (p. 55). Hitler too incorporated religious resonances in his rhetoric. “His God was not the Christian God” (p. 101), and he was ferociously anticlerical. But “the fundamental structure of the Nazi creed was soteriological, a redemptive story of suffering and deliverance, a sentimental journey from misery to glory, from division to mystic unity based on the blood bond that linked souls” (p. 105).
Having demonstrated the religious aspects of political movements, Burleigh then turns to “the churches in the age of dictators.” Almost everywhere Christians suffered. Details differ as one moves from revolutionary Mexico to Republican Spain to Portugal and Austria, Italy and Germany, but these were difficult years for churches. The popes were especially hard pressed to deal with political upheavals in so many different “Catholic” countries. In 1931, evaluating dangers posed by Fascism in Italy, Pope Pius XI cautiously warned, in Quadragesimo anno, that “there are some who fear that the State is substituting itself in the place of private initiative, instead of limiting itself to necessary and adequate assistance” (p. 166).
His successor, Pius XII, facing the more overtly anti-Christian Nazis in Germany, decried the Nationalism which “’is perhaps the most dangerous heresy of our times’” (p. 169). Under his guidance, Catholic bishops in Austria and Germany “were more condemnatory of Nazism than may be popularly realised” (p. 170). Rooted in the Natural Law, Catholics were more likely to oppose Hitler’s program than Protestants, who were “generally more prone to worrying about seeming out of step with scientising modernism” than preserving the ancient faith (p. 180). Individual Protestants such as Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer certainly distinguised themselves by opposing the Nazis, but virtually all Christians in Germany failed to do so. Hitler effectively suppressed church publications, drove into exile eminent intellectuals, spread lies about traditional church leaders, and subtly co-opted many nominally “Christian” Germans.
In Burleigh’s judgment, Pius XII (contrary to being “Hitler’s Pope,” as some calumnists contend) fought Hitler as effectively as anyone. According to an American consul, Pius XII “’opposed unilaterally every compromise with National Socialism. He regarded Hitler not only as an untrustworthy scoundrel but as a fundamentally wicked person. He did not believe Hitler capable of moderation, in spite of appearances, and he fully supported the German bishops in their anti-Nazi stand” (p. 187). Even Albert Einstein, no champion of Christianity, said that “’Only the Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler’s campaign for suppressing the truth. I had never any special interest in the Church before, but now I feel a great admiration because the Church alone has had the courage and persistence to stand for intellectual truth and moral freedom. I am forced to confess, that what I once despised, I now praise unreservedly’” (p. 213).
WWII, Burleigh says, was (like WWI) an “apocalypse.” World-wide havoc destroyed millions of people but left a globe in tatters. It was, to be sure, a war. But, as T.S. Eliot said noted, it was actually “’an enormous catastrophe which includes a war’” (p. 215). Christians—and their churches—suffered wherever the Nazis ruled, and one of the great contributions of this book is to make known what they endured while the war was waged. In Poland, the most devastated of all nations, three million Christians, as well as three million Jews, perished. One-fifth of the Catholic clergy disappeared. In Holland the churches ineffectually protested the deportation of Jews, but at least they spoke up—and many suffered for so doing. With Catholics in all European countries, Pope Pius XII walked a thin wire, trying to be both prophet and diplomat, denouncing evil while doing what possible to protect believers wherever they lived.
Wherever possible, he protected Jews as well—in Rome one third of the Jews “were hidden in buildings owned by the Catholic Church” (p. 278). Jews in the American army “which liberated Rome were unequivocal in their praise for Pius for his role in protecting Jews,” declaring that without his assistance thousands would have perished. “In recognition of Pius’ efforts, Rome’s chief rabbi Israel Zolli took the baptismal name Eugenio when he formally converted to Christianity in February 1945” (p. 280). While we might second-guess Pius XII—as we might well do with FDR—in his response to the Nazis, no one who examines the evidence can blame him for the Holocaust. Thousands of Christians could certainly have responded more courageously, but the blame for Hitler’s wrongdoing rests with Hitler and his minions. Indeed, “In 1945 the Allied occupying powers and the broad German public had a greater regard for the conduct of the Churches under National Socialism than would be the case by the 1960s, the beginning of decades of therapeutic inquisition that has since become tawdry” (p. 301).
WWII was followed, immediately, by the “Cold War,” wherein Stalin replaced Hitler as the great threat to the West. “Within a remarkable short time totalitarian rule had been reimposed on half a continent using a combination of force and fraud” (p. 344). A new corps of politicians, notably Konrad Adenauer in West Germany, sincerely sought to rebuild their countries with a commitment to their Christian traditions and resist the creep of Communism. For decades, of course, Russian Orthodox Christians had suffered under Bolshevism. Now, as the “Iron Curtain” fell over Eastern Europe, Christians in the West began to heed their anguish and join in doing what possible to stop the spread of an overtly atheistic socialism. Anti-communism became, particularly in some American circles, almost an item in the Creed!
There was, for a decade following WWII, a rather remarkable religious revival in England and America. But things changed in the 1960s. Young radicals, marching in the streets, called for “change.” Indeed, Burleigh notes, “Change came to be fetishised for change’s sake” (p. 350). Whatever had been should be no more! Sexual standards, including opposition to contraception and abortion, carefully defended for generations, were jettisoned in the “sexual revolution.” Criticizing, rather than supporting, one’s country was abruptly labeled “patriotic.” Spokesmen for Christianity, such as Joseph Fletcher, with his “Situation Ethics,” joined the “movement,” as did various champions of “liberation theology,” and by 1970 a profoundly different cultural world was settling into place. “Ill-digested economics and sociology flooded into the minds of theologians for whom the Gospels were not sexy enough unless flavoured with a heavy shake of Marxism” (p. 371).
Ironically, while trendy theologians in the West flirted with Marxism, those suffering its iron hand hungered for the ancient certainties of the Christian Faith. “As the future Solidarity leader Lech Walesa would comment: ‘The invocation of a moral order was the most revolutionary response that could be made to the increasingly dogmatic socialism practiced in Poland, and people we caught up in this wave of moral reawakening’” (p. 419). So too, said Russian dissidents like Alexander Solzhenitsyn! When Pope John Paul II visited Poland in 1979, his countrymen chanted “’We want God, we want God, we want God in the family circle, we want God in books, in schools, we want God in government orders, we want God, we want God’” (p. 430). And when President Ronald Reagan courageously called the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” he was cheered by the millions who knew the truth whereof he spoke.
So ends Burleigh’s story. The carnage wrought by messianic political movements, running from the Jacobins to Castro, should prompt us to eschew any and all political saviors and solutions. And the implosion of the churches should warn us to ever worship God and pray for the forgiveness of our sins rather than mobilize believers to rectify the world’s social and economic woes.
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