Modern Political Religion and its Demons – John GRAY

As I have already indicated, early Christianity was an eschatological cult: Jesus and his first disciples believed that the world was destined for imminent destruction so that a new and perfect one could come into being. Eschatology does not always have this positive character – in some pagan traditions the end of the world is seen as meaning the death of the gods and final disaster. Despite the fact that the Nazis adopted a Christian demonology, negative eschatology of this kind was a strand in their ideology. However, it was a positive version of apocalyptic belief that fuelled medieval and secular millenarian movements, which expected an End-Time when the evils of the world would disappear for ever. (Millenarianism is sometimes distinguished from millennialism, with the former believing in the literal return of Christ and the latter looking forward to the arrival of some kind of holy kingdom. But there is no consistent pattern in the use of these terms, and except where otherwise indicated I will use them interchangeably.)


At the same time the Nazis mobilized a potent mix of beliefs. Nazi ideology differs from that of most other utopian and millenarian movements in that it was largely negative. Nazi eschatology was a debased imitation of pagan traditions that allowed the possibility of a final disaster without any prospect of future renewal. This negative eschatology was linked with a sort of negative utopianism, which focused on the obstacles to future paradise more than on its content. The Nazis’ eschatology may have been less important than their demonology, which came from Christian sources (not least the Lutheran tradition). The world was threatened by demonic forces, which were embodied in Jews. The present time and the recent past were evil beyond redemption. The one hope lay in catastrophe – only after an all-destroying event could the German Volk ascend to a condition of mystical harmony.


The singularity of the Nazi attempt to annihilate the Jews comes not only from the scale of the crime but also from the extremity of its goal. Jews were seen as the embodiment of evil and their extermination as a means of saving the world. Nazi anti-Semitism was a fusion of a modern racist ideology with a Christian tradition of demonology. Eschatological myth and perverted science came together to produce a crime without precedent in history.


Modern political religions may reject Christianity, but they cannot do without demonology. The Jacobins, the Bolsheviks and the Nazis all believed vast conspiracies were mounted against them, as do radical Islamists today. It is never the flaws of human nature that stand in the way of Utopia. It is the workings of evil forces. Ultimately these dark forces will fail, but only after they have tried to block human advance by every kind of nefarious device. This is the classic millenarian syndrome, and in the forms in which they have shaped modern politics the millenarian and the utopian mentality are one and the same.


Equally it is difficult to see how Bush could have mobilized American opinion behind the war in Iraq without the traumatic events of 9/11. Before the terrorist attacks, Bush’s foreign policy reflected a number of influences. The US was already beginning its withdrawal from foreign treaties that were seen as limiting its capacity for unilateral action, but Bush’s tone was not stridently assertive. Though they occupied important positions in government, neo-conservatives were not calling the shots. After 9/11 this changed. Apocalyptic myths that had been dormant re-emerged, and it was not difficult for neo-conservatives in the administration to link the ‘war on terror’ with their geo-political objectives. By 2004 a Homeland Security Planning Scenario Document was describing the terrorist threat facing the United States as being perpetrated by the Universal Adversary. National security was understood in terms of concepts derived from demonology.


If Strauss’s analysis of Nazism was faulty, his larger analysis of liberal democracy is also implausible. No liberal democratic regime – not even the most powerful or long lasting – is secure from the temptations of tyranny, but where these regimes are subverted it is rarely by an excess of scepticism. Liberal democracy has existed for long periods in countries without any consensus on metaphysical beliefs. In Switzerland it has thrived for centuries against a background of religious diversity, while in Britain it has advanced as religious belief has waned. The countries of northern Europe are among the most successful liberal democracies in the world and they are post-Christian. Strauss’s analysis of democracy is mostly a diagnosis of Weimar Germany, but mass unemployment, hyperinflation, war reparations and national humiliation destroyed any legitimacy the Weimar regime ever had. As has been seen, the Nazis were able to make use of Christian millenarian traditions and of anti-Semitic Christian demonology, but it was the built-in lack of legitimacy of the Weimar regime rather than a largely imaginary state of mass nihilism that enabled them to come to power.


GRAY, John, Black Mass: How Religion Led The World Into Crisis. Toronto: Anchor Canada, 2008

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