In an article published in September 1939, in the very eye of the storm of twentieth-century Europe's ‘age of extremes’, the British historian Christopher Dawson attempted to get to grips with the temper of his times. Opining on what he saw as the failure of nineteenth-century liberal individualism and its deleterious encroachment on spiritual values, he wrote:
Now the coming of the totalitarian state marks the emergence of a new type of politics which recognises no limits and seeks to subordinate every social and intellectual activity to its own ends. Thus the new politics are in a sense more idealistic than the old; they are political religions based on a Messianic hope of social salvation. But at the same time they are more realist since they actually involve a brutal struggle for life between rival powers which are prepared to use every kind of treachery and violence to gain their ends.
When not researching medieval Christian encounters with the Mongols, Dawson wrote history with a grand narrative sweep such as he admired in the work of the German historian Oswald Spengler. His output has recently sparked a revival of interest, with claims that he was one of most significant Catholic historians of the century. Yet this Augustinian pessimist was only one of a broader band of contemporary intellectuals – not all of them religious apologists – to brandish the label of ‘political religion’ as a descriptor, and as a moral warning. Seventy years on, the same moral seriousness characterises several of the books under review here, especially those addressing the more terrifying consequences of political religion in its various forms. For as A. James Gregor declares when introducing his intellectual history of Totalitarianism and Political Religion
, ‘the unnumbered dead of the past century’ are surely owed some posthumous explanation:
Amid all the other factors that contributed to the tragedy, there was a kind of creedal ferocity that made every exchange a matter of existential importance. The twentieth century was host to systems of doctrinal conviction that made unorthodox belief a capital affront, made conflict mortal, and all enterprise sacrificial (Gregor, xi).