About 'Faith in democracy'

Far more than the democratic system, totalitarian regimes tend towards a so-called ‘political religion’. That is: a political religiosity known to us from the French Revolution, the fascism in Germany and Italy, the Soviet Union and North Korea.

Yet this difference should not blind us to a fundamental similarity. Apparently democracy also has such totalitarian characteristics and seems to be equally inclined to self-compromising religiosity. A certain “political religion” seems to be the product of democracy: as a consequence of democracy, it seems to undermine and eliminate its potential. Much has been written about this, among others by Voegelin, Talmon and Bellah.

Political religion: a naive belief

Political religion can be defined as a more or less conscious belief in one or another political system, in its institutions, activities and machinations. Such a religiosity also seems to be characteristic of democracy: both for democratic thinking and for democratic practice. We only mention a few aspects here (for introduction).

Democracy believes in the opinion of the majority in seemingly religious ways. She believes in and appeals to the social consciousness of the masses who are above all interested in self-interest. In addition, the political religion surrounding democracy appears also to involve a seemingly unsuspecting belief in rational deliberation as central to political decision-making. Authentic deliberation, not mere voting, is, or so it seems, the primary source of legitimacy for the law.

Democracy in general implies a religion of values. Equality, logic, instrumentality, objectivity, impersonality, predictability, certainty, legality, laws and procedures are ‘believed’. These characteristics of democratic rationality are sometimes respected as if it were shrines and not idols. The dogma of the strict separation of church and state and its practice (the laïcité in France) also testifies to such a political religious conviction and orthodoxy. Democracy promises that in this way freedom, equality and brotherhood will be defended and realized.

Positivism as a political religion

In closer consideration, positivism can also be regarded as a political religion characteristic of democracies. This does not only apply to the nineteenth-century positivism of August Comte, which was even explicitly religious and as such even had an associated religion and liturgy. The twentieth-century legal positivism derived from this was and can rightly and rightly be called religious. Kelsen and Hart are apologists of such a religious doctrine, in which the legitimacy of the right is reduced to legality. This religion of lawyers and judges prescribed by them is the scientist’s belief in law as pure science and technology: the legal concept knows (according to them) no moral or aesthetic dimension. And modern political theory also testifies to this ‘pure’ doctrine: the contemporary naïve belief in the sanctity of the constitutional state is obviously not ecclesiastical, but it is certainly religious in a politically religious sense. And indeed this aspect of the political faith that surrounds democracy threatens to undermine the integrity of the system. The Myth of the State (Cassirer) easily turns into its enemy.

The platform 'faith in democracy'

With this democratic political religion outlined in the most rough brushstrokes, we come to the goals of the new platform that is supported with this website.

The platform ‘Belief in Democracy’ examines the above-mentioned phenomena and wants to relate critically to this political naivety: this democratic enthusiasm (Gr. en-theia: ‘being in God’).

However, the platform is not only intended to signal, analyze and critically examine these phenomena. It also wants to search for possible alternatives. This is (of course) not about alternatives to democracy per se, but about looking for an alternative belief that can correct this democratic naivety and fanaticism. This alternative belief does not necessarily have to be faithful in the strict sense of any ecclesiastical faith. It may very well be a secular conviction that is placed as a beneficial remover or antidote against believing atheism.

So, although the alternative itself might not necessarily be faith in the strict sense of the word, it still is very interesting to study to what extent the Jewish-Christian traditions of the West, as well as the spiritual traditions of the East, can inspire to such an alternative belief: to a quasi-religious alternative to the political myths surrounding democracy. For example, Biblical personalism seems to offer certain points of departure. Perhaps these or other original religious inspirations can be played out against the current, gullible fiducia in democracy.

Faith and aristocracy

That brings us to at least one important hypothesis that is being researched and tested with this new platform. Only a certain authentic faith, it seems, can, or so it seems, prevent or even cure the sickness of the political religion of democracy. ‘Faith’ in democracy can only be fought against by another faith. It could be done by some or other faith in a less religious and more existential sense. This goal cannot, so it seems, be accomplished by religion. This is because religion is democratic. Faith, on the other hand, is aristocratic and as such might be beneficial to the limitations and dangers of a democracy in itself. For instance: the temptations and dangers of a so-called civil religion, a belief that we see (for example) in America, but which was already found in ancient Rome and (in philosophy) in Rousseau, should perhaps best be combated by faith.


What faith is needed for a vital and resilient democracy? What alternative spiritual foundations of legitimacy, which other democratic values ​​and virtues can be distinguished? What to do against the autoimmunity of the democratic system: against the spiritual leveling that is inseparable from her according to (among others) Kierkegaard and Tocqueville? What are the ‘aristocratic’ conditions of a democracy that successfully opposes anti-democratic tendencies in and of democracy itself: spiritual conditions that democracy itself is not able to guarantee and organize?


Timo Slootweg (Universiteit Leiden)

Dr. T.J.M. (Timo) Slootweg Assistant Professor, Philosophy of Law

Hans Martien ten Napel (Universiteit Leiden)

Mr. dr. H.M.T.D. (Hans-Martien) ten Napel Associate Professor, Constitutional and Administrative law