Rescuing Political Theology From Its Passionate Partisans (Carl Raschke)

It is high time, I fear, for someone to call “bovine body waste” on the seemingly inexhaustible creativity in the current overuse and abuse of the phrase “political theology.”

Ever since Carl Schmitt minted the term in the 1920s, it has wobbled over the generations not only in its connotations, but also in its theoretical sophistication and relevance.   Today, unfortunately, it has simply served as the very latest episode in the careless catachresis of once precise, yet abstruse academic terminology that has been injected into the bloodstream of popular discourse, joining such woefully overdetermined and contentless words as “deconstruction” or “postmodernism.”

The trend has been accelerating for almost a half century within the scholarly arena, as it turns out, perhaps as a result of the diversity of figures who have employed the locution in diverse settings with a wide variety of applications or aims.  But the more recent obsession throughout the Western intelligentsia with politics – and especially a contentious one – has probably been the driving force behind this distinctive form of linguistic debauchery. 

Functioning at the conceptual level as a kind of a conjugate variable designed to pivot the recent, abrupt shift over the past quarter century from the so-called “return of religion” in our culture to the militant secularism that set in around the end of the Great Recession, “political theology” has become something of an urbane weasel word that grants just about anyone the license to straddle the line between secular punditry and the profession of a certain acceptable “faith-based” position, regardless of where one is coming from.  One need not bother any longer with a misplaced concern for semantic rigor.

Nonetheless, the term “political theology” actually goes all the way back to the ancient world and in a certain sense even predates Christianity.   The theologia civilis of the Roman Stoic philosopher Marcus Terentius Varro (116-27 BCE), whom Augustine criticized extensively, and almost compulsively, in his City of God, can be translated straightforwardly as “political theology.  

Varro’s Antiquities of Human and Divine Things, an important literary text that has been lost except for the references we find in Augustine, can be construed as one of the major works of pagan “political theology”, seeking to justify archaic Roman mythology as a sort of coded popular primer for instructing the uneducated citizenry in the moral and philosophical principles that informed the “civil religion” of the Republic. 

According to Peter van Nuffelen in Rethinking the Gods, Varro was really arguing that, even though both Hellenic and Roman philosophers as well as later Church Fathers tended to denigrate Roman religion as “superstition”, its legends, images, and rites were to be commended as a type of archaic pedagogy for inculcating loyalty to the state and a variety of fundamental political virtues.  It is much the same argument Spinoza used in his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus regarding the Hebrew Scriptures.

Yet, as Francis Schüssler Fiorenza has persuasively argued, the common assumption that “political theology” somehow amounts to a subset of the more expansive enterprise of theology proper is a modernist conceit, one which perhaps harks back to the Protestant Reformation.  In fact, “the criteria appealed to in the defense of political theology stem from the political function of religion.”(153).   That is what Varro was doing, and it is against the classic, pagan version of political theology that Augustine sets his own epoch-making distinction between the “two kingdoms.”  For Augustine, the only genuine “political” theology, aside from its critique of the model which Varro did not invent but merely refined, can be a theology of the civitas Dei, or in Greek the basieleia to theou, the “kingdom of God.”

Of course, Augustine’s “two kingdoms” distinction, appropriated and promoted definitely by Luther and Lutherans, was not shared by the Calvinist wing of the Reformation, which on the Protestant side has heavily influenced historically an interest in what today we call “political theology”.  Yet, as Fiorenza with his exquisite scholarly attention to the nuances of ancient political theory has pointed toward, “it is was the insight of Augustine to demonstrate how the political theology is dependent upon the mythic and metaphysical  theology ; it will become the insight of the Enlightenment that these are in turn also dependent upon societal and political presuppositions.”

The question of the validity was met by political theology with an appeal to utility and political function.” (153-4). Fiorenza makes it clear that any attempt to do a “Christian political theology” constitutes perhaps an unwitting desire to return to the classic pagan paradigm where political theology is invariably and inevitably a tacit type of state theology.

Of course, that is exactly what Schmitt had in mind when writing his locus classicus that went by the title of Political Theology.  For Schmitt, the power of the state by definition is vested in the sovereign, and the image of the sovereign cannot be disentangled from the image of God.  At the same time, the image of God cannot be in any meaningful manner unmoored from the prevailing figuration of state power itself. 

Schmitt’s second major work on “political theology,” composed in the late 1960s and published in English under the curiously errant title of Political Theology II: The Myth of the Closure of Any Political Theology, was a somewhat baroque screed aimed at countering the academic trend during that period of viewing the “theological” as an epiphenomena of the secular rather than the other way around.  Schmitt concentrated his polemic on the writings of his contemporary German theologian Erik Peterson, who had talked about the “closure of political theology” in light of the “secularization thesis” that became all the rage during the 1960s and much of the 1970s.   

In many respects Peterson’s ideas foreshadowed Giorgio Agamben’s notion that there is a “double paradigm” of sovereignty that fluctuates between monotheism and Trinitarianism, a thesis which the latter developed carefully in his The Kingdom and the Glory and which I myself have dissected at length.  Peterson, however, put forward the strong claim that monotheistic paradigm, coextensive with a monarchial imago of political sovereignty, was incompatible with Christianity.  In an important sense Schmitt’s counterpoint was simply that the Trinitarian – or what Agamben terms the “economical” – prototype of sovereignty, both sacred and secular, is derivative from the monarchial and that Peterson’s efforts to uncouple it from Christianity relegated it to the kind of pagan, “civil theology” that Varro had espoused, and which Augustine assailed. 

In what amounts to a kind of primer on the emergence of what has come to be known as “political theology” in the twentieth century, especially if we catalogue use of the term by major personalities who ply their trade completely outside the distinctive parameters forged and fiercely guarded by Schmitt, Elizabeth Philips makes the case that from the Sixties onward “these thinkers were increasingly informed by the rising school of thought now called ‘critical theory’.”(43)  According to Philips, who at times resorts to overgeneralizations, the tendency among theological thinkers, particular during this period which set a broader standard for contemporary reflection, was to reject any standpoint resembling the “transcendental” frame of reference which Schmitt had insisted was the only legitimate approach to “political theology”.

In hindsight, Philips appears to be quite correct in making such an assessment, but the real issue then comes down to whether political theology per se can be characterized as little more than an effort to put a theological glaze over what is inherently a more incoherent culture of politically committed clerics and social activists.  It seems like no accident that the major representatives of “political theology” she cites are not so much leading international representatives of the theological profession but social ethicists. 

Indeed, Robert Yelle’s recent effort in Sovereignty and the Sacred to root the somewhat disciplinarily dispersed project of political theology in anthropology and the history of religions is the latest sally in this specific direction.  Yelle does not claim to be offering any normative assessments about what might be the appropriate subject matter for political theology, or to speculate where political might or should be going, but he does make the useful observation, which runs thoroughly against the grain of what Schmitt was attempting throughout his career, that the “theological” dimension of the enterprise as a whole can no longer be supported by even covert monarchial sympathies. 

The now almost canonical work of such pioneering socio-theoretical researchers on the ancient connections between religion, ritual, and sacrifice as Georges Bataille and René Girard steer us in a different direction than the one proposed by Schmitt. As it turns out, they take us away from monarchy while valorizing democracy.  “Popular rituals of transgression, which intersect with revolutionary moments, may suggest an alternative political theology, in which the constituting power returns to the people themselves,” Yelle writes.(34).

It was Rousseau, to be sure, who first worked out in detail the political theory of popular sovereignty.  For a long time the honor had been assigned to Locke, but a generation ago John Dunn showed how the former had been concerned not so much with the theory of governance as the defense of property and the inalienable character of the power to “consent”, an approach which did not add up in any sense to a theory of sovereignty. 

Rousseau himself founded his theory of popular sovereignty, as noted in chapter vii of Book I of The Social Contract, on the sanctity of the law as authorized by the original compact itself, one which requires its own kind of ritual re-enactment and re-affirmation and must be guaranteed over time by the institution of a “civil religion.”  It can be argued that Rousseau injected in a theoretical context the religious motif of “sacrifice” into his famous argument that democracy is neither a consortium nor a plurality of wills, but the transformation through the political process of the individual will itself into what is qualitatively and dialectically something of an entirely different ontological order – the volonté générale or “general will.” 

Rousseau writes in The Social Contract that the compact itself consists in “the complete transfer of each associate, with all his rights, to the whole community.”(55). In short, the human being in the state of nature with his or her own “natural rights” ends up “sacrificing” them to the transcendental order of things, which reconstitutes the community no longer as an aggregation of personal aims or interests but as the transpersonal volonté générale. 

It is the same kind of conceptual alchemy, as Ernst Cassirer famously noted, that Kant adapts Rousseau’s template for the social compact in his Critique of Practical Reason while making the case that true “freedom” does not depend on the preservation of the liberum arbitrium, the moral condition of human beings in the state of nature, but in the subjection of one’s own “inclinations” to the universal moral law. 

Such an alchemy, as I argue in my most recent book Neoliberalism and Political Theology: From Kant to Identity Politics, forms the unique “value configuration” for a contemporary global pseudo-democracy that is implicitly authoritarian, if not totalitarian, at its marrow.  That is why I have called Kant himself the progenitor of neoliberalism itself, not because his theories of morality and politics serve as the ground architecture for an eventual authoritarian takeover of democracy (comparable perhaps to the well-known pretense of a “people’s democracy”), but because as Rousseau’s “sorcerer’s apprentice” in the sphere of ethics and politics he allows for no mediating structures between the claims of the individual and the “universalist” collective. 

Hegel’s critique of Kant’s own “formalistic” ethics – something which the latter abandoned in his very late political writings – comprised a limited attempt to construct a concrete frame of orientation for any putative universalism, one which Marx himself leveraged even more boldly in order to construct a powerful critique of bourgeois political economy.    Neoliberalism, therefore, represents the completion of the immanent logic of the “social ethics” of the younger Kant. 

At the same time, neoliberalism from a very broad view may also be exactly what we get, if we follow the Hegelian-Marxist strand of analysis, when we pay absolute no heed to Schmitt’s own warnings in Political Theology II about falling for the “myth” of “closure.”  What Schmitt meant by “closure” was not the end of a mode of inquiry that would call itself “political theology”, but the termination of one that disallowed for the transcendent (or “transcendental” in the popular as opposed to the technical sense of the word) option.

Political theologies, particularly the plethora of present day forms of moralistic and social justice advocacy based on vague “Christian” precepts without attention to their historical genealogy and contemporary context, are for the most part what Schmitt had in mind.  We do not have to revere or revile Schmitt to take his cautions seriously.  But he is the one who gave currency to the expression “political theology” itself, and that fact should not be considered haphazardly.

Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver, specializing in Continental philosophy, art theory, the philosophy of religion and the theory of religion.   He is an internationally known writer and academic, who has authored numerous books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from postmodernism to popular religion and culture to technology and society.  Recent books include Postmodern Theology: A Biopic(Cascade Books, 2017)Critical Theology: An Agenda for an Age of Global Crisis(IVP Academic, 2016)Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2015) and The Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (University of Virginia Press, 2012).  His newest book is entitled Neoliberalism and Political Theology: From Kant to Identity Politics, (Edinburgh University Press, 2019).  He is also Senior Consulting Editor for The New Polis.

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