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Around the Network, Pedagogy

100 Years of Political Theology: Dave True’s Top Ten

…My list focuses on the other conversation, religious voices or theologians, whether practical or professional, immersed in the concrete or engaged in theorizing. My aim is to suggest the kind of reconciling work that Vincent calls for between theology and critical humanities. Such a move makes profound sense to me—emerging as it does out of the tensions within my own biography.

From the editor: Last week, Ted A. Smith of Emory University posted a wonderfully useful “Political Theology Start-up Kit” at the Religion in American History blog, summarizing what he thought were some of the key texts in the field over the past 100 years. In response, I have invited a range of editors and contributors to Political Theology and Political Theology Today to offer their own “Top 10 lists” over the next several weeks, based on their diverse approaches to and experiences within the field.  Our second contribution is from Dave True, Executive Editor of this blog and editor of the journal Political Theology.

My Perspective on PT

I want to thank Ted for the post that inspired this series, and Vincent for his helpful overview of the lay of the land in his first post. Vincent suggests there may actually be two distinct conversations in political theology, and divides the field along the lines of (political) theologians and critical humanists. The latter perhaps largely overlaps with Ted’s list of texts that are concerned with the processes of social formation, legitimation, and internalization. (He intentionally focuses on this conversation in large part because his audience is historians of religion in the US.) My list focuses on the other conversation, religious voices or theologians, whether practical or professional, immersed in the concrete or engaged in theorizing. My aim is to be part of the kind of reconciling work that Vincent calls for between theology and critical humanities. Such a move makes profound sense to me—emerging as it does out of the tensions within my own biography. I come to the field of political theology from the discipline of theology. My dissertation in theology and ethics identified a complicated tradition of progressive Protestants who claimed that God called them (and us) to participate in the messy business of American politics in a vigorous and nuanced manner. Theology, it seems, matters, as Douglas Ottati is fond of saying.

One might think, of course, that training in a normative theological tradition would make me ill-suited for my professional context—teaching at a small college—especially since it’s a college with a stubborn devotion to the liberal arts. Moreover, I’m not simply one theologian among several others in a large and diverse department. I am the sole (full-time) faculty in religion.

How one views these issues, however, depends on one’s understanding of the relationship between theology and religion. I tend to see them as intertwined, especially at the level of beliefs about the powers that undergird and bear down upon us. My teaching revolves around the study of the traditions of religious communities . I spend much of my time trying to equip students to understand members of these communities and how they make sense of life in the world. How does a particular community understand the powers that create, sustain, destroy, and renew their community and the larger world? If one pays particular attention to their religious vision then one may also discover something of how they understand power, both the power of their god(s) and the power lodged within the polis—whether they are viewed as one and the same, distinct, or completely separate. As Stanley Hauerwas (and others) have said, political theology is redundant. All theology is political.


Political theology as a field, then, finds coherence in the study of notions of power, divine power in relation to human politics. The modern self-conscious field of political theology has been most concerned with the modern-nation state (see Ted’s post), but this also involves the study of earlier forms of politics and their related theological notions of power. Most of these investigations might be characterized as critical.

As Vincent suggests, the field of political theology occurs within theology and the critical humanities, but I also want to propose a somewhat different fault-line: between what are ostensibly critical projects and those works that have not foreclosed on the possibility of constructive work on the project that is the modern nation-state. A theologian critical of the modern nation-state, such as Stanley Hauerwas, then may find an intellectual ally in Simon Critchley. Of course, the theologian who writes with a constructive agenda may also draw on these same sources, but the overlap between the constructive theologian and the critical humanists tends to be less significant. Still, the constructive theologian or the theologian who embraces something of the modern nation-state may find other allies in the field or adjacent to it. Here I think Ted’s final text is very helpful. Lilla is not writing in political theology, but he’s writing about theology and politics. In other words, political theology is part of a larger conversation or conversations about politics and theology. It is important to remember this if the field is to remain open and not be reduced to a single perspective.

If I am correct about this critical and constructive split, it is also important to say that political theology is not simply a series of separate or siloed conversations. It is an extended argument between these different perspectives on how divine power is and ought to be related to human power. One of the things that makes this argument interesting is that it is not especially disciplined. Rather than respecting boundaries between church and academy, the argument tracks back and forth and then it jumps from one religion to another and across class, race and gender boundaries. It takes dusty old doctrines seriously, sometimes too seriously, but this interdisciplinary study sees—as other disciplines have failed to see—that notions of divine power continue to haunt, challenge, and succumb to the modern nation-state for good and ill.

The Texts

Given such a bewildering argument made up of a saintly and motley cast of debate partners, it is easy to see that ten texts is an artificial limit. Still, it is an interesting experiment, as much because what it tells us about the field and the scholar as the texts themselves. The selection depends not just on the story one wants to tell about the 20th century, but the audience to whom one wants to tell it. For me this means introducing the argument that is political theology to an undergraduate class on religion and (modern) politics or religion and (modern) democracy. Here’s my top ten:

1-3. Rauschenbusch, Schmitt, and Benjamin

My version of the story begins with the Walter Rauschenbusch’s (re)discovery that Christian faith calls for a certain kind of politics—a democratic politics modeled on the cooperative relations practiced within the kingdom of God . . . a kingdom made actual in reform movements and other genuine democratic bodies. Rauschenbusch wrote several important books, but Christianity and the Social Crisis is his most famous, readable, and important. This reading also makes for a nice contrast with the events that followed, from which several key texts emerge. I’d opt for the central and well-known texts by Schmitt and Benjamin, mentioned by both Ted and Vincent. The contrast with Rauschenbusch is jarring, from his emerging kingdom to Benjamin’s apocalypticism and Schmitt’s divine sovereignty secularized for the state’s sovereign.

4-5. Barth and the Early Niebuhr

During the late 20s Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr were resisting the dominant interpretations of political theology in their own contexts. They also, of course, make for a nice contrast with each other. For Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society marks his break with a secularized political theology of pacifism. Does the text offer a secularized realism or is Niebuhr a political theologian? With Barth, I can think of no better text—and there are many, of course—than the Barmen Declaration. The Barmen gives students the chance to grasp the core of Barth’s political theology in an accessible format, see it in the context of resistance to the Nazi movement, and join others in evaluating its adequacy. Practically speaking, the brevity of this text also allow for additional pages of Barth to be assigned. If time permits, I would also recommend Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History. Andrew Bacevich’s  recent use of Niebuhr is example of this text’s continuing critical power.

6. MLK’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail

While other texts from the King canon are possibilities, along with the works of Howard Thurman or James Cone, the Letter from Birmingham City Jail is a classic that articulates the political theology of a mass movement. It also displays several strands of political theology and the possibility of creative appropriation of a theological tradition. King complicates notions of sovereignty and covenant, appealing as he does to federal authority, but also to people of good will, the democratic principle of equality, the Christian ideal of equal worth, and moral conscience. It is a tour de force that should not be neglected because of its familiarity.

7. Gustavo Gutierrez’s A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation

If one thinks of political theology not as a field or argument, but as a perspective—perhaps a critique of political liberalism (and public theology), three moments come immediately to mind: Schmitt and Benjamin, Yoder and Hauerwas, and liberation theology. My first encounter with this text was like entering another world—rich and dense and challenging. Here was a sacramental theology challenging the spiritualized politics of a church in the service of imperial elites. Like King’s Letter, this text is closely related to a popular form of political theology articulated in local communities…and yet the language is entirely different from King’s and the call is to create something new.

8. Mary Daly’s Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation

Mary Daly may seem like something of an odd choice. Isn’t her target the sexist church hierarchy with its misogynistic symbols, chief of which is God the Father? To see the book as confined to some separate religious arena or institution is to mistake Daly and misunderstand the point of her writing. It is, after all, Daly’s claim that patriarchy seeks to keep women in their place, in part through religious symbols that serve to legitimate this order. Daly seeks to transform the symbol and with it our notion of power and politics, liberating women to participate fully in communities of mutuality. Here again the emphasis is on creating something new.

9. John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus

This text offers yet another critical perspective on political liberalism, generating a thoroughgoing critique based on his reading of Jesus that is at once faithful to his tradition and creative. Coining or perhaps employing the category of a Constantinian church, Yoder at once limits and affirms the sovereignty of the modern nation-state. One might read this and countless other text by either Yoder or Hauerwas. To name just one, I’ve found Hauerwas’s Resident Aliens to be an accessible and provocative text for both undergraduates and parishioners. The Politics of Jesus, however, is the seminal text of the dissenting tradition in the modern era. It is the text of a new generation of radical pacifists.

10. Sayyid Qutb’s Milestones — ?

I end with something of a provocative choice. I confess I haven’t read this text thoroughly and I worry about its serving as the sole representative of political theology from a Muslim perspective. Still, this text is another one of those seminal works that awakened a generational movement. It does so by imagining an alternative Muslim politics of consensus. The idea of sovereignty—commanded by God, the ultimate sovereign—serves as a source of inspiration and criticism against a secular modern nation-state closely aligned with colonial powers, even as it claims to be the servant of an independent people. The text can obviously be read in competing ways, which raises important questions for students.

With Qutb’s text I’ve included a question mark to note intentionally the possibility of other works. This is true of all ten; though the truly seminal texts are harder to argue against, even they may be rethought simply because there are so many seminal texts. The strength of the list is that it conveys the breadth and depth of the argument that is political theology. The list includes political theologies, political theologians, and theorists and crucially it makes room for more. I start with this list because finally these are the texts that grew out of and helped ignite revolutions—texts that remade nations and our world, texts that continue to reform our notions of power and its rightful place in our communities.


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