In the October 13 issue of the New York Review of Books, Mark Danner published a critique of the Bush administration’s policy on torture, under the title “Our State of Exception”. He didn’t give Carl Schmitt (or Paul Kahn) credit, but he could have. When the intellectual history of the past generation is written, one of the stranger items will be the unexpected resurrection of a sinister figure who might have seemed buried and forgotten, except for his admirers on the far right wing of respectable discourse.
At this moment of extreme political intensity, Paul W. Kahn’s new book, Political Theology, appears as a timely meditation. By means of a sustained engagement with the controversial German legal theorist Carl Schmitt’s text of the same name, Kahn attempts to demonstrate that behind our seemingly liberal, constitutional order is a deep faith in the sacred character the state and of popular sovereignty. One is tempted to read Kahn’s juxtaposition of the discourses of (liberal) political theory and political theology as a commentary on struggle between the Obama Administration and the contemporary Republican (and Tea) Party—the one stressing reason, deliberation, pragmatism, compromise; the other embracing faith, will, power, sacrifice. Kahn, however, is more subtle than that. His slim volume is a provocative, sometimes frustrating, sometimes perplexing read, providing much food for thought, and also, I can imagine, for fights.
“Political theology” as discourse came back into circulation almost a hundred years ago thanks to the efforts of Carl Schmitt. In Germany, at least, its feasibility as a theological category was promptly booted out of play by his close friend Erik Peterson (d. 1960) in an oft-cited – but less often read – monograph on “Monotheism as a Political Problem” (1935). That and other writings of Peterson’s are now available in English translation, most of them for the first time, in my edition of Theological Tractates (Stanford University Press, 2011). Peterson reveals himself to have been an “anti-political” theologian who yet possessed an acute sense of the political dimension of subjects as diverse as liturgy, mysticism, ecclesiology, and martyrdom.
Kahn assumes the United States, as a state, to be a ‘norm’ and does not seem to grapple with anything or anyone external to it: his focus is internal. I would like to suggest that immigrants have been constructed as the quintessential exception – an exception made on the basis of nationalism rather than liberal political theory, though – and that this is generating the kinds of restrictive immigration legislation… Would-be-immigrants are dealt with outside the nation (offshore processing) or hidden within it (detention), preventing their access to legal ‘norms’ available to citizens.
The book began with my conviction that the theology and philosophy of the early modern period is especially important for understanding Christian ethics today. It’s needed for us to figure out “how we got to where we are in our thinking,” as Nick Wolterstorff once put it. It is thus a hinge point on which subsequent church history turns. This is especially the case because it was in this period that there first emerged the plurality of moral languages that we now call pluralism, but which was originally a collection of writers (mostly Christian) casting about for a way to best express questions that had become pressing in their time.
David Cameron’s statement regarding the killing of Moammar al-Gaddafi will go down as another piece of brash hypocrisy, which would be breathtaking if it was not so expected from the British premier. He mentioned that he was “proud of the role that Britain has played” in the uprising – intending of course the support given by NATO once it was clear that the Libyan people had risen up against the man en masse.