Political Theology: A Response (Part One: The Disciplinary Divide)

It is certainly interesting to see a reflection of myself in the response of another discipline, even if I sometimes have trouble recognizing that image. Most useful will be for me to address the meaning of the gap between the two different political theological enterprises represented in this discussion. I will begin by making clear what the idea of a political theology contributes to my project. Following that, I will defend some of the contested theoretical premises of my work. Finally, I will take up the hardest question that emerges from this discussion: is it really the case that my political theological project is non-normative? If there is an implicit normative claim in my work, then the reviewers are right to ask not just whether I have got my description of American politics right, but whether the ethical direction of my work can be supported.

Having written a book called Political Theology, I should expect to hear from the theologians.  But we all write from a disciplinary perspective, and I never took seriously the prospect that theologians would be interested in this work.  I am delighted to find that I was wrong and am especially pleased to be asked to participate in this discussion.

Of course, just as I wrote from the disciplinary perspective of modern political and legal theory, the commentators too are writing from a disciplinary perspective.   Between us, there is a substantial gap that begins with different understandings of the term “political theology.” Why speak of theology at all, they ask, if I mean to use traditionally religious concepts only to describe a certain form of secular, political rhetoric?  If the religious content of the categories has been stripped away, leaving only a more or less persuasive analogy between religion and politics, in what sense is this political theology?  Some suggest I am using this language only for consequentialist reasons; for others, I am offering a false promise of convergence with the theologians while actually “slamming the door” on them.   I am accused of reinforcing the divide between the secular and the religious, despite my apparent openness to religion.  Running through the commentaries is a suspicion that despite the promise of the title and my own claim not to be doing normative theory, the book will serve only to entrench the modern, liberal nation-state with its insistence that God has no place in politics.  For them, the role of political theology is to criticize the state from a perspective external to political power, while I am far too concerned with the legitimacy of power.

It is certainly interesting to see a reflection of myself in the response of another discipline, even if I sometimes have trouble recognizing that image.  Most useful will be for me to address the meaning of the gap between the two different political theological enterprises represented in this discussion.  I will begin by making clear what the idea of a political theology contributes to my project.  Following that, I will defend some of the contested theoretical premises of my work.   Finally, I will take up the hardest question that emerges from this discussion: is it really the case that my political theological project is non-normative?  If there is an implicit normative claim in my work, then the reviewers are right to ask not just whether I have got my description of American politics right, but whether the ethical direction of my work can be supported.

While every book should stand on its own, it is also important to understand where a book fits in an author’s larger corpus.  Political Theology rests upon an entire system of thought that I have been developing over the last 20 years.  My objective has been to probe the American social imaginary as it maintains the system of meaning and experience that is our political life.  This effort began with The Reign of Law, which looked at the connection of law and sovereignty in the American imagination.  This was followed by my two volume effort to write a political theology of modernity:  Putting Liberalism in its Place and Out of Eden.  Next, Sacred Violence investigated the relationship between sacrifice and sovereignty.

This entire project begins from a set of questions about the nature of the rule of law.  Throughout, I have insisted that constitution is never far from revolution in the American imaginary.  The puzzle of American political life is missed if law is seen only as the product of a social contract intended as an alternative to violence.  Rather, our national narrative has located meaning in both law and violence.   For those who know their Schmitt, the idea of starting from law should have a familiar sound, for Schmitt too began as a constitutional lawyer and theorist in a liberal state.  He too explored the relationship of law to violence, rejecting the ordinary discourse of law as simply displacing violence.

Some of the commentators wonder about the role of law in my political theology.  Writing from within a law school, I might be excused for placing law at the center of the American political imaginary, but I hardly think I need an excuse.   No one can get very far in understanding our political culture without trying to think through the way in which our commitment to law – particularly, to the constitution – actually works.  This is not a matter of formalism, bureaucracy, or elites.  Rather, the American political imaginary is constructed in and through a particular understanding of the relationship between revolution and constitution.  The people as sovereign create themselves through the revolutionary act; they leave a trace of themselves in the constitution.  Following the law, we imagine ourselves as self-governing.  We find here the foundation for an American idea that links law to freedom, but also law to violence, for revolution is imagined as an act of sacrificial violence.

My ambition has been to comprehend the nature of the American political imaginary, and then use that description to explain the limits of liberal theory, which dominates the philosophical study of politics today. Two points follow from this.  First, I have never had any disagreement with those who use liberal theory to make normative arguments about what our law should be.  I have said repeatedly that my politics are liberal and I believe that the American constitution in most respects embraces liberal values.  When I assert that my work is not normative, I mean that I am not making any claims as to what the content of the law should be.  Because my work is foundational, it cannot support such claims.  Asking what its implications are for the content of our law is like asking the scholar who studies linguistics what the implications of his work are for what language should be or the anthropologist what his work tells us about what our culture should be.  Our debates over particular laws and political actions occur within the structures of the imagination that I explore.  Belief in the rule of law and popular sovereignty is what both sides of political controversies share; it is not at stake in the outcome of a particular dispute.

Second, my critique of liberal political theory has not relied upon a competing normative order, whether religious or secular, that has a ground outside of our political practices and beliefs. There is no lack of alternatives to liberal theory.  On the secular side, there are communitarians, socialists, and libertarians.  On the religious side, there are not just the challenges of the different streams of our monotheistic heritage, but the natural lawyers, the liberation theologians, and the many variations of fundamentalists and evangelicals.  Most of the commentators think of political theology as a descriptive term for this sort of effort: to use the belief system of a religious faith as a ground for criticizing politics and for imagining new forms of political life that would realize or make possible a life fully informed by that faith.  They are rightly worried that I view their enterprise as just another competitor alongside many others. Some worry that I might actually rule them out of order in light of my commitment to a secular state. I can no more rule them out, however, than I can privilege their perspective.  For me, theory is not in the service of any normative ends, whether secular or religious.

What, then, is the theological claim that I want to juxtapose to liberal political theory?   Contemporary political theory, I have argued, cannot account for the nature of an American political faith that has been vital to the experience of political life.  This political faith has provided citizens a source of ultimate meaning.  Of course, I don’t mean that this is true of all citizens at all times.  I am describing a culture of belief and practice.  Every culture makes possible doubt and denial, alongside affirmation.  That is part of what it means to be free.  Indeed, there is a pressing sociological question of whether the political beliefs I describe constitute a disappearing faith.  Despite such limits, generations of Americans have lived and died for this political project.  Many critical features of American political life – including American exceptionalism, our willingness to use force, our interest in our own past,  and interpretive practices in law such as textualism and originalism – cannot be fully understood outside of this framework of faith.  These features are not simply attributes of a particular party’s policy preferences; they extend deeply into generally shared expectations concerning the possibilities of political life.   In particular, a theory that cannot explain sacrifice fails as an account of our political practices and beliefs.  Indeed, it is missing something that has been at the very core of our political imaginary, quite independent of the contemporary conflict between the left and the right. Liberal political theory, which starts from the idea of the social contract, fails this test.

Political theory, I have insisted, must be able to explain the actual political phenomena that we find.  Political life inAmericahas been not only a means to the end of individual well being, but also a source of ultimate meaning that can support a practice of sacrifice.  Where, for example, is there a place for the idea of surrender in the American political imaginary?  Instead we find a belief that the nation’s continued existence is the highest possible value.  For this, we maintain a world-destroying capacity for violence.  The narrative of American political life moves easily between law and sacrificial violence.  We endlessly celebrate a violent past of revolution, civil war, and then the world wars.  Our highest political rhetoric speaks of sacrifice.  Our fictional representations of political life endlessly return to sacrifice.

A theory of the political cannot limit itself to the morality of law; it must take up the question of the shape of political meaning within which law operates.  Law must be not only just, but also legitimate.  Liberal theory tends to think of legitimacy as simply a matter of justice, while I explore the distinct character of these two norms.  We want our law to be just, but we also want it to be our own.  It is our own, when we imagine it as the product of our own free act.   In Political Theology, I argue that sovereignty and freedom are inextricably linked.  In the American imaginary this relationship is expressed in the belief that the popular sovereign is the author of our constitutional order.   Similarly, Americans have a problem with international law not because of a belief that it is unjust, but because they cannot imagine it as product of their own creative act.

One cannot go too far in this direction of exploring the political imaginary without borrowing terms and categories from our religious traditions, beginning with the idea of sovereignty itself.  The popular sovereign is a transgenerational, collective subject.  Participation in the sovereign occurs not just in and through law, but most immediately in the act of sacrifice.   In Political Theology, I argue that every political decision requires an act of faith, for reasons give out before a conclusion is reached.  My work has been an effort to describe in some detail the way in which all these categories work to sustain the political imagination.

Two related forms of response appear in the reviews with respect to this borrowing.  First, there is a kind of disappointment that sets in with my insistence that I am arguing for an extension of the categories through analogy.  Second, there is a critical claim that analogy substitutes a rhetoric of faith for the substance of the divine.  To my interlocutors, the deployment of religious categories reflects the continuing presence and relevance of substantive, religious faith within our political life.  The opening to faith that I describe in politics should, they argue, lead me back to our religious traditions. Anything less is a form of idolatry, a misdirection of worship toward a fully human object.  They are puzzled, if not disappointed, in my claim that political theology must be a secular field of study.  What about the millions of Americans who continue to maintain fervent religious beliefs?

Of course, I cannot deny their sociological claim about religious practices.  Nor do I deny that people bring their religious beliefs with them into the voting booth and the other fora of political practice.  This is why our politicians make such free and easy use of the appeal to God. I have no doubt that the religiosity of Americans is part of the explanation for their maintenance of what I have described as a political practice of faith.  A sociological explanation would investigate the reciprocal, causal influences of religious and political practices.  My work, however, is not concerned with causal accounts.  The genealogical inquiries I pursue do not trace cause and effect, but rather what I have called “remnants of meaning,” which are as much a reaching back as a pressing forward.  More importantly, my work is not a political intervention; rather, it is directed at contemporary political and constitutional theory. This is a wholly secular project precisely because it is part of the modernist project of understanding.  Religious claims can be part of the phenomena studied, but they cannot enter into the theoretical account.  One is free to reject these limits on theory, but then one is not a part of the same intellectual enterprise.  In this respect, there is a disciplinary divide between us.

In my next posting, I will investigate some of what is at stake in this disciplinary divide.

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