Is political theology part of the solution or part of the problem in the current political juncture? In the American context, more combining of theology and politics does not appear very promising. Christians, it would seem, got us into this mess to begin with. Donald Trump drew 81% of the white evangelical vote, and a majority of the white Catholic vote. Trump got a majority of the votes of both Protestants and Catholics overall, largely based on his promise to resist secularization and the marginalization of Christians from public life in America. Trump effectively marketed himself as the last best hope of Christians to stem the secularist tide on questions like abortion and religious liberty. Trump voters are attracted to figures like Senate candidate Roy Moore, who defied the law by erecting a monument to the Ten Commandments in his courtroom, thus breaching the wall separating theology and public life.
There are at least two ways of understanding the term “political theology,” however. The first involves the appropriation of theological language and symbols by the nation-state. In Carl Schmitt’s famous dictum, “All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts,” both by virtue of their history and their systematic structure. Paul Kahn a few years ago, pre-Trump, updated Schmitt’s work for the contemporary American context and showed how even a Liberal nation-state ruled by a liberal government still appropriates to itself an aura of the sacred. The liturgies surrounding military sacrifice to defend the infinite value of the nation is just one example of this type of political theology.
The sacred value of the nation was one of the key themes in the election of Donald Trump. Making America great again depends on a narrative of national greatness and on a narrative of national decline. We are threatened by external enemies, the border must be secured, walls must be built, and extreme vetting must keep foreigners at bay. Many Christians have not only succumbed to this civil religion but have baptized it, so what is being defended is not only America but Christian America. America is further encoded with a discourse of whiteness, so what is being defended is not just Christian America, but white Christian America, against Muslims, Mexicans, and inner city black people who threaten law and order. As Robert P. Jones—head of the Public Religion Research Institute and author of The End of White Christian America—has pointed out, white Christian voters in the last election were not so much values voters as nostalgia voters, hoping to ”make America great again” by returning to a (mostly fictional) white Christian America.
Nationalism—the divinity of the “we”—is offered as the antidote to threats, but nationalism is never simply something that unites those within certain borders. Nationalism depends upon identifying and creating enemies, both external and internal, against whom the “we” can be defined. Nationalism exacerbates some divisions, but it also downplays others.
Criticisms of nationalism tend to focus on those scapegoated groups against whom the nation unites: Muslims, Mexicans, transgender people, and so on. We focus on the divisions.
Equally, if not more, relevant are the divisions that nationalism encourages us to ignore, especially class divisions. The idea that Mexicans are taking our jobs unites capitalists and laborers against a common enemy. The owner class is no longer seen as antagonistic to workers; instead the owners of capital—including Trump—are seen as the heroes of the working class, the job-creators. Since Trump, class is no longer simply ignored; the resentments of working class whites are stoked, but they are directed against racially-coded members of the same working class. Poor whites are played off against poor blacks and poor Mexicans, in such a way that race becomes the central conversation, and class conflict is ignored. The sacred nation unites us as Americans, workers and job-creators alike.
If one wants to explain the uneasy but effective collaboration of racially-coded nationalism with traditional economic elites, one needs to see that nationalism is the primary way we avoid talking about economic exploitation of the poorer classes. Surely both job-creators and workers can agree to salute our military.
Trump has made this dynamic worse, but it is not brand new. Mainstream Democrats, almost just as beholden to corporate America as Republicans, have largely abandoned even timid recognition of class conflict, and are eager to prove their patriotic bona fides.
The sacralization of the nation-state is not the only way to define “political theology,” however. There is another way that perhaps offers Christians some hope for resistance. In this understanding, “political theology” indicates not the sacralization of the state but the political relevance of the church. Rather than baptizing the nation-state, the community formed by baptism is examined for its political import.
There are many factors that gave us Donald Trump as president, but a crucial one is the conviction of many Christians that they simply had no choice but to vote for him. Many Christians were not convinced by the hard nationalism of a Steve Bannon, but were nonetheless trapped by a softer nationalism that sees nation-state politics as the only politics worthy of the name. Despite recognizing all Trump’s problems, they thought there was no choice but to choose between the two major party candidates. They were not wrong, in my opinion, to recognize that a Hillary Clinton presidency would not have inaugurated the Kingdom of God. But the issue goes beyond the flaws of any particular set of candidates. The deeper issue is that Christians are unable to think of politics as meaning anything other than casting a vote for one of the two major party candidates. The same logic drives evangelical voters to support Roy Moore despite all the reports of his sexual predation of minors. They imagine that evangelizing the culture requires controlling the apparatuses of power; and therefore we must win elections. Evangelicals are left trying to legitimize the Republican party, regardless of its sins.
Carl Schmitt saw clearly what was a stake when he wrote approvingly of Hobbes’ diagnosis of what Schmitt called “the typically Judeo-Christian splitting of the original political unity.” The church was potentially dangerous because it divided political loyalties, elevating Christ the King over the human powers that be. The church itself became political, redirecting loyalties away from the state. The cure was political theology in the first sense: establishing a direct link between divinity and the state, thus, in Schmitt’s words, “rendering harmless the effect of Christ in the social and political sphere; of de-anarchizing Christianity, while leaving it in the background a certain legitimating function.”
Resisting in the current context must mean more than getting people to vote for Democrats. For Christians it must mean, to play with Schmitt’s term, re-anarchizing Christianity, that is, imagining the church as a different kind of political body that transgresses national and racial and class borders in creative ways. If baptism is understood in its political valence, it should be obvious that the body of Christ relativizes the border between Mexico and the US. If we are members of the same body, then we should both support labor organizing and build businesses that surmount class antagonism by giving workers an ownership stake and a voice in the management of the enterprise. If we are followers first of the Prince of Peace, then we should refuse to participate in or support unjust wars and the military complex that makes them inevitable.
Resisting need not mean complete withdrawal from electoral politics, but it needs to mean something more creative than the dreary choice between two corporate-sponsored candidates. The church as a different type of politics is not a place to which to withdraw, but a resource for imagining a different world. Perhaps this is a political theology still worthy of consideration.