As the humanities have rediscovered religion, new sorts of questions are being asked about religion and politics. Religion is no longer imagined as a check box, as the social sciences would like to see it: something you have or don’t, something that comes in one of several flavors of belief. Now that religion is not only about belief but about practices and ideas, with histories, intertwined with other practices and ideas, the intersection of religion and politics is no longer a point, but a varied terrain with multiple dimensions.
Adding complexity and depth to the terrain at the intersection of religion and politics takes time. The rediscovery of Carl Schmitt’s claim that understandings of political sovereignty (who the king is) correlate with understandings of divine sovereignty (who God is) – a claim sometimes simply called the thesis of political theology – was an initial step in this direction. It moved discussions of religions and politics from belief to ideas, but it focused on one idea in particular, namely, the concept of sovereignty. Religions have rich conceptual vocabularies, and they have rich vocabularies of practice. Giorgio Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory (2007; translation published by Stanford University Press in 2011) is part of the effort in recent scholarship to explore these broader vocabularies in order to enrich discussions of religion and politics.
Like Schmitt, Agamben sees a close connection between Christian theology and European (and American) politics. However, Agamben claims that economy, not sovereignty, is the key to these connections. With the term economy Agamben evokes, and explores, a variety of meanings, ranging from the Greek oikos, household, to the economic Trinity (the relationship of Father, Son, and Spirit with creation). This shift from sovereignty to economy offers two advantages. First, it complicates the association of political theology with fascism because justifying all-powerful rulership is no longer the only role that religious ideas are thought to play in politics. Second, a focus on economy allows Agamben to tie together religious ideas (understandings of God and God’s relationship to the world) and religious practice (liturgy, praise of God) – and so, analogously, to tie together political ideas and political practice.
Citing varied examples from antiquity, early Christian Fathers, and Scholastic theology, Agamben identifies a logic named by economy that informs how religion and politics have been approached for the past centuries. This logic is deeper, as it were, than a certain word or concept that transforms over the ages, but it is not so deep as to be a first principle, requiring commitment before the historical data is encountered. The logic is both discerned in the historical data and organizes the historical data (Agamben discusses and defends this method in The Signature of All Things [Zone, 2009]).
Among the many aspects of economy that Agamben explores, three features stand out. First, economy involves internal relations (members of a household, or the Persons of the Trinity). Second, economy involves an internal facet (those internal relations) and an external facet (the effects those relations have beyond themselves). One iteration of the political theological conclusion this produces is that the immanent Trinity /economic Trinity distinction maps onto the distinction between potential political power and the actual administrative apparatus of a government; another iteration involves higher ranks of angels, who assist God, and lower ranks, who administer God’s will indirectly. Third, the relationship between the internal and external facets of economy is sustained by the practice of praise: external actions pointing towards the internal relation. Agamben provocatively suggests that contemporary European and American practices of deliberative democracy should count as such practices of praise. In other words, democracy may not be a perversion or repression of political theology (of sovereignty, as Schmitt would have it), but simply a new iteration of the same political theology (of economy) that has always prevailed in the West, at least since late antiquity.
While Agamben at times situates his work within the context of early twentieth century German debates – amplifying the voice of Erik Peterson, whose work has been largely overshadowed by Schmitt – The Kingdom and the Glory expands our current conversation about the Christian underpinnings of contemporary politics. But it expands our conversation selectively, using a controversial, heavily philological method. The reflections that will follow here in the coming days, from theologians, religious studies scholars, and political theorists, explore the possibilities and limitations of Agamben’s book, pushing our conversation about religion and politics in new directions.