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.