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Around the Network, Politics of Scripture

On the State of Political Theology Today (Ted Smith)

This is the first of a pair of roundtable commentaries on the state of the field.  The second one by Erin Runions was published on September 20.  These commentaries originated as contributions to a panel discussion at the American Academy of Religion in Atlanta in November 2015.  A similar roundtable will be offered on the program of the AAR in 2016 in San Antonio.


What’s the state of political theology today? A cheeky but truthful answer would point out that political theology is the kind of academic discourse that has now been featured in two consecutive AAR panel discussions that ask about the state of political theology today. Political theology is a relatively young discourse—or, more accurately, a relatively recently rebooted discourse—that is in a stage of trying to define what it is and how it differs from adjacent discourses like social ethics, religious ethics, political theory, literary theory, law, and more.

In saying this I am focusing my comments on “political theology” as an academic discourse. I think that’s a useful focus, given this setting and the limits of this time. And there is plenty to say about the state of political theology as an academic discourse. As a recently rebooted discourse, it still thrives mostly in spaces organized by other discourses (like last year’s panel in the Ethics Section), or in pop-up spaces that exist only for a time (like this year’s panel in a “wildcard” session). But, for better and for worse, political theology has started to stake out spaces of its own. About a decade ago, language of “political theology” provided the new title for an old journal. It has now attracted companions from both Blackwell and Cambridge. It shows up in more and more titles of books and in more and more descriptions that academics give of who we are and what we do.

I think there are many reasons for this energy around political theology. An academic culture that prizes wissenschaftlich ideals of differentiation and discovery gives scholars incentives to declare the need for new discourses. So do consumer economies that prize novelty and branding. This particular “new” discourse has been helped by its ability to take root in both schools of theology and departments of Religious Studies. It has “theology” right in the name, so—surely—it can find a place in a theological school … even if it often seems less confessional than what usually gets called “theology.” And because it might not be as confessional, and because it can involve appeals to thinkers like Derrida and Benjamin—thinkers pre-approved for legitimacy in many corners of the humanities—it can thrive in departments of Religious Studies. I think that it has also gained traction because the guild of religious ethics—still perhaps its closest cousin—has been so tied to Anglo-American modes of philosophy that it has been hard for works that draw upon more Continental authors and arguments to find a place in the conversation. All that Continental energy had to go somewhere, and “political theology” was available as a reasonably respectable name for that place.

I think these institutional realities play a larger role than we usually talk about, at least in the panels of academic conferences (the receptions are another matter). But in naming these dynamics, I do not mean to offer cynical reduction of the energy around political theology to market forces and academic politics. On the contrary, I’d hope to push the conversation around political theology to be rich enough that it cannot be reduced to the status of a trendy academic brand that has—in terms of trendiness, at least—already passed its peak.

I have never had much energy for policing the borders of political theology, certifying some works as citizens and telling others that they must be deported back to Christian social ethics or wherever else. As I said on the panel last year, I think there is much to be gained by keeping discursive spaces like journals, guilds, and panels plural and contested, even a little jumbled. But I do want to make sure that certain kinds of questions do not get lost in the shuffle. In particular, I think there is a need to consider the kinds of questions that pertain to what Claude Lefort named as “the political.”

While I’d question the almost ontological singularity of Lefort’s phrase, I think it sets up a contrast worth keeping. Lefort contrasts his sense of “the political” with what he calls a “‘modern’ notion of politics.” The modern notion of politics concerns the actions of a political subsystem within a larger society. It focuses on questions of policy and the just arrangement of institutions. The political, on the other hand, refers not to a sub-system within a larger social whole, but to “the principles that generate” that social whole. The political involves a “primordial reference to the mode of institution of the social.”[1] The political in this sense is concerned especially with questions of the identity of a people and the legitimacy of institutions that wield power.

Political questions, in this sense, reflect on the source and standing of claims to authority. They consider the standing of law and the nature of obligation to it. They ask not just about criteria for when a state should go to war but about how legitimate violence came to be concentrated in the state and whether it should continue to be. They ask about the contours of exceptions to norms. They are questions about the identities of peoples, about who is “us” and who is “them” and what lives are obscured by those categories. Political questions ask how to differentiate between people and our obligations to them. They ask not just about class divisions—as significant as those might be—but about the formation of a body that can be conceived as being divided. They ask about the relationships between people and land. They ask about relationships between the living and the dead. They ask about the meaning and direction of history.

Questions like these often live below the surface of contemporary arguments and events. Just as we take the rules of a game for granted in order to play it, we often assume answers to these basic political questions in order to get on with the very important work of everyday political action. Even Christian social ethics and religious ethics often focus on questions of policy that presume the current constellation of answers to the questions of politics. But, as Lefort wrote, questions of politics can become visible again “when conflicts become so acute as to produce cracks in the edifice of the state.”[2] I think we are in such a time now, a time in which questions about “the political” are pushing up through the crust of the established political sub-system. Consider three examples:

  1. Terrorism and state responses to it have raised questions about the legitimacy of the modern state—and especially about its claims to a monopoly on violence for political ends. Those questions have been raised by non-state actors who claim that their violence is just as legitimate as that of any state. They have also been raised as leaders of states have asserted prerogative to go beyond the rule of law—and so beyond the chief justification for the state’s monopoly on legitimate violence.
  2. Global migrations of people challenge the seemingly “natural” overlap of territory, culture, and state. This overlap was never complete, and it was always the work of human hands. It has always been the work of force. But new patterns of migration are challenging it in new ways. Migration is pushing nations across the globe (not only in Europe and North America) to face basic questions about their identities and their boundaries.
  3. Renewed awareness of state-sanctioned racialized violence also invites work at the level of the political that Lefort described. On the one hand, simply enforcing the civil rights laws that exist and working to strengthen them would do a lot. This is important work in the register of policy. But Ta-Nehisi Coates is right in arguing that the questions run deeper: As he wrote in the extended letter to his son that is Between the World and Me: “When Abraham Lincoln declared, in 1863, that the battle of Gettysburg must ensure ‘that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth,’ he was not merely being aspirational; at the onset of the Civil War, the United States of America had one of the highest rates of suffrage in the world. The question is not whether Lincoln truly meant ‘government of the people’ but what our country has, throughout its history, taken the political term ‘people’ to actually mean. In 1863 it did not mean your mother or your grandmother, and it did not mean you and me. Thus America’s problem is not its betrayal of ‘government of the people,’ but the means by which ‘the people’ acquired their names.”[3] The problem is not just a failure of particular policies to live up to the ideal of government of the people; it is a political failure to recognize all those who should be counted among “the people.”

I think that such questions have gained new urgency because the political, in Lefort’s sense, cannot be taken for granted in ways that it has been in the past. Perhaps it never should have been taken for granted. But clearly it has been. It is more difficult to take for granted now for dozens of reasons. First, the critical actions of people who bear the brunt of the violence of existing political orders have called those orders into question. The agency of thinkers like Coates should not be overlooked, even as we call a familiar roll of Larger Social Forces:

  • As Jürgen Habermas and others have argued for decades, global capitalism erodes both the vision that can imagine common goods and the powers of states to regulate societies for the sake of those goods. It eats away at the identities, convictions, and connections that help constitute the political in the sense described by Lefort.
  • Almost forty years ago Karl Popper argued that tolerance, paradoxically, tends to erode the deeper cultural sources that sustain it. If academics can propose versions of tolerance that are immune to this paradox, we can also observe the ways in which actually existing liberal societies around the world have struggled to find the moral resources and political will to resist intolerant forces without slipping into intolerance themselves. Popper’s paradox points to the fragility of the political resources of a modern liberal state.
  • The taken-for-granted quality of background cultures has also been worn away by shifts from corporate identities that fit with the nation-state to smaller and more particular identities that fit with communities that exist within and across national boundaries. Call it a shift from civic republicanism to expressive individualism, from an Age of Mobilization to an Age of Authenticity, from civil rights to identity politics, from faithful citizens to resident aliens … call it what you will, these overlapping shifts both provoke and answer questions about who “we” are.

The list could go on, gaining length and nuance. But I hope these quick bullet points are enough to argue for my main point: that large-scale and long-term social forces have made it more difficult to take basic political conditions for granted. In the oft-quoted formulation of German jurist Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde, “The liberal, secularised state is nourished by presuppositions that it cannot itself guarantee.”[4] The great and good achievement of the liberal state was to bracket questions of the political for the sake of pluralism and liberty. It was to create exactly the “modern” sense of the political that Lefort describes – a sphere for ordering life together for diverse persons who might not have a shared sense of being one people in the sense that Lefort calls “the political.” But this modern social order has remained possible because the state has been held aloft by the residual force of older, established answers to basic political questions. That residual power is now waning. And so old questions in the political register return in new forms and with new urgency. These are the questions that I do not want to get lost, whether they are addressed under the heading of political theology, social ethics, moral history, or whatever else.

Taking up such questions is difficult in many ways. Let me highlight one in particular: the political in the sense I have been trying to describe it here has often been treated as a realm that is prior to or even hostile to reason. Both those who insist on the importance of such political questions and those who are most wary of them have framed them as irrational or a-rational. For John Rawls, for instance, one of the primary conditions of what he calls public reason is the bracketing of questions of identity. Reason must be protected from the political. Just so, for Carl Schmitt, there are no reasons that can be given for the exceptions that found the social orders in which reasoning becomes possible. These exceptions are at the essence of the political for Schmitt, and they originate not in reasoning but in bare decision. The political must be protected from reason. Rawls and Schmitt could not be further apart in many ways. But they agree in segregating the political and the rational.

I do not think that reason is necessarily alien to political realities. But I do think that many of the most established modern modes of reasoning have developed in ways that leave them with little to say about these basic political questions. One of the main challenges before us now, I think, is to develop patterns of giving and receiving reasons about just such questions. I see one toehold for this work in the growing consciousness of the constructed and contingent quality of so many identities. If identities are the kinds of things we make, they are more likely to be the kinds of things we can reason about making. And if we can reason about the identities we make, then we at least have a chance to reason our way to political identities that are compatible with a deep and enduring pluralism. This might involve shoring up the supports for what Lefort identifies as the modern political sub-system of a complex society. And it might involve creating a different sort of society with a very different mode of organizing our life together. But if even our deepest identities are in some sense not only found by us but also made by us, then we have reason to think that we can reason together about even the most basic political questions.

As I have argued elsewhere, I think this kind of reasoning will require new or renewed genres, genres that embody other kinds of rationality.[5] I think of the personal, epistolary essay of Ta-Nehisi Coates, the poems of Natasha Trethewey, or the “moral history” of Harry Stout. Coates, Trethewey, and Stout all intervene in basic political questions. And they all make arguments in which they give reasons that can be met with reasonable arguments in return. They show the way to some of the forms political theologians might take up as we reason together about “the political.” To my mind that task—reasoning together about basic question of politics—names the challenge that makes talk of political theology worth reviving.

Ted Smith’s most recent book is Weird John Brown: Divine Violence and the Limits of Ethics.

 [1] Claude Lefort, “The Permanence of the Theologico-Political?” transl. David Macey, in Political Theologies: Public Religions in a Post-Secular World, Hent de Vries and Lawrence Eugene Sullivan, eds. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2006), 152.

[2] Ibid., 150.

[3] Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2015), 2-3

[4] Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde, State, Society and Liberty: Studies in Political Theory and Constitutional Law (New York: Berg, 1991), 45.

[5] Ted A. Smith, “Eschatological Memories of Everyday Life,” in Explorations in Lived Theology: New Perspectives on Method, Style and Pedagogy In Theological and Religious Studies, Sarah Azaransky, Willis Jenkins, Charles Marsh, Peter Slade, eds. New York: Oxford University Press (forthcoming).


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