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Quick Takes

Why Does Political Theology Matter? William Cavanaugh and Vincent Lloyd in Conversation

How is the term “political theology” used today, and how does it add to our understandings of theology and politics?

What is the state of political theology today? What questions does it address, and how does it respond to our shifting political and religious landscape? Paul Heck, Professor of Theology and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, addressed these questions with William Cavanaugh, Professor of Catholic Studies and Director of the Center for World Catholicism at DePaul University, and Vincent Lloyd, Professor of Theology and Religious Studies and Director of the Center for Political Theology at Villanova University.

Paul Heck: What is political theology? Has it always been around? Usually when we think of theology, we think about reflection on the Divine. We don’t think of reflection on politics.

William Cavanaugh: Yeah, so, I think in the broadest sense it is reflecting on how societies are organized in the light of what they believe or don’t believe about God. That’s a rough and ready description. And I think in a broad sense political theology has always been around.

In the Christian tradition, with which I’m most familiar, you always had the intersection of what we would divide between politics and theology. You just really don’t have those distinctions: you have God as king. God is proclaimed as king in many of the Psalms, and the king of course has liturgical, what we would call religious, responsibility. You look in the Gospels and you’ve got Jesus coming and proclaiming a kingdom of God is coming to the world, and he’s executed as king of the Jews. And so, these sorts of questions have always been there, especially after the conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine to Christianity in the early fourth century. You have a very tight interrelation between the civil powers and the ecclesiastical powers and tugs of war amongst them, but no sense that there’s a very easily marked line between the responsibilities of the two until much later – That’s what marks the modern period.

In a more specific sense, the field of political theology is a 20th-century invention and a lot of it kind of crystallizes around Carl Schmidt’s book in 1922, Political Theology, in which he basically argues that what we call politics is really just taken over from the theological realm. States of exception in the law are the equivalent of miracles and it’s all just sort of migrated over from the church to the state. This view is taken up by theologians proper in the 1960s to talk about political theology as reflection on how societies are organized in the light of Christian faith. Then other kinds of political theologies evolve out of that.

But, in some senses, you only get a field of political theology that is separated out from other fields of theology in the 20th century precisely at the point when the Church in the Western world is losing power. When there’s a crisis, you have to begin going back to the roots and thinking about what things actually mean. One of the ironies of the specific field of political theology is that it arises when, on one hand, you get these sort of divinized states, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany and so on, and on the other hand, you get the loss of the political power of the Church.

Vincent Lloyd: Just to add a bit to what Bill is saying: the phrase “political theology” means a lot of different things in a lot of different contexts. Particularly in the last few years, those usages of the phrase have proliferated in the academy and beyond the academy in popular discourse. To just name two varieties of what is meant by political theology: one is how Christians ought to talk about politics. Christians do talk about politics and theology, and political theology could provide a normative discourse, a guide for what and what ought not to be said and thought and done in line with the Christian tradition with respect to political life.

Another use of the term “political theology” is as a shorthand for religion and politics more generally, or where they overlap, that part of the Venn diagram where religion and politics are connected and that could be approached in a lot of different ways. The people who use the term political theology in this really expansive sense tend to be from the humanities, they tend to be thinking about ideas and practices, approaching through texts, approaching through anthropological methods or literary methods or political theory, the history of political ideas, but looking for those sites at which religion and politics overlap.

Between these two sorts of extremes, how Christians ought to talk about politics and the overlap between religion and politics, there are all sorts of varieties of political theology, including those coming from different religious traditions that are now entering the conversation. There are conversations in Jewish and Islamic political theology that are also thinking about the normative constraints for talk about politics within those traditions. There is a focus on various particular concepts that are at the intersection of religion and politics, from sovereignty to pardon to martyrdom, exploring how they move between the registers of the political and the theological.

One of the things that I find exciting about political theology as a name for these multiple conversations is that it’s a quite undisciplined space. People are trying out different things. People are drawing on various traditions, whether it’s Augustine, whether it’s Carl Schmitt, whether it’s traditions of Jewish thinkers or pushing into new geographical regions or religious traditions that haven’t previously been part of the conversation, moving from texts to the realm of practices, drawing on forms of philosophical and theoretical inquiry that can sharpen and refine the conversation

WC: I could just piggyback on that: it’s interesting to note that I was talking about it from a Christian political theological point of view, but really the term “political theology” originates with Mikhail Bakunin’s essay in 1871, to which Schmitt was in some ways responding. And for Bakunin, “political theology” is a pejorative term; it’s the idea that what people say is secular is really just masquerading as secular and in fact is full of this theology which is just ideology. God is just a projection of human consciousness.

There’s political theology as people invested in understanding what belief in the divine might mean for politics, and then there’s another tradition of political theology as critique, as trying to expose the false theologies, the false gods, that are behind different kinds of ideologies. There’s theological political theology and then there’s secular political theology, even though I hate that term. I think Vincent has done a really nice job talking about the various varieties and the ways that it’s very much a contested field.

PH: What I’ve heard is, there are a lot of streams here in political theology. On one hand there’s the study of politics through a theological lens looking at claims to divinity in the public space, but also political theology as a critique exposing, one could say, false deities that people have embraced in their politics. What does political theology add to our understanding of politics? What does political theology give us about the workings, or the meanings, or the nature of politics that we wouldn’t get otherwise from political science or political philosophy?

VL: I’ll embrace Bill’s division between theological political theology and secular political theology in addressing this question. For the former, it is often the case that those of us who have been deeply formed by religious communities and traditions, when entering into political discussions are told to, or we’re pressured to, set aside religious commitments and speak and think in a flattened, secular idiom. We’re told this is necessary in order to be understandable to our conversation partners, in order to be welcoming to others in our polity. Political theology in this first sense, the theological sense, authorizes those who are deeply formed by religious traditions and communities to refuse that secularism, to bring into political analysis, political discernment, political engagement, the virtues, the forms of judgment, the stories, the beliefs, that are integral to our traditions and to who we are.

In the second sort of political theology, that is, the critique of secular politics that is aligned with ideology critique, there’s a certain worry on the part of those scholars and activists who care about racism and patriarchy and colonialism and empire and militarism and the various collective vices of our nation and our age. There’s a worry that secularism or a secular frame for political conversations plays into those collective vices, that the exclusion of religious reasons, religious beliefs, and forms of engagement complements these ideologies – that is, the failure to take seriously racial difference, the failure to take seriously women’s experience and trans experience and queer experience. If the political frame excludes religious experience, it’s also going to exclude these other sorts of experiences, and that can be doing violence to our fellow citizens and neighbors. So it is important to name secularism as a problem, and as a problem that may be concealing these other problems.

In our moment, when conversations about politics have shifted from being necessarily reformist to putting on the table reform and abolition, reform and revolution, reform and radical transformation, it becomes clearer and clearer that the secular frame that has long dominated politics is one that is invested in that reformist framework. If our political commitments are such that we want to at least consider the possibility that for some corners of our political life, an abolitionist or revolutionary or deeply transformative frame is necessary, we need to allow the religious forms of political engagement that support that sort of abolitionist or revolutionary.

WC: One of the things that was coming out to me as Vincent was talking is the way in which political theology can help level the playing field between the so-called religious and the so-called secular. We’re often trained into these ways of thinking in which there are believers and then there are unbelievers. There are some people that have beliefs and then there are other people that have facts – and so political science fancies itself as a science. They deal with facts and then theology is this land of fantasy where people believe in things that are impossible to prove and one of the things that political theology does is help level that playing field.

When I was coming up as an undergraduate, Hobbes was presented as the beginning of modern political theory. We didn’t read what he wrote on the Bible in Leviathan. We just ignored that stuff and you saw him as kind of this hard-headed realist who builds up a political theory from a realist view of the human – solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short (which I always thought would be a great name for a law firm). But when I teach it, I teach it alongside Genesis and show that what they’re both trying to do is the same kind of thing, that they’re both trying to understand the predicament that humans are in. And understand how we get out of it. Once you understand it in those frames, then you understand more about what Hobbes is really up to, and you understand more about what anybody who’s doing political theory or political science is up to: telling stories about human beings and their relationship with something beyond, as a way of trying to understand the predicament that we’re in and how to organize ourselves to get out of it.

PH: How can political theology be a source of healing for our nation at this very divided time, even existentially divided time? Can it help us see a common purpose? Can it facilitate conversations across group affinities? Can it help us see the nation as one, in some sense?

WC: Part of the issue is what kind of people we are. We talk about freedom all the time. We tend to talk about it in negative terms. Freedom means I get to do what I want without interference from other people, but that’s a really incomplete idea of freedom. That’s just a negative freedom, freedom from interference, and there’s a stronger sense, positive freedom, that we are freer the more that we’re wrapped up in the will of God and wrapped up in each other’s lives. James Madison recognizes this in the Federalist Papers, that you can’t have a free society without virtuous citizens. They have to be people who are trained in certain virtues in order to live freedom well. That’s something that I think we often lose sight of, and that’s a place where I think theology can be of service: forming us as people who tell the truth.

I’m always a little bit wary when the goal is national unity. I think that the best way to serve the nation is by not making serving the nation our goal. When you serve something higher than the nation, when you serve the truth with a capital T, when you serve God, then you serve the nation better than if you’re trying to serve the nation. There has to be something greater than just the “we” of our collective narcissism in order for the “we” to work, right? So, in order for there to be a community that works, then we have to be serving a higher purpose, and that’s one way in which political theology can help.

VL: I think sometimes we don’t think through the metaphor of healing enough. We think healing means you’re sick and you take medicine and then you’re better, but people get all sorts of really serious sicknesses. Sometimes people need surgery, sometimes people need chemotherapy, sometimes people need amputation. There can be really dangerous and sometimes devastating responses that are intended for healing, and that sometimes lead to healing, in the medical realm. And that does seem apt when thinking about deeply sickened and pathological nation and national culture. To look for a pill may be the wrong metaphor, but to remember that the kind of healing that might be necessary might be almost gruesome, and yet still done in the interest of restoring health and with the good of the nation in mind. That seems like a really complex and difficult process and metaphor to struggle with. We should worry about taking actions that are in the interest of a good but are themselves oriented away from the good, and thus, it may be unclear whether we’re really going to get this good result we want in the long-term. Which is all just to say that this healing metaphor seems important, but also it’s necessary to really struggle with.

One aspect of this healing metaphor has to do with authority and expertise. There’s someone who has special expertise who is doing the healing. But what if we’re healing ourselves, what if we all have the capacity when we imagine collectively, when we discern collectively, to engage in a kind of self-healing work that isn’t based on special expertise?

Political theology helps in all of these dimensions: whether it’s a tool to do some deep healing work, whether it is a diagnostic process, whether it is a sort of a lifestyle prescription for healing that only works in the long term but requires practice on an everyday basis for a long time. Those all seem like powerful ways that political theology can be part of a national healing. Especially when our democratic values are under pressure, are put in question, it seems so important to be able to reject forms of theological expertise with respect to politics while embracing the ordinary possibilities of religious thought and life and practice. In other words, I worry that political theology can set itself up as an expert that can go heal the nation, and instead political theology at its best is saying “Look around! There are all sorts of communities, all sorts of families, all sorts of neighborhoods, that are bringing their religious traditions, their forms of seeing the world, their forms of speaking and singing and praying, to build a better life together.” And that’s where we ought to turn to learn how to heal the nation.

PH: If I’ve understood both of you, political theology as a medicine of a kind. If the nation’s ready to take this healing process, it could really shape the national body.

Thanks to Tristan Mitchell for his transcription and editing, and to Laura Simpson for copyediting. A longer, video version of this conversation is available here.

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