As I argued in my previous post, there are indications that Paul Kahn subscribes to Carl Schmitt’s belief in the substantial cultural indebtedness of the modern to “the theological.” Most of these stem from the “genealogical” side of his methodology. But his search for residuum of the past is supported, as I will here attempt to demonstrate, by a very selective use of history.
Consider, first, Kahn’s comparison of modern democratic revolutionaries and early Protestants. To paraphrase: the trans-temporal, collective subject of the revolutionary sovereign, instantiated in every citizen, is a secularization of the mystical body of Christ, which the Protestant Reformation, in an act tantamount to “revelation,” had already transferred from the king and the sacraments to the inwardness of believers contemplating the scripture. Kahn is describing a double displacement of a mystical presence (from sacral monarch and sacerdotal forms to Protestant saints, and from Protestant saints and the Word to democratic subjects and their constitution) and then tracing a line of descent back to the sixteenth-century quarrel over the Christian concept of transubstantiation. A great deal of scholarship has been written about the Protestant legacy in American culture, and certainly the radicalization of some Protestant teachings, such as the importance of secular vocation, the internalization of religious discipline, the priesthood of the laity, and the lordship of God alone, lay the conditions for the English revolution of 1642-1651. Most eighteenth-century Americans counted themselves part of the Dissenting tradition, and they came to see their own quest for independence from the crown as continuing the Reformation and carrying forward the earlier Puritan revolution in England. (Even Tom Paine made use of evangelical rhetoric.) What they stressed, however, was not Kahn’s invented analogy to the transfer of the mystical presence but the righteousness of both religious and political resistance; both priestly power and political tyranny (whether of King Charles I or of the colonial authority) were illegitimate and deserved to be felled.
Kahn is simply invoking Protestant “legacyism” to unify his theory that revolution must involve a transfer of the sacred. This narrowness of insight leads him to overlook (or not mention) significant facts about the Protestant Reformation (more specifically, the Puritan Revolution) that would have emphasized its modernizations rather than its atavisms. Thus, take Kahn’s assertion that the Puritan settlers imbued Americans with a permanent reverence for law. This is a statement so abstract as to mean multiple things, but the general sense, I gather, is that Americans have incurred some sort of cultural debt to the Puritans that they exhibit in their attitudes toward the Constitution and toward jurisprudence. One wonders how, for instance, decisions of the Warren court verify Kahn’s assertion: Engel vs. Vitale or Abington School District vs. Schempp (which, respectively, declared unconstitutional the formal observance of prayer and assigned Bible reading in public schools). Are these examples proof that when the Court refers to “the nation,” “national life,” or “the people” in its decisions, it is invoking a secularized theological concept? Of course, Kahn would counter that his notion of “political theology” encompasses concepts that, while not manifestly theological in content, amount nonetheless to “secularized” (displaced from their origin in) theology. The problem here, as with Schmitt’s logic, is that one can make a “secularization” of any idea by striking an analogy to a theological one if the only ground for the comparison is the analogy itself.
Consider, for instance, this statement: “The concept of sovereignty is incomprehensible if stripped of its theological origins.” Here is a case where the imperative to pinpoint an origin—a foundational point of authentic ownership—obscures a much more complex interaction of social and intellectual forces. Nathan Hatch, in The Democratization of American Christianity, has demonstrated how American national identity was “an impromptu creation” in which the past was re-written to make the Constitution its culmination. So far, this seems to support Kahn’s thesis. However, “the theological,” in this case, was not a foundation but a poly-vocal discourse in which social class defined lines of dissent over the identity of the sovereign and the limitations of the Constitution of 1787. Fears of elitism and centralization and fears of mobility and fragmentation enlisted diverse religious proponents. In the post-revolutionary period, Hatch argues, revivalistic evangelicalism posed an epochal populist challenge to the Whig predilections of Old Light Calvinism and Unitarianism. The attitudes of the moderate British Enlightenment and of the Federalists, which had their religious support in the New England colleges, were made to give way before a more radical democratic vision. Populist preachers, aligning the right to religious free conscience and egalitarian forms of worship with political liberties, gave religious credence to Jeffersonianism, and the evangelical masses laid claim to the birthright of the nation. This process was also accompanied by additional transformations in social practice that had nothing to do with religious observance and no manifest theological intention. Elected legislatures and large assemblies, Charles Taylor underlines in A Secular Age, emphasized “representation” rather than “incarnation.” These practices helped to legitimate the discourse of popular sovereignty by building on the continuity of past colonial institutions, such as elected assemblies, that had earned respect, not because they were sacred, but because they had protected local liberties against the imperial government.
Kahn’s “genealogical” technique yields no evidence persuading me that American political ideas originate in and are indebted to theological sources. Through his architectural technique, however, he does point to evidence supporting another notion of secularization: that ideas and symbols from a religious sphere of discourse can be commuted to a profane or non-theistic sphere of discourse, and vice versa, through the internal secularization of religious traditions. Religious messages, images, and stories routinely circulate in the U.S. through entertainment, mass media, literature, the arts, campaign writing and fundraising that are not under ecclesiastical control or exclusively religious in allegiance. The dissemination and transformation of religion, or the relocation of “the sacred” or “the spiritual,” through consumption, new technologies, democratic populism, and the emergence of the public sphere have been the subjects of abundant monographs in Cultural Studies and American Studies.
Unfortunately, the term “the sacred” is one of the most obscurant in our critical lexicon, and it often agglomerates phenomena that should be examined discretely. Talal Asad, in his Formations of the Secular, has criticized the common use of “the sacred”—designating a mythical, mysterious force that imposes itself upon subjectivity and space—and shown that it is constituted in the nineteenth century through misunderstandings of ancient sacramental practices. Anthropologists in comparative religion, working from the idea of “taboo,” fashioned the term “the sacred” to stand for a universal essence common to all religions. The term was subsequently taken up by theologians, and in the twentieth century it was expanded (by figures like Mircea Eliade) to designate the religious sources of all cultural and social formations. Kahn seems unaware of Asad’s criticisms and contributes to further mystification of this already abused term.
If Kahn were less devoted to spelunking the secular for its hidden “sacred” springs and more absorbed in identifying the practices of public religions, then he might have provided a more rounded account of America’s “social imaginary” and the variety of connections between theology, rhetoric, and the secular spheres that it has actually afforded. The current sociological theory of the “deprivatization” of religion is a model that does not precisely describe the U.S., since the melding of the secular and the religious has always been endemic here (though more visibly since World War II, because of the rise of the Religious Right). The interpenetration of the two has much to do with the rationale of prophecy: “an American idiom that is capacious and embraces many kinds of politics,” as George Shulman writes in American Prophecy. To borrow a term from Shulman, the mythology of the popular sovereign is a form of “vernacular theology,” woven out of the language and logic of prophecy, and many communities in America’s Biblical culture use this vernacular with different intentions. Kahn’s “architectural” technique presumes that the social imaginary produces a common, sanctified image of the sovereign, whereas in fact, as Shulman indicates, prophecy—joining the revolutionary past to an ongoing project of redemption—has frequently functioned to contest the identity of the sovereign rather than solidify it.
One such example, already mentioned, is the struggle that ensued in the post-revolutionary period between Federalists and Jeffersonians, in which populist preachers argued for the further democratization of church and polity by tracing their cause to both the revolutionary generation and the meaning of Biblical revelation. To fail in this project, as they charged of gentleman elites, was to betray the heroes of 1776 and the Protestant God who had elected them to enact His will by bringing about political and religious equality. In the run up to the Civil War, Confederate nationalists put forward a different image of the sovereign, which rejected the democratizing tendencies of the post-revolutionary populists who had carried the argument at that time. As Drew Faust has shown, in Confederate Nationalism, Southern elites justified secession as an act of “purification,” since the North, they alleged, had betrayed the sovereign and declined from the revolutionary generation’s republican virtues. Southern jeremiads framed these arguments in politicized prophetic idiom that imbued war death with providential significance, as if echoing patriotic narratives being elaborated by Northerners. Both bled and prayed, but the causes their sacrifices sanctified, the sovereign wills they obeyed, were different nations. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural straddles the dichotomy, but Kahn looks past it.
Most vividly, in our recent history, the civil rights and black liberation movements, reaching back to the legacies of abolitionism and the Social Gospel, reconfigured prophecy to unmask what James Baldwin called “the national innocence.” Most Americans, Baldwin explained in an address at Kalamazoo College in 1960, tend to envision their democracy descending uninterruptedly from an ancestor who was a “cross between a Celt and a Teuton,” who worshipped a “Puritan god,” and who bequeathed the wisdom of “New England” and the hope for high material status. To correct this misprision, social prophets in the fifties and sixties forced a revaluation of sacrifice and its soteriological relation to the problem of sin. Sacrifice can be interpreted as the price paid for sins under the judgment and wrath of God, or it can be understood as virtuous self-giving for a transcendent cause or contest with evil. Kahn tends to emphasize only the second meaning, but social prophets have often used the trope of judgment to contest the nation’s claim to be righteous and just. Pointing to God above the sovereign, they expose the exclusions and traumas—the repressed history—on which nationalism is founded. Pricking the bad conscience of Christians and democrats, who must atone for their self-deception and injustice, social prophets seek to transform the image of the national identity so that it can be more ethnically or racially inclusive. In the process, as Shulman has brilliantly demonstrated, social prophets empower disenfranchised communities by allotting to them the mission of redemptive suffering and self-sacrifice mythically attributed to patriots. Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr. each called attention to caesuras in American history, ruptures between the faith of the revolutionary generation and those of its sons who have not completed but, in fact, traduced it. The cause of the founding fathers inspirited those whom the nation had sinfully, illiberally, forsworn to acknowledge as having a claim to its birthright. For King, the downtrodden’s chosen sacrifice, in the present, became the price of expanding freedom so that the promise of the nation’s founding ideals could be fulfilled. Since the sixties, liberation theology, mostly in academia, has also spoken on behalf of the silenced and the unrepresented through a prophetic discourse far more varied in its permutations than Kahn’s mono-myth of the popular sovereign. The plurality of these communities belies the uniformity of the American “We” to which Kahn repeatedly refers in his text.
There is, however, yet another, more fearsome, dimension to prophecy, also overlooked by Kahn, which might have had a bearing on his auguries about America’s prospects. The sacralizing of the American nation-state that concerns him has another dimension: messianic, millennialist, and apocalyptic. To return to Kahn’s own example—Lincoln’s sacrificial presidency—scholars have described how the North converted the president’s death and the attrition of the Civil War into a sign of redemption from sin that conferred upon the nation the divine mission of redeeming the world itself from evil. Already existing beliefs—that world salvation had begun with Christ, been continued with the Reformation, and given an earthly agent in the young republic—received a confirmation and an apotheosis. In the twentieth century, this belief in the nation’s messianic mission has coupled itself with secular liberalism’s project of universalizing human rights, by force if necessary. The rhetoric leading up to and justifying the Second Gulf War is one recent example, but the admixture of the two logics of redemption, millennial eschatology and secular teleology, has elicited valid suspicions of expansionism (markets, client states, geo-political influence) and accusations of ethically disproportional (mass destructive) means whenever the U.S. has embarked on a mission to make part of the world “safe for democracy.” During the Cold War, the realist Hans Morgenthau (who had thoroughly studied Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political) argued, in “Human Rights and Foreign Policy” and elsewhere, that the U.S. should resist the temptation to militarily impose its principles on the rest of humanity (meaning, the Third World), and Protestant realists writing for Christianity and Crisis magazine, such as Reinhold Niebuhr and John Bennett, called down the Judgment of God on what they perceived to be American hubris. After Vietnam, New Americanists such as Sacvan Bercovitch linked American neo-imperialism to the country’s Protestant eschatological idioms. One might question the motives behind certain of these critiques of messianism (as I have queried those of the Christian realists in my book God-Fearing and Free), but, notwithstanding caveats, it is a fact that America has committed political evils in the name of saving the world as well for the cause of preserving itself. And the cause has often been identified in expressly theological language as a sacred obligation.
This has implications for the prognosis Kahn has made about the future of American democracy. He is no less skeptical of the latter than he is of liberalism. Kahn is a believer in the sovereign (there is no politics without it), but he thinks the myth of popular sovereignty obscures the actual locations of power. It is institutional elites, abetted by mass media, who actually exercise the power to decide, even if they defer rhetorically to the popular sovereign. Yet Kahn does not appear to believe that a reversal of this power relationship is possible or even desirable. Certainly, he is no populist. In an essay written for Boston Review in 2002, “Democracy Won’t Help,” Kahn answers “pleas for a new American politics, one of mature deliberation among public-minded citizens who are willing to take a sober second look at their aroused passions,” by calling them utopian and misplaced. Discussion, whether in the public sphere or in Congress, will not alter the minds of the masses. Kahn believes that the U.S. has a moral obligation to use its power for the defense of strangers, to stop massive human rights violations, such as those in Bosnia, Rwanda, East Timor, and Kosovo; however, he believes the American people, by and large, are unwilling to make commitments of life and limb for something as abstract as human rights. A people cannot love a “universal,” and that, according to Kahn, is what a stranger’s humanity is. The alternative he proposes to discussion is strong executive leadership; without waiting for democratic or Congressional approval, the President can deploy “America’s immense military might,” and then mobilize the masses, pull them behind him, make them accept the exception. This recommendation follows from Kahn’s argument, in Political Theology, that the President play a Christological role when mediating the sovereign presence and committing it to sacrifice. As this mediator, he can inspire “love” for moral right that the “universal” cannot.
Whether we live in the age of Bush or the age of Obama, reliance on charismatic presidential leadership is hardly an attractive option. The twentieth century had already seen an expansion of presidential power and a concentration on “the drama of the presidential personality,” justified by the need for the use of force and, since World War II, the assumption of a permanent war economy and wartime government (see Sean McCann, A Pinnacle of Feeling: American Literature and Presidential Government). The president, expected to rise above particular interests and embody the popular will, invokes the messianic promise of America, recycling rhetoric of New Israel or sacrificial bloodshed. Woodrow Wilson, who took Lincoln as his inspiration, transformed the meaning of World War I into revelation, confusing the goal of multilateral peace with the world-historical destiny of the U.S. as political agent of millennial peace, an eschatological vision that, having the status, in Wilson’s mind, of a faith, may have contributed to his staunch and self-defeating refusal to compromise on the terms of Congressional ratification of the League of Nations. Wilson has often been faulted for his “idealism,” but if Wilson is guilty, his successors have no less abused his Biblical idiom and redeemer role. After committing U.S. air and naval forces, in 1950, without seeking authority from Congress, Harry Truman assured Americans, “We will win [in Korea] because God is with us.” Eisenhower, sanctified as a type of “Moses” or “Daniel” by evangelist Billy Graham, who baptized the thirty-fourth president in the Oval Office following his inauguration, led the nation in a prayer from the Capitol before committing the country to an escalated arms race, and his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, author of the doctrine of massive retaliation, cited as his favorite Biblical quotation, “All things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to His purpose.” In John F. Kennedy’s celebrated 1961 inaugural address, he recalled Americans to “the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God” and required “high standards of strength and sacrifice” of his countrymen and allies. His frequently bellicose administration, which was committed to defeating (not containing) Communism, risked nuclear brinksmanship with Russia in defense of that civil religion. This was “God’s work,” as was the use of secret forces (JFK glamorized the CIA) to skirt public scrutiny. Allen Dulles (Director, 1953-1961), who saw the intelligence agency as the chief executive’s elite cadre, had chiseled into the marble at the entrance to CIA Headquarters “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free (John 8:32).” Dulles had in mind the truth of secret channels serving a public kept ignorant for its best interests, and in his book, The Craft of Intelligence (1963), he finds the genesis of his profession in the soothsayers, oracles, prophets, and holy men who revealed the future so that the ruler could act in harmony with divine intention. Lyndon Baines Johnson, building on the mystique and mythology of Kennedy-as-martyr (the Dean of the National Cathedral called the late president’s assassination a “new crucifixion”), would use his predecessor’s legacy to justify, among other causes, increasing American military involvement in Vietnam. Johnson exhorted Americans to re-consecrate the “God-given vision and determination to make the sacrifices demanded by our responsibilities” (remarks on the National Day of Prayer, 1965). Surely the American public has often been poorly informed, distracted, or ideologically blinded about the issues at stake in these periods, but charismatic executive leadership, especially in the Christological guise, has been no reliable substitute.
Kahn’s political theology describes the pathology of the imperial presidency, but he seems to think it is our boldest alternative, liberalism being such a leaky vessel and democracy so fundamentally irrational. At stake for Kahn, it seems, is the institutional elite’s ability to recognize political evil, see its rootedness in the duality of the human will, and therefore take steps to moderate and re-direct the country’s political behavior. Schmitt rued the Enlightenment (its secularism, humanism, rationalism) for eliminating the moral drama inhering in the political by making government mundane, concrete, positivistic. Kahn also shares the desire to reinvigorate our political life by restoring a sense of its “metaphysical” dimension, intuitively grasped by theology and its sacral texts. If Kahn were to pay more attention to actual prophetic speech instead of “secularized theological concepts,” he would see how public religions can work compatibly with liberal democratic politics, as the Social Gospel, the SCLC, the Catholic Worker movement, the Fellowship for Reconciliation, the National Council of Churches, Clergy and Laymen Concerned, and Call to Renewal have done so in the past, to affirm norms, advocate for them, and contribute to the arguments over how they should be applied. The condition of greater cooperation is a healthy and tolerant public sphere, and this condition will not be fulfilled by impugning the Enlightenment’s legacy, especially when the denigration is premised upon a critique of Enlightenment and an account of secularization as tenuous as Kahn’s and Schmitt’s. Kahn makes some well-taken local arguments about the inconsistencies between liberal theory and democratic myth-making, between popular sovereignty and the actual locations of decision-making in American life, but America has thankfully never been quite the kind of political-theological project he depicts, and that has a good deal to do with the secular, humanist, rationalist traditions that Kahn disdains. Any liberal democracy that would rely for its political conscience on galvanizing nationalistic beliefs in shared experiences of pain, sacrifice, and mythic transcendence would be as spurious as Schmitt imagined most modern Western states to be, though they would be deserving of condemnation for reasons that Schmitt, the reactionary, considered too worldly to be moral.