Given the attention lavished on political martyrdom in Islam over the last decade, Paul W. Kahn’s focus on other—and specifically “our”—practices of sacrificial death is welcome. Throughout his examination of American political theology, he rightly insists that we are not committed to law or to life in quite the way we think.
Kahn’s surprising conclusion is that political theology is fundamentally an examination of freedom. The free act of will, undetermined by law, reason or interest, appears in the decision for revolution; in the maintenance of the state through civic sacrifice in moments of existential crisis; in the judge’s decision in applying norm to fact; and in the philosopher’s free inquiry into forms of meaning. A theory, a life, or a state committed to law without exception denies the reality that law alone can never grasp the foundational act or the existential situation.
Kahn evokes an essential unity between citizen, popular sovereign, and state in the moment of sacrifice that exemplifies the free act. Working within, alongside, and at times against Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology, Kahn argues that the freedom of the decision is inexplicable by strictly “secular” categories, whether empiricist or rationalist. That is why it is free, and why we need theology to understand it.
Thus Kahn’s political theology does not provide yet another vantage point from which to debunk the conceptions of human freedom declared by the Enlightenment, by secularism, or by liberalism by pointing to a deeper form of unfreedom at their root. It is liberalism (or secularism or Enlightenment) in itself and on its own terms—for instance, in its studied avoidance of the decision—that fails to grasp the free act. He debunks, or, rather, supplements such conceptions by pointing to a deeper form of freedom. Kahn’s, then, is not a conception that focuses on the fundamental otherness of the sovereign and the state in modern politics. Rather, Kahn largely inverts such a topography of the political: we are (potentially, ideally, and sometimes actually) the sovereign, and the sovereign, by definition, is free.
The freedom depicted by Kahn in Political Theology is certainly not a negative freedom. It is, among other things, the collective freedom of a community to found a state and to sustain it. It is, given Kahn’s emphasis on the notion of popular sovereignty, a freedom enacted through individuals’ participation in the life of the sovereign—paradigmatically through the giving of one’s own life. It is a freedom to sacrifice, to suffer an immortalizing, sacred death. It is thus the freedom to transcend the self: “Where we find that meaning [i.e., an ultimate meaning], we will find freedom.”
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Yet precisely that which is striking and appealing in Kahn’s account—his interweaving of sovereignty, freedom and political theology—and which should serve to broaden the ambit of political theological inquiry, rather seems to confine it. For Kahn asserts the mutual exclusivity of an order committed to law and one guided by political theology: “If politics has become a domain wholly ordered by law, then there is no need for a political theology.” There is no political theology, for instance, “appropriate for the institutions of the European Union: it is politics as a fully secularized practice of reason.” Nor is it to be found in many parts of the international legal order, which are often systems set against the decision, against sovereignty, and thus, per Kahn, against freedom.
While the European Union may claim ideologically to be a sovereignty-free project, Kahn’s own analysis of the decision operative in the routine legal case suggests that there is freedom in the establishment and maintenance of a legal order. So why does Kahn draw the boundaries of the political theological inquiry in this manner? A footnote provides a good metaphor for some of the exclusions he makes: “if my arguments sound more Protestant than Catholic, that too reflects the American political imaginary.”
Even if Kahn is right to situate the “domain wholly ordered by law” beyond freedom, we may still wonder why it follows that there is no “need for a political theology.” Is freedom the only inexplicable, hence theological, feature of our political landscape?
Political theology, conceived rather as applying in the last instance to more than freedom alone—for instance, as the examination also of a society’s supposedly sacred or highest values—might provide an illuminating perspective on the oft-asserted sanctity of humanity, of property, of reason, of nature, or of the rule of law itself. To approach such commitments and projects as forms of political theology is to underscore that they, too, rest on premises that cannot be derivative, which is to say, on a leap of faith of sorts. Perhaps, in maintaining that there is no political theology in the workings of the EU, Kahn concedes too much to the liberal self-conception that he otherwise adeptly deflates.
To follow Kahn and Schmitt, perhaps we should not call these other sacred or highest values political theological if they do not self-consciously evoke Schmitt’s friend/enemy distinction or entail the possibility of human sacrifice (although they may do so more often than we would like to think). But rather than accept their “secular” self-declarations as Kahn seems to, we might have recourse to other labels (such as “legal theology,” to cite John Comaroff). On the other hand, I am skeptical of using the Schmittian friend/enemy distinction as the criterion for the political as it seems, through inversion and thus replication, to privilege the core liberal values—of life and self-ownership—over other highest values. Conjoining “political” and “theological” presents an opportunity to focus on the creation and maintenance of a cultural order more broadly—something that can take place in settings aside from the confrontation with the enemy, such in as the creation of a trade zone. Another way, then, of understanding the exclusions that Kahn makes—of the EU, and its lack of an enemy, for example—is that he emphasizes the “political” side of the conjunction more than the “theological.”
If one concern, then, is that Kahn gives up too much in terms of the self-declared secularity of substantive areas and sites of legal activity, a second fear is that by treating freedom and popular sovereignty as a kind of prerequisite for engaging the theological, Kahn excludes from its scope the experience of being unfree. That is, Kahn’s political theology consists of the internally generated, not the externally imposed or imported, political order. But to return to the examples of the sacred nature of property, trade, or humanity—such valorizations might very well be, and in fact often are, imposed by external powers. Indeed, in the postwar era, juridical sovereignty itself is the form through which many states have been governed, as much as it is the form through which they have engaged in self-government and freedom. A conception of the sovereign, accordingly, as an outsider and alien—like Marshall Sahlins’s “stranger king,” who comes from abroad and is joined to the local people through marriage and sacrifice—is still relevant. In many postcolonial contexts, though, it may be hard to decide who is the best candidate for such a designation: the estranged national elite; the global banking class; the U.S., on which Kahn focuses; or, most recently, China.
Even in the U.S., popular sovereignty is not the only conception of sovereignty. I heartily agree with Kahn that popular sovereignty merits a political theological analysis, in the U.S. and elsewhere. But in legal doctrine and state practice, governmental sovereignty often derives directly from the Crown and international law, not from popular sovereignty. (See, for example, Justice Sutherland’s remarkable opinion describing the sovereign powers transmitted from the Crown to the Union, and not derived from the Constitution. United States v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corp., 299 U.S. 304 ). The exclusion of these genealogies of sovereignty is surprising in a study of American political theology, because it is from within this lineage that the United States government proclaimed itself to be sovereign. This dimension of American sovereignty is no less free, and no less theological, than Kahn contends, though it is not grounded in popular sovereignty.
And, as Kahn notes, even within the tradition of popular sovereignty it is possible, indeed common, for the manifestations of popular sovereignty of one moment to be alien to those living at a later moment. Put another way, the freedom he describes entails the power to create order for others. It may even include the freedom to present one’s own commitments to property, trade and humanity as non-political, non-theological, and universal. The experience of the recipients of such intergenerational or imperial beneficence need not be ruled out of the bounds of political theological inquiry because they do not act freely.
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In sum, I would ask whether political theology ought not to be construed in a frame wider than Kahn allows, as a study of the continued forms and presence of the god-like within the nominally secular—whether or not they derive from free self-governance. Nonetheless, Kahn’s interweaving of popular sovereignty, freedom, and political theology is a powerful corrective to a sense of political theology as an inquiry only into unfreedom, into the condition of living in a world made by others. Documenting such unfreedom seems an obvious sense of what political theology is about, and Kahn compels us to consider additional possibilities.
Within the frame Kahn has chosen, it can be difficult to discern the status of the form of freedom that he describes. Is it actual and present in everyday life, a reading encouraged by his depiction of his project as phenomenological and almost ethnographic? In that case, he confronts factual claims to the contrary. Or is it latent, a necessary background condition underlying the creation and maintenance of the state? In fact, one can discern both senses of freedom in Kahn’s work. To my mind, Kahn’s freedom has a status similar to Habermas’s ideal speech situation. Such an ideal sacrifice situation shares something methodologically with Habermas’s construct as regulatory ideal while inverting much of its content. Kahn’s is an ideal of the potential unity between citizen, sovereign, and state in the moment of sacrifice; a unity, that is, of the body of the citizen, the ethereal, non-institutionalized popular sovereign, and the bricks and mortar of the state. Seen from this perspective, those who would critique Kahn for failing to see that we are not free at the moment, or that the state is actually a monster, take up a methodological and analytical position like that of critics who have attacked the unreality of Habermas’s ideal. They may be correct in any given instance, but perhaps they miss the main points at issue, one of which is to determine where and when such an ideal as ideal might be thought to exist.
In the American context, Kahn has identified an ideal—the sacrificial ideal of freedom—that exists both as an ideal and at times in practice. And while the U.S. is certainly his main subject, he describes an ideal of freedom that has purchase well beyond American borders. Perhaps this freedom is what we’ve seen evoked by some of the protesters in the Middle East and North Africa in recent months. And Kahn is right to draw our attention to the claim that there is something miraculous in the plausible appearance of “the people.” Conjuring the people by giving up one’s self seems to represent just the kind of freedom and popular sovereignty that Kahn has in mind. The challenge for those who accept Kahn’s ideal is how to bring the individual and the conjured popular sovereign into a sufficient degree of unity with the apparatus of government, for such is the condition of more lasting freedom. These are the directions in which Kahn pushes us, and we need not think that he is correct on a factual or phenomenological level all of the time in order to examine this ideal, to ask when and how it emerges, and to see it as something astounding and “theological.”
Kahn’s ideal might also serve a regulatory function, furnishing a critical perspective from which to view efforts by policy makers to unbundle sacrifice, the sacred and the state. For example, might we not interpret the rise of the private military contractor in the U.S. as an attempt to “outsource” sacrifice, to avoid or undermine the ideal of sacrifice that makes possible the unity of citizen, sovereign, and state? We might interpret in a similar fashion the reliance on immigrant soldiers. These policies are illustrations of the gap between Kahn’s ideal of popular sovereignty, on the one hand, and contemporary global and imperial practices, on the other. And yet, Kahn’s ideal of sovereignty as civic sacrifice is not completely evaded: contractors are now seeking out the same honors as soldiers, and contractors from Fiji killed in Iraq, for instance, have been honored by the State department for their sacrifices. Immigrants in the military become—even posthumously—eligible for citizenship.
Kahn’s perspective also helps underscore the oddity of the sacralization achieved through the terrorist killing of American citizens, who are thereby “conscripted” in the war on terror, writes Kahn. This is a sacralization and sacrifice brought on from the outside, one where the terrorist is—awkwardly and impossibly—in the position of sacrifier. Kahn stresses the essential continuity of different modes of sacrifice: “There is a direct line from the revolutionary consciousness of 1776 to the mass weapons of today.” But there is a jagged line too. Reading Kahn’s concept of freedom as an ideal made actual—and hence experienced, or phenomenologically manifested—on occasion, it can serve as one baseline from which to examine how different contexts and technologies recalibrate the distribution of sacrifice.
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In The Nomos of the Earth, Schmitt evinces fascination with the rise of U.S. power, which potentially entails, he says, a new kind of nomos, a lived legal order, one not based on the divide between land and sea, Europe and its colonies, but that would encompass land and sea and operate through economic domination. Juxtaposing this post-World War II book to Schmitt’s interwar Political Theology provokes a number of questions—which I pose here but do not answer—that are pertinent to Kahn’s American political theology. Namely, “where” is America? In other words, who falls within—and who remains outside—its political theology, and in what way? If not defined by a territorial boundary, how is it delimited? What is the relation between the individual and collective experience of political theology that Kahn evokes and sovereignty as it is practiced?
The juxtaposition of Schmitt’s two books also raises the question of whether we might relegate his assertions about the political theology of some states to an earlier moment—before the end of World War II, as Kahn sometimes suggests, or at the time of the collapse of the European nomos, which for Schmitt was around World War I? Is it that after the Second World War the Western European states are no longer “theological,” having been secularized by the terror of war and the fact of their encompassment by America and the Soviets? Or is their apparent political diminishment not necessarily an index of a decline in their theological commitments but simply a shift towards human dignity, the rule of law, or other values?
As the colonies become formally sovereign in the decades after World War II, does each become “theological” inversely to a possible “secularization” of its former European colonial state—a kind of global zero sum game of the theological? How are the European states and their former colonies embedded within an American (and/or Soviet) nomos and political theology? If there is a new nomos—let us say one of free trade, human rights, anti-Communism, state sovereignty, etc.—is it “theological” for the U.S.? And for these others? An examination of American political theology should ask how it intersects with these transformations, since it certainly participates in them.
Kahn makes a critically important contribution in drawing attention to the “we” invoked through popular sovereignty, a move in contrast to the formulation of the sovereign as the “other.” We find both in the American tradition: self-government and a global role. Kahn helps us see the interior idealizations of that tradition, and he provokes the question of whether American political theology can interpret its own global significance. Can the popular sovereign recognize itself from the outside, or must it remain locked in an internal perspective and thus structurally unaware?
Thus, allow me, in closing, to add one additional stop to Kahn’s tour of the sites of American political theology. While conducting fieldwork in an immigration detention center in California in 2000, I encountered in the basement of the U.S. federal building a number of detention tanks holding people awaiting imminent deportation from the U.S. as well as persons just arrived. Officials had installed one-way mirrors, but they had inadvertently installed the mirrors the wrong way, such that they saw their own reflection while the detainees had a clear view of the officials. Yet the officials did not correct the mistake. Not only was it useful for occasional grooming, this inverted panopticon, to my mind, captured multiple truths about the overall situation: the desire of officials—and by extension, “America”—to be free of the awareness of those under lock and key; the desire, nonetheless, to be seen, but not to see; and the great knowledge that outsiders have of the U.S. Is this arrangement part of American political theology, or is political theology, rather, the perspective from but one (the reflective) side of the glass? For my part, I believe the study of American political theology should endeavor to see from both sides of the glass.