I do not dispute the relevance of religion to American public life and agree with Paul Kahn that Americans have traditionally conducted much of their political, intellectual, and cultural behavior through religious symbols. However, I question whether the particular form of national myth that Kahn isolates in Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty is as hegemonic or as perennial as he asserts. Furthermore, I am disturbed by some of the conclusions Kahn seems to draw about the alternatives now available to liberal democracy. His task, he says, is to describe and interpret, rather than demystify, America’s political theology. That political theology, he argues, has contributed to making America an irresponsible, at times bellicose and dangerous, superpower. Yet, in Kahn’s opinion, religious faith and “secularized” deposits of religion are so deeply interwoven with nationalism, law, and foreign policy in the American social imaginary that the only alternative, he indicates, is to manipulate the existing political theology, as he defines it, to achieve more desirable goals.

By way of background, let me make a detour through the period when the concepts of “political religion” and “secular religion” were first theorized, in the early twentieth century. These concepts have a different pedigree from Schmitt’s “political theology,” from which Kahn derives his own arguments, and they emerge a few years later (specifically, in the 1930s, in the context of both anti-fascism and anti-Bolshevism). Such differences, however, help to illuminate what is distinctive – as well as illogical – about Schmitt’s understanding of modernity and its secular foundations.

The concept of political religion, or “secular religion,” rose to intellectual prominence among clerical, conservative, liberal, and ex-Communists. It is succinctly formulated in the Swiss Catholic philosopher Denis de Rougement’s The Devil’s Share, widely reviewed upon its first publication in 1944. A political religion sacralizes a regime by deifying the state and its representatives; it arrogates to the state the powers and authority that belong to God, and so becomes totalitarian. The idea of political religion has since had a complex genealogy, and intellectual historians and sociologists (such as Emilio Gentile, Roger Griffin, Michael Burleigh, Philippe Burrin) have identified two of the contrasting ways in which it has functioned as a hermeneutic device: 1) the phenomenological, in which the regime in question travesties a traditional religion yet provides for its subjects the existentially grounding force of belonging to a faith community; and 2) the functionalist, focusing on rituals and symbols that provide means of social control and legitimation instrumental for a regime. Theologians and Christian philosophers favored the first view. It ascended in the ’30s and spread in the ’40s among figures such as Eric Voegelin, Nicholas Berdiaev, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Adolf Keller, Jacques Maritain, Pius XI, Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, and de Rougement. They believed in the yearning of homo religiosus described by Fathers of Western theology, such as Paul and Augustine, who speak of man’s soul not resting unless it “reposeth in Thee.” This longing, they argued, was so strong that it imposed internal limits on Enlightenment since religious needs would have to be satisfied by one means or another¾authentically, by Christianity, or inauthentically, by profane culture. Political religions thus came about in a secular age, that is, after Europe had been de-Christianized. As evidence of the displacement or seizure of religious content, Christian proponents cited semantic correspondences between traditional faith and radical ideologies from which they then inferred a deeper substrate of meaning. For example, Marxism’s dialectical theory of history would be a teleologization of millennial eschatology.

In contrast with the Christian critics of secularization, Schmitt argued that his idea of political theology was non-sectarian in purpose. In particular, he objected to neo-orthodoxy’s belief that religion and politics were incompatible because faith, having a transcendent object, should not identify its Good with political ends. Schmitt believed, rather, that faith and politics could not be disentangled. Moreover, their association was not necessarily a sign of corruption. Schmitt’s own religious background has some relevance here. Mark Lilla has suggested, in Reckless Minds, that Schmitt’s Roman Catholicism and Political Form (1923) betrays the author’s nostalgia for the medieval Church, which he perceives as the ideal political form since it “represents the entire body of the faithful” rather than atomistic individuals bound inorganically by social contract. Moreover, Schmitt was influenced by counter-revolutionary Christian philosophers, such as Donoso Cortés and Joseph de Maistre¾however, he was instructed primarily by their systematic analogies between state philosophy and study of God, and he did not recommend, as they did, subordinating the state to Catholic hegemony. If faith and politics were interwoven, it was not because their association was commendable and necessary, but because “the sovereign” is a secularized theological concept. Schmitt’s theory of the decision, of course, rests on this very premise.

Schmitt saw parallels between the political transformations of the modern period¾the decline and domestication of the sovereign coupled with the emergence of liberal and democratic states¾and secularization of Western societies, which saw the disenchantment of reality and the rise of liberal theology and radical utopian atheism. The two processes, he argued, were structurally analogous: State forms corresponded to secularized concepts of god. The modern era, for example, secularized the God of “deism” as the normative construction of law in constitutionalism. The older concept of God as transcendent sovereign, as giver of the law and creator of miracles, had been fused in the Middle Ages with the figure of the sacral monarch, who incarnated both divine and political power, the authority of revelation and of the crown. The modern era sought to divorce this nexus and vilify each of its components, associating the transcendent God of revelation with irrationalism and absolute monarchy with tyranny. This suspicion and vilification of sovereignty reaches its extreme form in modern anti-statism (Marxist, anarchist), which is also militantly humanist, in its substitution of man for God. The idea of sovereignty survives in democracy by being displaced from a person to the citizenry: “In America [the aftereffects of the idea of God] manifested itself in the reasonable and pragmatic belief that the voice of the people is the voice of God,” as Schmitt writes. The people, in a strictly metaphorical sense, decide their destiny and create their laws through the exercise of a free will, much as the Biblical God creates the earth ex nihilo. Modern liberal democracies thus preserve a weak idea of sovereignty that prevents their complete slide into bureaucratization, though they may be hardly ideal states in Schmitt’s eyes. They rest on an incoherent theory of government, in which popular sovereignty and the rule of law are forced into alignment. This structure substitutes for the transcendent god and transcendent ruler of the pre-Enlightenment state the “immanent” god (national consciousness) and the “immanent” (liberal, constitutional) state of the prosaic nineteenth-century imagination.

Schmitt’s secularization theory argues that at every historical stage “the metaphysical image that a definite epoch forges of the world has the same structure as what the world immediately understands to be appropriate as a form of its political organization.” The sovereign that occupies the preeminent structural position, however, is not just a logical function in isomorphic systems. It is independent of theology, metaphysics, and the philosophy of the state, though it makes possible analogies among them. Schmitt explains his position through a method he calls “the sociology of the concept,” which approaches concepts, neither as psychologically motivated nor as interest-group driven, but instead as autonomous structures of thought having reference to “spiritual” content. And as his allusion in the text to the Scholastic “concept of substance” indicates, Schmitt conceives of the sovereign as something having permanent being, fully itself, inhering in the order of things. “The sovereign” thus designates, for Schmitt, a pre-psychological essence integral to human nature and hence constant of human history, even when it is disavowed.

Schmitt argues, moreover, that his sliding analogies, displacing the sovereign from one epoch to the next, point to transformations of this underlying content (or “identity,” “substance,” etc.). These transformations are perhaps better characterized as distortions, suppressions, or acts of seizure. The modern era, for Schmitt, is inauthentic insofar it denies the sovereign or transposes it onto a body¾that of “the people”¾that cannot truly exercise the faculty of decision. Before theology travestied itself by incorporating the methods of rationalism, it grasped two essentials that the modern era set itself against: It not only posited an identity that transcends the law and the national consciousness, but it also affirmed the necessity for transcending them in the political act. To deny, ignore, or displace these theological intuitions is to be self-deceived as to what constitutes an authentic being-in-the-world and a legitimate form of the state.

The Christian apologists who objected to political religions did not believe, simply put, that modernity was valid. And in the structure of his argumentation, if not in his conclusions, Schmitt resembles these theologians more than he might have recognized. Hans Blumenberg also classed Schmitt among the theological adversaries of modernity, in his masterwork The Legitimacy of the Modern Age (1966), a book that stung Schmitt sufficiently for him to initiate a correspondence with Blumenberg and include a long retort to the latter in his Political Theology II (1970). I agree with Blumenberg’s anatomy of Schmitt, and I also believe that Kahn repeats some of Schmitt’s errors. Blumenberg thus helps us to see the faults not only of Schmitt’s Political Theology (1922), but also of Kahn’s interpretation.

Essentially, Blumenberg argues that Schmitt is immodestly inferring substantial content from analogy instead of logically limiting his claims to illustrative parallels. He arrives at this confutation through an elaborate critique that implicates Schmitt in reactionary currents of twentieth-century thought. In the 1973 edition of The Legitimacy of Modern Age, expanded to include a chapter-long response to Political Theology II, Blumenberg specifies that Schmitt is not interested in theology for apologetic purposes. He does, however, believe that Schmitt, like the Christians from which he dissociates himself, is arguing that modernity owes an “objective cultural debt” to sources predating it. Schmitt wants to stabilize the present by denying the possibility of any rupture with the past that would introduce a radically new worldview with entirely different foundations. The modern world-view, as Blumenberg understands it, is characterized by “rational self-assertion,” its heroic moment being the Enlightenment, which liberated theoretic curiosity from theological absolutism, and its methods, historicism and scientific inquiry, both of which reject totality. Blumenberg admits that the Enlightenment overweeningly tried to supply answers to questions inherited from theology that its modern methods were poorly equipped to answer, but he believes that Schmitt’s anti-Enlightenment stance only exploits the gaps between what the Enlightenment promised (namely, a teleological explanation of the whole of reality) and the crises of authority (epistemic, moral, political) that emerged in the modern age. The Schmittian accusation says that worldly reason overlooks its “continuous historical descent from that upon which it denies its dependence.” Thus, to adopt Blumenberg’s characterization of Schmitt, the modern is “indebted” to the pre-modern.

To force his case, Schmitt’s “sociology of concepts” makes unfounded substantialist claims about the concept of the sovereign that rely more on rhetorical persuasion (analogy, metaphor, allusion, irony) than on logical proof. Blumenberg identifies Schmitt’s method of argumentation as a kind of “linguistic secularization”; it is “an intentional style” that “consciously seeks a relation to the sacred as a provocation.” The author uses a rhetoric that ironically juxtaposes the self-understandings of modern and pre-modern epochs to the detriment of one or the other. The irony can affirm the independence of the modern age or expose gaps in its self-consciousness. As an example of the former, Blumenberg cites Rousseau alluding to Augustine’s Confessions in the title to his memoir, Goethe calling Newton’s birthday the new Nativity, and Bacon exclaiming “the resurrection” upon seeing nude pagan statues. Schmitt himself points to such ironic uses of theological allusions by Rousseau as well as Tocqueville, Kelsen, Engels, Bakhunin, and Proudhon, though as evidence of the persistence of the substance of faith. For instances of anti-modern linguistic secularization, Blumenberg cites Schmitt’s own analogies as exemplary cases. They reverse the intention of the irony in Rousseau’s or Kant’s tropes.

Schmitt uses this style as a description, an accusation, and a rhetorical weapon, but he does not satisfactorily answer the overriding question: Even if one agrees that we need the language of sovereignty to decide the exception, do we need the language of theology to explain the exercise of sovereignty? Blumenberg’s ultimately simple point is that, from a logical standpoint, Schmitt does not prove that his provocative analogies are any less metaphorical than other possibilities. For instance, sovereignty can also be said to resemble the deus ex machina of theater or the artistic genius of romanticism, in which “creation” and “incarnation” are favored metaphors of the poetic process. Schmitt prefers theological comparisons because his theory of secularization requires them and because they generate pathos and shock. If Schmitt limited his use of analogy or metaphor to heuristic devices, then Blumenberg would have no objection. Schmitt, however, takes the further step of “terminologizing” the theological metaphor so that it refers to a substance. The basic structure of terminologization is as follows: the author makes one side of an analogy the origin and the other side derivative, such that the mere comparison now signifies an illegitimate transformation and, hence, indebtedness. In Schmitt’s case, theology represents the origin (ownership, authenticity, debt) of a discourse of the transcendent sovereign; it authentically grasps the concept, has ownership of the concept, and therefore removing that concept to a wholly rational, disenchanted context is to entail a debt that rebounds on the modern. In rebuttal, Blumenberg contends that Schmitt is actually not isolating theological origins but pragmatically selecting only those aspects of theology that are congruent with his decisionism. Therefore, Schmitt selects “transcendence,” “omnipotence,” “miracle,” “creation ex-nihilo,” and “law-giving,” while neglecting equally important—from the standpoint of dogmatics—aspects such as God’s “impassibility,” “omnipresence,” “aseity,” “providence,” veracity,” or “goodness.” Schmitt’s rhetoric of secularization thus conceals the pragmatism underlying his choice of comparisons.

Kahn uses “secularization” more flexibly than Schmitt, but he nonetheless carries forward some of the problematic aspects of Schmitt’s thesis identified by Blumenberg. This flexibility is demanded by Kahn’s effort to adapt Schmitt to the more lately theorized notion of the “social imaginary.” In defining the latter, Kahn assumes several meanings of secularization: the rationalization/disenchantment of reality, the privatization of institutional religions, and the commutation of ideas and symbols from religious to profane contexts. However, he is not describing a triumph of the Enlightenment. On the contrary, he argues that modern consciousness is self-deceived when it asserts its rational autonomy. Even though the authority of churches may have declined at the macrocosmic level of society, secularization has failed at a deeper level to annul the “sacred” (a metaphysical need) or erase “the theological” (the conceptualization of the sacred, wherever it appears). As in Schmitt’s theory, modern culture entails an objective debt to the pre-modern. America is an obvious test case for Kahn, since “no other country in the West so easily accepts the deep penetration of religious faith into its political rhetoric” (from Kahn’s essay, “Sacrificial Nation”).

America’s political theology, Kahn argues, inheres in its “social imaginary”: “The real work of political theology, then, is done in giving a theoretical expression to those understandings that already inform a community’s self-understanding.” As theorized by Charles Taylor, the term “social imaginary” refers to the self-understandings of a culture that create the background of its moral order and co-create its social life. These form a common horizon of expectations and make sense of habits and norms without recourse to explicit, rational statements of belief. Kahn seems to adopt a usage similar to Taylor’s, but he ascribes to himself a unique hermeneutic method for sensing a culture’s social imaginary. Kahn’s method applies two techniques: “genealogical” and “architectural.” The first excavates collective memory through language to unearth resonances, semantic echoes, involuntary associations, all of which show the persistence of the past in the very stuff of thought. The second traces patterns of analogical congruence that have been built out of common narratives, images, and representations. These patterns reveal already existing analogies, implied or explicit, between theology and law, theology and political philosophy, theology and nationalism, theology and everyday democratic assumptions. As in Schmitt, political theology is both the phenomenon described and the form of the description. However, Kahn flanks himself from some of the criticism to which Schmitt opened his theory when he conflated descriptive form and content, rhetoric and substance. Whereas Blumenberg faults Schmitt because he mistakes metaphor and analogy for evolution and transformation—i.e., derives the content of his descriptions from the rhetorical forms of linguistic secularization—Kahn says that the rhetoric is the content. These forms are deeply submerged in the American social imaginary. There is little point, moreover, in criticizing the illogic of such analogies and metaphors since, regardless of their truth or falsity, they provide motives for action. In moments of existential choice, we tend to fall back on them for comprehension rather than rational discourse alone or even rely on them in place of rational discourse.

Kahn thus distinguishes himself from Schmitt by shifting the register of sovereignty from timeless substance to collective imagining, yet he seems to maintain nonetheless Schmitt’s claim that sovereignty as such is theological, and hence authentic, as opposed to the mendacious secularism and rationalism of modern, liberal politics. Having elaborated Blumenberg’s—and my own—objection to this argument, in my following post I will question whether such a notion of sovereignty and its supposedly theological content is as constitutive and constant a feature of the American social imaginary as Kahn suggests.