Political Theology – A Concept for Our Time | Adam Limb
The division of the modern world coupled with the secularism of modern life has created a charge that is often levied against political opponents; that they are practicing a form of political religion. Much of this is used derisively, an implication that our opponents are in some way both returning to the past by becoming religious, and ushering in a dreadful future by being fanatics.
There can be no denying the religious nature of much politics in the modern world, but the notion of politics as secularised religion has existed long before people were ever baptised at the site where a black man overdosed on fentanyl, or before they invoked metaphysical ideas of equality in lieu of the Holy Spirit. Political theology in the West has its strongest representative in Carl Schmitt, who wrote extensively about the nature of the Political, constitutional theory, and the topic of sovereignty. In recent years, Schmitt has enjoyed something of a revival among the intellectual right, with his insights into the nature of the Political bringing to a close the bewilderment of right wing figures who believe themselves to be morally, logically, and scientifically superior – yet always the political inferiors to their left-wing counterparts.
Yet, in taking up Schmitt’s definition of the sovereign and the Political (often without the necessary bridge of his constitutional theory), what is often left out is just how all-encompassing his notion of Political Theology can be. His much-loved quote “sovereign is he who decides the exception” is drawn from an essay exactly entitled ‘Political Theology’, however the concept of Political Theology is often only deployed as a drive-by attack on the latest form of fanaticism among the left, detached from Schmitt himself. This is a disservice not only to Schmitt, but to the Political. If politics often finds itself a secularised religion, what implications does this hold not only in explaining our political opponents, but in explaining contemporary politics?
Schmitt’s Constitutional Theory argues that constitutions, and consequently the legal system that rests on top of them, do not draw their legitimacy from their normative validity, as a norm cannot validate itself, and by virtue of being the constitution and therefore the first legal norm, have no other norms to rely upon for validation. Nor do constitutions draw their legitimacy from their moral character: immoral legal norms can and do exist, and are regarded as legally legitimate in their respective times and places. Nor do constitutions draw their legitimacy from their factual correctness, many nations have been born atop of ahistorical myths, i.e. Rome.
Instead, Schmitt argues that Constitutions rest upon the Political Will that gives them validity. In monarchy, this is the Political Will of the monarch, in democracy the Political Will of the people (or more accurately, the nation). If laws, rules, or procedures that rest on top of this Political Will somehow threaten its existence, a State of Exception occurs – and the law, rule, or procedure that threatens the existence of the Political Will must be neutralised. It is from this that Schmitt derives his characteristic definition of the sovereign: he who decides the exception. The resolution of this exception cannot come by some law, rule, or procedure, as it was following said laws, rules, and procedures that lead to this situation to begin with. It is a situation that requires direct, positive action by an agent. If the situation could be resolved with laws, rules, and procedures, then it would not be a State of Exception at all. In fact, it would be a totally unexceptional affair. The State of Exception therefore requires stepping outside of the typical laws, rules, and procedures.
It is this ability to step outside the typical laws, rules, and procedures, that precisely makes the sovereign, sovereign. Take the Coronavirus Act of 2020, Parliament may be ‘sovereign’ (in a non-Schmittian sense) but it legally had no right to force people into their homes. Yet, in the name of protecting the Political Will of the people of Great Britain (atop of which, the legal system of this country ostensibly rests) – parliament granted itself this power. How could it do so, without stepping outside of the typical laws, rules, and procedures that govern parliament?
This power is a form of Political Theology in that the sovereign is to the Political Will what God is to humanity. God is our God, He belongs to our universe. Similarly, the sovereign is our sovereign, he belongs to our Political Will. Yet, the sovereign is capable of stepping outside the typical rules and procedures that govern the Political Will just as God can step outside of the typical rules and procedures that govern our universe and turn water into wine or walk on water in order to, ultimately, protect humanity.
This protection of the Political Will creates a further implication that is also a form of Political Theology. The ability of the sovereign to step outside the typical rules and procedures by no means suggests that the sovereign is capable of granting itself any power, or overturning any rule. Boris Johnson could not, for example, turn Britain into a one-party state via the Coronavirus Act, justified by the fact that the Labour party’s opposition is a roadblock to resolving the Coronavirus pandemic. The resolution of the State of Exception is for the purpose of securing the Political Will from an existential threat, and the continued existence of the Labour Party is (unfortunately) an essential element of the Political Will of Great Britain as it is (unfortunately) characteristically democratic.
This situation gains its character as Political Theology by its parallels to a question often asked in theology: If God is both all-powerful and good, then why do bad things happen? The answer often given by the religious is that God cannot will things outside His nature, and as His nature is good, He cannot will things that are not good, so everything is ultimately for the best, but according to God’s plan. In a similar fashion, the sovereign cannot will things that do not secure the existence of the Political Will that he is acting to protect, and as the Political Will of Britain operates on the democratic principle, the sovereign cannot will that which is against the nature of the Political Will he is acting to protect, such as the abolition of the Labour Party.
Whilst Political Theology has some real utility in explaining the world we live in today, it also holds some implications as to the nature of the Political itself. If politics truly is a form of secularised theology, then who is to say that it isn’t theology all the way down? Perhaps Robert Filmer, and his notion that a child is subjugated to the sovereignty of his father, that the father is subjugated to the sovereignty of his lord, and that his lord is subjugated to the sovereignty of his king, and that the king is subjugated to the sovereignty of the King of Kings may see a revival.
Regardless, there is one thing for certain – if politics is secularised theology, I have no interest in converting to whatever religion the other side is proselytising.