Paul W. Kahn


On his book Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty

Cover Interview of April 24, 2011

In a nutshell

This is a small book about a large topic: politics as a practice of freedom.  I attempt to turn political theory away from its obsessive concern with abstract norms of justice, and show that what is at stake in politics is the free creation of ourselves as a people.

Contemporary political theory has been dominated by a single set of questions concerning the nature of justice. In one way or another, theorists ask “What should the law be?”

But the problem is not always how to frame a constitution adequate to our ideas of equality and dignity.  While it has indeed been an achievement of modern political theory to make human and civil rights a sort of background assumption of our attitude toward political regimes and practices, liberal theory has reached a dead end.  It offers minor variations on tired arguments.  We do not need to hear once again that certain rights follow from a conception of the individual as an autonomous agent.

More important, this whole approach misunderstands the nature of a free practice of politics.

At every level, political action requires decision.  Norms don’t apply themselves; the state does not simply continue as if it were a machine that could run on its own once the law is set.  The nation maintains itself only as long as citizens will the state’s existence.  Political theory must turn from reason to will, from abstract norms to the free decision.

Political experience is not just a matter of trying to get our law right.  Especially in the years after 9/11, Americans have been reminded that political identity can be a matter of life and death.  A politics in which sacrifice is imagined as a possibility is a politics of ultimate meanings.

Political theology begins from the observation of how quickly politics can become a site of ultimate meanings.  We think we are going to the office, but find ourselves on the front line of the war on terror.  To understand this experience, we have to turn our attention to the political imagination.

A modern political theology is not about the relation of the church to the state, but rather about the nature of our secular faith in the popular sovereign.  For this, Americans have lived and died from the Revolutionary war battlefields to Ground Zero.