Paul W. Kahn


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

Cover Interview of April 24, 2011

The wide angle

If politics plays out on a field of ultimate meanings, then political theory must give way to political theology.  Theology here refers not to any of the sectarian beliefs but to the most basic of questions we can ask about our political experience: how do political beliefs and actions construct a world of meaning for the nation?

My answer is that politics is a practice of freedom.

It may be surprising that I develop this theme of freedom by turning to Carl Schmitt, a leading law professor of Weimar who became infamous for his support of National Socialism.  In the 1920s, however, Schmitt was trying to analyze the disconnect between liberal theory and political practice.  He thought liberalism too concerned with abstract talk on the one hand and with material interests on the other.  Liberalism, accordingly, failed to see the need for decision in political life—that norms do not apply themselves, and politics is not simply an alternative to the markets.

In 1922, Schmitt wrote a little book, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty.  It was mostly a discussion, now obscure, of forgotten contemporaries of Schmitt.

That book did, however, contain two sentences that have become famous in Western political theory. First: “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.” Second: “All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.”

These sentences introduce two critical ideas that remain quite foreign to liberal political theory.

The first suggests that we cannot just focus on the norm but must consider the exception to the norm as well.  This is a profoundly important idea in American political life: the popular sovereign always can act independently of the law.  It is our revolutionary tradition: action by the popular sovereign is not bound by law; it is always the exception.

Acting outside of law, the popular sovereign wills itself into existence.  Before there is the Constitution, there is the decision.  Thus, the first task of a contemporary political theology is to shift the focus of attention from reason to will.  Justice does not create the state, but rather an act of will brings America into existence.

Revolution represents the first decision by the popular sovereign.  At this moment, the popular sovereign creates itself.  That, however, cannot be the end of the matter.

Whenever the state’s existence is challenged, there must be a decision to reaffirm the state.  To the individual citizen, this decision takes the appearance of sacrifice.  The state depends upon the willingness of citizens to sacrifice, and sacrifice is always an act beyond the law.

A modern political theology begins with the relationship among these concepts—popular sovereignty, sacrifice, and decision.

Schmitt’s second remarkable sentence, referring to “secularized theological concepts,” points to the relationship between traditional theology and a contemporary political theology.

Political theology has nothing to do with the way in which particular, sectarian faiths have a hold on political power.  Quite the opposite: the inquiry focuses on the way in which the modern state has stepped into the place of the church as a source of ultimate meanings—and ultimate demands—upon the citizen.  The faith that has mattered for 200 years in the West has been a faith in the state as embodying the possibility of overcoming our individual limits.

My book is unique in its method and the direction I give to a contemporary political theology.  Methodologically, I present “Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty.”

Each of my chapters bears the same title as one of Schmitt’s.  Each proceeds by engaging the question Schmitt posed—but directs it toward our own politics of popular sovereignty.

What emerges will be startling to anyone who knows of Schmitt’s association with National Socialism.  The political theology I develop is fundamentally an inquiry into the nature of freedom.

Each of my chapters focuses on a different aspect of freedom, beginning with the idea of the exception as the sovereign decision.  An exception is an act taken with respect to a norm but not determined by the norm.  The exception is neither arbitrary nor determined.  It is precisely the act of a free subject.

As my inquiry proceeds, I show that this idea of the sovereign decision is not exceptional at all.  Rather, it is precisely what is at stake in every legal judgment, and indeed in every philosophical inquiry.

To be free, is to be determined neither by causes nor by norms.  A decision acknowledges a norm, but is not simply a deductive application of a norm.  To be free is to think and act for oneself.