Paul W. Kahn


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

Cover Interview of April 24, 2011

A close-up

A browser, who simply starts at the beginning and reads through the initial discussion of American exceptionalism, will see how our most familiar political practices and beliefs include a distinctive set of commitments that require a political theological explanation.

American exceptionalism is completely impenetrable to liberal political theory, which sees it only as an unjust claim of privilege.  That approach fails to understand the stakes, which are about identity, existence, and decision—not about norms.

If American exceptionalism remains a vibrant practice and set of beliefs, we must turn from traditional political theory to a political theology.

For Americans, law is only in part about justice.  More importantly, law expresses the will of the popular sovereign.

We find in law an expression of our national identity as a self-governing community that has a singular character, to be maintained across generations.

This is the reason we instinctively resist international law—except perhaps when it limits itself to the regulation of transnational markets and forms of communication.  We resist human rights law, even when the standards are much the same as our own civil rights law.

We will not subordinate the Constitution to a global order of rights.  There is, for this reason, virtually no political support for international courts, including the new International Criminal Court.

Schmitt talked about the sovereign decision for the exception.  We talk about American exceptionalism.  These two forms of exception are deeply related.  To understand that relationship we have to redirect political theology to a practice of popular sovereignty.