Paul W. Kahn’s Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty
by John Wolfe Ackerman
Excerpts from John Ackerman's essay appear below.
To read the entire essay on our website, click here.

Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty
(Paul W. Kahn)

Columbia University Press

Paul Kahn: Sacrifice is about the transformation of the profane character of the self into an instantiation of the sacred. The first moment of sacrifice is always a dying of the self; the second is sacred presence. The third moment is a showing forth of the sacred presence in and through the exercise of a power to destroy: the sacrificed becomes the sacrificer. Man becomes god.

The Reviewer: John Wolfe Ackerman received his PhD from the Department of Political Science at Northwestern University. He is presently based at the Centre for Research in Political Theology (CRIPT) in the School of Law, Birkbeck, University of London, where he is preparing a book manuscript based on his thesis (The Politics of Political Theology) for publication.

In one of Paul Kahn’s several recent works devoted to his project of theorizing a political theology for modernity, Kahn explains: “The popular sovereign remains a hungry god, and we remain willing to feed it our children.” It is precisely the task of describing this “god” and its enduring significance to our politics that Kahn understands as requiring the specific efforts of political theology.

Carl Schmitt’s 1922 book Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty stands behind the contemporary resurgence of interest in this term which Kahn rereads in his own latest book, Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty. Schmitt similarly identified political theology with sovereignty: in the analogy between a sovereign, Creator God who intervenes in the world and a unitary political sovereign who decides on the legal state of exception.

Kahn’s focus is somewhat more democratic, if also much looser, in its apparent use of analogy: we need a “political theology” to properly assess contemporary American politics, because politics (at least in America) is a matter of “the sacred.” The sacred, for Americans, in Kahn’s telling, is to be found in the sacrifices we offer up to our (popular) sovereign in the willingness to kill and be killed on its behalf, in a meaning-giving violence that represents the “most intense” experience of politics.

A contemporary political theology becomes interesting just to the degree that [theological] concepts continue to support an actual theological dimension in our political practices. Political theology as a form of inquiry is compelling only to the degree that it helps us recognize that our political practices remain embedded in forms of belief and practice that touch upon the sacred.

“Theology,” as Kahn understands it, refers to giving an account of the sacred, the registering of sacralization as it manifests itself in a community of faith. Political theology, then, is the theology of the god held sacred by the particular political community. This means that “political theology” also simply describes what Kahn refers to as the “intertwined character of the political and the religious—the political theological.”

As witnessed in American practices of what is often referred to as “civil religion,” from the “Pledge of Allegiance” to the “memorialization of citizen sacrifice,” Kahn argues, political-theological questions need to be pursued in order to “understand the way in which the modem nation-state—particularly our nation-state—has occupied the place of the sacred for its citizens.”

Further, “for a modem, democratic political theology, the state begins and ends with a belief in the sacred character of the popular sovereign.’ In the American political theological worldview, the American state and the sovereign people occupy the place of a collective but unitary—and exclusive—God who, precisely as a God, can command the unquestioning sacrifice of its citizens as well as their enemies.

Why political theology again? Because, above all, it is necessary for “putting liberalism in its place,” as the title of the first volume in Kahn’s series of works on political theology reads. In the liberalism dominant in American political and legal theory, nothing is sacred—and so liberalism cannot make sense of any of our deepest beliefs and commitments nor of our (state’s) readiness to take recourse to violence on behalf of them.

Liberalism is, in Kahn’s view, congenitally incapable of grasping the circumstances that define our contemporary political condition: sacrificial violence, terror, torture, sovereignty. Here, Kahn joins the parade of commentators who have turned, often grimly, to Carl Schmitt—the brilliant, authoritarian German legal thinker who did his (ultimately insufficient) best to adapt his Weimar-era legal theories into support for the new National Socialist regime’—to understand the post-9/11 world.

In the face of the extraordinary security measures implemented by the U.S. government in the wake of 9/11, Schmitt’s argument that the ultimate decision that constitutes the sovereign authority as such is the decision on the state of exception seemed to many to offer an appropriate model for decoding contemporary formations of political power.

Kahn insists (both with and beyond Schmitt) that politics have always been grounded upon a potential for extreme (“total”) state violence. Such violence, Kahn argues, must be understood as sacred and is thus unspeakable from the perspective of the liberalism that, ironically, was so dominant in the Cold War period—precisely when the prospect of mutual, complete annihilation loomed most large.

Second, as he argues at great length in his next most recent book, Sacred Violence: Torture, Terror, and Sovereignty, there is very little separating this most fundamental aspect of all politics from that other special form of state violence that has taken on a new visibility since the start of the “war on terror.”

“Taking up arms in defense of the state” is always, Kahn declares, a “first step toward torture.” Like other forms of political sacrifice, “torture is, first of all, a form of sacrifice that inscribes on the body a sacred presence.” “Citizens who believe that they embody the popular sovereign”—which is to say, all Americans who have not lost the faith—”will pursue a politics of violent sacrifice quite independent of the rules of humanitarian law;” torture is the “inevitable” response to terror.

In fact, as others have suggested in appealing to Schmitt, the world has become decisively more political-theological in the face of contemporary global terrorism, for its advent “represents the point at which conscription”—that is, the call to sacrifice for the sovereign, to kill and be killed for the state—”becomes truly universal, escaping even the formal structures of juridification. It is [now] just a matter of finding oneself on the wrong airplane at the wrong time.”

Schmitt’s political theology, as Kahn recognizes, revolves around the claim that modem human political powers are analogous to those once ascribed to an all-powerful creator God. Kahn’s own political theology also resembles Schmitt’s position, articulated in The Concept of the Political, that politics only exists where the possibility exists that it will issue in the killing and being killed of war, either international or civil.

“Politics,” Kahn never ceases to repeat, is most fundamentally a matter of “killing and being killed for the state;” “the fundamentals of political grammar” take the form of “self-sacrifice through the violent act. When this involves “killing and being killed for the state”—for the popular sovereign, that “hungry god” who demands our sacrifices—then it is a “sacred violence,” as in the title of Kahn’s previous book, which does not rely on Schmitt in any systematic way.

For Kahn, political theology describes the sacralization of violence carried out in the state’s name. This is no longer analogy but the real displacement of an earlier theistic worldview, the becoming-god of man:

Sacrifice is about the transformation of the profane character of the self into an instantiation of the sacred. The first moment of sacrifice is always a dying of the self; the second is sacred presence. The third, or synthetic, moment is a showing forth of the sacred presence in and through the exercise of a power to destroy: the sacrificed becomes the sacrificer. Man becomes god.

Kahn’s parsing of Schmitt’s discussion of miracle goes far beyond Schmitt’s formal analogy, focusing instead on the (theological) miracle’s substantively “sacred” character and its implications: “The miracle announces a relationship to a sacred, caring God.” “Establishing a site of sacred appearance, it reorders history and space.” “The miracle touches on the idea of sacrifice, for the presence of the sacred always destroys some element of the finite.” Likewise, political revolution “is always miraculous. To be as a part of the revolution is to experience the mystical corpus of the sovereign.”