Public and Private Responsibility: Christianity and Politics in Carl Schmitt's the Concept of the Political

By Durden, William S. | Christianity and Literature, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Public and Private Responsibility: Christianity and Politics in Carl Schmitt's the Concept of the Political


Durden, William S., Christianity and Literature


Abstract: This essay explores the relationship between political realism and Christian faith by reading Carl Schmitt's The Concept of the Political against St. Augustine's The City of God. The author stresses the public/private binary as the crucial concept for analysis. After rejecting the viability of political realism with Christianity, the author draws upon Jacques Derrida's The Gift of Death to outline a different possibility for the coexistence of Christianity and politics.

The enemy in the political sense need not be hated personally, and in the private sphere only does it make sense to loves one's enemy ...

--Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political

For if it is as a result of examining this concept [of responsibility] alone that the Christian event--sin, gift of infinite love linked to the experience of death--appears necessary, does that not mean that Christianity alone has made possible access to an authentic responsibility throughout history, responsibility as history and as history of Europe?

--Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death

What follows is first a consideration of the public/private separation in Carl Schmitt's The Concept of the Political (1927), read against an understanding of the same terms developed in Augustine's The City of God. Even though Augustine and Schmitt employ the public/private trope in different contexts, I hope to show that there is a specific sense in which Schmitt contorts what these terms mean for Augustine in order to fit his political realism within the limits of Christian theology. I argue that an analysis of responsibility figured in public/private terms produces an incompatibility with orthodox Christianity and Schmittian (realist) politics. It is not, then, merely that Schmitt's Christianity and his politics are not able to keep clear of each other (a point noted by many scholars), but that Schmitt's political theory is not consistent with his religious faith. This leaves the relationship between Christianity and politics, as drawn from this textual pool, open for an analysis that rejects as a starting point the viability of political realism with Christian beliefs.

By rejecting the viability of political realism with Christian beliefs, I am not rejecting theologico-political dialogue, but rather seeking to open it up. I ask the question: If Christianity and politics are concepts with different (but inescapably intertwined) histories, then what can be done to think the relationship between the two? The Christian worldview includes activity in the public sphere as part of its theology, so the secular demand for strict separation of church and state is, on some level, an unrealistic expectation that will only be frustrated. So is it possible to accept a Christian worldview while still affirming what Jurgen Habermas termed religion's "non-exclusive place within a universal discourse" (qtd. in Borradori 31)? Through a reading of Jacques Derrida's The Gift of Death, I argue that it is both the impossibility and necessity of responsibility, a concept understood in part by what Christianity has offered the world of thought, which allows a space for Christianity and politics to coexist.

In The Concept of the Political, Schmitt defines the term "political" as the distinction or identification of friend and enemy on the state level. In other words, the political is the process of naming other states as friends or, crucially, as enemies against which one can declare war (26). According to Schmitt, few attempts had been made at this historical moment to clearly define the realm of the political. This proves problematic for him because the absence of a political definition in the face of liberalism weakens the function of the state. For Schmitt, when "state" collapses in liberal enlightened Europe, economic interests and universal humanist ethics rule (22, 23; 76, 77). He argues, for example, that "an imperialism based on pure economic power will naturally attempt to sustain a worldwide condition which enables it to apply and manage, unmolested, its economic means" (78). …

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