Political Theology and the Theology of Politics: Carl Schmitt and Medieval Christian Political Thought (1)

Article excerpt

In societies where religion plays a strong and important role, the institutions of the society reflect the religion. Yet in societies where religion plays a more secondary role to say that all political concepts are secularized theological concepts is an overstatement. While Carl Schmitt does make a persuasive argument on the role of religion in political thought, he is also mistaken. In this article, I shall attempt to show that political concepts in the medieval period were built upon theological ideas but in a way different from that described by Schmitt. Toward that end I'll describe the difference between "political theology" and a "theology of politics" and focus on the revelatory political theology of the medieval period as contrasted with the "re-paganized" theology of Schmitt. Finally, by reviewing the process of papal decline with particular emphasis on the writings of Martin Luther, I shall argue that the political theology Schmitt describes reflects a post-Reformation loss of competing "exception-bearers" in the West and that this loss has had profoundly negative consequences for Western civilization.

What does the term "political theology" mean? There is no limit to what it can mean: all theology may be considered "political" (from a postmodern perspective), or certain modern ideologies may be termed "political religions" (as, e.g., in Voegelin's writings), and so on. The work of Carl Schmitt presents another perspective. For Schmitt, political theology is the structure of political concepts as related to their origin in theological concepts. Within Schmitt's view of the political, the theological notion of God transfers to the political sovereign a final and total authority in the person of a main decision-maker in extreme emergencies, an "exception-bearer" with whom the power of the state ultimately lies. The notion of the Absolute in religion is used in conceptualizing the Absolute in the state, starting with the "divine right of kings" and extending to the crisis of Schmitt's own time.

Is Schmitt's idea of political theology, both in itself and in connection to the rest of his thought, correct? It is partially correct, but not in the way that Schmitt believes. His understanding of the connection between theology and politics is one-sided and misleading. The problem is that he begins his examination of political theology at the time of Bodin and the absolutizing of the theory and practice of monarchy while ignoring earlier European experience. The particular historical period at which Schmitt chooses to begin his study is significant because institutional religious insight into the political and (more importantly) religious insight informing the political were much diminished by the time "divine right" doctrines held sway. This leads the reader of Schmitt to understand theology through politics rather than politics through theology. Beginning his study at an earlier point in Western history might have expanded his overly narrow view of political theology. Still, Schmitt's analysis does clarify the modern situation, but in doing so it clarifies the problematic nature of post-Reformation political theology compared with that of the time before Luther.

Although Schmitt ignores the distinction, medieval political ideas were shaped much differently than their post-Reformation counterparts. The resulting error on Schmitt's part is his failure to take sufficiently seriously the theological understanding of politics. This is where the distinction between "theology of politics" and "political theology" comes into play.(2) Political theology has at least two, sometimes overlapping meanings. One is the sense of Schmitt that politics begins to appropriate notions from theology as societies secularize, thus making politics a matter of theology; the other is the ideological use of theology to mask political motivations. Both forms of political theology spring from secularization. The theology of politics, on the other hand, starts from an explicitly theological framework. …