In 2003, Mark Lilla published his book The Stillborn God, that examines the tension between modern political philosophy and a more messianic political theology. Lilla claims that modern European thought has struggled with this tension between political theology and political philosophy over the last few centuries, and this struggle is an important facet of the modern human condition. According to Lilla, the most recent form of messianic political theology emerged in Germany in the 1930s, as Nazism and fascism arose to threaten political democracy.
The most famous proponent of political theology in Wiemar Germany was the jurist Carl Schmitt. In his book Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, Schmitt claims that all modern concepts of the state are secularized political concepts. After World War II, most North American theorists accepted some form of the secularization hypothesis, which holds that religion is being replaced as a source of meaning by things like art, politics, and other forms of secular culture. Today, the return of religion onto the public stage in powerful ways has demonstrated the limits of the secularization hypothesis. Religion has become more prevalent, and political theology is a discourse that attends to this renewed significance of religion in the world.
Political theology questions the possibility of completely separating religious and secular spheres, ideas and practices. Political theology is essentially a counter-Enlightenment project, and it coincides with the critiques of the modern Enlightenment by postmodern theorists. The key ideology that is criticized in political theology is secularism; that is, the autonomy of a secular realm free from religious interests.
Secularism is tied to the development of modern liberalism, because liberalism presumes a public-private division of human affairs, and relegates religion to the private realm. Religion never disappears in the modern world, but it is seen as normatively private rather than public. Secularism is the ideology of modern liberalism, and it is criticized not only by traditionalists but also by postmodernists and postsecularists.
I think that political theology, as it reemerges in the twenty-first century in the work of theologians of Radical Orthodoxy such as John Milbank, as well as philosophers influenced by Schmitt such Jacques Derrida and Giorgio Agamben, is a symptom of a terminal crisis of liberalism. Liberalism is powerfully attacked and criticized by Communism and from the Right in the 1920s and 1930s, and then mainly from the Left in the 1960s. These critiques are important and powerful, but the victory of American-style corporate capitalism over the Soviet Union in 1989 leads to an eclipse of Marxism as a viable political theory. Since Marxism and socialism have been marginalized and ignored, corporate capitalism has become the only game in town. As Naomi Klein and others have demonstrated, capitalism mutated into a more corporatist form in the early 1970s, and this has continued to this day, subject to the shock of the global recession in 2008.
Liberalism has ceased to be a viable political practice in political or economic terms, except as a superficial veneer that expresses nostalgia for better times in the past, whether they be Keynesian New Deal times, or Lockean Enlightenment/American Revolutionary times. Liberalism has shifted in economic terms into a brutal neo-liberalism that works based on structural adjustments and accumulation of debt to transfer wealth from poorer nations and peoples to richer ones, with massive impoverishment of people. In political terms, traditional conservatism has morphed into chauvinistic neo-conservatism, even if this term has fallen out of favor since the Bush II era.
Liberalism is a complex phenomenon, but it no longer works. Why not? Because just as secularism is the ideology of liberalism, liberalism is the ideology of modern capitalism. And capitalism cannot continue to operate in business-as-usual mode, despite the fact that it appears to be the only option in a globalized world. Capitalism is predicated on growth, and on the ability to find ever new sources of cheap raw materials and energy. Beginning in the early 1970s, we begin to come up against real physical limits to growth in absolute terms. If you cannot grow in absolute terms, the only way to grow is in relative terms, which is why over the past few decades growth has been increasingly unequal, with a concentration of wealth among a tiny few and an accumulation of debt and poverty of the many. The limits of growth lead to a breakdown of liberal capitalism, and political theology re-emerges as a symptom of what is happening.
The re-emergence of political theology is a response to the crisis of liberalism. In many ways, political theology is traditionalist and conservative, hearkening back to a time prior to European modernity, or searching for an alternative to it. In other respects, however, the messianism that Lilla analyzes imagines a new utopian world beyond contemporary corporate capitalism, at a time when our imaginations are impoverished, and often swept up in apocalyptic-catastrophic scenarios. In my book Radical Political Theology: Religion and Politics After Liberalism, I argue for an understanding of political theology that is not conservative in political or theological terms. Rather than appealing to a traditional view of religion or God to critique contemporary politics, what if both religion and politics are up in the air? And what if both are intrinsically interrelated in ways that are inescapable?
In some ways depends on what we mean when we talk about religion. I think that insofar as we are human, we are religious beings. It’s not that there is a transcendent reality, but we cannot completely do away with religious hopes and passions. Over the past couple decades the fundamentalist and evangelical Religious Right exerted a profound influence on American political and cultural discourse, which offered a neo-traditionalist form of religion as salvation for our social problems. In the past few years, this prevalence of conservative religion has been countered by the New Atheists, who argue that religion is in fact the source of all that ails us. I think that both sides’ arguments are too simplistic and extreme. We are being given idealistic and ideological religious reasons for the sites of struggle and contestation that envelop the world, but these ideals and ideologies also mask real material phenomena like resource depletion and global warming.
I envision a radical political theology that can articulate a post-capitalist material ethic without resorting to wishful thinking or cultural determination. This more radical form of political theology does not endorse a specific religious perspective, but it also does not dismiss religion or denigrate it as a complex human activity. We need a radical religious materialism that does resists any kind of escape into a transcendent other world, but recognizes the material and spiritual force of religious ideas, institutions and practices in this world.
Many thinkers on the political Left feel constrained to adopt a thorough-going secularism. Secularism as an ideology is bankrupt, but that does not mean that the idea of the secular is not relevant or necessary. Secular ideas, meanings and causes are absolutely vital, but they do not exclude religious ones. The important discussions surrounding political theology gives us tools to think and understand. Radical political theology potentially gives us tools to do something about it