ON POLITICAL THEOLOGY: This is one of those terms whose precise meaning has always escaped me, especially because people tend to see it everywhere. So I was happy to have the chance to ask one of the burning questions I've had about this to a theorist who has written on the topic extensively. Since he writes about Hobbes at the key figure who institutes modern liberalism, I asked how Hobbes' liberalism was compatible with his belief that there should be one state-run church which dictated practice. The answer, I was told, was that so long as the religious content did nothing to determine political content, there was no problem for liberalism. Which I guess explains that political theology means only the control of politics by theology, and therefore liberalism, insomuch as it opposes political theology, is unconcerned with what happens the other way around.

Except that I'm fairly certain this doesn't work as a historical matter: one's ability to hold political office in England depended, in the period after the English Reformation, on one's ability to consent to the state-established church (whether Protestant or Catholic at any given moment). I'm also fairly certain it doesn't work as a conceptual matter, since it privileges politics above religion. Someone in early modern thought probably does this, but it's certainly not Hobbes.


FLG said...

FWIW, I took a class on the political theology of Islam and it focused on the concept of politics from within the religion, which basically translated to "let's assume people actually believe what they claim to believe and if so how would it impact their view of the state" as opposed to looking at religion as some sort of interest or NGO.

That approach made sense to me, but I have no idea how it's commonly used in the broader political science literature. So, this probably didn't help one wit.

Nicholas said...

No, that's actually pretty helpful, since it's more or less along the lines of what Lilla said. My bigger issue is that I'm pretty sure his definition of liberalism is very far off the norm.

There are conceptual issues with his interpretation of political theology as well. So, e.g., he looks at "Islam" rather than Sunni, Shia, etc. Worse, he looks at "Christianity," which means he reads all confessional differences (Lutherans and Calvinists have very different visions of politics) as incoherence at the heart of Christianity.

Also, if you write a book about theology and Karl Barth's one of your bad guys, something went wrong in your theory. Just sayin'.

Erich Kofmel said...

Check out my blog, the "Political Theology Agenda":