The advantage of using bad words

As it has by now become clear, words like “political theology”, “political religion”, and “secular religion” are all problematic in one way or another. (And I could name a few more.) The whole conceptual chaos surrounding such terms is no accident, however. It all follows from the authors’ inability to define religion, and thereby their similar inability to say what secular is. This is why almost everyone relies on their own favorite formula, and then go into long and complicated explanations on how something that’s religious is at the same time secular, and vice versa.

There are nevertheless two advantages of this mishmash. The first is that it calls attention to the irreparable vagueness of the concept of religion. (With which I will deal later.) The second is that it teaches something important about modern ideologies. Namely, that there is always some absolute at the heart of all ideologies. I would not call it “religious”, of course. “Religious”, as I said many times, obfuscates more than it clarifies. But I would be happy to see ideologues embarrassed by their own inability to tell the difference between “religious” and “secular” absolutes.

Political theology or political theologies?

Another problem with political theology stems from Carl Schmitt’s own classification of political ideologies. If the conceptual analogy between theological and political concepts is indeed so complete as he suggests, it becomes extremely difficult to make a distinction between “genuine” theology, and merely “secular” or “political” theologies.

Schmitt’s own examples are also of little help in this regard. Continental conservatism can hardly be called secular, since it preserves the idea of a divinely appointed sovereign, and the “conservative authors of the counterrevolution” were definitely “theists” (Schmitt 1985, 37). It remains therefore unclear why this sort of political theology is not genuinely, only analogically “religious”.

On the other hand, the problem with liberalism is that it lacks the concept of personal sovereignty (Schmitt 1985, 60), and since Schmitt’s concept of sovereignty is evidently personal, it is hard to tell why an ideology which lacks this central concept should be called theological even in a “secular” sense.

In the case of socialism, Schmitt’s own terminology becomes a source of confusion. If socialism is the political analogy of atheism (Schmitt 1985, 63), then it does not only lack the aforementioned concept of sovereignty, but could also be called “secularized atheism”, which would sound almost senseless – an atheist atheism, in contrast to religious atheism – if Schmitt admitted that this was the case.

All in all, the very existence of different ideologies and not just one “modern theory of the state” raises enormous difficulties for the original Schmittian version of political theology already.

Two concepts of political theology

One of the most confusing things about political theology is that it’s used in at least two senses. One is the Schmittian sense of “political concepts as secularized theological concepts.” This stands fairly close to the idea of political ideologies as secular religions. The other sense is “theology with a political purpose or meaning,” which is something else altogether. In the first case, we start with political ideologies and arrive at their hidden theological presuppositions. We “unveil” them, so to speak, in order reveal their real nature. In the second case we follow the opposite route. We start with explicit theological principles, and arrive at political ones. You might also say that Schmitt’s “political theology A” is about politicians playing the priest without knowing it. “Political theology B”, on the other hand, is about priests playing the politician.

The only thing left to understand is why most handbooks, thematic journals and conferences mix up these two.