Political theorist Walter Benjamin tells a story of a puppet playing a deadly serious game of chess against an opponent. The puppet is what you see, the politics of dialectical history. A hideous dwarf controls the puppet from beneath the chess table; the dwarf is divine consciousness of society, the church. We progressives think of church as being the tool of the state, particularly in a democracy where religious language is extremely easy to deploy to co-opt the weak minded. But the matter is deeply complicated if it turns out the state is in fact only a tool of theology- all the more dangerous if the order of control isn’t recognized.
This danger comes from a split in conscious and unconscious manifestations of belief. A religious Right voter consciously experiences themselves as voting for moral values or Constitutional tradition, which they hope in turn the state will impress on the populace. But the unconscious God of that same voter can be a violent authoritarian demon, and it is when the unconscious god gets the vote that nobody is in control.
One of my primary news sources for nearly a decade has been Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish. He recently wrote a cover article for Newsweek called Christianity in Crisis. His thesis appears to be a crusade against the damage done by Christianists (Sullivan’s neologism for those ideological extremists who profess faith in a guy that would have nothing to do with them). Sullivan calls for a renewed simplicity centered on the words of Jesus. It’s worth a read. He ends with a simple moral exemplar atonement:
“The cross itself was not the point; nor was the intense physical suffering he endured. The point was how he conducted himself through it all—calm, loving, accepting, radically surrendering even the basic control of his own body and telling us that this was what it means to truly transcend our world and be with God. Jesus, like Francis, was a homeless person, as were his closest followers. He possessed nothing—and thereby everything.”
Theology is Always Political. Politics is always Theological.
Where I might disagree with Sullivan (or anyone making the claim that Christianity should be less political) is where he seems to think theology can exist without informing the body politic. This “let’s be less political; let’s not co-opt Jesus for politics” language comes from a pure intent, but it’s implementation can be disastrously deceptive. People who say this (not necessarily what Sullivan would say) seem to think the ideological extremists have the correct interpretation, and so the application should simply be toned down. I want to challenge that notion. Sullivan is a Catholic, socially liberal conservative. As such, he supports universal healthcare, social safety nets for the poor, and efforts at any cost to stop war. These are theological statements.
Carl Schmitt, perhaps the most significant political theorist of the 20th century, wrote that Modernity transcribed theological language (e.g. sovereignty) onto the state (God is sovereign/ the State is sovereign). Jacob Taubes, a Paulinist Jew, responded by telling us how St. Paul’s radical anarchism and transcendental conception of citizenship provides the ideal way forward for liberal and (especially) leftist political theory today. And thus is born the field of political theology that I have become so interested in.
In the academy, we no longer speak of political theory and theology as being wholly separate theoretical discourses. In practice, they never have been separate.
Any student of the Gospels can recognize that all of Jesus’ hellfire language is reserved for the highly religious leaders. Of course, religious and political were not two categories of leadership- they were one and the same. Jesus critiques a certain species of religious ideology that infects political leadership (not unlike a dwarf controlling a puppet playing chess).
Sullivan is right to critique what he calls “Christianists”- were Jesus around today, he would openly mock and berate this crowd. But that is precisely because all theology is political, and the totality of politics is theological.
I don’t think Sullivan would disagree with me when I say that the liberal-conservatism we see in him is informed by his Christology. It’s not as simple as piety on the one hand and politics on the other. What is unique in Christianity is our history of deicide; while any religion calls us to heal the world, Christianity says that if god ever decides to heal the world, we will be sure to kill god like a common criminal. Call it sin. Call it our desire to fuck everything up. In Christianity- in the wake of the death of God- the only remnant of God left in the world is the spirit demonstrated wherever we participate in healing. That participation cannot help but be political. Whether for regress, status quo, or progress, theology is always political.
It has to be, because nobody is coming to save us from ourselves.