Politics is on everyone’s mind these days. I wanted to give you something a little different if you are tired of the daily dose of election news (recommendation is at the end of the post).

In ‘political theology’ there is a famous book by Carl Schmitt (four chapters on soverignty) and a more recent book (four new chapters – 2012) by Paul Kahn that updates and challenges the original. I have been thinking about this new work a lot recently.

God used to be thought of as ‘sovereign’, now we call nations ‘sovereign’. When did that shift happen? When did the sacred migrate to the state? 

This shift or transfer developed in an age when revolution and political revolts were “destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm.” [1] The dissolving social order of caste and class allowed for membership and participation by the population in a new way. To die for a religion (God) or a King was to reinforce that social order which established the hierarchical strata. Locating sovereignty within the conception of Nation – however dispersed and elusive – was a profound change.

In 1922, Carl Schmitt said that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.”[3]  The remnants of so many of our former religious and royal forms were adopted and transformed in this novel expression of belonging and duty. Not only is the word sovereign borrowed directly from religious vocabulary, but as Paul Kahn explains:

“Political theology today is best thought of as an effort to describe the social imaginary of the political… (arguing) that secularization, as the displacement of the sacred from the world of experience, never won, even though the church may have lost. The politics of the modern nation-state indeed rejected the church but simultaneously offered a new site of sacred experience.” [4]

The church, often unwittingly, plays a role in validating and reinforcing the migration away from its seat of influence.

  • Think about the way the American constitution is spoken of as a sacred text that was penned by inspired patriarchs and cannot be questioned.
  • Notice the controversy over the singing of the national anthem (a worship song to the nation) at sporting events.
  • Look at the uproar over burning a flag and realize how sacred that piece of fabric is because of what it symbolizes.

If Schmitt is right – even partially – then all of these similarities are neither trivial nor are they inconsequential.

If this whole concept interests you, please take a listen to an incredible podcast with Paul Kahn by CBC Ideas [link to podcast]. You can listen there or download the mp3.

You may also want to check out Kahn’s book (I have the kindle edition).

Let me know what you think. 


[1] Anderson, Imagined Communities, 8.

[3] Paul W. Kahn, Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, Kindle location 37.

[4] p. 360.