Paul Kahn’s new work Political Theology: Four new chapters on the concept of sovereignty is not an immediate choice for a Brit like me to pay attention to. For its immediate focus and concern is an examination of how the imagination for American political life is funded by ideas of revolution before notions of social contract (constitution). So for all non Americans turning away now, stay with me to the end of the review, for Kahn may prove vital to your non US context.
Kahn argues that to understand American life, and in particular the nature of law within that life, we must apprehend that it is the will and decision of a sovereign people, acting together, that creates and sustains the American idea of nationhood.
Kahn frames his thesis and method around the work of Carl Schmitt’s classic 1922 text, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty. Schmitt made this very claim, that American legal order ultimately rests upon the decision of the sovereign and not ideas of social contract. Kahn’s methodological aim is not so much a replaying or updating of Scmitt’s text, but a hope that Kahn in exploring Schmitt, can ‘think with him, rather than think about him’.1
In one regard, Kahn’s work is an exploration of American exceptionalism.2 In that exploration Kahn reveals how current liberal political theory is unable to understand American exceptionalism, forced to view it merely as an unjust claim of privilege. What is at stake for Kahn is that American exceptionalism is about identity, existence, and decision, something current liberal political theory cannot discern, whereas political theology can. For it is a political theology that gave rise to this exceptionalism in the first place and Kahn constructs a political theology from Schmitt that reveals some of the identity, existence and decision of American exceptionalism.
Kahn’s work is at this level, a detailed philosophical exploration of the contours of American political and legal life. Again a territory largely alien to my British context. However recent events with the assassination of Osama Bin Laden have caused Bishop N T Wright, to cite American exceptionalism in our UK national news today.3
But there are some other riches in this work that correlate to the broader dimensions of political theology, and warrant attention by non Americans. For political theory has become a dwindling field, in which the European imports of post-Marxist theory have found little traction and revitalization of American political thought and imagination (or so my American friends tell me, whilst this line of post-Marxist thinking is holding much sway and resourcement for people like me in Europe, but that is another story).
What is revealed in that paucity of resourcing, is the failure to take seriously the concrete practices and beliefs of American life, and the need for an examination of the embedded political theologies that gave birth to current ways of American life. In this regard one way to read Kahn is as a ‘reparative’ account of American life (a la Peter Ochs political theology aspirations). And for those of us seeking similar ‘reparatives’ for our own contexts, Kahn’s work provides a narrative to fund our methodological processes and imaginations.
For Kahn’s work is at heart an exploration of human freedom as it has been realized in the distinctive set of practices and beliefs of ‘sovereignty’. Such practices and beliefs may differ in the United Kingdom, but the need for similar explorations of the realization of human freedoms is as pressing, as is the reality of how current political theory is similarly blind to the concrete practices and beliefs that gave rise to current ways of life.
It would be all to easy to pigeon hole Kahn’s book as a technical exploration of the nature of freedom within the American legal system, and American exceptionalism. It is certainly a recondite account of this, but it is simultaneously a deep enquiry into the social imaginary of American life. Therein Kahn provides a resource to stimulate an exploration of the impact of theology on non US contemporary political commitments, that suggests we focus attention on the theological underpinnings of european secular legal systems. But most importantly if we read Kahn, we might find that his work beckons and entices us into an even larger endeavour. The exploration of the social imaginaries of other nations through political theology.
1. Paul Khan, Political Theology, p28.
2. That the United States is qualitatively different from other nations with that exceptionalism emerging from revolution as ‘the first new nation’.
3. http://ruthgledhill.blogspot.com/2011/05/archbishop-of-canterbury-condemns.html. Wrights polemical letter makes use of some narratives and mythologies adjacent to Kahn's understanding of American identity in it's approach to the Law and the social imaginary of sovereignty.