It has been frequently remarked that Carl Schmitt’s oeuvre has, to a great extent, molded contemporary conversations around “political theology.” All of the concepts of modern political theory, Schmitt advances, are structurally analogous to theological concepts (God, the miracle, etc.): thus, “political theology” names a political theory that is analogical to a particular sort of theology. In Schmitt’s framework, political theology is fundamentally about the question of sovereignty, and sovereignty is founded on “the exception,” or the suspension of law.
But there are other ways of understanding “political theology.” Particularly in the American context, there has been discussion of political theology as linked to a theology of providence: the United States has some sort of divinely-elected role to play in the unfolding of history. Many of the most vivid recent evocations of this theology came in the first years of the new millennium, and particularly from George W. Bush, in the context of the justification of U.S. military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. For instance, Bush said in his 2003 State of the Union address:
[W]e go forward with confidence, because this call of history has come to the right country… America is a strong nation and honorable in the use of our strength. We exercise power without conquest, and we sacrifice for the liberty of strangers.
Americans are a free people who know that freedom is the right of every person and the future of every nation. The liberty we prize is not America's gift to the world; it is God's gift to humanity.
We Americans have faith in ourselves, but not in ourselves alone. We do not know—we do not claim to know all the ways of providence, yet we can trust in them, placing our confidence in the loving God behind all of life and all of history.1
As my colleague Shaul Magid notes in this volume, this construction of American exceptionalism draws on the precedent of Jewish exceptionalism, with its notion of divine election—right down to the peculiar linking of divine election with entitlement to land. Of course, even in current American political discourse, one still encounters the echoes of the doctrine of Manifest Destiny—particularly in the context of debates about, for instance, federal initiatives that impact Indian reservations.
Paul Kahn’s book Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty—as the title implies, a kind of reimagining of Schmitt’s work—takes on the project of delineating a phenomenology of the American political imaginary. That is, Kahn wants to offer an account of the contours of the conceptual landscape that constitutes Americans’ ideas about their own politics.2 To do so, he explicitly thematizes a different kind of political theology. Kahn’s political theology frames sacrifice as a (perhaps the) central question of the field. (This marks one of the ways in which Kahn departs from Schmitt, though it is not clear that he understands this.)3 Though there are many aspects of Kahn’s argument with which I disagree, I think Kahn is right to direct our attention to the notion of sacrifice, which has received significantly less attention in the discourse on political theology than either sovereignty or providence. In this piece I want to take up the question of the political theology of sacrifice with regard to American exceptionalism.
Though—as you will see in the excerpt that follows—Kahn directly engages the issue of American exceptionalism, he does not approach it immediately from his central problematic of sacrifice. Rather, he links Schmitt’s notion of the exception (the declaration of which is the constitutive mark of the sovereign) to exceptionalism. Schmitt considered that there was something quasi-theological about the deciding of the exception, which is to say, the suspension of the constitutional order; for Kahn, that decision is actually theological, or, as he sometimes prefers, “sacred.”4
Kahn’s text is predicated on a distinction between the political imaginary of liberalism, which (on his analysis) denies that there is an ‘outside’ to the rule of law—in his view, this political comportment is apotheosized in the European Union—and ‘theological’ political imaginaries, which, like that of the United States, keep alive the possibility of the “exception,” or the suspension of the rule of law. What Kahn finds interesting about the U.S. case is that the American notion of popular sovereignty “links the Constitution—and thus the rule of law—to the Revolution; it links law to exception” (10).
By this, Kahn seems to intend that the U.S. political imaginary is shaped by the fact that the Constitution is explicitly conceptualized as a kind of irruption of popular sovereignty: it codifies the ‘decision’ taken to break with the British. Thus (according to Kahn) the very fact of the rule of law, in the U.S. case, always rearticulates the possibility of its suspension: the U.S. constitution is unique (and America ‘exceptional’) insofar as it preserves the imaginability of unconstrained sovereignty.5 (Kahn does not mention the parallel, but this claim itself evokes a tradition of Christian exceptionalism: in Christianity, the eternal enters into the historical; in the U.S., the exception enters into the legal order.)
What is unclear, here, is why exactly Kahn imagines the U.S. to be a special case. Its opacity notwithstanding, Kahn’s argument takes the form that it is something about the U.S. Constitution (or the circumstances of the codification of the U.S. Constitution) that gives us the constellation of attitudes distinctive to American exceptionalism. He links this (again, obscurely) to violence, suggesting that the social contract converts murder into sacrifice. But presumably Kahn does not think the U.S. Constitution is somehow different than other constitutions in its origins in a ‘decision’: every constitution involves a suspension of the previous order. And of course the United States’ is neither the first nor the last constitutional discourse to include significant discussion of the ‘right of revolution’—which is the most important way that the notion of the decision-making power of the popular sovereign is enshrined in law.
It is hard, then, to imagine how it could be argued that the U.S. Constitution is in its substance different than other constitutions, in this regard. But Kahn is interested in American exceptionalism. So I think Kahn’s position must be that the U.S. imagination of its Constitution more prominently features the ‘right of revolution’ than other political imaginaries: the idea of the legal order is intertwined with the idea of the exception in the way that Americans think about politics.
I am not sure this is correct—indeed, I’m not even sure exactly how we would go about deciding if this were correct. In what follows, I suggest that Kahn’s idea of a political theology of sacrifice might be brought to bear to illuminate American exceptionalism. Kahn does gesture toward a connection between his emphasis on sacrifice and his ruminations on American exceptionalism as related to the exception’s imbrication in the Constitution. Though his argument on this point is not totally clear, it appears that he wants to draw a connection between the instituting violence of the American Revolution and the power of the rhetoric of sacrifice in contemporary U.S. political discourse. He writes, “Political violence has always been and remains a form of sacrifice. …Moreover, the moment at which such sacrifice is performed is always that of the exception” (7).
This claim is problematic on multiple levels. First, Kahn does not distinguish between various types of political violence in his clamor to think about the U.S. political imaginary as deeply sacrificial. But clearly the American heroization of those who are willing to sacrifice themselves in its defense is distinguishable from frequent moves to mark certain people as enemies--and worthy targets of violence for that reason.6
Moreover, since Agamben’s Homo Sacer—also inspired, in part, by Schmitt’s political theology—homo sacer is the exception, the man “outside the law” (sacer means, originally, “set apart”) precisely because he cannot be sacrificed. That is, the scope of sacrifice defines the scope of the community and the rule of law.7 Regardless of Kahn’s peculiar (and unsubstantiated) interpretation of sacrifice as always summoning forth a moment of exception, I am dubious that his construction of political violence in the framework of exception provides resources for understanding American exceptionalism or its particular character. After all, the U.S. is hardly the only country to have had a violent revolution ending in a new constitution. In fact, Kahn makes, in his text, only vague gestures toward what the American Revolution actually entailed. I think, ultimately, that it highlights an important truth: the “decision” of the Revolution notwithstanding, violence does not feature so strongly in the American political imaginary as the trace of its war for colonial independence.
Nevertheless, I think Kahn is right to suggest that sacrifice looms distinctively large in the American political imaginary. Just the last few years provide several moments in public discourse where this was readily apparent. Consider, for instance, Khizr Khan’s speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2016. Standing next to his wife, Khan—an immigrant—waved his copy of the Constitution in the context of his invocation of his son’s sacrifice. He asked Donald Trump whether he had read the Constitution and reminded him of those momentous words of the Fourteenth Amendment, “equal protection of the law.” He asked, “Have you ever been to Arlington Cemetery? Go look at the graves of brave patriots who died defending the United States of America. You will see all faiths, genders and ethnicities.” Pointedly, he remarked to an absent Trump, “You have sacrificed nothing and no one.” Clearly, contextually, Khan’s ground to speak was afforded him by his son’s death—and he used his platform to scold a politician widely seen as not having made any “sacrifices” (whether in the form of personal suffering, dead children or taxes paid).
Or consider the controversy about the football player Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem. One common refrain was that his action was “disrespectful to the military.” The idea that acts of protest engaging national symbols are particularly offensive to the military would seem to get backwards the relationship between the nation and its defense. But if it is a confusion, it is an extraordinarily widespread confusion, which of course tends to suggest that it is not a confusion at all. Kahn’s argument gestures in the direction that the reflexive association of national symbols with members of the military follows from the contours of American political theology. Members of the military stand in a privileged relationship to the idea of the nation because of their proximity to sacrifice.
I wonder if we might assemble the pieces to this puzzle (American exceptionalism, sacrality, and violence) in a different way, if we were to more precisely theorize ‘sacrifice.’ Almost every intellectual lineage of the study of religion draws lines that connect through the dot of Marcel Mauss and Henri Hubert’s 1899 Sacrifice: Its Nature and Function.8 This seminal text suggested that sacrifice was not about appeasing gods or communing with gods (the major theories before this contribution) but rather about creating gods who could be appeased or with whom one could commune. In other words, sacrifice (sacer + facere) is literally about making the sacred, about generating sacrality. We create the idea of entities worth sacrificing for precisely by sacrificing for them.
What, though would be (or would be thought to be) distinctively American about this dynamic? What could this have to do with American exceptionalism? I wonder if the prominence of sacrifice is the flipside of America’s (perhaps not entirely honest) emphasis on the uniqueness of its own past vis-à-vis the issue of secularism. It has often (too often?) been said that one of the distinctive features of the United States is its ‘pastlessness,’ or again, the fact that it was ‘born modern.’ We are (the line runs, disingenuously) a country for whom church and state were distinguished from the beginning. A corollary of this imaginary underscores the absence of the ‘old gods’ and their traces. (Indeed, the parallel situation of the twilight of the old gods in Third Republic France is, I have argued elsewhere, a major contributor to the genesis of the project that Mauss and Hubert began with Sacrifice: Its Nature and Function, which eventually gave rise to the theory of religion of their collaborator, Mauss’ uncle, Emile Durkheim.)9 Perhaps America’s obsessive statement and restatement of its lack of old gods—its lack of a history of church interference in the public sphere—inspires an anxiety that causes our preoccupation with the creation of new ones through sacrifice.
When we conjoin Hubert and Mauss’ theory of sacrifice with Durkheim’s theory of religion and Agamben’s reflections on the figure of homo sacer, we can see that by choosing which deaths to deem sacrificial, the collective is simultaneously constructing a version of itself to venerate. We discuss this question, after a fashion, when we discuss police “murders” of unarmed people of color in the U.S. as opposed to when we discuss the “sacrifice” of police officers. We discuss it when we discuss drone killings of U.S. citizens who are suspected terrorists and when we discuss accidental civilian casualties. We also discuss it, to return to Magid, when we discuss the way the Israeli state ought to construct its Palestinian citizens.
If Agamben would figure us all as either potential victims of sacrifice or potential victims of murder, recent realities (both in the U.S. and elsewhere) make clear that people are dying and dying violently who are (by Agamben’s lights) neither sacrificeable nor (by the lights of the collective) murderable. Not coincidentally, particularly in the wake of the rash of school shootings of the last two decades, we have begun to see there is a new discourse about sacrifice to false gods. Or rather—false gods being created by wrong sacrifices. Some of have figured the deaths of the victims of the Parkland shooting as sacrifices on the altar of the Second Amendment. Others, more darkly still, have figured the deaths as sacrifices to Moloch, recalling the famous words of Milton.
First MOLOCH, horrid King besmear'd with blood
Of human sacrifice, and parents tears,
Though, for the noyse of Drums and Timbrels loud,
Their children's cries unheard that passed through fire
To his grim Idol. Him the AMMONITE
Worshipt in RABBA and her watry Plain,
In ARGOB and in BASAN, to the stream
Of utmost ARNON. Nor content with such
Audacious neighbourhood, the wisest heart
Of SOLOMON he led by fraud to build
His Temple right against the Temple of God
On that opprobrious Hill, and made his Grove
The pleasant Vally of HINNOM, TOPHET thence
And black GEHENNA call'd, the Type of Hell.10
Those who sacrificed to Moloch were not only vilified for the grisly nature of their sacrificial victims, but also for sacrificing to a false god; indeed, as the passage from Milton makes clear, the grisly nature of their sacrifice is conceived as bound up with their worship of a false God. And if we take the purpose of sacrifice to be making sacred, as I have suggested we should, these deaths are problematic: the bounds of the sacrificial ritual no longer coincide with the bounds of the social contract. The thing that is being endowed with sacrality is wrongly sanctified. Does the sketch of the American imaginary in terms of “political theology” open the question of an American political idolatry?
George W. Bush, “State of the Union Address” (28 January 2003). For more on the political theology of providence that characterized George W. Bush’s presidency, see Bruce Lincoln, “Bush’s God-Talk,” in Political Theologies: Public Religions in a Post-Secular World, ed. Hent de Vries and Lawrence Sullivan (New York: Fordham University Press, 2006).↩
Kahn frames his text as answering the question of “What do we learn if we engage Schmitt’s argument from a perspective that substitutes the popular sovereign for his idea of the sovereign?” (9) But Lars Vinx has (correctly) noted that though Kahn imagines that he is, here, breaking new ground, Schmitt quite clearly makes room for—and even explicitly considers the possibility that the sovereign might be ‘the people.’ Lars Vinx, review of Paul Kahn, Political Theology, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews (2011).↩
As John Wayne Ackerman notes, “Whereas Schmitt insists (questionably) that politics only exists where the extreme possibility of violent death in war also exists (as the most extreme form of political conflict), Kahn maintains that politics is, most fundamentally and in its very grammar, such violence.” (219)↩
Kahn uses “sacred” and “theological” interchangeably, for reasons that are unclear to me (and which probably relate to his failure to theorize sacrifice—see below).↩
For Kahn, this manifests in a variety of ways. For instance, on his analysis, the American doctrine of judicial review is an exemplification: the Supreme Court rules in the name of the Constitution, which is essentially to say, in the name of a transhistorical political sovereign that supersedes the result of legislative process. Similarly, presidents have (particularly recently) rejected the War Powers Act, preserving for themselves the ultimate ‘deciding power’ when it comes to matters of war and peace.↩
As Kahn himself writes, “American history begins with the Revolution and continues today in the war on terror” (16).↩
Kahn gives a nod to Agamben’s position, or something like it, when he suggests that the social contract converts murder into sacrifice.↩
Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss, Sacrifice: Its Nature and Function, trans W.D. Halls (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964).↩
For an alternative strand of the relationship of Mauss and Hubert’s theory of sacrifice to its historical context—in particular l’affaire Dreyfus—see Ivan Strenski, Contesting Sacrifice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).↩
Milton, Paradise Lost, 1.392-405.↩