Political Theology

A Critical Introduction

Saul Newman










I would like to thank colleagues in the Sydney Democracy Network and the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Sydney, for their generous support in arranging a Visiting Professorship for me there while working on this book.


Recent political phenomena all seem to be pointing to the end of the global liberal order. The resurgence of authoritarian, nationalist and anti-immigrant populism in Europe, the United States and elsewhere represents a major challenge to liberal values of openness, toleration and human rights. Everywhere these ideas and principles seem to be under attack, often from within the very heart of liberal democratic societies. Indeed, it would seem that a major rift has opened between liberalism and democracy itself, as significant parts of the demos, animated by a desire for a return of ‘sovereignty’, turn their backs on globalisation and multiculturalism and demand closed borders and a strong state. The spectre of national sovereignty has returned in our midst.

Sovereignty may be a phantasm, but this does not make its effects any less real. Indeed, in the era of globalisation, the problem of sovereignty becomes more acute. In a time when it is no longer possible for governments to exercise any real control over national economies, where vast sums of money are moved around the world in a blink of an eye and where an out-of-control banking system caused the near collapse of the global economy, it is hardly any wonder that many cling on to the idea of national sovereignty as their only salvation. Nor is it any surprise, perhaps, that many, the so called ‘left behind’, often attribute their sense of dislocation in the contemporary world to mass migration and to the fragmentation of their cultural and national identity that they believe to result from this. The renewed desire for a strong state and a unified, homogeneous identity can be seen as symptomatic of an increasingly abstracted and virtualised form of existence, where centres of power and sources of authority and legitimacy are more obscure and amorphous. What emerges here is the question of who is the sovereign, who decides. Is it the nation state, which represents, however indirectly, the will of the people? Or is it anonymous transnational legal structures and global financial networks?

This of course was the eternal question posed by Carl Schmitt, the conservative German jurist and political thinker who, is his 1922 book Politische Theologie (Political Theology), arrived at the famous – or infamous – formulation: ‘Sovereign is he who decides on the exception’ (Schmitt, 2005: 5; emphasis added). For Schmitt, the authority to make decisions outside the law – in the liminal space of the exceptional situation that required the suspension of the normal constitutional order – was the ultimate and legitimate expression of sovereignty. If the sovereign cannot decide over and above what liberals affirm as the rule of law, then sovereignty is meaningless.

Moreover, for Schmitt, sovereignty is imbued with religious significance; it is a sacred concept, made all the more sacred in the time of secularism. Indeed, as a political theologian for whom modern concepts of the state are secularised theological concepts, Schmitt saw the sovereign as analogous with God as the supreme lawgiver, and the state of exception as akin to the miracle in theology. The sovereign is the redeemer and saviour of the people in a time of nihilism and political neutralisation, which is why at the same time it demands absolute obedience and sacrifice.

It is not my intention to side with Schmitt here – far from it. Despite a take-up in recent times by some thinkers on the left, who see Schmitt's theories as delimiting a space of differentiation and freedom in an international order dominated by liberal globalisation, or even as providing resources for a renewal and radicalisation of democratic politics (e.g., Mouffe, 2009), I see nothing positive or redemptive about any kind of return, were it even possible, to the bulwark of national sovereignty. However, where Schmitt is right is in pointing to the structural recurrence of the problematic of sovereignty, which is revealed every time a social order undergoes a crisis of legitimation – as the liberal order is currently experiencing. In this sense, the question of sovereignty – the desire for it, the identification with it – is in many ways central to politics and political thought. This does not mean that sovereignty is inescapable and that there are not alternative ways of organising social and political life – something I intend to explore in this book. However, we must first come to terms with the structural space or gap in our political language and experience that sovereignty both invokes and stands in for. Sovereignty points to a moment of transcendence beyond an otherwise immanent social order. Sovereignty represents an imaginary point of identity that fixes meaning and delineates borders and boundaries. It differentiates inside from outside, friend from enemy. It gives coherence and unity to society, providing a stabilising element in an unstable world. In the moment of crisis, the question of sovereignty becomes ever present as we try to re-create a sense of ontological certainty through the idea of transcendent authority. Yet, as I will aim to show, sovereignty is a dead end, a kind of trap that we must nevertheless navigate if we are to have any hope of overcoming the problem of political theology.

Yet what of sovereignty's supposedly restraining function in delaying the coming of the Antichrist – Schmitt's characterisation of the global disorder that would reign in the age of liberal economics, technological mobilisation and depoliticisation, in which the breakdown of the friend–enemy opposition defined by the nation state had the potential to result in violence on an unparalleled scale? Today it is difficult to tell whether sovereignty serves as the katechon (‘restrainer’) or conductor of the coming disorder. The apocalyptic and nihilistic condition that Schmitt warned us of seems to be coming about precisely through the breakup of the liberal global order and uncanny return of the dream of sovereignty. We need to understand this contemporary condition of nihilism and potential violence that lurks behind the edifice of the sovereign state. It is the narrow, paranoid dream of identity – national, cultural, religious – asserted against any universalism. It is the obscure and nihilistic vision of the jihadist who seeks to hasten the world's destruction, along with his own. It is the politics of the nationalist, racist and identitarian right that wants simply to turn its back on the world and emphasise divisions between religions and cultures. It is the populist Feast of Fools with its elected pope in the White House, the pseudo-revolution against the liberal ‘establishment’. It is the carnival that takes place at the end of times, in a world faced with imminent ecological collapse. It is a violent millenarianism without any promise of a Messiah. Obscurantist and reactionary worldviews now take the place of Enlightenment values of human rights, scientific truth, toleration and secularism. The liberal consensus is in a state of decomposition, and emerging in its place is an intensification of political enmity. There is a kind of repoliticisation of our world going on, an intensification of what Schmitt calls the ‘friend–enemy’ opposition, after decades of stifling, technocratic neoliberalism. But this is not a politicisation that holds out much hope of redemption, deteriorating into a kind of ‘identity politics’ that animates the right and only cripples the left.

This book takes as its starting point our contemporary post-liberal condition and what I have described as the phantasmatic ‘return’ of sovereignty. It will explore the crisis of liberal politics and political theory through the problem of political theology. Political theology, an enigmatic term, generally refers to the interpenetration of religion and politics. More precisely, it refers to the way in which political concepts, discourses and institutions – particularly sovereignty – are influenced, shaped and underpinned by religious categories of thought. In some ways this is nothing new. Religion and politics have always been intertwined. The entire history of the Christian West, in its shifting relationship between religious and political power, between church and state, might be said to revolve around the politico-theological problem. The origins of the term ‘political theology’ derive from pre-Christian antiquity. The Roman scholar Marcus Terentius Varro (117–27 BC), knowledge of whose Divine Antiquities comes to us mainly from Augustine's De civitate Dei, drew a distinction between what he called civil theology and mythical and natural, theology, that is, between civic or political religion – the cult images that constituted the founding myths and religions of Rome and therefore had a political function – and mythical and natural religions (see Book 6 of CD in Augustine, 2014; also van Nuffelen, 2010). The term appears again, much later and in a very different context, in Spinoza's Tractatus theologico-politicus, written amid the religious conflicts of the seventeenth century (Spinoza, 2007). Here we find an attempt to separate philosophy – the space of reason and free enquiry – from religious faith and scriptural determination, which Spinoza believed led to superstition and blind obedience. This separation should be preserved by the state and protected from intrusion by fanatical clergy. Yet, while Spinoza's thinking points towards a form of separation between religion and politics, church and state, he nevertheless acknowledged the political utility of religion in promoting allegiance to the state.

However, in the modern period, the term ‘political theology’ has come to be irrecoverably associated with Carl Schmitt, for whom the ambivalent and problematic relationship between religion and politics had become more acute in the time of secularism. The process of separating state from church and politics from religion, which began in the sixteenth century, had reached its high point when Schmitt was writing in the twentieth century. Yet, as he sought to show, the political categories that define the modern state are really theological concepts, which are translated into secular language but continue to bear the trace of their religious roots: ‘All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts’ (Schmitt, 2005: 36; emphasis added). Not only did sovereignty, as supreme law-making authority, develop from religion – from the idea of the sovereignty of God over natural law and its articulation into the doctrine of the divine right of kings – but the concept of sovereignty is fundamentally structured in this theological way. Or at least it must be so perceived – as the ultimate authority to decide, over and above the law – if it is to have any coherence in the modern world. However – and this is the real problem for Schmitt – this notion of sovereignty was under threat, not only from legal positivists and liberal constitutionalists, who wanted to demonstrate the pre-eminence of law over sovereignty and rule out the state of exception, but also from modern sociological and positivist explanations, which saw social relations in terms of pure immanence without any point of metaphysical transcendence or the sacred. Yet the greatest threat to the theological pre-eminence and absolutism of sovereignty came, according to Schmitt, from atheistic revolutionary anarchism, which declared total war on God and the state.

I will explore these debates in greater detail in chapter 1. But what becomes clear is the way in which secularism – the process by which religion and politics, church and state become formally separated – actually accentuates the politico-theological paradigm that Schmitt is exploring. Schmitt appears to be saying two things that seem, at first glance, to be in tension with each other: first, that secularism never really was entirely secular, in the sense that its political categories still bear the trace of their religious origins and are still steeped in theology; and, secondly, that in secular modernity – with its forces of atheism, positivism, liberal economics, technics, and revolutionary politics – transcendence becomes increasingly impossible and that there is indeed a mortal threat to the sacred, absolute dimension of the sovereign state, which must therefore be bolstered and strengthened in response. One finds in Schmitt an affirmation of the theological intensity of sovereignty – the reactionary Catholic's desire to restore the authority and lustre of the state as corpus mysticum or sacred body – coupled with a kind of melancholic nostalgia for its lost pre-eminence in secular modernity.

Let us try to make sense of the contemporary implications of the politico-theological problem that Schmitt introduces. How does this help us to understand our current predicament? In what sense is our political reality still haunted by religion? To what extent does the apparition of God linger on behind the visage of sovereignty, even in these supposedly secular times? Or is it the case that the renewed desire for sovereignty is indicative of a deeper crisis in secular modernity and points to the ‘return’ of religion? To what extent does the force of religion – which, one might argue, never really went away – gather like a storm behind the edifice of the sovereign state and emerge in all its violent intensity at moments when the political order undergoes a crisis of legitimacy? In the time defined by the death of God, does God continue to live on in spectral form in the idea of sovereignty and political authority? In any case, Nietzsche believed that people would be unable to come to terms with the death of God and would try to reinvent him in the form of moral ideals derived from Christianity. This drive to restore divine authority in secular garb is something I will explore throughout the book.

Of course, the persistence of the problem of political theology raises important questions about secularism itself. Can we still maintain that we live, as Charles Taylor (2007) put it, in a secular age? Secularism, deriving from the Latin saeculum – referring to a certain length of time, a generation – is usually associated today with the institutional separation of church and state and the general evacuation of religion from the public into the private sphere; a process that started with the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century and early ideas of religious toleration and was intensified by the scientific revolutions of the seventeenth century and by the Enlightenment revolt of reason and political liberty against religious obscurantism and absolutism that characterised the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It is difficult not to acknowledge the fundamental changes that have taken place during this time, when compared with an earlier period in which religion was much more deeply ingrained in everyday life. Today public institutions, at least in modern western societies, no longer draw their legitimacy from the church – or, if they do, it is in only in a highly symbolic and not substantive way. Religious faith has become a matter of personal choice rather than obligation. Religion no longer serves as a source of authority for law and morality, and public displays of religiosity tend to be regarded as anomalies rather than the norm. Max Weber refers to the experience of ‘disenchantment’ in secular modernity – a general process of demystification and rationalisation of social life, whereby religion is progressively relegated to the sphere of private belief and public authority derives its legitimacy from other sources, such as the rule of law and bureaucratic efficiency. Taylor characterises secularism as a change in the background conditions of belief: it may be that some people, indeed many, hold strong religious beliefs, but this is simply a matter of personal choice and indeed one option among many – including non-belief, which is more likely to be the default position today. Moreover, for Taylor, a self-sufficient humanism has come to supplant the experience of spiritual and metaphysical transcendence. In other words, today it is possible to derive one's sense of fullness entirely within the human condition and to think of no higher goal than purely human flourishing – whereas in earlier, pre-secular society this sense of fullness could only come from something transcendent, beyond the limits of human experience (ibid., 19–20).

At the same time, however, secularism has become an increasingly contested notion, and debates in recent years in political theory and continental philosophy – particularly in the wake of 9/11 – have revolved around what has come to be known as the ‘post-secular’. This has been partly in recognition of a world in which religion seems to have ‘returned’ to the public sphere, in often fundamentalist and violent forms, and now seriously threatens the secular political space. Can we really say that we live in a secular world when terrorist attacks, inspired by fundamentalist interpretations of religion, occur with ever greater frequency in the heart of liberal democratic societies, and when there are people who are prepared to sacrifice their own lives and those of others on the altar of their religious beliefs? To what extent can we say we have successfully and irreversibly separated church and state when, for instance, evangelical Christianity and other religiously conservative movements have such inordinate influence on electoral politics and government policy in the United States and other parts of the world? In what sense is the public space really free from religion, when there are major debates, becoming more vitriolic by the day, about the incompatibility of different religions and cultures and the impossibility of peaceful coexistence? The ‘post-secular’ condition has therefore become the context for rethinking the relationship between religion, culture and politics and for a critical reflection on the meaning of secularism.1

For Jürgen Habermas (2008), the ‘post-secular’ refers to a different sensibility, which he attributes to several factors: a heightened awareness of the religious dimension of global conflicts, something that brings into sharp relief the limits of the secular; the increased influence of religion in the public sphere; and immigration from countries with more traditionally bound cultures, presenting challenges of integration and highlighting tensions between religious pluralism and the secular public space. The central problem for post-secular societies is how to mediate the conflict between religious differences and the democratic public space, which tolerates differences but does so only on the basis of a shared allegiance to a secular notion of citizenship that requires distancing oneself from one's cultural and religious particularity. There seems to be an almost irresolvable tension between the identity of the religious minority demanding recognition in a secular society and the defenders of a rigid secularism, a position that itself devolves into another kind of identity politics, a ‘fundamentalism of the Enlightenment’, whose formal discourse of ‘toleration’ takes an increasingly intolerant tone and whose proclaimed secularism increasingly falls back on claims about the superiority of ‘western culture’, with its Christian roots, over Islam. We see this in endless debates in the West over multiculturalism, sharia law, the veil, religious offence, and freedom of speech.

Therefore the danger to secularism comes not only from the fact that religious differences are not able to accommodate themselves to secular principles, but also from a narrow and intolerant interpretation of secularism itself. For Habermas (2008), if the secular space is to survive, it must adapt itself to the realities of religious pluralism; indeed, if equal recognition is to mean anything, then secularists must no longer expect that their religious fellow citizens leave their religious affiliations at the door when they enter the public political space. Secularists must be able to recognise the political validity of deeply held religious convictions. A similar attempt to accommodate religious pluralism within secular societies was proposed earlier by John Rawls (2005), who made a distinction between public reason and secular reason. While secular reason seeks to exclude religion from politics altogether, public reason accepts the place of deeply held religious convictions in public political debates, provided these debates took place in terms that all reasonable and rational people, believers and non-believers alike, might understand and agree to; that there is, in other words, a rational common ground that might allow a resolution of such conflicts. It is thus possible to establish, according to Rawls, an overlapping consensus of ‘reasonable’ comprehensive doctrines – a more substantive agreement than a simple modus vivendi between irreconcilable positions. This consensus served therefore as a more stable basis for contemporary liberal societies, while at the same time respecting religious differences. Both Rawls and Habermas seek to come to terms with religious pluralism through a certain modification of the idea of the secular public space, accommodating religious differences within a constitutional regime that nevertheless derives its legitimacy from secular principles of equal recognition of citizens as reasonable and rational.

Other thinkers, however, have raised more serious questions about the idea of western secular liberal reason. Talal Asad's genealogy of secular reason calls into question the concept of the secular West as an integrated totality, seeing it instead as a heterogeneous and conflicted notion, riven by tensions and inconsistencies, whose self-identity as ‘rational’ and ‘tolerant’ is formed through a problematic distinction from various forms of ‘irrational’ and ‘intolerant’ fundamentalism. Moreover, western secular modernity, according to Asad, is based on a questionable opposition between the religious and the secular, the sacred and the profane, elements that in fact interpenetrate each other. Secularism promises a story of redemption – one that is different from Christian theology but nevertheless contains a sacrificial logic prepared to inflict suffering in the name of humanisation (Asad, 2003: 62). For instance, insofar as human rights can only be enforced through the nation state, states have the power to coerce their own citizens – and indeed others outside their boundaries – in the name of human rights. Secular, universal human rights are thus caught up in the very paradox of sovereignty; entirely reliant as they are on the sovereign nation state for their enforcement, they place themselves at the mercy of the entity they were designed to protect individuals from in the first place.

Jacques Derrida is another thinker for whom the concept of the secular, insofar as it defines itself in opposition to the religious, should be questioned. Indeed, the very notion of religion as a singular, coherent, meaningful category is impossible to sustain, as is the distinction between reason and religion, knowledge and faith. These forces share a common origin and have an entangled history, which today plays itself out in the form of tensions inherent in western globalisation – or what Derrida calls ‘globalatinisation’. We see, for instance, the way in which globalisation is perceived by some as a threat to their religious identity, while at the same time religious doctrines are spread and promulgated through communication technologies and pathways made available by globalisation. For Derrida, we cannot hope to understand the phenomenon of the ‘return of the religious’ today if we insist on the naïve opposition between reason, science and modernity on the one hand and religion on the other (Derrida, 1998: 28). Indeed, we cannot possibly come to terms with what Derrida calls the new ‘wars of religion’ – a phenomenon that today, nearly two decades since his writing, seem only to be intensifying – without understanding the mutual interpenetration of western secular reason, which increasingly takes the form of a techno-scientific rationality, with religion. Secular reason cannot be strictly separated or isolated from a religious dimension latent in the theological Judeo-Christian foundations of the West. The point Derrida is making is that the secular domain cannot be in any sense purified of the religious; even the political domain – and here we return to Schmitt – relies upon the heteronymous dimension of the theological in order to achieve any ‘autonomy’ (ibid., 25–6).

We can see, then, that secularism is a highly contested concept and that its status today is uncertain. How can the paradigm of political theology help us to make sense of this matter? Let us turn briefly to one of the central debates over the secularisation hypothesis – the twentieth-century debate between Karl Löwith and Hans Blumenberg over the meaning and significance of modernity. For Löwith, modernity and the idea of progress are nothing but a form of secularised Christian eschatology. Our modern belief in universal progress – particularly the idea that history has some kind of ultimate meaning or purpose – is still structured by a prophetic and messianic promise of redemption and salvation familiar to us from the Jewish and Christian traditions. Modern historicism has Judeo-Christian origins, and we moderns, in our search for a telos or final goal of history, are simply heirs to this Christian eschatology. We are governed by an ‘eschatological compass’ that ‘gives orientation in time by pointing to the Kingdom of God as the ultimate end or purpose’ (Löwith, 1949: 18). This theological parallel is quite evident, for instance, in the revolutionary eschatology of Marx: the history of exploitation is the history of injustice and evil, an evil that will be finally overcome in the messianic promise of communism, a new kind of ‘kingdom of God’ on earth. For Löwith, then, the modern world, even in its radical atheism and secularism, still remains in the shadow of Christianity and is still structured by its eschatological horizon. Secularism is the fulfilment of Christianity; and yet, in this fulfilment, it also dissolves Christianity by applying it to secular matters (ibid., 202).2

Hans Blumenberg (1985), on the other hand, rejects Löwith's sceptical interpretation of modernity and progress. The thesis that everything about the modern age, including its political concepts and institutions, is simply a secularisation of Christian theology and eschatology was overstated and simplistic, based as it was on a blind spot that failed to recognise the specificity and originality of modernity. Rather than searching for the theological spirit behind the appearance of ‘wordliness’, we should affirm the legitimacy of the modern age as an autonomous experience and as a novel response to the breakdown of the medieval Christian world. For instance, the idea of progress, which Löwith sees merely as a secularised form of the Christian motif of salvation, was actually, according to Blumenberg, a distinct and uniquely modern alternative to a Christian eschatology that had come to be not so much about hope as about terror and dread of the next world (ibid., 31). The modern world, a world now reliant only on itself and its own conceptual resources – abandoned, as Blumenberg puts it, to its own self-assertion – reoccupied the void left empty by an eschatological narrative that had long since ceased to function and could no longer promise any Messiah. Therefore ‘[t]his true “creation of the world” [Weltwerdung] is not a secularization (“becoming worldly”) in the sense of the transformation of something preexisting but rather, as it were, the primary crystallization of a hitherto unknown reality’ (ibid., 47). This world, in all its newness and innovation, had come to take the place of the other world, the old world of Christian theology abandoned by any hope of salvation. Modern reason in the form of philosophy now had to find answers to the questions and mysteries left unresolved by theology.

It is not surprising, then, that Blumenberg was critical of Schmitt's deployment of the secularisation thesis to justify his claim for absolute sovereignty: the political theologian needed the concept of a secularised theology in order to claim that the sovereign has, or should have, God-like authority today. However, as Blumenberg points out, this absolutist idea of political authority is out of kilter with the modern age, an age where the state of emergency – what Schmitt calls the exception – is no longer the ‘normal’ condition of politics and where the notion of ‘the political’ loses its primacy (ibid., 91). Schmitt must therefore call on a theological absolutism if he is to bring back to life the idea of political absolutism; but he does so in a spurious way, relying on a series of structural analogies to justify his claims. ‘Political theology’ was therefore only a metaphorical theology. According to Blumenberg, Schmitt was not so much a ‘political theologian’ as a political theorist making a rhetorical case and calling on theological images to affirm a strong sovereign (ibid., 101).

I will return to some of these points, particularly about the distinction between political theology and political theory, in chapter 1. However, we can see how Blumenberg's critique of the secularisation thesis – his critique of the idea that secular modernity is simply a transposition and continuation of Christianity – would seem to cast doubt on the very concept of political theology. Or does it? The fact that modernity, for Blumenberg, takes over in the wake of the disintegration of Christian theology – he refers to a ‘reoccupation’ (ibid., 89) – suggests that modernity, or what I refer to as secular modernity, is at the very least premised on Christian theology, even if it only fills the place left vacant by it. To the extent that modern philosophy and political theory seek to answer the questions left unresolved by Christian theology, suggests that they are still in some ways shaped by it, even as they may seek to distance themselves from it. Insofar as modernity is an aggressive self-assertion of a radically new attitude that emerges as a critical response to Christian theology, we can say that it is formed and constituted in opposition to it. My point is that, at the end of the day, there is not such a huge difference between Löwith's and Blumenberg's positions in terms of their implications for political theology: both point to a place of transcendence, which is invoked, in Löwith's case, as the continuation of Christian eschatology in secular modernity and, in Blumenberg's case, in the form of its absence, a void that the conceptual and political resources of modernity try to fill. To refer to this place of transcendence is not to invoke the name of God or to lament his absence from secular modernity. Rather I am referring to a kind of structural gap or lack in the symbolic order, which characterises any society but becomes particularly acute and visible in the wake of secular modernity and the breakup of the old medieval theological order. The recurrent desire for ever stronger forms of sovereignty can be seen in some ways as a desire for fullness and wholeness in political life – for the sacred in the secular experience.

Rather than taking a particular position, then, on the secularisation debate, my point will be that the problem of political theology should be considered as a symptom of our secular modernity; indeed, that it only really arises with, and as a consequence of, the formal separation of religion and politics that characterises modernity and that dissolved the symbolic consistency of the medieval order. The place of political authority is inclined to take on a theological dimension precisely at the same time as its legitimacy is called into question, as it was with the decomposition of the old cosmic political order and the discrediting of the doctrine of divine right – and, indeed, as it is today, in the age of liberal globalisation. So why is it that political authority – the state order – becomes theologised precisely at the moment when religion becomes depoliticised, when it is banished from the public sphere into the private sphere? This was something that Marx commented on in his discussion of liberal secularism. In his critique of the secularising arguments of his contemporary Bruno Bauer, Marx reflected on the paradox whereby the liberal state, once it reached full political maturity – in other words, once it emancipated itself from religion and became fully secular – takes on a theological position in relation to the rest of society: ‘The political state, in relation to civil society, is just as spiritual as is heaven in relation to earth. It stands in the same opposition to civil society, and overcomes it in the same manner as religion overcomes the narrowness of the profane world’ (Marx, 1978: 34). The state now occupies the place of theological transcendence once occupied by the church and formal religion. The depoliticisation of theology leads only to the theologisation of politics. The state's abandonment of religion – the abolition of religion from the public political domain – leads only to the religion of the state. Therefore the public–private divide, central to liberal secularism, does not dissolve religion: it only entrenches religion more firmly in private life, while at the same time creating a new secular religion: the religion of the state. Of course, for Marx, the real problem was neither that of religion nor that of the state, but rather the way in which liberal secularism and the public–private divide integrate the forces of the market within civil society such that we are reduced, in the private sphere, to the status of a commodity and thus become ‘the plaything of alien powers’ (ibid.). This is a point I shall return to when I explore the question of economic theology in a later chapter. However, it is important to note that, for Marx, religious illusion serves as a kind of analytical matrix for thinking about ideology and politics; and from this we can gain an understanding of the theological dimension of power in secular modernity.

Moreover, that political power derives its legitimacy from democracy in modernity does not make it any less theological. Indeed, the symbolic authority of the ‘will of the people’ does not desacralise power at all but, on the contrary, makes it all the more transcendent. Tocqueville famously observed about American democracy in the nineteenth century: ‘The people rule the American political world as God rules the universe. They are the cause and the end of all things; everything arises from them and everything is absorbed by them’ (de Tocqueville 2010: 97). This was a new kind of despotism. Behind every modern conception of sovereignty, starting with Hobbes, there is the figure of the people, who are represented, no matter how indirectly, by the state. Even Schmitt sees the sovereign state as being the entity that constitutes and galvanises the people, uniting them against their common enemy. The democratic pouvoir constituant – the sovereign power over laws that flows from the people – is by no means antithetical to transcendence and therefore cannot be an answer, at least not on its own, to the problem of political theology. Recent expressions of demotic power whose ‘will’ must be obeyed absolutely, lest one be declared an ‘enemy of the people’,3 are an example of this theological spectre that haunts modern politics and brings renewed focus on its foundations and legitimacy.