Debate Magazine

Political Theology & Civil Religion

By Cris

In this review of Simon Critchley’s The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology (2012), David Winters comments:

“Throughout his career, Critchley has recast philosophy as a response to two types of “disappointment”: the religious (how are we to deal with life after the death of God?) and the political (what’s left for the Left to rally around, in light of the apparent triumph of neoliberalism?) His latest book, The Faith of the Faithless, systematically connects these two threads.”

Here we must pause to observe that if in fact Critchley has built half a career on the disappointment occasioned by the death of God, it has probably been disappointing. The Nietzschean death of God, for all its philosophical import, was a bad empirical prediction (if that’s what in fact signified). For most people in the world, God (or gods) never died. For ostensible European outliers, institutional religion may be mostly dead but variable beliefs in God, gods, spirits, and the supernatural are not.

God is only well and truly dead among a miniscule segment of people, mostly serene philosophers and cheerful atheists. If Critchley has made half a career dealing with their disappointments, I feel for him. He should have been a shrink.

When we come to Critchley’s contention that politics consists of a reconfiguration of religion, things are less disappointing:

Critchley turns to the tradition known as “political theology,” a subject best summed up by Carl Schmitt in his book of the same name. In that work, Schmitt declares that “all significant concepts in the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.” For Critchley, these words resonate, shedding light on how “political forms” — from fascism to liberalism — are fashioned out of the raw materials of faith. Put simply, there’s a covert religious core to all kinds of political life. And if there’s something of the “church” inside every “state,” then states can only hope to survive if they’re sanctified in some way.

Critchley uncovers a classic example of this in The Social Contract, where Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s blueprint for secular states runs into trouble when it attempts to cement the state’s legal legitimacy. In the end, it can only do so by granting the state the same “sacred” status as a deity. In Rousseau’s words: “it would require gods to give men laws.”

So it would, and this accounts for the fact that all states are founded on myths and propagate myths. In Nationalism as Religion, I outlined the several ways in which the United States sanctifies itself with political theology. It’s nice to see Critchley extending the contours of civil religion and exposing the Leviathan.

Political Theology & Civil Religion


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