Return to political theology.

Author:Hawley, Joshua D.


There was a time when theology was called the "queen of the sciences." From the beginnings of the university in the High Middle Ages through the nineteenth century, theology formed the backbone of liberal instruction at institutions of higher learning. Those days are long past. What remains of theological investigation in most major American universities has been transposed into the study of religion and safely sequestered in "religious studies" departments. Few undergraduates today encounter theology as a discipline--and as for law students, well, the idea that theology might have some relevance for the study of law is regarded in the legal academy as either quaint or worse, vaguely menacing.

And yet. The last two decades have brought surging interest in the field called law and religion; religious liberty has become a subject of major doctrinal concern; and one of the most important books published by a legal academic in the past four years was a work of political theology. (1)

These stirrings in the legal world have been matched by a renewed interest among theologians in politics and the law. For evidence of that, consider the recent publication of one of the more ambitious studies in biblical theology of the last three decades, N.T. Wright's Paul and the Faithfulness of God. (2)

Wright is an English theologian of some acclaim. A prolific writer, he counts more than sixty titles to his credit, and his latest is the fourth installment in a series investigating New Testament history and theology. Wright's work has canvassed such subjects as the "historical Jesus" and first-century Christianity, but he considers himself principally a scholar of the Apostle Paul. (3) His most recent volume is a sweeping study of Paul's theology, including, importantly, Paul's political theology. Running over fifteen hundred pages in length and divided into two books, Paul and the Faithfulness of God painstakingly reconstructs Paul's historical context and intellectual influences on the way to a thorough restatement of Paul's thought. The volume concludes with a multichapter examination of what Pauline theology means for Paul's day and ours, with politics front and center.

The book has proven a minor sensation in the world of biblical studies. But why should lawyers care? The answer has to do with what Mark Lilia has recently and rather famously called "the Great Separation." (4) Lilia's claim is that liberalism and limited, constitutional government are possible only when religion is firmly quarantined from the business of politics. (5) "[I]ndividual rights to private and collective worship, freedom of conscience, religious toleration"--all these were the fruits of banishing religion from the public sphere, he says. (6) By his account, modernity itself emerged from this great separation.

The idea is hardly novel. It has been in vogue in the western world since at least the Enlightenment. Listen closely in contemporary America and you will hear it just about everywhere, from political theory to Supreme Court opinions citing the "wall" separating church and state. (7) It is so commonplace, in fact, so thoroughly conventional and widely accepted that it is sometimes difficult to imagine any other way of seeing the world.

But as critical legal scholars remind us, conventions can be dangerous things. They condition us to accept as facts what are in truth highly normative propositions. And that brings us back to Paul. Pauline theology shares a good deal in common with the liberal tradition. Indeed, it is among that tradition's most powerful moral sources. (8) Yet, Pauline theology challenges as many liberal conventions as it affirms, including, perhaps especially, the Great Separation. This may come as a surprise to those who view Paul as a "religious" writer concerned exclusively with spiritual matters like salvation and judgment, the afterlife, and heaven. But if N.T. Wright's magisterial reconsideration of Paul demonstrates anything, it demonstrates that this take on Paul is badly mistaken. Wright is adamant--and convincing--that Paul's teaching was inescapably political. (9) For at the heart of Paul's public message was a political claim, that the God of Israel had become a worldwide king in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. (10) As Wright shows, this deeply political gospel posed a sharp challenge to the claims of the Roman Empire. (11) But it does more. It carries major implications for the shape and conduct of government, then and now. (12)

Pauline theology disputes the central premises of the Great Separation. Not necessarily, however, for reasons one might expect. Paul does not advocate rule by priests or the use of political power to compel belief. Pauline theology offers support instead for a form of limited government, the equal dignity and moral worth of every individual, even an open political society. But here is the paradox: The ground for these affirmations is precisely Paul's announcement of Christ as worldwide sovereign. In Pauline theology, that announcement generates a unique form of political dualism, one in which the state and the sacred are divided, not along the familiar axis of "religion" and "politics," but rather according to what is for Paul the truly all-important distinction: between present and future. (13)

What Pauline theology disputes is the Great Separation's claim that humane government is possible only when religion is roped off from the public realm. To challenge that assertion, of course, is to challenge much of modern liberalism. And there is no question that Paul's principal political claim--that Jesus Christ is sovereign--cannot be accepted by liberal theory, or not in that form, anyway. But therein lies Pauline theology's political relevance and appeal. Standing at once at the origins of the liberal tradition yet outside that tradition's main channel, Pauline theology is uniquely positioned to offer a critical perspective on modern liberalism's conventional claims, the Great Separation first among them.

To be specific: The contrast with Pauline political theology exposes the fact that the Great Separation is premised not on mutual toleration or religious liberty, but on a particular vision of sovereignty. (14) The Great Separation locates sovereignty's source in the autonomy of the human person, and it identifies sovereignty's home as the state. On the essentially Hobbesian view at the base of the Great Separation and much of modern political theory, the state is the ultimate and perhaps the only authentic human community because it is the only social product of the people's sovereign will. As a consequence, the state stands prior to every other social body and association, with the right to direct and control them for the public good. Moreover, in the name of the popular sovereign, the state is vested with the power to set the terms of public debate; put another way, the will of the sovereign people provides the standards for public reasoning.

On the terms of the Great Separation, political society exists without reference to God or the future or anything else apart from the sovereign people and the state they establish. The polity is a self-contained whole. This does not mean it excludes the sacred, however. In the Great Separation, the sacred is identified with the search for personal authenticity and transcendence that the state exists to serve. (15) Properly understood, then, the polity becomes the true home of the sacred and serves the people's sacral ambitions. (16) The Great Separation ultimately turns out to be a form of monism: It offers a self-contained polity, a union of sacred and political, a form of total sovereignty.

Pauline political theology helps bring all this to light. And for those concerned by modern liberalism's monist tendencies, it may offer resources for thinking afresh about politics, religion, and the terms of the Great Separation. To those who pronounce political theology dead or dangerous, my contention is this: that Pauline theology, whatever one thinks of its substantive content, can be a valuable partner in a dialogue about the future of the liberal tradition. My aim in what follows is to employ N.T. Wright's powerful and provocative analysis of Paul's political gospel as a critical perspective on the foundational claims of the Great Separation. Because the very possibility of political theology is disputed in many quarters, I begin in Part I with a defense of political theology as critical theory. In Part II, I turn to Paul's political gospel, tracing Wright's reconstruction of its central terms, including the Pauline critique of empire. In Part III, I explore--briefly--the affirmative political vision Pauline theology makes possible, with particular focus on that theology's unique form of political dualism. Finally, Part IV takes up the clash between Pauline theology and modern liberalism on the critical issue of sovereignty.


    We begin by settling a preliminary objection. However much Paul the Apostle may have to say to twenty-first century America and its law, we must first determine whether we are truly able to hear from him. Or to put the question more formally, what sort of political theology, if any, is viable in the present moment? Is it still possible or worthwhile to ask how the authority of God is related to the authority of the state? (17)

    A good many scholars say it is not. The advocates of so-called "public reason," for example, contend that only those arguments grounded in "society's [shared] conception of political justice" should figure in political analysis. (18) Arguments premised on other ideals, and especially theological arguments, are inappropriate to politics because they are not accessible to all citizens. (19) Others contend that theological reasoning threatens the civil peace and mutual toleration achieved by modern liberalism. Thus Mark Lilia, who describes...

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