In his effort to “think with” Carl Schmitt ( Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty ), Paul Kahn uses a “sacrificial” conception of sovereignty to isolate differences between America and Europe, and between pre-modern and modern states.

America v. Europe first (16-17): “To the question of whether there can be sovereign action beyond the rule of law, European institutions have answered with a resounding no. All political violence is limited to law enforcement: no exceptions.” Thus, “there is no political theology appropriate for the institutions of the European Union: it is politics as a fully secularized practice of reason,” of law without the sovereign exception.

The US, however, “remained an ‘exceptional’ nation because we never gave up our belief in our own sovereignty . . . .

“Americans live comfortable with their long history of citizen sacrifice in national wars . . . . Popular history is shaped by a narrative of the successful use of violent force against enemies, within and without the nation. Much of this past remains vivid in our political imaginations, endlessly reinforced by both popular media and scholarly work.” Political theology, Kahn argues, enables us to understand “our exceptional political history of sustaining a two-hundred-year-old constitutional text, our practice of judicial review, our easy recourse to violence, and our willingness to sacrifice.”

Political theology also makes it clear that the modern state did not dispense with faith but relocated it (a “migration,” in Bill Cavanaugh’s terms): “Freeing the state from the church did not banish the sacred from the political. It might have, but it did not. The French revolutionaries attacked the church, but they found it necessary to invent their own rituals of the sacred. As with all revolutions of the modern period, the quality of the sacred was claimed for both the sovereign people and for reason. The French tried to establish a ritual practice that sacralized reason, but they did so in the name of the sovereign people. The American Revolution practiced the same double forms of the sacred, worshiping ‘self-evident truths’ set forth in the name of ‘We the People.’ The framers separated church and state but spoke the language of the sacred when pledging their lives to each other in their revolutionary mission”(21).

We, especially we Americans, have never really been “modern.”

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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