Wolterstorff’s “The Mighty and the Almighty”: What is Political Theology?

For an upcoming conference, I am reading Nicholas Wolterstorff’s excellent and The Mighty and the Almightyeminently readable book, The Mighty and the Almighty: An Essay in Political Theology. In some future posts, I will get into his argument concerning the dual authority of the church and the state, as well as some important counterpoints to his view (he takes Augustine to be one such counterpoint, and this will also allow me to resume my Augustinian posting).

For this first post, though, I thought to explain a little bit about the subject itself. Political theology may be misinterpreted by those who are imbued with the spirit of post-20th-century American constitutionalism to be tantamount to ecclesiastical or clerical rule (or, perhaps, rule by theologians). But it is actually an account of the relationship of divine and human authority in matters of politics and governance. As Wolterstorff puts it: “[A]t the core of traditional political theology was the question of how God’s authority is related to the authority of the state.” (2) Political theology treats the question, for example, of how a person or a people can reconcile these different authorities and demands in their own lives. And it is Wolterstorff’s aim to articulate a distinctly Christian political theology in the book.

Even so, putting the problem of political theology in this fashion may sound unusual to modern ears. Even if God’s authority was once a political problem, have we not gotten past all of that? Mark Lilla, whom Wolterstorff cites early in the book, recently explained in his intellectual history of the subject that the God of political theology is actually a “stillborn God”–a God that ought not enter into the political calculations of modernity. Though I wonder whether Wolterstorff is exactly right that Lilla was offering a requiem for political theology (more like an admonition to be mindful of the dangerous endurance of political theology), Wolterstorff presents two cogent reasons for the salience of political theology today.

First, believers in God have reason to attend to political theology because the relationship of God’s law to the civil law is a perennial problem for them. And, indeed, there is a long Christian tradition stretching for more than 1000 years (from roughly 500 to 1600) that offered a compelling answer to the problem of political theology–what Wolterstorff calls the “two rules doctrine,” which he contests (more on this in future posts).

Second, political theology is not dead; rather, says Wolterstorff, it has been “flying under the radar.” (3) Wolterstorff’s primary focus here is on some of the writing of Augustine, Calvin, and John Howard Yoder (a twentieth century Christian ethicist), but I might put the point more broadly. Many accounts of political thought have buried within them a collection of assumptions–often not explicitly laid out–of the relationship between the state’s power and other powers (perhaps greater powers) that lie outside the state. Attending directly to the ways in which a political system conceives of the authority and power of different realms (including its own) helps to excavate and shine a light on its deepest commitments.

The Top Five New Law & Religion Papers on SSRN

From SSRN’s list of most frequently downloaded law and religion papers posted in the last 60 days, here are the current top five. This week, Michal Gilad remains at #1, Patrick McKinley Brennan remains at #2; Richard Scharagger and Michal Schwartzman move up to #3, replacing Wilson Ray Huhn who moves down to #4; Mark Gedlicks and Pasquale Annicchino replace Asifa Quraishi-Landes and Najeeba Syeed Miller at #5.

1.In God’s Shadow: Unveiling the Hidden World of Domestic Violence Victims in Religious Communities by Michal Gilad (University of Pennsylvania Law School) [881 downloads]

2.Resisting the Grand Coalition in Favor of the Status Quo by Giving Full Scope to the Libertas Ecclesiae by Patrick McKinley Brennan (Villanova University School of Law) [157 downloads]

3.Some Realism about Corporate Rights by Richard Schragger and Micah Schwartzman (University of Virginia School of Law, University of Virginia School of Law) [154 downloads]

4.Slaves to Contradictions: 13 Myths that Sustained Slavery by Wilson Ray Huhn (University of Akron- School of Law) [151 downloads]

5.Cross, Crucifix, Culture: An Approach to the Constitutional Meaning of Religious Symbols by Frederick Mark Gedlicks and Pasquale Annicchino (Brigham Young University – J. Reuben Clark Law School, European University Institute – Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies (RSCAS)) [136 downloads]

Yasukuni and Nice Distinctions

Photo from the International Business Times

Last week, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe fulfilled an oft-repeated wish to visit Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine while in office. In Shinto belief, the shrine houses the souls of millions who died in the service of the Japanese Empire. Abe has expressed regret that he did not visit the shrine during his last stint as prime minister, from 2006 to 2007.

You’d think a visit to such a shrine by a sitting prime minister would be entirely proper, like an American president visiting Arlington National Cemetery. Abe’s visit has caused great controversy, however, as Abe surely knew it would. Among the souls commemorated at the shrine are a thousand convicted war criminals who fought for Japan in World War II, including wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo. China and Korea, which both suffered greatly at Japan’s hands in that war, deeply resent official visits to Yasukuni and, naturally, objected to Abe’s visit. So, unusually, did the United States, which expressed disappointment “that  Japan’s leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tensions with Japan’s neighbors.” Walter Russell Mead does a good job explaining the diplomatic implications.

For his part, Abe said he had not intended to offend Japan’s neighbors or send a crypto-imperialist signal. He did not visit Yasukuni to honor war criminals, he insisted, but to express to the souls housed there his determination “to create an age where no one will ever suffer from tragedies of wars.” In addition, Abe’s spokesman stressed that the prime minister had visited the shrine, and made a donation, strictly as a private citizen exercising his “religious freedom.” This last part is important for purposes of Japanese law. According to the Japanese Supreme Court, the constitutional “separation of state and religion” forbids officials from making financial contributions to Yasukuni for use in Shinto ceremonies.

So, is everything clear now? It was crucially important for Abe to visit Yasukuni while in office–but strictly in an unofficial capacity. A very lawyerly distinction, but one unlikely to persuade anyone in China or Korea. Maybe not even in Japan.

Mandel, “Muslims and Jews in France: History of a Conflict”

This month, Princeton University Press published Muslims and Jews in France: History of a Conflict by Maud S. Mandel (Brown University).  The publisher’s  Muslims and Jews in Francedescription follows.

This book traces the global, national, and local origins of the conflict between Muslims and Jews in France, challenging the belief that rising anti-Semitism in France is rooted solely in the unfolding crisis in Israel and Palestine. Maud Mandel shows how the conflict in fact emerged from processes internal to French society itself even as it was shaped by affairs elsewhere, particularly in North Africa during the era of decolonization.

Mandel examines moments in which conflicts between Muslims and Jews became a matter of concern to French police, the media, and an array of self-appointed spokesmen from both communities: Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, France’s decolonization of North Africa, the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, the 1968 student riots, and François Mitterrand’s experiments with multiculturalism in the 1980s. She takes an in-depth, on-the-ground look at interethnic relations in Marseille, which is home to the country’s largest Muslim and Jewish populations outside of Paris. She reveals how Muslims and Jews in France have related to each other in diverse ways throughout this history–as former residents of French North Africa, as immigrants competing for limited resources, as employers and employees, as victims of racist aggression, as religious minorities in a secularizing state, and as French citizens.

In Muslims and Jews in France, Mandel traces the way these multiple, complex interactions have been overshadowed and obscured by a reductionist narrative of Muslim-Jewish polarization.

Sasson, “The New American Zionism”

Last month, New York University Press published The New American Zionism by Theodore Sasson (Middlebury College).  The publisher’s description follows.  New American Zionism

Is American Jewish support for Israel waning?
As a mobilized diaspora, American Jews played a key role in the establishment and early survival of the modern state of Israel. They created a centralized framework to raise funds, and a powerful, consensusoriented political lobby to promote strong U.S. diplomatic, military, and economic support. But now, as federation fundraising declines and sharp differences over the Israeli-Palestinian peace process divide the community, many fear that American Jews are distancing themselves from Israel.
In The New American Zionism, Theodore Sasson argues that at the core, we are fundamentally misunderstanding the new relationship between American Jews and Israel. Sasson shows that we are in the midst of a shift from a “mobilization” approach, which first emerged with the new state and focused on supporting Israel through big, centralized organizations, to an “engagement” approach marked by direct and personal relations with the Jewish state as growing numbers of American Jews travel to Israel, consume Israeli news and culture, and connect with their Israeli peers via cyberspace and through formal exchange programs.
American Jews have not abandoned their support for Israel, Sasson contends, but they now focus their philanthropy and lobbying in line with their own political viewpoints for the region and they reach out directly to players in Israel, rather than going through centralized institutions. As a result, American Jews may find Israel more personally meaningful than ever before. Yet, at the same time, their ability to impact policy will diminish as they no longer speak with a unified voice.