Carl Schmitt, Erik Peterson, Jacob Taubes, political theology

Donald Trump and the Beginnings for a Theological Response

Donald Trump’s vision for America is apparently a great future that demands the utmost loyalty. But do not worry, he says in his inaugural address; his singular vision of that future is assured. The sanctified union of the US––God’s people, Trump implies––is protected by the might of the US military and God. Now US Presidents have long conflated a vague, singular deity with the US. But as usual, Trump seems to have outdone his predecessors. The conflation of God with the US is a common deferral. It indirectly justifies those in power; they must look humble instead of arrogant. However, Trump is not worried about hubris; he embraces it rhetorically and ideologically. (1) His vision of utmost loyalty, sanctified unity, and ‘America first’ (2) protected, he emphasizes, by a military he commands and by God conflates a singular human figure and his authority with divinity and its power.

Clearly political theologians are in for a rough four years, not to mention the damage that such rhetoric will do in forming another generation with the lie of manifest destiny. What resources do we have to respond to this Trump’s conflation? I cannot recommend strongly enough Erik Peterson’s chapter “Monotheism as a Political Problem: A Contribution to the History of Political Theology in the Roman Empire” in his Theological Tractates.1 The chapter, from 1935, indirectly opposes Carl Schmitt, the Nazi jurist whose juridical work and political theology made way for Adolf Hitler’s authoritarian rise. The comparison I assume here is not Trump to Hitler, but Trump to Schmitt.2 And I believe that Peterson’s work will be essential to resisting the impulses of Schmitt in Trump. Since Peterson’s chapter is, well, a slog––a rewarding slog, but still a slog––here are relevant thematic points of the chapter.

Peterson argued that monotheism in general and Christian monotheism in particular were eventually made to directly justify the Roman emperor’s homogenizing hegemony, as typified in Constantine I’s claim and Eusebius’s support of it: “To the one king on earth corresponds the one God, the one King in Heaven and the one royal Nomos and Logos.”3 However, Peterson contended that there could be no correspondence between a Trinitarian theology and human monarchy, and so Peterson aimed to maintain the revolutionary character of Christianity that the empire had to subdue.4 Further against the correspondence, he added in all but name an eschatological reserve. That is, the eschatological unity and peace of Jesus relativizes any state’s claim to (over-)realize that eschatology.5

Peterson’s contention has been misread as a rejection of any political theology, as Schmitt did in his belated 1970 response, Political Theology II.6 But in point of fact, Peterson’s critical “arrow” rejects the Caesarian-Eusebian move in Schmitt’s Hobbesian-Nazi political theology.7 For Peterson’s development of his own political theology, one must look to his analytical work in 1932 and more constructive work from 1935-1937.

The two paragraphs above are taken from my essay on defining political theology. But since I have yet to submit the essay to a journal, I will leave much more for the (eventual) published version, like problems in Peterson’s work, the framework of his political theology, and how these issues are played out in later generations. I’ll also forgo delineating my constructive trinitarian account that goes against Schmitt and breaks from Peterson’s limits. For now, I simply want to call attention to an important resource for resisting some truly scary self-justifications of US empire and, quite possibly, authoritarianism.

  1. Erik Peterson, Theological Tractates, trans. Michael J. Hollerich (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011), chp. 4.
  2. I doubt that Trump is aware of Schmitt, but the similarities can be striking. Also, some of the Trump’s white nationalist supporters straight up cite Schmitt. See Richard B. Spencer, “Political Theology.”
  3. Peterson, 94. Emphasis Peterson’s. See also ibid., 69, 88-92, 95-97, 102.
  4. Ibid., 86, 88, 102-105.
  5. Ibid., 89, 103-104.
  6. Carl Schmitt, Political Theology II: The Myth of the Closure of Any Political Theology, trans. Michael Hoelzl and Graham Ward (Cambridge: Polity, 2011). See also not only Francis Schüssler Fiorenza, “Political Theology as Foundational Theology,” CTSA Proceedings 32 (1977): 166 and Jürgen Moltmann, “Political Theology,” Theology Today 28, no. 1 (1971): 13, but also Michael Hoelzl and Graham Ward, introduction to Schmitt, Political Theology II, 9: “Peterson, political theology is theologically impossible for Christians” (emphasis theirs). While that quote may summarize Peterson’s single instance in “Monotheism as a Political Problem” where he explicitly engages Schmitt (Theological Tractates, 233-234 n. 168), Peterson is more careful in the body of the text (104-105).
  7. Jacob Taubes, To Carl Schmitt: Letters and Reflections, trans. Keith Tribe (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 28. See also ibid., 27-31; Peterson, 104-105, 179. For others who think that Schmitt misread Peterson, see Gyögry Geréby, “Political Theology versus Theological Politics: Erik Peterson and Carl Schmitt,” New German Critique 35, no. 3 (2008): 26; Michael J. Hollerich, introduction to Peterson, Theological Tractates, xxv-xxvi.

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