Political Theology beyond the State – Part 2

How can we think Christianly and theologically about the state?  May we think in political theological terms without focusing on the state? Can we conceive of state and non-state actors without making dubious descriptive and normative claims of either conservative statism, on the one hand, or of a naïve liberal cosmopolitanism on the other? 

These are questions that have arisen in a historical period which our political imaginations consider to be “after Christendom”. It is considered the foremost task of political theology in the Christian tradition to provide an account of political community. But doing so after Christendom presents a greater challenge.

Beyond Statism and Sovereigntism

As discussed in part 1, Christian pluralists compellingly argue that there is little in much liberal theory of the state which is necessary inimical to a Christian worldview. Virtue theorists in the tradition of Thomas Aquinas, meanwhile, convincingly argue that the practice of contemporary liberal state appears to be of declining worth as a vehicle of the common good. 

These arguments are both normative and descriptive – a matter of both the ought and the is of the state. From the pluralist perspective, the state is the principal forum where public goods are produced, and ideas debated. But for the virtue theorist, the modern liberal state is not merely of less value for the common good, it is less able to realise it.  

If the state is in decline, this undermines “statism” and “sovereigntism” (see part 1). It challenges the putative capacity of the state and the claims it makes about its ultimate authority. 

For Cecile Laborde’s liberal political theory of competence-competence, the state decides what is within its competence. But does it? What if private sector actors hold the cards across many policy areas making it impossible for states to ‘take back control’ from the owners of capital? 

In Paul Vermeule’s sovereigntist idea of the administrative state, state capacity, legality, and constitutionality are assumed. These ideas are gaining grounds in legal theory and practice, but are their premises correct?

These may seem to be odd questions. Many states are growing. Britain, where the Political Theologies after Christendom conference took place, has expanded in size and in burden of taxation. A certain idea of national sovereignty was the key idea – insofar as there was one – behind the Brexit campaign.

But tax rises and ideological sovereigntism have not led to concomitant rises in trust or effectiveness.  The contemporary British government occasionally acts illegally, against their own laws. Recently, it introduced an Illegal Migration ill which itself may be illegal. It often lacks the capacity to address some of the most foundational of tasks such as achieving a rule of law in the financial sector and reducing corruption. It was utterly ineffective against the multinational EU in the Brexit divorce negotiations. 

Laborde and Vermeule are very different thinkers. However, the experience of politics suggest that both liberal and conservative conceptions barely reflect the states that we are in. 

Transforming political imaginations and political communities

To reconceive the state and reimagine political theology, we may step outside of both sovereigntism and liberalism.  The traditions of political economy, sociological constructivism, and political realism each offer alternative ideas of the state. Those who study states empirically (such as Timothy Mitchell, Mark Bevir, or Stephen Krasner in the three respective traditions) often argue that there is also a distinction between state ideology and the actual state.  

Statism and nationalism always present a mythical vision of the state. Furthermore, state theories cannot capture the realities of states as large, complex, practically decentred, and plural entities which serve private interests as much as public ones.  In these places, sovereignty is more myth than reality.

Political realists in the study of international relations would point to the fact that strong states routinely violate the sovereignty of weaker states. For them, sovereignty has never been more than a nominal legal claim for most states in the world. Russia’s war on Ukraine and denial of the state’s self-determination is merely an extreme example.  In the everyday economy it is utterly normal for states to be compelled to allow “exceptions” to private interests and to simply follow the regulations of others rather than determine their own.

So, contemporary matters of global politics often take place beyond the state.  Political economists and sociological constructivists increasingly look to non-state actors including multinational corporations, cultural producers and celebrities, elite and professional networks, charities and foundations, and international organizations.  These groups are overlaying the international system with global culture, economy, and politics. No world government is in sight.  But an international order of states has become little more than a fanciful idea.  

In the period “after Christendom”, the state appears to be losing both its capacity and its theological rationale. How best to conceive of the new order? 

Post-Christendom political theologies

One series of possibilities is found in the various political theologies of post-Christendom. 

Almost all extant theologies are predicated on a world divided between territorialized and hierarchical polities. However, many papers in the conference challenged these premises. My own paper presented a political theology which is decentred from the state.  This theology of security is elaborated in the forthcoming Security After Christendom (Wipf & Stock, 2023). 

Critical accounts which dominate the contemporary study of international relations recognize that global political life is as much about flows and connections as divisions.  It is as much about temporary spaces of political action than territories where sovereignty is exercised. 

From a post-Christendom theological perspective, the church is the principal actor, not the state. The work of Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder is considered foundational in this thought. More recently, it has been developed by David VanDrunnen

But it is non-Western voices that are arguably more significant given the population of the contemporary church. Lamin Sanneh, for example, contends that after Christendom we see not the global Christianity of the American church but world Christianity with a different theology and political agenda. Jehu Hanciles has argued that migration to and from the global South, not mission from the Global north, was the driver of world Christianity even during Christendom. 

Our post-Christendom world is not one dominated by legitimate public authorities.  It is one of economic hubs and spokes may be those of elite networks and companies flowing through Dubai, Singapore, or offshore spaces (including British Overseas Territories). In this world, national economies are only calculable by virtue of statistical trick as they are so deeply bound into transnational flows and practices such as transfer pricing. 

New postcolonial elites rarely advance the public good but preside over state capture and capital flight where even approximations of the common good are conspicuous by their absence.

Neo-Christendom vs Post-Christendom

A second possibility for the world after Christendom is that of neo-Christendom. New Christendoms have been imagined in various national and global guises, from neo-Calvinist American Christian nationalism to predictions of the political power of global Pentecostalism as the “next Christendom”.

National and global neo-Christendom ideas are not necessarily mutually exclusive and are often bound up in wider political agendas. New claims of Western global power are found in Trump’s attempts to “make America great again” and other ventures of American civil religion.  Veering left, some Christian nationalists argue for the renewals of exclusive national systems of welfare or for economic autarky. Veering right, other present fascist arguments in Christian garb – for example, Putin’s ideas of the Holy Rus and “Russian World” which were much discussed at the conference. 

Post-Christendom practices which contest these neo-Christendom ideas may be those of partnering with secular states which oppose neo-Christendom – such as the Ukrainian church providing medical and pastoral support to the Ukrainian military. 

But more importantly they are those where the church allies with other non-state actors including the social movements of other faiths and none. In so doing it creates spaces for the radical inclusion of migrants, for nonviolent resistance against armed conflict, and for the abundant provision of common goods in societies of sharing.  Such practices are not those of the so-called “Benedict option” or of an Anabaptist martyrdom. They are in the world in that they strategically confront the attempts of both militant secularism and neo-Christendom to violently impose a new order. 

From the State to the Church

Post-Christendom theologies are those which look for security in the church’s relationship to society whereas those of neo-Christendom find the solution in the sacralization of the state. 

In a secular age, the imagined community of Christendom – where the church ministers to government and government secures the church – is increasingly implausible. Where it is imagined, it is non-substantial (as in Britain) or violent (as in Russia).  

If the secular age is an apocalyptic age, the church works with but not for legitimate powers (of Romans 13) and opposes the dragon and the beasts (depicted in Revelation 13). But power and beastliness in politics are not purely matters of statecraft. 

From a post-Christendom perspective, the primary subject of politics is not the state but the church. The task of political theology is therefore reconceived. It is to provide account of the values and capabilities of the church in and for the world.

Cover image concept by Dr. Tornike Metreveli, developed with the assistance of OpenAI.


  • John Heathershaw

    John Heathershaw is a Professor of International Relations at Exeter. His research addresses conflict, security and development in global politics, especially in post-Soviet Central Asia.

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