Political Theology beyond the State – Part 1

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.

From Christendom…

The conference Political Theologies after Christendom at New College, University of Oxford, 27-29 March 2023, considered these questions from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. These ranged from theology to political theory, from international relations to philosophy. “After Christendom”, as conference host Marietta van der Tol observed, is not primary a historical claim. It is a challenge of political imagination. On the final day of the conference this inquiry wound up with a series of theological perspectives on the state after Christendom – how it may accommodate faith, and how it may provide challenges to faith. 

But what is Christendom? Many of us have no more than a vague conception. Christendom tends to be perceived – if it is perceived at all – as an archaic age, broadly associated with the Middle Ages and Latin Christendom. However, Christendom is notoriously difficult to pin down. Did it begin with Constantine in the fourth century, Justinian in the sixth, or with the supremacy of the popes centuries later? Did it end with the reformation, or the peace of Westphalia, the French revolution, or the rapid decline of Christianity in Europe after World War Two? Was it restricted to the West or was it expanded via empire to take on a global complexion? May it be revived today?

These are difficult questions to answer. However, most scholars today recognize them as being of secondary importance. Insofar as Christendom was a Christian way of imagining a political community under God, it is an ideological and theological object rather than a particular time or place. 

When “Christendom” is recalled, we imagine a community where government secured the church and the church ministered to government.  Such a community took many different practical forms, but this broad idea remained constant in the age of the church. As such, there is no reason to believe Christendom will simply disappear. We need to understand the ideas of its afterlife.

.. to the Sovereign State

The state is no-less difficult to conceive theologically. What is at stake is not merely the physical and institutional form of the state system but ideas and imaginaries of the state, from the fascist to the liberal. As a modern construct which has been liberalized progressively in many Christian-majority countries over the last two centuries it is contested between sovereigntist and pluralist accounts. 

What is sometimes known as “sovereigntism” was the tradition of early Christian political theology which was most acutely represented in the work of the Nazi-sympathizing legal scholar Carl Schmitt. Sovereigntism is an ideological form of statism. Schmitt is a figure who remains influential by providing key ideas for concepts such as the balance of power, the state and security. In his sovereigntist conception, the state is a monolithic institution, and the sovereign is He who distinguishes between friend and enemy.

Christian Pluralist Perspectives

Contemporary liberal political theory, both Christian and secular, understands the state in a pluralistic and more subtle way. From this perspective, it is the work of the state to constantly adjust and expand the boundaries of inclusion.  Their emphasis is on the crucial role of a wide range of non-state actors in promoting human flourishing, justice and the common good, and the rightful domain of authority that such actors possess for this reason.

In an early morning panel, Paul Billingham considered the questions posed to Christian political thought by pluralism, subsidiarity, and sovereignty in liberal theory. Jonathan Chaplin addressed Adrian Vermeule’s Catholic integralism and his recent Common Good Constitutionalism – a Christian sovereigntist reworking of American constitutional originalism – contrasting it to Maritain’s “new Christendom”. Both political theorists engaged with Cecile Laborde’s and her “competence-competence” account of sovereignty where the state has the competence to decide on what is within its competence. 

While Chaplin demonstrated points of tension between Vermeule’s sovereigntism and contemporary liberal democracy, Billingham argued there is compatibility between Laborde’s liberalism and Christian pluralism. 

For example, Chaplin showed how Vermeule’s integralism violates what Alfred Stepan called the “twin tolerations”. These are the requirement that the state tolerate all religions and uphold religious impartiality and the requirement that religions tolerate each other, and not seek constitutional privilege or control over others. 

By contrast, Billingham noted that Christian pluralist views do not lead to a different view of sovereignty or competence-competence than that found within the prevailing liberal political morality.

The Common Good and Public Goods

Also on that morning panel, the theologian Austin Stevenson covered some similar terrain of liberal conceptions of the state while addressing the important issue of Christian vaccine hesitancy. Stevenson is attached to the Oxford vaccine group and noted that, while the natural scientists are confident that they may be able to develop a vaccine for the next pandemic in a matter of months, whether people – especially some varieties of Christians – agree to be vaccinated is quite a different matter. 

Stevenson argued that the crux of the matter is divergence between the contemporary liberal state’s account of the good and that of many of its people, of different faiths and none.  Theological conceptions of the good, especially classical ideas of prudence and virtue, with their thicker conception of society, provide a challenge to the practice of the liberal state. Theology thus offers epidemiology a prudential guide towards an account of the common good value of vaccines. For Stevenson, the common good must either be good for both the individual and the whole of society or it is not good at all.  

The question of the common good was one addressed specifically by all three papers on the panel.  Stevenson noted that much of the language of both vaccine sceptics and vaccine persuaders is to contrast this to individual goods.  This is unfortunate.  The idea of public goods (the state’s approximation of the common good) and individual goods (the notion that the individual may make rights and properties their own) must not be treated uncritically. 

A Problem of Political Imagination

In the modern liberal capitalist state, public goods such as clean air or free debate appear to be underfunded or under threat. What economists call “club goods” – paid-for services to members – are increasingly common. For example, fast-track visas and border crossings are available to those with wealth and the right citizenship status. Exclusive private healthcare is accessible to those with the means. 

In other matters of the common good, the state is less important than expected. Most armed conflicts since 1945 have been intra-state or transnational, involving non-state actors on at least one side.  It is an implicit statism that encourages us to think of war primary as a matter of statecraft when the historical record tells us it’s not. 

Many more examples of the state being pushed out as the primary actor in politics, by companies, interest groups and influential individuals abound in security, health, education, law, etc. Christian pluralist perspectives emphasize non-state actors while sharing the contemporary liberal view of state sovereignty. By contrast, virtue theorists and common good constitutionalists argue that the state is only valuable in so far as it generates virtues of the common good.  For them, contemporary states appear to be declining in both their powers and their value. 

This conclusion raises questions of what is replacing and what should replace the state. These questions in turn suggest we might develop political theologies and Christian political theories which are not focused on the state. 

Cover picture: “Nebuchadnezzar” By William Blake – 1. Blake Archive (Originally uploaded to en:Wikipedia (log) November 2008 by Ceoil (talk) and April 2009 by Petropoxy (Lithoderm Proxy) (talk).)2. Tate Britain, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7736503


  • 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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