From ‘Political Theology’ to ‘Political Religion’: Eric Voegelin and Carl Schmitt

THE REVIEW OF POLITICS 75. 1 (2013): 25-43

This essay brings the political thought of Voegelin and Schmitt into dialogue with each other around the questions of the origins of the political regime, the relationship between ethics and law, and the question of the relationship between religion and politics. Gontier notes that even though both of these two thinkers embodied a classical approach to political science and sought to issue fundamental critiques of modern liberal thinking, they differed profoundly in their analyses of the modern regime. Underlying their differences, Gontier observes, is theology and anthropology. The different conceptions both had of the human person issued from their theology. This in turn shaped how they understood the origins of a regime and the nature of obedience to its institutions and laws. Both rejected legal positivism, yet Schmitt, Gontier argues, would serve up political thinking that radically bolstered its course. Schmitt’s disagreement with Hans Kelsen was in its normative ideality that had no ground in political experience. The fundamental moment in Schmitt’s thought was the willed decision that the regime made and which had been accepted by the citizens of its authority to make binding laws on their behalf. This conception comes from an Occamist theology of God’s command authority that man obeys in recognition of his original sin that is pervasive and needs correction by law. For Voegelin, the state comes about in relationship to transcendence-seeking, but by a wounded man, who still seeks the good. Structuring his life in the quest for the good, he also comes to accept political authority that is itself in some way related to and supportive of the divine ground. As such, government escapes an absolute authority over his life. Crucially, Gontier notes, while both thinkers believed that the secularism of liberal politics can become immanentized as man becomes increasingly closed to the divine. Schmitt’s political thought more readily leads to such reality by grounding politics on the darkness of man’s as a sinner and finding political community in hostility of group identity. In short, under Schmitt’s politics and anthropology, the state is accorded pre-eminence because man’s quest for the good is seen as having no role in shaping the polity. The state, therefore, closes in on the person.