Theologies of American exceptionalism:

Theologies of American exceptionalism: Cohen and Kahn

posted by Shaul Magid and Stephanie Frank

Oliver Laric
Sun Tzu Janus, 2012
24.2 x 40 x 29.7 cm
Plinth: 80 x 32 x 29 cm
(LARIC-2012-0024)
Courtesy of the artist and Tanya Leighton, Berlin

The paired posts in this series were developed in connection with a workshop supported by the three-year Luce Foundation funded project “Politics of Religion at Home and Abroad,” directed by Elizabeth Shakman Hurd and Winnifred Fallers Sullivan. Read the introduction to the series here.

This is the fifth and final installment in this series of paired essays. In this final post, Shaul Magid reflects on Arthur Cohen’s essay, “The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition” in conversation with Stephanie Frank’s reflection on Paul W. Kahn’s introduction to his volume Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty.

To read the previous posts, click here.

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Where is the “Jew” in the Judeo-Christian myth? Thoughts on Jewish and American exceptionalism by Shaul Magid

Jewish exceptionalism is an idea that is arguably rooted in Judaism’s theology of election, the idea “that God has created a permanent, non-revocable, relationship with the Jews that God has not created with any other nation . . . and that this relationship is of supreme value relative to any relationship God has created or will create with any other specific nation” (Jerome Gellman, 2016). The secularization of the theology of election often yields an undertheorized notion of Jewish exceptionalism. But why are the Jews exceptional if God did not choose them? Many answers are offered, from historical ones (Jews are the most persecuted people) to cultural ones (Jews are well-educated) to moral ones (Jews are ethical), all of which are rooted, in some way, in theological election now transformed.

Jewish notions of secularized exceptionalism in some way share common cause with the idea of America as exceptional, a notion that also has theological roots among radical Protestants who often viewed themselves as a “New Israel.” The idea that this new land was a gift from God served as an early foundation of the idea of American exceptionalism that is now largely expressed though the realm of the political. In one sense then, exceptionalism of one sort or another may be something America and Jews share and thus American Jews can find themselves as members of one exceptional people (the Jews) living in another exceptional country (America). One interesting articulation of what I am suggesting can be found in the problematic yet ever-popular notion of the Judeo-Christian tradition, an idea that originated in nineteenth-century Germany but was revived, in different circumstances, in early twentieth-century America.

Below I examine this Judeo-Christian tradition through an essay written by the Jewish theologian Arthur Cohen in 1969 entitled, “The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition.” Cohen was ostensibly writing at a time when “Judeo-Christian” was deployed to express tolerance of the Jew as “other,” generously exemplified by the shared hyphen even as that hyphen, like many hyphens, is more illustrative of anxiety than comradery.

Cohen’s intervention is embedded in his title, “The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition” using “tradition” and “myth” to offset the lie that lurks beneath, or inside, the hyphen. Who gets to coin something a “tradition”? Cohen seems to suggest it is only those in power. After all, it is the Christian and not the Jew who invents the Judeo-Christian tradition. Thus Cohen writes, “We can learn much from the history of Jewish-Christian relations, but the one thing we cannot make of it is a discourse of community, fellowship, and understanding. How then, can we make of it a tradition?” By juxtaposing “tradition” and “myth” in the title, Cohen seeks to mine the origins of this move by Christian America. Why Jews, why “Judeo,” why forge a “tradition” with the very people whose rejection stands at the center of your covenant?

Cohen argues that this “Judeo-Christian tradition” is not a gesture of reconciliation at all but rather the consummation of absorption whereby the “Jew,” now Latinized/Christianized as “Judeo,” becomes fully a part of Christian America. Why do Jews buy in? Here Cohen sees this “myth” as a product of disaster and not triumph: It is the disaster of faith now lost and the triumphal substitute of secular religiosity. “Such secular religiosity is dangerous; it is the common quicksand of Jews and Christians.”

The “myth” in Cohen’s mind serves the failure of each against the other and then both against a common enemy (the non “Judeo-Christian”). “The Christian comes to depend on the Jew for an explanation of unredeemedness. The Jew . . . must look to Christianity to ransom for him his faith in the Messiah, to renew for him his expectation of the nameless Christ.”

On Cohen’s reading, if Jews and Christians should find their footing inside “tradition” each would dismiss the “myth” as unnecessary and could (happily) return to seeing the irreconcilability of one to the other. That is, if each has their tradition, there would no longer be a need for a Judeo-Christian tradition. If they do not, and the myth persists as “masking the abyss,” of the Judeo-Christian tradition, it will be the catalyst for the disappearance of both, which means, I think, that only Christianity remains, albeit an imperialistic shell of itself. Cohen, of course, cares for the Jews here above all – can the Jews survive in a tolerant society, even one that wants to embrace them through a Judeo-Christian tradition? His answer is that only if it resists the embrace because the embrace is self-serving of a Christianity that “can no longer deal with actual history.” The Jew then becomes the consolation of history.

But perhaps what this is really about, for the Jew and for the Christian, is the reiteration of the exceptionalism of both through the prism of the other. That which both were historically prohibited from doing with the other emerges in the hyphen that brings them together.

Cohen’s essay was written decades before the rise of Islamism and Islamophobia and before the Israeli occupation (it was written only two years after the Six-Day War). What can Cohen say to us about the Jew today, construed, or re-invented as “Judeo,” at this time when American exceptionalism has both become government policy in Donald Trump’s “America First” campaign as well as a religious mandate in a theo-political register through the rise of evangelical political piety? Has Cohen’s godless communism today become Radical Islam? Has the secular Cold War morphed into a resacralized crusade giving white nationalists like Richard Spencer a new voice on the American landscape?

As I read Cohen, there is a double-exceptionalism going on in the Judeo-Christian. Cohen argues that the Judeo-Christian tradition is really a tool of domination in regards to Judaism and Jews. In this sense it invites the Jew to join American exceptionalism by re-framing her own exceptionalism in the service of America. By subsuming the “Judeo” in the Christian, Christianity owns its “Judeo” roots and thus takes from the “Jew” that which the she always used as the firewall between it and its perceived theological foe. In this case, tolerance is the mask of domination.

This might be true except for the one thing: the state of Israel and the role it plays in the American Judeo-Christian tradition. Recently in America, the “Judeo” does not only mean the “Jew” but also the “Jew/ish” nation-state. In this sense, Judeo-Christian is part of a larger Zionist narrative expressed by today’s American politicians who proudly proclaim that “there is no light between the US and Israel.” Even the hyphen collapses. This benefits the “Jew” as “Israel” in precisely the same way it threatens the “Jew” as “American.” The theo-political “Judeo-Christian” is a tool of exceptionalism to the non “Judeo-Christian,” the Muslim “other,” the Palestinian. The historical pact between Jews and Muslims has been subverted such that the Christian now becomes the political ally of the Jew against the Muslim through the “Judeo-Christian” expressed, in part, through American fidelity to Israel. Israel becomes an appendage of American exceptionalism.

With Cohen, but for different reasons, I think this is a dangerous game. First, it offers a new theo-political exceptionalism that may seem more palatable because it includes the “Judeo” and thus gestures toward an enlightened progress. “We will no longer seek to convert you, we will now include you,” but this inclusion is itself a kind of exclusion, not only of the Jew who is distinct from the “Judeo” (perhaps the Jew who is critical of Israel?) but for the non-Judeo-Christian in America as well. But as a myth, of course, it only “masks the abyss” here being the moment when it is no longer necessary. Second, the new “Judeo-Christian” severs any ties between Jew and Muslim, making the former now a party to the latter’s complex history with Christianity. In this sense, the Judeo-Christian makes the Jew a Christian in the Christian-Muslim narrative. So now it is the Zionist Jew who becomes the “Judeo” in the Judeo-Christian. Many Israeli leaders readily, and cynically, court Christian Zionists knowing that their end-game is very different. But that support has its price. The freedom such collusion offers may very well be the servitude of the “Judeo” (perhaps even Israel) to the Christian if and when things change.

Cohen was afraid for the American Jew. He viewed the American Judeo-Christian tradition as a guise for the erasure of Judaism at the price of the survival of the Jew. But I think today the exceptionalist implications are more global. Each (Jew and Christian) is using the other for its own exceptionalist purposes: the Jew by saying that finally Christians have understood that without Judaism Christianity cannot survive theologically, and Christianity by saying that we can subsume the Jew through assimilation with the mere inclusion of the word “Judeo.” And both Jew (Zionists and Israel) and Christian (imperialist America) can use the Judeo-Christian to justify its claim to exclusive right (and perhaps even divine right) to pursue its intended goals, even as the Judeo-Christian may make those goals impossible to achieve.

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Sovereignty and sacrifice by Stephanie Frank

Paul Kahn’s Political Theology bills itself as a phenomenology of the United States’ political imaginary—that is, an account of the contours of the conceptual landscape that constitutes American’s ideas about their own politics. Though it is now several years old—the book was published in 2011—Kahn’s turn to Carl Schmitt, the most important political theorist of the Third Reich, seems prescient, considering the many evocations of fascism in the past year in global politics.

Schmitt advanced a vision of politics that centered on sovereignty: “sovereign is he who decides the exception,” goes his famous dictum. Schmitt was saying that sovereignty inhered in the power to suspend the constitution, to declare a “state of emergency.” (The constitution Schmitt had in mind—Germany’s Weimar Constitution—eventually was suspended, of course, to catastrophic consequence.)

Kahn takes up Schmitt’s thinking on sovereignty and the exception and, in this passage, connects it to American exceptionalism. Since our current political moment is characterized by both exceptionalist rhetoric and gestures toward claiming “exceptions” to constitutionalism, I propose that we think with Kahn about the relationship between “the exception” and American exceptionalism.

What does American exceptionalism consist in, for Kahn? He writes, “Our belief that the [US] Constitution is the product of popular sovereignty supports what is commonly called ‘American exceptionalism’”; then he considers that the American imagination of popular sovereignty lends it a “sacred character.” It is not entirely clear what Kahn takes this sacrality to consist in, but it seems that Kahn takes “sacred” to be a synonym of “theological.” He follows Schmitt in considering that there is something theological about the deciding of the exception, which is to say, the suspension of the constitutional order. (In his Political Theology, Schmitt develops the exception by analogy with the miracle, such that the deciding of the exception becomes a kind of irruption of divine sovereignty.)

Kahn states that the American notion of popular sovereignty “links the Constitution to the Revolution; it links law to exception.” I take him to mean that the sacrality with which he takes the American political imagination to be invested comes from the fact that the Constitution in some sense sediments or includes its own founding moment—i.e. the suspension of the pre-existing order. American exceptionalism, then, comes from the preservation of the possibility of the decision—insistence on not foreclosing completely unconstrained (quasi-divine) sovereignty.

Presumably Kahn does not think the US Constitution is somehow different than other constitutions in its origins in a “decision”—after all, every constitution involves a suspension of the previous order. Rather, I think his position must be that the US imagination of its Constitution more prominently features the Revolution that opened the space for it than other political imaginaries. The idea of the exception, as it were, is built into (haunts? structures?) the law. Further, he thinks this insistent linking of law to exception requires “political theology” to conceive—and invests the US construction of popular sovereignty with a sacred character.

I do not myself find this argument particularly compelling; Schmitt’s notion of the sovereign was decidedly personal—“sovereign is he who decides the exception,” remember—and it is not clear to me that it is coherent to substitute for the figure of “the decider” a document, as Kahn proposes American political theology does. Moreover, Kahn’s characterization of the American political system’s contrast with other political systems—in particular that of the EU, which he considers as a regime governed purely by laws—seems a caricature.

Nevertheless, the next step Kahn takes in his argument intrigues me: he considers the United States’ political-theological imaginary to explain the United States’ distinctive relationship to violence. Of course we can adduce many examples of such; Kahn, for instance, points out the way in which liberal political theory always assumes demilitarization as a horizon toward which we are constantly moving, even in the face of staggering evidence to the contrary. “State violence,” Kahn observes, is “no less an expression of political identity than law.” I find this idea compelling in the American context. Kahn’s thought is that Schmitt’s “political theology” paradigm can help us make sense of features of American politics that liberal political theory has to carefully ignore.

How so, though? Kahn argues that “political violence has been and remains a form of sacrifice.” And he considers that “to understand [political sacrifice], we must turn to something like Schmitt’s ideas of exception and decision.” And again, “sacrifice is performed . . . at the moment of exception.”

Kahn is hardly the first thinker to connect sovereignty and sacrifice; drawing on Schmitt and Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben famously used the figure of homo sacer from ancient Roman law to argue that sovereignty constitutes itself through deciding what subjects are excluded from the community; on Agamben’s reading, the mark of their being so excluded was their ineligibility as sacrifice victims. But to be ineligible for sacrifice rendered one outside the law—and thus eligible to be murdered—whereas to be eligible to be sacrificed was to be under the protection of the law. Thus sovereignty was, on this construction of ancient legal history, from the beginning bound up with the question of sacrifice—or better, the question of the decision of who was sacrificeable.

Kahn apparently arrives in a similar place regarding the relationship of violence (which he consistently glosses as sacrifice) and sovereignty with a gesture in the direction of Schmitt’s other major claim about politics, found in another text, The Concept of the Political: namely that the constitutive moment of politics is distinguishing friend and enemy. This is an existential, not a moral, distinction: enmity is a relationship determined by the possibility of mutual destruction, and friendship is a relationship determined by willingness to sacrifice.

It is not clear to me how exactly Kahn (as opposed to Schmitt) links the moment of the decision to the friend/enemy distinction. But I think Kahn may be onto something in gesturing toward the association, in the American political imagination, of sacrifice and the sovereignty of the Constitution: Consider, for instance, Khizr Khan’s speech at the Democratic National Convention, this past summer. Khan waved his copy of the Constitution precisely in the context of his invocation of his son’s sacrifice. And considering how large sacrifice looms in the American political imaginary, I am intrigued by the possibility that sacrifice—etymologically, sacred-making—is necessary to sustaining the theological character of the state that Kahn names.

To pose the problem in different terms, Kahn’s argument gestures toward the possibility that American politics is distinguished by—is exceptional because of—its association with sacrificial violence. American exceptionalism has traditionally been associated with a theology of providence—America has a divinely ordained role to play in the world, etc. Certainly prominent recent invocations trade in that vocabulary (I think particularly of the speeches of George W. Bush). But Kahn’s text suggests (rather elliptically) another possibility: that American exceptionalism is rooted in a theology of sacrifice.

I was struck, in the fallout from Colin Kaepernick’s protest of violence against black bodies, by the refrain that his kneeling during the national anthem was “disrespectful to the military.” The apparently widespread idea (again distinctive to the United States) that acts of protest engaging national symbols are particularly offensive to the military has always struck me as odd; it would seem to get backwards the relationship between the nation and its defense. But Kahn’s argument would suggest that this, far from representing a conceptual confusion, follows directly from the contours of American political theology: Members of the military stand in a privileged relationship to American sovereignty, not in their roles as defenders of the Constitution, but as their roles as potential instruments of the sanctification of the state.

For more on Paul W. Kahn’s Political Theology, read our 2011 forum here.

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To read the other posts in the series, click here.

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