30 January 2010

CONF: Political and Legal Theology in Comparative Perspective

Conference "Political and Legal Theology in Comparative Perspective", co-sponsored by the Floersheimer Center for Constitutional Democracy and the Center for Jewish Law and Contemporary Civilization at Yeshiva University's Benjamin N. Cardozo Law School, 55 Fifth Avenue at 12 Street, Suite 542, New York, 21-22 February 2010


Political theology is a mode of inquiry that understands the modern period as incompletely secularized. Theology has been adapted, reworked, and translated for secular use, but its hold on the political imagination remains strong. Although the Enlightenment and the rise of western political liberalism attempted to keep the public, political sphere completely secular while relegating religion to the private sphere, political theology argues that modern political systems have reoccupied the space that was once held by religious and theological systems. With the rise of political Islam abroad, and the increasing political power of the Christian Right in the United States, the exploration of the theological roots of the political imagination takes on great contemporary significance. Political theology, however, has been primarily concerned with ancient and medieval conceptions of the City of God and the theological polity, due to its links to western political nationalism after the fall of Christendom. In an age of political and religious globalization, there is a pressing need to bring non-Christian religions into these conversations.

Scholars have, for the most part, studied the impact of theology on our contemporary political commitments, but much less attention has been paid to the theological underpinnings of secular legal systems. Yet, a small but growing body of literature on legal theology has demonstrated that both in its origins and in its content, western law preserves and reoccupies spaces once held by God, revelation, prophets, and priests. The increasing presence of religion in the public square, both in the United States and abroad, has led to a rethinking of time-honored understandings of the relationship between religion, theology, and law. In an age in which political globalization has been accompanied by legal globalization, there is a need not only for disparate studies of political and legal theology, but to bring political theology and legal theology into productive conversation with one another. This conference aims to begin this new comparative and interdisciplinary conversation in political and legal theology.

Please note that this conference is not open to the public. Interested academics or students may want to contact the organizers, though, to see whether and how they can participate.

There will be one public panel on "American Exceptionalism and the Relevance of Political Theology in America", in the Moot Court Room, on 21 February, 6-8 pm (yes, that's a Sunday)

Panelists: Peter Berkowitz (Hoover Institution, Stanford), Paul Kahn (Yale Law School), Hendrik Hartog (History, Princeton), and Samuel Moyn (History, Columbia)

The concept of the qualitative uniqueness of America, known as American exceptionalism, dates back to Alexis de Tocqueville's nineteenth-century description of American democracy as "exceptional". American exceptionalism has been used both to describe and explain America's unique political, legal, social and religious landscapes. It has served as a justification of American foreign policy and America's frequent choice to act alone, rather than among the community of nations. American exceptionalism has been derided as a jingoist manifestation of American arrogance; it has been praised by proud Americans as an expression of their nation’s uniqueness. The term has been used neutrally by scholars attempting to compare America and other nations, and by those attempting to evaluate the validity of the expression. In recent decades, American exceptionalism has been re-examined by a number of scholars and thinkers, and has once again become a subject of heated debate in scholarship as well as public policy.

Claims of uniqueness and exceptionalism can be understood as secularized versions of claims to theological chosenness and uniqueness that lie in the foreground of American history, and the perennial quest to serve as a "city on a hill" or a "light among the nations". In this sense, American exceptionalism merits exploration in the context of political theology, a concept famously encapsulated by Carl Schmitt as the notion that all modern political concepts are secularized theological ones. In a forthcoming book, legal scholar Paul Kahn argues that a re-examination of Schmitt's concept of political theology and his associated understanding of sovereignty can be tremendously useful in a re-examination of American exceptionalism, and the continual tension in America between the rule of law and the concept of popular sovereignty. Panelists will address the nexus between American exceptionalism and the enduring relevance of political theology in contemporary American society.

Followed by a reception.

Please RSVP to: jewishlaw@yu.edu

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