A Consideration of O’Donovan’s and Obama’s Political Theology

In understanding the political theology of the famed theologian Oliver O’Donovan, it is important to see it as both properly political and properly theological. It is a theory concerned primarily with political power, authority, and practice; and it is the Christian theological tradition from which it originates, by which it is informed, and that within which it is explicated. It is not, however, merely self-interested: political authority, derived though it is from divine authority, exists in order to bring justice ‘into the daylight of public observation’: O’Donovan’s political theology has as its object not merely tradition and theological dispute, but public justice and politics. (See O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations, p. 38).

The noted social anthropologist Talal Asad gives a helpful illustration about the connection between political theory and Christian theology. In considering the recent politics of US President Barack Obama (in particular his foreign policy), Asad sees the President’s formal position as part of an informal ‘political theology . . . not because it is an example of politics in a religious idiom, but because its discourse rests on the vision of an imperfect humanity that must be governed and saved, and of human evil that must be eliminated or warded off’. And, given Obama’s use of the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, Asad opines, labelling Obama’s political stance as a proper part of ‘political theology’ should not be surprising. (See David Brooks, ‘Obama, Gospel and Verse’, New York Times, April 26, 2007; cited in Wilfred McClay, ‘Reinhold Niebuhr and the Problem of Religious Pluarlism’, in Reinhold Niebuhr and Contemporary Politics: God and Power, ed. Richard Harries and Stephen Platten (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 218, n. 1). After all, Asad argues, ‘theology and politics are not two distinct discourses but one’; for what Obama’s position does is not to ‘articulate a belief that . . . justifies military intervention’; rather, ‘what it articulates are attitudes that constitute intervention aimed at rescuing humanity and extirpating evil in the world’. In this way, it is clear to see how ‘the political and the theological work together’ (Talal Asad, ‘Political Theology and Obama’s War’, (Australian Broadcasting Corporation), http://ab.co/1hWQIyw). In a sense, the political simply is an expression of the theological, whether formalized (as is the case with O’Donovan) or not (as with Obama).

The simple point I’m making in this blog is that all political theories are informed by a particular philosophical-theological tradition on the basis of which many profound (implicit and explicit) implications are drawn.  Everyone’s a philosopher; everyone’s a theologian: the question is whether we recognise it, and how well we theorise in light of this fact.

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