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Theopolitics Contra Political Theology: Martin Buber’s Biblical Critique of Carl Schmitt

  • CHARLES H. T. LESCH (a1)

Abstract

This article recovers Martin Buber’s important but neglected critique of Carl Schmitt’s political theology. Because Buber is known primarily as an ethicist and scholar of Judaism, his attack on Schmitt has been largely overlooked. Yet as I reveal through a close reading of his Biblical commentaries, a concern about the dangers of political theology threads through decades of his work. Divine sovereignty, Buber argues, is absolute and inimitable; no human ruler can claim the legitimate power reserved to God. Buber’s response is to uncover what he sees as Judaism’s earliest political theory: a “theopolitics,” where human beings, mutually subject to divine kingship, practice non-domination. But Buber, I show, did not seek to directly revive this religious vision. Instead, he sought to incorporate the spirit of theopolitics, as embodied by Israel’s prophets, into modern society. The result is a new and significant perspective on liberal democracy and political theology.

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Corresponding author

*Charles H. T. Lesch, Andrew W. Mellon Assistant Professor of Political Theory, Vanderbilt University, charles.lesch@vanderbilt.edu.

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Versions of this article were presented at the annual meetings of the American Political Science Association, the Association for Jewish Studies, and the Association for Israel Studies. I am grateful to the participants in these events for their questions and critiques, and would like to extend special thanks to Nancy Rosenblum, Peter Gordon, Michael Rosen, Michael Sandel, Aspen Elizabeth Brinton, Alexander Lewis Kaye, Steven Klein, and Shaul Magid for their comments. Finally, I owe a significant debt of gratitude to Leigh Jenco and three anonymous APSR reviewers for their invaluable insights and guidance.

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References

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