“The Divine People?” A Threefold Cord Publication

A man holds a protest sign that says "Crime Minister." There are Israeli flags in the background. Headshots of Suzanne Schneider and Yotam Hotam. Photo by Gili Getz.

What can political theology teach us about the current decline of liberalism? Read our white paper, where scholars Suzanne Schneider, Ph.D, and Yotam Hotam, Ph.D, contend that “understanding the theological dimensions of the post-liberal vision — both acknowledged and implicit — is necessary both to grasping its appeal and offering a viable alternative.” 

Executive Summary

Authors: Suzanne Schneider and Yotam Hotam

The rise of right-wing “populist” parties the world over has generated considerable anxiety about the future of liberal democracy. In fact, many of these parties explicitly endorse what Hungary’s Victor Orban termed ‘illiberal democracy’ – meaning a political system in which certain procedural elements of democracy (e.g. elections) remain but the laws and courts no longer aim to deliver equal treatment or protect basic human rights. In practice, illiberal democracy offers a way for nationalist movements to claim democratic credentials while legally discriminating against their purported external and internal enemies – all in the name of national preservation. While these trends are evident in countries around the globe, they are particularly present in contemporary Israel.

Seeking to better understand these movements, the authors of this report set out to study the political-theological dimensions of illiberal democracy or ‘post-liberalism’ as it is often called. Of particular interest is the way that post-liberals understand three fundamental political concepts: the law, the state, and the people, all of which exist as theological categories within Western religious traditions. As a political theory, liberalism carefully distinguished among the three concepts and their associated institutions; this was particularly the case with the liberal ideal of law as disinterested and universal. In contrast, we argue that post-liberal political movements tend to collapse the theoretical and practical distinctions between these categories: the law becomes whatever serves the interests of “the people” (a rhetorical concept that need not correspond with an actual popular majority), with the state charged with securing its implementation.

In undertaking this analysis, our study builds on the German jurist Carl Schmitt’s contention that modern political concepts are secularized theological ones, an idea expressed, for instance, in the notion of king-as-lawgiver. Every historical era has a corresponding political theology. Most recently, liberalism advanced the ideal of an impartial law that would be equally applicable to all, enforced by a disinterested sovereign bound to serve and protect the people. This too reflects a familiar theological scheme however adamantly its champions proclaim their secularist credentials. With this frame of reference in mind, we can interrogate the political-theological concepts that accompany the post-liberal project. This is all the more crucial because—however ironically given the avowed nationalism expressed by its champions—post-liberalism is a global political project that involves coordination by reactionary forces in countries ranging from India and Turkey to Israel, Hungary, Brazil, and the United States.

The ideologues of these movements proffer an alternative vision of the proper relationship between the law, the state, and the people than prevailed under liberal democracy. By way of example our report examines two of these thinkers: the American political theorist Patrick Deneen and the Israeli-American scholar Yoram Hazony, who offer different, albeit overlapping, visions for twenty-first century political and social life. These figures voice familiar critiques of globalization, multiculturalism, and ‘woke’ corporations, but also break with many tenets of faith that defined twentieth-century conservatism – from rejecting individual liberties and (some) free market principles to turning away from the small government ideal.

Both scholars advance political-theological visions relating to “the people,” either as manifestations of the “voice of God” (Deneen) or of a divine order supposedly built around the nation-state as its primary unit. However “the people” or “the nation” do not necessarily correspond to a demographic majority in either the United States or Israel, which is one reason why the ‘populist’ label is somewhat misleading. Rather—and here too we can see a fissure with last century’s conservative principles—both Deneen and Hazony believe a strong state is required to uphold and actively cultivate the sort of “traditional” moral values they hold dear. At present the idealized national community–made up of strong patriarchal families and tight-knit religious congregations, with social bonds coerced rather than freely chosen–only exists in small enclaves. Nor can these idealized communities become actualized under prevailing economic conditions, characterized as they are by two-income households, wage stagnation, and a miniscule social safety net. Far from representing a threat to liberty as imagined by Milton Friedman, the state apparatus is absolutely crucial to engineering the ‘traditional’ family and national community.

It is important to note that Deneen and Hazony differ from one another in fundamental ways, notably with regard to their assessment of neoliberal economic principles. Moreover, Hazony grounds the sanctity of the nation in the Hebrew Bible while Dennen’s idea of ‘civic virtue’ is rooted, he argues, in a proper understanding of Christian liberty. Yet both men are noteworthy for rejecting the idea of individual liberty, long central not merely to liberal political models but conservative ones as well. They critique individual freedom from two directions. For Deneen, individual liberty comes at the expense of the common good, with self-interested individuals endlessly fixated on cultivating their authentic selves to the detriment of the communal whole. Government protections—for LGBTQ+ people, for instance—merely coddle this egoistic social order. 

Hazony, for his part, views individual freedom as inherently inferior to the collective freedom one supposedly enjoys as part of a “sacred nation” (goy kadosh). He has been particularly vocal in criticizing anything that would restrain the will of the people – from international conventions to the Israeli Supreme Court. This argument is all the more important to note in light of Israel’s rapidly unfolding judicial ‘reform’ push—led by the Tikvah-funded Kohelet Policy Forum—which aims not only to undermine the Supreme Court’s already limited authority to protect individual rights, but more profoundly, to curtail its independence by overhauling the process of judicial appointment. 

We argue that the common thread running through these two visions of the post-liberal political order is a renewed focus on constraint: just as people should submit to ‘natural’ social relations and processes—be they an unwanted pregnancy or heterosexual marriage—they should exercise loyalty and restraint when interacting with their political leaders, provided that the latter act in the national interest. The vision, from the family to the state house, is decidedly patriarchal and authoritarian.

Sitting on the precipice of a major constitutional crisis in Israel–not to mention significant moves toward West Bank annexation–as well as ongoing political turmoil in the United States, our report underscores that the imperatives of nationalism and those of democracy pull in contradictory directions. In particular, laws and state institutions that operate on a discriminatory basis in the name of protecting ‘the people’ deserve wholehearted rejection regardless of where they occur. Liberalism’s ideal of equal protection under the law may have never existed in fact, but we contend that whatever replaces it will likely be much worse – both for marginalized populations deemed ‘outsiders’ to the nation or for those stigmatized as ‘traitors’ within.