Holy hot dogs

It’s been a long time since I’ve written a “Periodicals Note,” the items that were the staple of this blog when I was posting on a daily basis about ten years ago. Most of those posts were short essays about the magazines, journals, and newsletters I was reading at the time; this one really will be just a file of notes.

It’s about a piece called “Between sacred and secular,” by Peter E. Gordon. It appears in The New Statesman for 22 December 2020.

Opening with a quick sketch of the complexity of Karl Marx’ attitude towards religion and with references to Marxist thinkers who were not content with coldly dismissive forms of atheism, Professor Gordon tells us how the major figures of the Frankfurt School saw the role of religion in social organization.

Professor Gordon cites the comparison Walter Benjamin made at the beginning of his “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Benjamin reminds us of the “Mechanical Turk.” The Mechanical Turk was supposed to be a robot, and it created an international sensation when it defeated Benjamin Franklin at chess in 1783. The following year, the world learned that there was a man hiding in the contraption, and that it was he who had beaten Franklin. Walter Benjamin suggests that, lurking within the apparently mechanical historical theory of Marxism, is hidden an unacknowledged set of ideas smuggled in from theology.

Professor Gordon elaborates:

The image is compelling, but, like so much of Benjamin’s work, it presented an enigma rather than an explanation. Benjamin was convinced that the official Marxism of his day had lost its revolutionary potential: it had hardened into a lifeless and unreflective doctrine that conceived of progress as something inevitable, as if utopia were to be born from the steady advance of technology alone. The future would unfold out of the present smoothly and without interruption, making revolution into little more than the final, harmonious chord of human history. This, Benjamin felt, was gravely mistaken. Historical materialism could retain its critical power only if it resisted the consoling dogma of historical progress. History had to be conceived not as a continuum but as broken into pieces, every instant holding the potential for a radical beginning. 

But this idea of history-in-fragments was foreign to official Marxism. A genuinely revolutionary idea of history was possible only if the historical materialist broke the rules of Marxism and surreptitiously borrowed its notion of time from an unlikely source – theology. Like the messiah breaking in upon the world, each moment in history became a threshold to revolution. Here, then, was the meaning of the chess-playing automaton. For Benjamin, theology was no longer an illusion to be dispelled but the animating force in Marxist theory, the necessary resource if history was to be understood as a theatre of revolutionary possibility.

Benjamin’s attempt to graft together Marxism and theology proved highly controversial, and it drew criticism from partisans in both camps. The militant playwright Bertolt Brecht saw Benjamin’s penchant for mysticism as “ghastly”, while the historian of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem (a sceptic about Marxism) accused his friend of “self-deception”. Despite such criticism, Benjamin’s reflections on religion and politics have attracted a wide following in academic circles, not least because they unsettle conventional assumptions in liberal theory about the need to keep religion and politics in distinct spheres. And not only in liberal theory: Benjamin’s interpretation also violates the conventional understanding of Marxism as a doctrine of unapologetic secularisation. The famous lines in The Communist Manifesto saw in the advent of modernity a process that would dissolve all religious values: “All is that is solid melts into air, all that is sacred is profaned.” In Benjamin’s work, this secularising requirement loses its authority, since at least one religious value remains stubbornly in place. Religion does not and cannot vanish; it becomes the animating force in historical materialism itself.


Professor Gordon cites a danger inherent in such thought:

Much depends, however, on just how secularisation is understood. Right-wing political theorists such as Carl Schmitt (a Nazi apologist) believed that no system of law can be complete if it does not appeal to the decision of a sovereign who bursts in upon the otherwise lifeless mechanism of the state like a miraculous force. This doctrine of political theology was an important inspiration to Benjamin, and it bears an obvious similarity to Benjamin’s notion of theology as the hidden animus in historical materialism. Both cases bring a risk of authoritarianism, since in a democratic polity no decision can be valid if it does not remain open to rational scrutiny and amendment. A theological principle that grounds political life but remains immune to political criticism can easily become a warrant for theocracy.


It always strikes me odd when people refer to Carl Schmitt with a phrase like “Nazi apologist.” This simultaneously goes too easy on Schmitt, who was after all a member of the Nazi Party from 1933 to 1940 and who for the first three of those years made himself conspicuously useful to the regime, and also obscures the nature of his scholarly work, since he was expelled from the party for his refusal to incorporate Nazi ideology into his writing.

At any rate, the idea of “political theology”- that political ideologies are in fact religious dogmas in disguise- was hardly original with Schmitt. It goes back millennia and is found in many cultures. Cicero, for example, develops it in depth in the second book of the de Officiis, and it is a major theme is early Confucian writings. If Irving Babbitt ever receives the recognition due him, Schmitt will no longer be even the most famous thinker of the first half of the twentieth century to have concerned himself with it. Nonetheless, Schmitt did make major contributions, and no sane person could want to become the sort of person he ended up being. So it’s worthwhile to pause and examine him as a cautionary tale.

Professor Gordon:

To avoid this risk, all values, including religious values, must be susceptible to public criticism. But this means that theological concepts have no special privilege in modern politics. They are drawn into the turbulence of public debate and they can survive only if they meet with generalised consent, including among unbelievers or members of other faiths. This proviso does not necessarily rule out the possibility of mutual instruction between religion and politics, and that line of communication has to remain open if secular society is to avoid the temptation of making secularism into something as exclusionary and dogmatic as the theocracy it fears. But under modern conditions of religious pluralism only the neutral medium of public reason can serve as the common language for such a dialogue, lest we slip back into the authoritarian framework where one religion holds sway. 


“Modern conditions of religious pluralism,” as contrasted with pre-modern European and southwest Asian conditions in which political legitimacy is dependent on status within a single religious community, of church or ummah. My references above to Cicero, Confucius, and Irving Babbitt should suffice to show that I would hope for a broader frame of historical reference, within which we can see theocratic authoritarianism, not indeed as an isolated or trivial phenomenon, but neither as the condition into which every institution classifiable as “religion” tends to resolve itself by default. Not only do we see religious pluralism in the practices of ancient Rome, of imperial China, and in the great tradition Babbitt imagined in his perennialist theory of religion, but even within religious communities great value is attached to various forms of rational inquiry and of debate.

Professor Gordon turns from Benjamin to other eminences of the Frankfurt School, first among them Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno:

Unlike Benjamin, Adorno believed that theological concepts retain their value only if they submit to the trial of secularisation. Religion is not preserved in amber; like all aspects of human experience it is vulnerable to time, and it cannot help but change as it passes into new and unforeseen circumstances. Adorno was therefore sceptical as to whether theological values that had held together the intimate communities of the ancient world could retain their validity in the fractured societies of today. “The concept of daily bread,” he wrote, “born from the experience of deprivation under the conditions of uncertain and insufficient material production, cannot simply be translated into the world of bread factories and surplus production.” Nor could he accept the Schmittian notion that, in a world that had in all other respects transformed beyond recognition, the concept of a sovereign God could somehow retain its original power. The longing for a “resolute decision”, he argued, could not suffice to “breathe back meaning” into the disenchanted world.


I’ve been meaning to read Adorno ever since I was in graduate school, umpteen years ago. This line about “the concept of daily bread” may finally get me actually to do it. When I get to that line in the prayer, the image of the bread we use for the Eucharist often pops into my head. That’s a good devotional practice, but it might be desirable to have some substantive theoretical matter to go along with it.

Professor Gordon then gives a couple of paragraphs to Max Horkheimer, who late in his career rejected Adorno’s idea that religious values could survive only if they made a “migration into the profane” and re-emerged in a secular idiom. Horkheimer decided that only a theistic worldview could offer hope to those subjected to the social conditions of the late twentieth century:

In his admiring foreword to The Dialectical Imagination (1973), Martin Jay’s now-classic study of the Frankfurt School, Horkheimer went so far as to imply an intimate bond between religion and critical theory. The essence of religion, he claimed, is the yearning for the “wholly other”, the hope that “earthly horror does not possess the last word”.


Professor Gordon concludes with two paragraphs about Jürgen Habermas. Habermas “upholds Adorno’s requirement of a migration into the profane” in his conception of a “learning process” in which religious values are reconfigured into secular ones. This is supposed to allow for a “dialogue between religion and reason” that will clear the way for a pluralistic society, “though such a dialogue can only proceed within the framework of a secular state.”

Secular Calvinism?

Adherents of the political tendency known as libertarianism often defend their positions with appeals to economic theory.  They do not often show a high regard for the concerns of environmentalism.  So when a libertarian think tank publishes a book that equates the academic discipline of economics with the environmentalist movement, one may well take notice. 

In The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion vs Environmental Religion in Contemporary America, Robert H. Nelson of the Independent Institute argues that the forms of academic economics that have influenced policymaking in the US in recent decades, like the forms of environmentalist thought that have begun to play a role in public affairs, are secularized versions of Calvinism.  How so?  To quote the Independent Institute’s summary:

The deepest religious conflicts in the American public arena today—the New Holy Wars—are crusades fought between two secular religions: economic religion and environmental religion. Each claims to be scientific, even value-neutral, yet they seldom state their underlying commitments explicitly, let alone subject them to scrutiny. Environmental religion views wilderness as sacred, seeks salvation through the minimization of humankind’s impact on nature, and proselytizes using imagery meant to stir spiritual longings. In contrast, economic religion worships technological innovation, economic growth (as measured by GDP), and efficiency (as revealed by cost-benefit analysis) and is presided over by a priesthood of Ph.D. economists who communicate in a liturgical language unintelligible to the layperson.

Nelson is himself an economics Ph.D, having received that degree from Princeton University in 1971.  If one of the tenets of the religion of economics is that economics is not a religion, that would make him a wayward priest.  The summary goes on:

Although rarely acknowledged, environmental religion owes its moral activism, ascetic discipline, reverence for nature, and fallen view of man to the Protestant theology of John Calvin. A remarkable number of American environmental leaders, including John Muir, Rachel Carson, David Brower, Edward Abbey, and Dave Foreman, were raised in the Presbyterian church (the Scottish branch of Calvinism) or one of its offshoots. Earlier forerunners of modern environmentalism who were influenced by Calvinism include the American transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who offered a secular version of the fall of man from the original “state of nature [in which] man lived happily in peace.”

That’s an interesting claim, and a list of very diverse people.  Nelson seems to focus on the USA, but it would be interesting to contrast the environmentalisms that have taken hold in countries with histories of Calvinism with the environmentalisms that have taken hold where Calvinism was never ascendant.  Onward:

Economists often rely on assumptions that are better categorized as theological than as scientific. Many economists assume that human welfare is a product of the consumption of goods and services alone and that the institutional arrangements that produce those goods and services can be ignored. Some economists assume that eradicating poverty will end crime and usher in a new era of morality. Also, economists typically assume that psychological stress caused by an economic transition to a more efficient allocation of resources is negligible and not worth factoring in. “If [emotional burdens] were actually given full account, it would be impossible to say in principle whether a market system is economically efficient,” writes Robert Nelson.

Coming from a libertarian economist, the statement that “If [emotional burdens] were actually given full account, it would be impossible to say in principle whether a market system is economically efficient” is as amazing as Luther’s Ninety Five Theses were coming from a Roman Catholic priest in 1520. 

The missionaries of environmental religion have managed to get some of their dogmas implemented in poor countries, often with devastating consequences for local populations. Under the banner of saving the African environment, they have promoted conservation objectives that have displaced and impoverished Africans. This catastrophe has occurred because environmental religion has misunderstood African wildlife management practices and problems.

To the extent that this is true, I suspect it is not because of the intellectual forebears of contemporary environmentalists, but because those environmentalists have come to Africa as agents of Western bureaucracies.  As such, they have been constrained to act and think in the terms those bureaucracies made available to them, terms which often have little connection to the social and ecological realities of Africa. 

There is another, shorter, summary on the same page:

“Economics and environmentalism are types of modern religions.” So writes Independent Institute Senior Fellow Robert H. Nelson, author of The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion versus Environmental Religion in Contemporary America, an in-depth study of the origins and implications of the conflict between these two opposing belief systems.

“If it makes a reader of this book more comfortable, he or she may think of it as an examination of the ‘spiritual values’ of economics versus the ‘spiritual values’ of environmentalism,” writes Nelson in his introduction. “For me, though, it is a distinction without a difference.”

In The New Holy Wars, Nelson probes beneath the rhetorical surface of economic and environmental religion to reveal their clashing fundamental commitments and visions. By interpreting their conflict as theological, Nelson is able to show why these creeds almost invariably talk past each other and why their conflict is likely to continue to dominate public discourse until one party or the other backs down—or unless an alternative outlook rises to challenge their influence in the public arena.

In addition, by exploring little-known corners of American intellectual history, Nelson shows how environmentalism and economics have adapted Judeo-Christian precepts in ways that make them more palatable in an age of secularism. In many cases, Nelson is able to demonstrate a direct lineage from traditional religious beliefs to tenets held by mainstream economists and environmentalists.

Some readers of this blog have expressed interest in “political theology,” the idea that there are no truly political belief systems, but that all political theories are simply theological doctrines in disguise.  This notion is often associated with the German legal scholar (and onetime NaziCarl Schmitt (1888-1985.)  Say what you will about Schmitt’s detestable activities from 1933 to 1937, he made a powerful case for political theology.  Nor did he originate the notion; it can be traced back to Cicero’s Laws (especially book 1, chapter 8), and back of Cicero to the Stoics, with the idea that a certain memory of the Divine lingers in the human mind and that the various legal codes and religious practices of the world result from the attempts of various peoples to translate  that memory into a guide for action.  If there is truth in political theology, then we would expect both economics and environmental theories to be driven by unacknowledged theological commitments.