Beyond Schmitt

Most people have never heard of the German legal theorist Carl Schmitt (1888–1985). His name doesn’t appear on the syllabi of mainstream humanities departments—or in the curricula of classical colleges, Christian or otherwise. From one angle, the omission may seem perplexing. Schmitt was a powerful critic of liberal democracy in the modern age—far more forceful and articulate than, say, Joseph de Maistre—and many of his ideas remain influential today.

But, then again, Schmitt was a Nazi. And “Nazi” may be putting it mildly: Schmitt was president of the Association of National Socialist German Jurists and editor-in-chief of the Third Reich’s newspaper for lawyers. Unlike so many other German intellectuals, who would plead ignorance years later, Schmitt never afterwards repudiated his support for the regime.

To this day, this shadow of history clouds any engagement with Schmitt’s work. Reading Schmitt can feel profoundly unsavory, as if taking his arguments seriously somehow concedes the legitimacy of his politics. No thinker works in a depoliticized intellectual vacuum, but there is a difference between being influenced by one’s age and generating propaganda to shore up a given order. In few thinkers is that line so blurry as in Schmitt.

But the effect of silence is that Schmitt’s arguments so often go unrebutted. And for some, it is this very lack of rebuttal that accounts for Schmitt’s appeal, even to Christians. His claims are intellectually tempting because of their severity—because they claim to bear witness to primal reality, to the hard-edged truths of violence beneath the surface of the world. Perhaps, Schmitt’s work hints, the weak-souled simply cannot admit it.

* * *

In academic circles, Schmitt is best known for his challenges to the liberal-democratic premises of the mainstream West. Famously, Schmitt argued for the inevitability of “states of exception” in which sovereign power must act apart from procedural norms.[1] In the moment of cataclysm, when Congress lies in rubble and the Supreme Court burns, must not a mighty man act to restore order? And what does that say about the structures of government leading up to that point? It is the question so memorably posed by Cormac McCarthy’s Anton Chigurh: when disaster or crisis arrives, “if the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?”[2] Other prominent philosophers, like Giorgio Agamben, have since taken up this theme.

Acknowledging the possibility of states of exception implies an administrative structure through which sovereign power must act. Consistent with that orientation, Schmitt was a theorist of political administration more broadly, and many of his ideas have been developed in recent years by the prominent Catholic integralist Adrian Vermeule.[3] Notably, though Schmitt’s own religious commitments were relatively opaque, he elaborated at length his admiration for Catholicism’s institutional form,[4] and Vermeule—a scholar of administrative law—shares that concern.

Catholic integralists, however, are not the only Christians who’ve recently drawn on Schmitt’s work. Among conservative Protestants interested in renegotiating the liberal-democratic “postwar consensus,” Schmitt’s name and ideas routinely turn up. [5] Unlike Vermeule, these Protestant thinkers are not drawn to Schmitt because of his fascination with executive administration. Instead, many Protestant commentators on Schmitt take up a theme far more basic to his thought: his claim that the essence of the “political” is the distinction between “friend” and “enemy.”

There is, of course, a sense in which this definition is trivially true. If there were no disagreements between people, there would be no “politics” in any familiar sense of the term. But it is the sheer bleakness of Schmitt’s characterization of the “enemy” that distinguishes his paradigm. In his best-known work, The Concept of the Political, Schmitt argues that the distinction is not just descriptive of, but constitutive of, politics as such.[6] That is to say, in the strictest sense politics is not merely about the organized human pursuit of some common good or other. It requires, at its root, an other destined for destruction.

Schmitt makes the matter quite clear: the “enemy” is one whom one seeks to annihilate. Concepts of “friend” and “enemy,” on Schmitt’s model, “receive their real meaning precisely because they refer to the real possibility of physical killing. War follows from enmity. “War is the existential negation of the enemy.”[7] An irreducibly violent agonism, which must inform how leaders and citizens alike relate to external “others,” lies at the very heart of politics as such.

If Schmitt is right, then anyone engaged in the business of politics must ask a fateful question: Who, then, is my enemy?

The very question—an inversion of the parable of the Good Samaritan—rings odd to Christian ears. What about Jesus’s command to love your enemies? It seems strange to identify individuals (functionally) excluded from the horizon of Christian concern.

For Schmitt, though, the question is simply malformed. An “enemy” in Schmitt’s sense is one who “intends to negate his opponent’s way of life and therefore must be repulsed or fought in order to preserve one’s own form of existence.”[8] Against potential Christian critics, Schmitt contends, the “enemies” whom Jesus commanded Christians to love are not, in fact, the sort of enemies contemplated by the bloody business of politics—that is, potential way-of-life negators.

Here, Schmitt distinguishes between two terms—hostis and inimicus—that are both rendered as “enemy” in English, but that carry different connotations in the original Latin. One is “public” and the other is “private.” “The enemy is not merely any competitor or just any partner of a conflict in general. He is also not the private adversary whom one hates,” Schmitt insists.[9] Such a “private adversary”—a trader who cheats his client, a busybody neighbor, or even a rival candidate for public office—is merely inimicus. Hostes, or “public enemies,” are something else altogether. They are not antagonistic neighbors within the same political community, but rather are threats to be opposed with lethal force. Such “[a]n enemy exists only when, at last potentially, one fighting collectivity of people confronts a similar collectivity.”[10]

With this further distinction of “enemies” in view, Schmitt turns to the Latin Vulgate, where he finds that Jesus speaks only of inimici in his command to “love your enemies.” Thus the argument wraps up neatly: the Christian may properly love inimici and intend their good, but never hostes:

No mention is made of the political enemy. . . . The enemy in the political sense need not be hated personally, and in the private sphere only does it make sense to love one’s enemy, i.e., one’s adversary. The Bible quotation . . . certainly does not mean that one should love and support the enemies of one’s own people.[11]

It is the demarcation of this category of hostes that underpins Schmitt’s zero-sum view of politics. In the simplest terms, Jesus’s command need not stand in the way of tough-minded political deeds, because the “enemies” Christ contemplated weren’t really enemies in the fullest sense.

And what of the Christian tradition that followed? Writer Charles Haywood—widely credited as the originator of the slogan “no enemies to the right”—follows Schmitt’s reasoning here, confessing that he has “been unable to find anything in the Fathers of the Church on the matter of our duties with respect to public enemies, and only a little that expands on the Biblical injunctions regarding personal enemies.”[12] According to Haywood, “[t]he most obvious conclusion . . . that there is little exegesis on the topic because the distinction was so obvious to everyone before modernity, and nobody would have tried to tie Christ’s commands to public enemies.”[13]

That is a bold claim—as is Schmitt’s. Grant, for the sake of argument, that Schmitt’s distinction is logically coherent in principle (setting aside the question of whether, despite itself, the distinction reinscribes the very public/private binary that so notably characterizes “liberalism”). Even so, Schmitt’s basic position does not survive exegetical scrutiny—and Haywood’s point, predicated on it, is nothing more than an unpersuasive argument from silence.

Most obviously, the New Testament was originally written in Greek, not Latin, and the bulk of Schmitt’s claim hinges on a Latin distinction. In an extended treatment, Marc Barnes and Andrew Willard Jones have demonstrated that in the relevant Greek, the categories of public and private enemy are self-evidently blurred:

Schmitt’s exegesis depends entirely on the idea that echthrous are exclusively private adversaries, objects of personal rancor, but never political enemies and objects of war. This is not how the word is used elsewhere in the Holy Scriptures. Mary proclaims the power of Christ who promises to give Israel “salvation from our enemies [ἐχθρῶν], and from the hands of those who hate us” (Luke 1:71), which could hardly have been limited to a private enemy. Jesus quotes the divine promise to make King David’s enemies [ἐχθρῶν] his footstool (Luke 20:43); in parables, the word is used to denote an explicitly political enemy, as when the enemies of a king refuse his rule: “But bring here those enemies [ἐχθρῶν] of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, and slay them before me” (Luke 19:27). In the Vulgate, things are even worse for Schmitt. From the first appearance of inimicos (“And you shall chase your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword”: Lev. 26:7) throughout the entirety of the Old Testament and into the New, inimicos are the “political” enemy more clearly than the “personal”; it is the enemy against whom Israel wars, the enemy about whom the Lord says to David, “Sit at my right hand, till I make your enemies your footstool” (Ps 110:1). Schmitt makes a distinction that the Scripture simply does not sustain.[14]

With that, it would seem that the ball is in the court of Schmitt’s defenders to offer a more compelling exegetical account. Indeed, it is probably fair to say that Schmitt’s creation of a “political” exception to Jesus’s command to love your enemies has more than a whiff of motivated reasoning about it. Against the backdrop of recent world war, it was certainly far easier to exhort a public to hate its enemies than to be concerned for their good.

But there is something unsatisfying about leaving off at the level of exegesis. To break the debate off here is, in a sense, to prooftext—to stop at an appeal to divine command. Consistent with the principle that Christian truth-claims are not simply arbitrary—that they do in fact track the order of reality as such—can’t more can be said about the logic of Jesus’s command?

To that end, it is worth considering a less-discussed dimension of Schmitt’s “enemy”: the fact that an “enemy,” so defined, is characterized as such because he “intends to negate his opponent’s way of life.” This last concept is remarkably open-ended. What, exactly, is a “way of life” in this sense? What does it mean to “negate” it?

Schmitt himself is frustratingly ambiguous on the point. “Only the actual participants can correctly recognize, understand, and judge the concrete situation and settle the extreme case of conflict,” he explains. “Each participant is in a position to judge whether the adversary intends to negate his opponent’s way of life and therefore must be repulsed or fought in order to preserve one’s own form of existence.”[15] But this is unhelpful—indeed, it potentially undoes the logic of the basic hostis/inimicus distinction. As written, Schmitt’s notion is so capacious that it would seem to embed the possibility of existential violence into even the most mundane civic processes. If human law must ultimately be backed up by force—as it is—is my family’s “way of life” negated when the city council votes to build an easement across my property? Is there no possibility of voluntarily sacrificing one’s own (private) interest in the service of a common good, for the sake of the mitigation of violence? Surely such concessions are part of the business of society as such.

Perhaps the question can be tackled by asking it in a different way. What, properly speaking, is the entity whose “way of life” is jeopardized? Is it the männerbund? The state? The nation? Some other collective? After all, a “way of life” is always the “way of life” of some entity or other.

On this approach, it becomes possible to take up the case of the Church as such. For where the politics of Christians are concerned, it would seem to be the case that Christians’ existence as Christians—as members of the Body of Christ—is their principal defining quality. To ask Schmitt’s question in this context is, basically, to ask: what is the “way of life” of Christians, and what would it mean to “negate” it?

Posing the question in this way opens up an additional, complementary theological explanation for the Christian tradition’s silence regarding hostes. As noted previously, integral to Schmitt’s friend-enemy distinction is the notion that this distinction seems to exist between rivalrous kinds of peoples. And not just any peoples: peoples separated by a certain unbridgeable gulf. “Real war for Plato is a war between Hellenes and Barbarians (only those who are ‘by nature enemies’), whereas conflicts among Hellenes are for him discords,” Schmitt writes.[16] Hence there must have been something in particular, some elemental social reality in the Greco-Roman world from which this distinction of hostes and inimici allegedly emerged, that was constitutive of “peoplehood” in this sense.

The answer is likely religion—specifically, the worship of the gods of family and city. For Greco-Roman society, spirituality was integrally bound to materiality and to place—to the very physical graves of one’s ancestors, to the hearth-fires burning in every home, and to the sacred hearths and temples in urban centers.[17] The religious subject existed within overlapping circles of obligation to fathers and kin and lords, all with concrete referents. From this perspective, it becomes clear why banishment was such a hideous fate for the ancients; to be exiled was to be cut off from one’s very religion.[18]

This understanding of religion meant that one’s way of life—that is, the practice of a particular religion rooted in specific rites in a specific location—could in principle be ended once and for all. One’s town might be razed, one’s sacred fires extinguished, and the bones of one’s ancestors scattered. The stakes of war were positively metaphysical.

Among “Hellenes,” the mere conquest of a city did not result in such a theological extinction. Far from it. As historian Fustel de Coulanges explains, “[e]ven in the time of Thucydides, when the Greeks besieged a city, they never failed to address an invocation to its gods that they might permit it to be taken.”[19] But barbarians, for their parts, had no such compunctions. Indeed, it was understood that “the enemies of Rome could find no surer means of conquering it than by destroying its sacred hearth.”[20] Viewed from this perspective, inimici pose little threat. Conversely, hostes are those who threaten one’s “way of life” in the most fundamental sense. They are capable, in short, of overthrowing an individual’s entire theological self-understanding.

If this understanding is roughly correct, then from a properly Christian vantage, the concept of hostis is simply otiose. Unlike the classical gods of the city, the Triune God stands before and beyond the peoples of the world, and is reducible to none of them as their particular deity inter pares.[21] This is precisely the insight Paul stresses in Romans 10:12: “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him” (NRSV). There is not even the possibility of any hostis overthrowing the Christian’s way of life. “[N]either death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation” can accomplish such an abolition (Rom. 8:38-39, NIV).

To elevate the modern “Left”—or any other category of interlocutors—to the status of hostes is, paradoxically, to reduce this Triune God to the level of a mere pagan deity, one capable of being overthrown by a more powerful force. The old jibe of the New Atheists—that the God of heaven and earth is just another version of Zeus or Amun-Ra[22]—ends up being vindicated. Better, rather, to grasp that the Christian stands under God, among inimici.

Like all adversaries—whether private or public—such inimici may kill the body, but they cannot kill the soul (Matt. 10:28). And the follower of Jesus cannot be indifferent to their good.

* * *

One final objection must be considered: what about the claim that Christians’ adversaries must be provisionally treated as hostes? Perhaps, “here below,” one must violently defend one’s “temporal” way of life against those who menace it, and who deserve no Christian love—even if the foregoing theological argument technically holds water.

There is obvious appeal to this position. The social and cultural forces underlying Schmitt’s nascent appeal, especially among Christians, are real and powerful. In particular, much of the recent turn to Schmitt is grounded in a particular interpretation of contemporary politics, around which many right-leaning writers and activists have converged. On this view, a seemingly unstoppable Left—exercising hegemonic control over academia, the economy, the media, the federal bureaucracy, and much of the judiciary—is now positioned to decisively obliterate America’s Christian and constitutional heritage.[23] The “long march through the institutions” is basically complete, and the Left enjoys total ascendancy within what is often called “the Regime.” Now, radical and even “extra-constitutional” action may be necessary for conservatives to preserve their way of life.[24] The Left, as “provisional hostes,” must be treated as such.

This is a very powerful narrative. And against this backdrop, there is a bracing energy to Schmitt’s arguments. Perhaps the state of exception is at hand. Anything can happen. We need only know our enemies and defeat them. Indeed, Schmitt’s work can easily be read as a handbook for enduring not just what Aaron Renn has described as a “negative world” in which Christianity is socially stigmatized, but a context in which political realities appear fluid.[25] Trump and Brexit happened—so why not more?

But there are hidden costs to Schmitt’s paradigm, even adopted in a qualified form. For one thing, to make the “provisional hostes” argument is to embrace the premise that there is an autonomous social domain, mediated by violence, from which any specifically Christian theological commitments ought in principle to be excluded.[26] It is, in short, to precisely recreate the controlling logic of modern secularity—the very logic that virtually all defenders of a revived Christian politics reject.

As before, though, this is a matter of abstract theory. There is a simpler, and yet perhaps more important, reason to reject a Schmittian frame. Perhaps Christians were not made to ruminate on their enemies, to catechize themselves in hate. A Schmittian pattern of thought may, in the end, destroy one’s taste for the very goods defended so fiercely.

Consider pastor Andrew Isker’s recent The Boniface Option—its title a deliberate jab at Rod Dreher’s localist-minded The Benedict Option. Across virtually every page, Isker heaps condemnations upon the “Trashworld” that constitutes modernity. For “in order for Christendom to return, it is a world you must learn to hate.”[27] Indeed, for Isker, hatred as such must become a sort of practical discipline of the Christian life: “You must teach your children to love the things you love and hate the things you hate. You must overcome your aversion to hate.”[28] The enemy, after all, is always already close.

For all its rhetorical force, there is a tragic futility to this Schmittian vision: the simple fact that such an approach inevitably cannibalizes the ideals it sets out to defend. The opening paragraphs of a recent review of Isker’s book perfectly exemplify this paradox:

My commute to work is approximately 40 miles. Every weekday morning, I pass a billboard that reads “See The Good” in big white letters. Before reading The Boniface Option this billboard would elicit a flicker of romanticism. Though soon after passing the billboard that flicker of romanticism becomes superseded by a reactionary wrench from my insides, “Hell—What ‘good’ is there to see? Educational predators are likely foaming at the mouth for the soul of my coming daughter, our dollar has quickly been leached, and The Lord knows that Whitehouse bureaucrats will continue to punch down at my kind any chance they get. What will come for us in the next 10 years? What a joke.” The sign doesn’t exactly improve my drive.

These thoughts and others like it eliminate any possibility that the sign brightens my morning more than the millisecond of gnostic romanticism. I think my reaction to the billboard is par for the course of any politically conscious evangelical. But now, after reading The Boniface Option, I do not fall prey to the brief romanticism and let down the billboard imposes on me during my morning commute. I now immediately view it with disgust. I now burn at it through the windshield, and I see the billboard is an analgesic aphorism that encourages turning a blind eye to a reality that is turned upside down and hung up gutted. It is a literary opiate that dampens the urge we should all have, and that which The Boniface Option recovers: a hatred for evil.[29]

There is a brutal irony here. Through the eyes of faith, virtually nothing could be more Christian than an invitation to See The Good: as St. Thomas Aquinas stressed again and again, that is precisely the beatific vision to which the faithful are called. It is normal and natural for a Christian to take joy in this invitation. Indeed, it should be the default.

But for this writer, such a response is an “opiate.” Authentic “political consciousness” must only lead to rage and disgust. Absent here is any recognition that the creation does in fact reflect its Creator, in however flawed and broken a way. Absent here is any recognition of the final End that forms and anchors all things.

Here lies the logical terminus of a Schmittian habit of thought: God’s presence, such as it is, is at best relegated to a remote “beyond.” Down below, all that’s left is violence.

* * *

There is a familiar online slogan among contemporary conservatives: “knowing what time it is.”[30] Precisely so. The premodern world of pagan hostes is long gone. The Lord of heaven and earth has come in the flesh. And as a result, a Christian politics bound up with the “friend-enemy distinction” is a contradiction in terms—a project fated, in the end, to undo itself. Such a politics implies a god capable of being vanquished, speaking a gospel of primordial violence. That is certainly a kind of theology, but not a Christian one.

None of this, of course, is to argue that Christians should strategically abandon the business of politics. That would be an abdication of responsibility. Nor does it mean they shouldn’t (tactically) fight hard for the common good. Christians did politics long before Schmitt, and they will do so long after him. But admitting that politics is always difficult, and painful, is a far cry from a barely-baptized Schmittian stance: the view that Christian politics must become annihilatory, ordered to the extermination of its “enemies” and embracing a counsel of despair.

The Christian’s political hope is not to drive one’s enemies before them, and hear the lamentation of their women.[31] It is to hope that the blind will see—that enemies may become friends.


John Ehrett is a Commonwealth Fellow, and an attorney and writer in Washington D.C. His work has appeared in American Affairs, The New Atlantis, and the Claremont Review of Books. He is a graduate of Patrick Henry College, the Institute of Lutheran Theology, and Yale Law School.


  1. See, e.g., Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, trans. George Schwab (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007), 38.

  2. Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men (New York: Knopf, 2005), 175.

  3. See, e.g., Adrian Vermeule, Common Good Constitutionalism (Medford: Polity Press, 2022), 155 and n.414.

  4. See Carl Schmitt, Roman Catholicism and Political Form, trans. G.L. Ulmen (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996), 18 (“The political power of Catholicism rests neither on economic nor on military means but rather on the absolute realization of authority. . . . Therein—in its capacity to assume juridical form—lies one of its sociological secrets.”).

  5. See, e.g., Matthew Pearson, “The Friend/Enemy Distinction,” American Reformer (Nov. 29, 2023), https://americanreformer.org/2023/11/the-friend-enemy-distinction/ (“This [distinction] has significant implications for Christian politics, as no longer can one rationalize their retreatist pietist politics by simply shouting ‘love your enemies,’ but must actively seek to defeat their enemies who threaten and attempt to usurp their very way of life.”); Ronald Dodson, “Liberal Cosmopolitanism and a Dearth of Allies,” American Reformer (Jan. 29, 2024), https://americanreformer.org/2024/01/liberal-cosmopolitanism-and-a-dearth-of-allies/ (“Schmitt argued against the idea of a universal world order or universal values, which are central to cosmopolitanism.”).

  6. Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, 26.

  7. Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, 33.

  8. Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, 27.

  9. Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, 28.

  10. Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, 28.

  11. Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, 29.

  12. Charles Haywood, “The Concept of the Political (Carl Schmitt),” The Worthy House (Oct. 14, 2023), https://theworthyhouse.com/2022/10/14/the-concept-of-the-political-carl-schmitt/.

  13. Haywood, “The Concept of the Political (Carl Schmitt).”

  14. Marc Barnes and Andrew Willard Jones, “The Decision Against Carl Schmitt,” New Polity (July 16, 2021), https://newpolity.com/blog/against-schmitt.

  15. Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, 27.

  16. Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, 29.

  17. Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges, The Ancient City: A Study on the Religion, Laws, and Institutions of Greece and Rome, trans. Willard Small (Perth, Australia: Imperium Press, 2020), 8–12.

  18. Cf. Fustel de Coulanges, The Ancient City, 109.

  19. Fustel de Coulanges, The Ancient City, 124.

  20. Fustel de Coulanges, The Ancient City, 119.

  21. See, e.g., Fustel de Coulanges, The Ancient City, 320.

  22. Cf. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (London: Bantam, 2006), 53.

  23. See, as a representative example, Kevin Slack, “The Constitution, Citizenship, and the New Right,” The American Mind (June 15, 2023), https://americanmind.org/features/the-constitution-citizenship-and-the-new-right/ (“Many conservatives have now become convinced that, unless they are willing to allow their churches to be desecrated, their sacred services cancelled, their property and liberty taken away, and their children indoctrinated or chemically castrated, they must be willing to engage in violence of their own.”).

  24. See, e.g., Ben R. Crenshaw, “The Stultifying Condescension and Irrelevance of Movement Conservatism,” American Reformer (Sept. 18, 2023), https://americanreformer.org/2023/09/the-stultifying-condescension-and-irrelevance-of-movement-conservatism/ (“My call for extra-constitutional measures to restore American self-government is reasonable and prudent given the fact that we no longer effectively live under the Constitution—and the fact that the other side has been doing this a long time.”).

  25. Cf. Aaron M. Renn, “The Three Worlds of Evangelicalism,” First Things (February 2022), https://www.firstthings.com/article/2022/02/the-three-worlds-of-evangelicalism.

  26. Cf. Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), 115 (discussing the creation of domains mediated by specifically “secular” violence).

  27. Andrew Isker, The Boniface Option: A Strategy for Christian Counteroffensive in a Post-Christian Nation (independently published, 2023), Kindle ed.

  28. Isker, The Boniface Option.

  29. Charles Jacobi, “Raiding Bugmen,” American Reformer (Oct. 20, 2023), https://americanreformer.org/2023/10/raiding-bugmen/.

  30. As Timon Cline also notes in his recent piece “Welcome to the Adult Table,” American Reformer (Oct. 12, 2023), https://americanreformer.org/2023/10/welcome-to-the-adult-table/.

  31. John Milius, Conan the Barbarian (United States: Universal Pictures, 1982).


Tags

Related Articles

Array

Other Articles by

Christendom After Comcast

Christian political retrieval has yet to reckon with how digital technology affects authority.

Are “BS Jobs” Vocations?

Is Martin Luther's doctrine of vocation adequate to address the futility of so much modern work?

Join our Community
Subscribe to receive access to our members-only articles as well as 4 annual print publications.
Share This