William T Cavanaugh

In one way or another, all political theologies at the end of the twentieth century can be read as so many attempts to come to grips with the death of Christendom without simply acquiescing in the privatization of the church. Nevertheless, Christian political theology has strangely neglected the topic of the church. This neglect is strange from the point of view of theology, but perfectly understandable from the point of view of politics in the modern liberal nationstate. From the latter point of view, politics has been emancipated and properly differentiated from theology. Politics takes place in an autonomous, secular sphere, established on its own foundations. The church may or may not contribute to this process in various ways, but secular history and salvation history are two distinct processes. Even for most theologians who do not accept the Enlightenment story of secularization, the end of Christendom is to be accepted as the proper separation of the church from worldly power. The politics of the nation-state appears as a universal, encompassing all citizens regardless of their other affiliations. The church, in contrast, is a particular association, one of many that inhabit civil society. To base a politics in the church would be to set politics on a particularist and sectarian footing. The church may therefore make some contribution to the larger political life, but is not itself a political body.

In this essay I contend that a full theological understanding of the church requires us to refuse this political marginalization of the church. Any adequate ecclesiology must acknowledge the political implications of two crucial theological data: first, there is no separate history of politics apart from the history of salvation; and second, the church is indispensable to the history of salvation.

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