Redemptive Ambiguity: 'Endless Talk' About John Brown as a Political-Theological Good

21 Pages Posted: 27 May 2015

See all articles by Matthew Cavedon

Matthew Cavedon

Emory University - Center for the Study of Law and Religion

Date Written: Spring 2013


Political theology is concerned with the “theological origin[s] for political concepts.” One of its primary concerns is with the idea of sovereignty. The work of Carl Schmitt inaugurated the modern inquiry into sovereignty as a theological idea, but his account is insufficient for sovereignty as exercised in a liberal democracy. He considers only the need for a final decision, and not the possibility of continued discussion except as a banality.

Others, notably Paul W. Kahn, have considered American sovereignty in light of military sacrifice, judicial review, public symbols, and memories of the Revolution, but they have done so primarily to show the limits of liberalism as an explanatory theory. Kahn notes that “[t]he founding virtue of the liberal ideal of the rule of law becomes freedom of speech: law is to secure the endless possibility of a proliferating discourse.” He also draws out some of the implications of free speech for the American notion of self-government as political sovereignty.

Kahn does not demonstrate how liberal democracy’s plurality of opinions and proliferating possibility of an endless discourse is a political-theological good in its own right — one greater than the finality sought by Schmitt. Indeed, literature rarely considers the theological implications of political concepts. Where freedom of expression is the norm, there will be no godlike pronouncement that decides a public question once and for all. This “[e]ndless talk… with intense passion” serves two of God’s purposes: it heightens desire for his finality and is a resource for justice. Liberal sovereignty, by allowing endless talk, does not impose the finality Schmitt wants. It serves God’s will, rather than trying to usurp his place.

Discussion of endless talk finds natural ground in an interminable public debate. One debate well known to Americans is the contested legacy of John Brown. Did Brown and his small band of raiders have the legitimate authority to undertake their raid on Harpers Ferry? They attacked the unjust system of slavery, which seems righteous, but they did so without state sanction, which introduces controversy. This is the kind of exceptional decision that lends itself to political-theological analysis, given its implications for sovereignty and indeterminacy.

This paper analyzes two levels of decision: the sovereign decision of Brown’s trial, and the interminable moral debate about his authority. It will then consider the ambiguities of politics where there is a plurality of opinions. Finally, it will show how these ambiguities drive debate that serves God’s purposes. Endless talk allowed for by liberal sovereignty does not have the finality of Schmitt’s sovereign decision, but it does honor God’s will.

Keywords: political theology, John Brown, free speech, freedom, sovereignty, Carl Schmitt, Paul W. Kahn, eschatology, liberalism

Suggested Citation

Cavedon, Matthew, Redemptive Ambiguity: 'Endless Talk' About John Brown as a Political-Theological Good (Spring 2013). Available at SSRN: or

Matthew Cavedon (Contact Author)

Emory University - Center for the Study of Law and Religion ( email )

201 Dowman Drive
Atlanta, GA 30322
United States

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