Kantian Theocracy as a Non-Political Path to the Politics of Peace

Jian Dao 46 (July):155-175 (2016)
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Kant is often regarded as one of the founding fathers of modern liberal democracy. His political theory reaches its climax in the ground-breaking work, Perpetual Peace (1795), which sets out the basic framework for a world federation of states united by a system of international law. What is less well known is that two years earlier, in his Religion within the Bounds of Bare Reason (1793/1794), Kant had postulated a very different, explicitly religious path to the politics of peace: he presents the idea of an “ethical community” as a necessary requirement for humanity to become “satisfactory to God”. While many recent scholars have noted the importance of Kant’s concept of the ethical community, few recognize the force of his argument that such a community is possible only if it takes the form of a church; as a result, the precise status of his proposal remains unclear and under-appreciated. He argues in Division One, Section IV, of Religion’s Third Piece that the idea of this community can become a reality only through a “church” that is characterized by four rational requirements: unity, integrity, freedom, and the changeability of all church rules except these four unchangeable marks. Prior to Section IV, Division One portrays this ethical community as having a political form, yet an essentially nonpolitical matter. He compares it with Jewish theocracy, but observes that the latter failed to be an ethical commonwealth because it was explicitly political. Whereas traditional theocracy replaces the political state of nature (which conforms to the law, “might makes right”) with an ethical state of nature (which conforms to the law that I call, “should makes good”), or attempts to synthesize them, non-coercive theocracy transcends this distinction through a new perspective: it unites humanity in a common vision of a divine legislator whose only law is inward, binding church members together like families, through the law of love. Whereas the legal rights supported by democracy and a system of international law can go a long way to prepare for world peace, Kant’s conviction is that it will be ultimately impossible without support from healthy religion.

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Stephen R. Palmquist
Hong Kong Baptist University


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