Carl Schmitt and the Political

A Response to John Ehrett

Among the growing number of self-consciously right-wing Christians, many are turning away from the core assumptions of what has been termed the Postwar Liberal Consensus. Included in these is this idea that the American political order can be explained with reference to eternal, abstract values that transcend the biased interests of the people and groups that make it up. As I wrote in a recent contribution to a Paleoconservative anthology,

Liberalism operates from the false premise that… political strife can be eliminated by a kind of “neutral” state. […] It attempts to supersede so-called outdated levels of intense political hostility by relegating such tensions to private economic competition, the “marketplace of ideas,” or competing ideological sects. Thus, conflict over once existential “ways of life” can be pacified and consigned to personal preference.

This attempt to remove human antagonism from the realm of politics and in its place implement mechanisms of procedure, legal norms, and value-free conventions is the essential story of liberalism’s trajectory in the twentieth century. It is the story of what might be described as managerial liberalism, the reign of expertise, or “public policy” as a function of public administration and organizational management.

One of the figures in the twentieth century who was most adamant about the failures of the procedural approach to matters of state was the German jurist, Carl Schmitt. For many, Schmitt’s critiques of the liberal tendency in the West offer a compelling challenge to the foundations of the now faltering liberal order—especially since it was Schmitt’s position that a committed drive toward liberalism would wind up laying the preconditions for what he called the Total State. If the state itself was denied the task of distinguishing between friends and enemies and absorbing the drama of man’s antagonistic nature, such elements of man’s natural being would not simply disappear. As Dr. Paul Gottfried explains in his study of Schmitt, for Schmitt, “liberals [are not merely] destroyers of our political nature, but [are] dangerously neglectful and even contemptuous of it.”

Schmitt represents a tradition of Western political theory that can best be described as realist; it is realist in the sense that Schmitt was famously disinterested in upholding the myths and ideals that animated Western liberal theorists. Laws and norms can never be the pinnacle of political action, because the political is animated by constant human judgement and determinations about Friends and Enemies.

For Schmitt, there is always a human actor, or human-controlled institutions, even if we don’t admit it, behind the veil sanctioning the legal order, interpreting it, applying it, determining its meaning, and its exceptions. This what Schmitt meant when he elaborates on the “challenge of the exception.” No matter how brilliantly exposited or constructed, the legal order cannot account for all situations and there is always a human element upholding the order based on judgement, interests, calculations, and a complex network of myriad factors. The legal order is not a machine that works itself out automatically. One can see glimpses of the reality of the political, beneath all the myths, in recent decades and especially during moments like Trump’s trials.

It is important to emphasize here that Schmitt is not calling on his readers to inject an element of antagonism into their political practices, but rather to step back and recognize that antagonism is the very cause of the political in the first place. The political is an aspect of the human experience which precedes the existence of the state. What then, is the essence of the political? 

For Schmitt, whenever a collectivity of people contains any element that it considers a non-negotiable and intricate component of its own existence, and this collectivity comes into conflict with another collectivity which threatens that non-negotiable, there the political arises. Life is full of many types of disagreements between groups, but such disagreements transform into political phenomena when one group determines the threat against the non-negotiable is such that there is a need to distinguish between friends and enemies. Any cultural, ethnic, “religious, moral, economic, ethical, or other antithesis [can] transform into a political one if it is sufficiently strong to group human beings effectively according to friend and enemy.”

Schmitt attempts to make us aware of the danger in ignoring the reality behind everyday politics. Often this is done in an attempt to place a veil over the political with procedure, legislation, rules, and even Constitutions. Such things can be helpful—and a healthy society incorporates them to function well— but they must not be treated as effecting the elimination of the core of the political as the clash of friends and enemies. In the twentieth century there was strong danger, Schmitt declared, to treat legislation and procedures as themselves the final arbiter of political dispute. This significantly ignores the underlying essence of political conflict. As Auron Macintyre explains, “Schmitt sees the friend/enemy distinction as the fundamental organizing principle of politics and says all other distinctions that exist while forming political coalitions are subordinate.”

This doesn’t mean that there must constantly be an obvious enemy, that political actors must be always in conflict with others. If there were a situation where there was no clash between friend and enemy, the political itself would not be a component of that society. But, Schmitt warns, modern man deludes himself if he refuses to recognize that the political is always possible, lurking beneath the scene. The failure of liberalism was that it pretended that it could do away with this reality of human relations. In doing so, it was unable to see clearly the coming return of the political as the veil of neutrality has completely been torn down. Those who deny the existence of the political will always lose to those who embrace it—which is why Schmitt has for many decades been so popular among the Far Left, especially in Europe.

Macintyre explains this well:

Even when those in power were more disciplined, this was always an illusion. Schmitt says such carefully choreographed negotiations have always been window-dressing meant to obfuscate the continuing battle for control between friend and enemy that rages behind the scenes. Despite the comforting fiction of the marketplace of ideas where only the best policies were supposed to emerge victorious, it is increasingly clear that policies advantageous to the ruling groups and their interests win no matter what.

Liberalism, with its promise to eliminate existential political conflict and replace it with objectively beneficial governance, serves as the perfect narrative justification for the expansion of the total state. But the total state does not eliminate the friend/enemy distinction because that is impossible. Instead, it seeks to become the only entity with the authority to define the terms of the friend/enemy distinction for an ever-expanding ideological empire. Those who serve to strengthen the power of the state are friends, while those who seek to compete with or restrain it are the enemy.

With this as a backdrop, we can now turn to an essay published in Ad Fontes, which motivated the present article. There, John Ehrett struggles to understand Schmitt and in some places construes him quite poorly. His purpose is to confront the rising interest in Carl Schmitt among Christians. He does not grapple deeply with Schmitt’s critique of liberalism or his description of the political as built on antagonism, but instead spends most of his time on Christ’s call to love our enemies. If for Schmitt politics is animated by the distinction between Friends and Enemies, Ehrett wants Christians to consider that such an approach to human relations is undermined by Christian virtue.

It should be remarked, however, that it is not Schmitt’s purpose in his exposition of the political to advise Christians on how to act. Nor is he interested in urging increased agitation within the social order. Rather, Schmitt seeks to offer a realist framework for properly understanding the foundations of political phenomena, which then informs the political thinker as to the limits, possibilities, and necessities of political activity and statecraft. At least, Schmitt might say, we can proceed without all the liberal myths and delusions that taint our understanding of political reality.

In this sense, much of Ehrett’s engagement with the meaning of “love your enemies” is simply beside the point— or perhaps, it can only come into play after one determines whether Schmitt is right or wrong about the nature of the political. Still, there is something to be said here. As others—such as Matthew Pearson here at American Reformer—have pointed out, Christ was not issuing guidance for political magistrates seeking to confront public enemies. Rather, he was in fact, and obviously, speaking to individuals—private citizens pilgriming in the world—about how to deal with enemies of their own. To argue that Christ’s words are binding on political actors is precisely the kind of anabaptist one-kingdom political pietism that Ad Fontes and its publisher the Davenant Institute have rightly challenged over the years.

Ehrett’s discussion of the difference between hostis (public enemies) and inimicus (private enemies) therefore doesn’t quite capture Schmitt’s crucial point. For the crux of the matter is not whether the Christian as an individual citizen has public or private enemies, but whether political entities have enemies qua their status as political entities. It is the existence of a public enemy that brings a political entity into existence as a political thing.

Ehrett therefore focuses on the wrong side of the equation—the vital question is not the inherent hostis vs inimicus status of the Christian’s enemy, but rather rests in the determinations and judgements of the political agent as to who constitutes the public enemy. It does not matter if Christ ordered Christians as private citizens to love even the inimicus enemy, the essence of the political is political actors deciding on whether various groups or persons constitute a public threat. This is the animating element of political phenomena.

For Schmitt, the most ultimate political actor—the one that makes the final decisions on Friends and Enemies— is the sovereign. In Schmitt’s twentieth century European context, this sovereign was the State.

Shockingly, Ehrett completely misses this point when he asks:

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?

Schmitt, of course, answers that “it is by no means as though the political signifies nothing but devastating war and every political deed a military action, by no means as though every nation would be uninterruptedly faced with the friend-enemy alternative vis-à-vis every other nation. And, after all, could not the politically reasonable course reside in avoiding war?”

So yes, there are advantages to mitigating violence; but it is obvious that Ehrett imputes to the Schmittian framework the very things that Schmitt himself denies when he writes that “the criterion of the friend-and-enemy distinction in no way implies…that a state of neutrality is not possible or could not be politically reasonable.”

Ehrett claims that “Schmitt’s notion is so capacious that it would seem to embed the possibility of existential violence into even the most mundane civic processes.” However, Schmitt’s argument that almost any genus of disagreement can theoretically transform into a political one, does not mean that every disagreement is a political one at all. Most intra-societal relations, especially in a well-ordered society, do not degenerate back into existential ones. Rather, the very possibility of peaceful—even if heated and disruptive—disagreement is dependent on the social order having successfully subdued actual enemies.

Now, one of the most important correctives that we ought to offer to Ehrett is also an opportunity to clarify the dynamics of the civil kingdom for our fellow Christians on the Right. Ehrett offers this paragraph:

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?

This misunderstands classical Two Kingdoms Theology, and also misunderstands Schmitt’s essential point. The essence of political organization is that it deals with categories and relations of Nature, not merely of Grace. Certainly “grace restores nature” and therefore the former ought to speak to the latter, but the civil kingdom contains relations that precede the coming of Christ and His kingdom. If in the Body of Christ there is no male or female, Jew or Gentile, but all are one in Christ, this is not true of the civil kingdom. That is, the “Body of Christ” should not be a political entity at all; it should not be the distinguisher of public Friend and Enemy.

Mobilizing the Church itself as a political unit that has civil kingdom of Friends and Enemies was the model of Rome, as well as the various other more extreme Protestant sects. The Church can certainly become a political entity—which is what Luther criticized Rome as doing against the Turks—but it does not undermine the Schmittian framework if the Protestant Christian denies to the Church this civil function.

Moreover, in the civil Kingdom, families, kin groups, and nations—which obviously are not co-extensive with Christ’s kingdom of the elect— constitute political units. Therefore, politically speaking, the Friend-Enemy distinction is not a reference to the dynamic between Christ and the kingdom of darkness. The Civil Kingdom contains members who will not spend eternity with God. Steven Wedgeworth explains this when he writes on Luther’s Two Kingdoms doctrine:

Luther rejected such an ideology entirely. For him it was both impossible and repugnant. The Christian does not fight for Jesus with earthly weapons, and no minister should command Christians to use violence for spiritual goals. Building upon what he had already written in On Temporal Authority and On Soldiers, Luther explained his criticism of crusading in another pamphlet, On War Against the Turk. As you might expect, Luther does allow for Christians to join the army and fight against the invading Turkish power. But he is emphatic that they can only do so as earthly citizens, obeying their earthly rulers. They can fight as Germans. They cannot “fight as Christians,” at least not if that means killing Turks in order to spread the kingdom of Christ.

In a political sense, our public enemies, therefore, are not the rulers, authorities, or cosmic powers “over this present darkness” in Ephesians 6. We are humanizing the problem, in adopting the insights of Carl Schmitt—this is actually healthy for the universality of the Church. For in engaging in conflict with other negators of our way of life, we do not do so in a way that sends them to hell. In opposing mass migration from a completely foreign culture, for instance, we are not denying potential heavenly unity with those who are unable to assimilate in the here and now.

This is worth doubling down on, because Schmitt was proven to be quite prescient with regard to the cataclysm of the twentieth century. Paul Gottfried writes in a short summary of Schmitt:

Failure to understand the Political may even have the effect of ideologizing and totalizing war. Schmitt criticized the tendency in modern warfare to deny entirely the humanity of one’s enemies. He maintained that such an attitude renders hostilities even more bitter. 

“Such a war is necessarily unusually intense and inhuman because, by transcending the limits of the political framework, it simultaneously degrades the enemy into moral and other categories and is forced to make of him a monster that must not only be defeated but also utterly destroyed. In other words, he is an enemy who no longer must be compelled to retreat into his borders only.”

Moreover, Schmitt viewed this demonization of one’s foe as characteristic of liberal societies, which dwell on their moral superiority. Looking at America since the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, Schmitt might have found a confirmation for this intuition.

These are delicate topics, and certainly among us on the New Christian Right, some of us have varying religious interpretations of these dynamics; but the essential point is that Schmitt is relevant and useful for all of us; because he is among the few that was willing to peel back the myths of managerial liberalism into the heart of institutional conflict within the political state.

In the final section of his essay, Ehrett writes the following.

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. 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. The Left, as “provisional hostes,” must be treated as such.

He offers two counters to this New Christian Right position. The first is that it allegedly “embrace[s] 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.” This, of course, is outlandish. Are not members of the New Christian Right among the loudest advocates of incorporating Christian principles into their political project? The obvious retort is that the debate is over what our principles ought to be, not whether we ought to have principles.

The second counter is vague, though it seems fairly summarized by the idea that “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.”

This is not an argument against Schmitt’s descriptive presentation of the political. Schmitt never calls us to ruminate on enemies, nor to catechize in hate. In fact, Schmitt argues that hatred for the other is not even a necessary component for their identity as “the enemy” at all.

Ehrett is clever here to strategically move from a discussion of Schmitt’s Friend-Enemy political paradigm to an excerpt from my friend Andrew Isker’s book The Boniface Option wherein Isker calls his reader to develop “a hatred for evil.” This is clever because in doing this, he is able to impute back into Schmitt’s paradigm of the political Isker’s more general call to hate what is evil.

While I certainly see nothing wrong with Isker’s quite biblical exhortation, Isker obviously does not have in mind an exposition of the essence of the political. After all, Schmitt himself denies that hatred is a necessary component of the political when he writes “the enemy in the political sense need not be hated personally.” Theoretically, one could disagree with both Isker and Romans 12:9, and still be a Schmittian.

Carl Schmitt is important because he was able to challenge the body of myths that constituted liberal democracy in the twentieth century. Schmitt laid bare its promises about procedures, the neutrality of the institutions, and the ability of the political class to transcend the political. Schmitt denied to modern man the most fundamental promise liberalism made, namely, that by the exercise of reason, science, and expertise it could bring to humanity a new world of prosperity, peace, and happiness. Schmitt warned that such hubris would not eliminate the antagonistic character of the political but suppress it long enough that it would eventually explode into intense, totalizing conflict and agitation. It’s difficult, in 2024, to pretend that his warnings can be merely dismissed with a shrug.

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C. Jay Engel

C. Jay Engel lives in the Sierra Nevada in Northern California with his wife and four homeschooled children. He runs a small manufacturing business, hosts the Chronicles Magazine podcast, and co-hosts the Contra Mundum podcast. You can find him on X @contramordor or on Substack at

3 thoughts on “Carl Schmitt and the Political

  1. Reality? Seriously? Has liberal democracy failed us or have we failed liberal democracy?

    The reality that Engel is pointed to is a manipulated reality. It is being manipulated by those who oppose liberal democracy because they favor authoritarianism; they favor their opportunity to control others. But if we examine the history of mankind, we find two things. Not only do we find that authoritarianism has triumphed over most of human history, we find that wars accompany authoritarianism. And another reality, which is one pointed out by the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, is that, short of having a one world government ruled over by a single tyrant, relying on wars in the atomic age is a surefire way of expediting the end of mankind.

    What Engel says is reality is really a choice; but, like catchers in baseball, he wants to frame the issue different from what it is. For example, when a criminal breaks a good law, we don’t say that the law is necessarily at fault even when many break the same law. As Christians, we first look at the problem of sin and attribute sin to the breaking of that law. And so why not use that as analogy for liberal democracy? When people try hard to eliminate liberal democracy, is it really the fault of liberal democracy or is it because some have given license to their intolerance of others? And so isn’t their saying that liberal democracy is not a reality just another way of confessing the condition of their own heart and desires?

    Finally, the reality is that liberal democracy has given us an avenue by which people with differences can coexist peacefully. Liberal democracy cannot guarantee a peaceful coexistence, but it can provide an opportunity to provide for one. And so, again, it isn’t whether liberal democracy goes against reality or has failed us, it is whether we will choose liberal democracy in lieu of trying to control others. Currently, there are many opportunists and their minions who don’t want us to choose liberal democracy; they favor authoritarian rule and they do so not because they have our best interests at heart.

    1. If liberal democracy is something that man can fail, then Schmitt is right that the emphasis should be on the human agents, not the laws and procedures on which the system allegedly stands.

      As for peaceful coexistence, I regret to inform you that this too is being revealed as a myth.

      1. Clay,
        But in an age of nuclear weapons, peaceful coexistence is a necessity of life. That is because even if peaceful coexistence within a nation is not followed, peaceful coexistence between nations is the only way man can survive.

        Let’s also look at why Schmitt says liberal democracy is a myth. Is it not because of the political hostilities and economic competition that already exists. But aren’t those hostilities and that competition choices that people make? And if they are choices that people make, then why aren’t alternative choices possible? And if alternative choices are possible, then peaceful coexistence can exist.

        Then again, it seems that those with Schmitt’s view have an out from any moral obligations regarding how we treat others. Is that the carrot that’s dangling in front of people like Schmitt?

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